Regarding New Orleans

As soon as it became clear that Hurricane Katrina was going to hit New Orleans, and for many days after it did hit, I was asked by various people to write about or comment on the event and, for lack of a better word, its “meaning.” I was asked because we lived in the city for about three and a half years, and I published a small book about that time. The specific nature of the request varied. Somebody wanted me to talk about “the arts and culture of New Orleans.” Somebody else wanted me to write something on the “psyche” of the place, in a way that would “draw a picture of the world that lives, fatalistically but also optimistically, with the proximity of natural disaster.” Mostly they wanted an explanation of what it is that makes New Orleans different. Again: they wanted meaning.

When Katrina’s eye passed just east of the city Monday morning, I was on an airplane, from Newark to Las Vegas. I was headed to a trade show for the apparel and fashion industry. I was worried and distracted, but when I landed, the early word on the hurricane was that, for New Orleans at least, things looked better than expected. And I spent the next several hours hustling around the city’s enormous convention center, a strange bubble where the only news that circulated was about the authenticity of this hipster street-wear line or gossip about the hottest “urban” brands. Meanwhile, the news in the real world was changing.

In a hotel room, I watched events unfold on television. People were stranded. There was looting. By Tuesday morning a levee had failed, water was now rising through the city, and it was clear to me, at this point, that a nightmare was unfolding. The looting was getting worse, the number of people who were stranded was clearly larger than originally thought. It was at about this time that the requests for an explanation of New Orleans, its special-ness, and its meaning, began to arrive in greater numbers. It looked to me that what was happening in the city was that there were quite likely hundreds or maybe thousands of people who were going to die in their attics in poor, mostly black neighborhoods; the rule of law was collapsing; a majority of the city was now said to be flooded; there was no word on when power might be restored; even the hundreds of thousands who did get out of the city were now in an open-ended homeless and jobless limbo. And I did not feel like explaining New Orleans. I felt like crying.

Many times it has been pointed out that New Orleans is different from most places partly because it is surrounded by water, and has lived for hundreds of years with the possibility of this kind of disaster. Perhaps, it is often speculated, there is a connection between this and the city’s almost un-American joie de vivre; at the very least, there is something of the fatalistic in the juxtaposition of the good-time life and the constant threat of destruction. That may all be correct. It may also be correct that the perfect metaphor for this carnivalesque place is the mask: The constructed façade that hides another identity, quite possibly a much less attractive one. So many people think of New Orleans as a picturesque vacation town, a zone in which to act wild and crazy for a time in an atmosphere appropriately soaked in the care-free, the possibly dangerous — and the authentic. The aftermath of Katrina will, I suspect, have the effect on many people of feeling that they have seen a mask fall away. Certainly anyone who has lived in or really knows New Orleans already knew that behind the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District lay a sprawling and sometimes desperate underclass. Generally this is mentioned only in the “arts and culture” context, as a backdrop to, say, the creation of jazz, or more recently the rise of several major rap stars. But obviously it is just as true in a socio-economic context: The city has long been full of people living in brutal poverty; the city has long been full of cheap violence.

I was back at home in Jersey City by late Tuesday night, watching with anyone else who cared just how badly things can fall apart, and reading reports the systematic theft of guns, of a forklift commandeered to rip through the metal gate protecting a drugstore, of shootouts, of breakdowns in basic social behavior. It is likely that as the stories of life in the Superdome and elsewhere in the city for those days eventually reach us, they will be ugly and grim. It is hard to believe the idea of the city that care forgot disintegrating into chaos and misery. It makes me angry and it breaks my heart.

I have written many words in the past about what it is that I think makes New Orleans special, different, unique. I have written them in tones of love, and I have meant them. At the moment, however, I feel that thinking about what sets New Orleans apart is, while understandable, not the right thing to do. The reason is that if a mask is falling away, then the attempt to localize what we see is also an attempt to be distant from it. That is a comfortable approach to take, but it is also the wrong approach. It is comfortable to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in New Orleans, rather than to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in the United States. And it is comfortable to think that there must be something different about the people of New Orleans because they were so willing to live right on the edge of mortality; they must have some strange penchant for denial.

We all live on the edge of mortality. A penchant for denial is the most un-strange thing in the world. Masks are a routine function of daily life – and they were of course precisely the thing being sold at that fashion and apparel convention that I was so anxious to escape. A penchant for denial is what allows most of us to gossip about fashion or search for meaning or otherwise go about our business in one city, while the social contract dissolves and trapped people die of thirst in another. Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate. Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans apart, it is what binds them to us. This – more than any of the many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable – is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their future.

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September 4, 2005

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