doesn't actually necessitate abandoning New Orleans
permanently, if its citizens (who are, at this point, becoming ghosts) decide to return after many long months in other states
and try to rebuild their impoverished, paradisical
city without economic or climatic
justification, then the greatest losses we've suffered will perhaps not be the buildings or the neighborhood, fragile though demography and culture are.
To me, the greatest loss will be that of our self-image, for New Orleanians thrive on the sense that we, perhaps we alone in the speed-obsessed, brutally efficient, commerical and antiseptic United States, have a secret cameraderie, a laissez faire-inspired bonhomie that differentiates us.
We are proud to be more racially integrated than other cities; proud to have such deep cultural interconnectedness between whites and blacks, Italians and Irish, Yats and debutantes; proud to celebrate so many things, music and food and life, together with our fellow New Orleanians, free from the tensions omnipresent elsewhere whenever socioeconomically disparate groups intermingle; we are proud to take life slowly, easily, with joy.
It has often been said that that source of this serene indifference to modernity, post-modernity, materialism, and capital growth is the knowledge that our city lives on borrowed time. Like men dying, we congregate without letting bullshit get in the way of a good time. Knowing that water waits to overwhelm our homes at the first chance makes us fatalistic, and fatalists throw great parties.
Now, however, all that is gone. The happy fatalism of New Orleans existed only so long as death was an abstraction, only while we all thought the secret dispensation of New Orleans was perpetual; more than that, it was only possible in a city that believed in itself, that related well to itself, that trusted and cared for itself.
Ask us where those sentiments are today. New Orleanians watch as New Orleanians shoot at rescue helicopters evacuating the wounded, burn the businesses of struggling entrepeneurs, try to murder paramedics, rape and kill each other while stealing schwag that won't save them from cholera or yellow fever or post-apocalyptic poverty.
Ask me how I feel about New Orleans, and I will tell you: I feel it is gone, lost, destroyed, and part of me feels like it never existed, like this brutality and insanity was always there, like a pedophilic priest in a trusted church; none of the memories are the same, recontextualized by this revelation: in our midst lived thousands of hate-filled savages. Underneath, we were savages.
Yes: the government could have bought more cots and hot dogs; yes: the levees could have been stronger; yes: more troops were needed more quickly. All that is minutiae; a natural disaster is characterized by the fact that it exceeds the capacity of governments to deal with it; otherwise, it wouldn't be a disaster. Could it have been better handled? One is sure that it could have been. Does that matter? No.
What matters is that New Orleans, as we knew it, and as it was when it informed the culture of this country and the world through its authors and musicians and even its mere existence, an island of European and Carribean culture in a sea of increasingly homogenous Southern Americana, is gone. It is gone physically, in large measure, and many of us are in fact dead in the literal sense; many more will never return, it must also be noted. But most imporantly, it is gone because of what Katrina has shown us.
We did not rise to the occasion. We slid into atavistic barbarism. We failed to meet the needs of our city, and we failed to live up to what it deserved. Amid the grieving and the praying and the hoping and the raging, there is another emotion, utterly alien to New Orleanians.
It is shame. That shame has changed my home, I think, as much as the water and the fire.
I hope that New Orleans will rebuild, and I fully intend to help it. I am hosting rescue workers in my home, even though I am a selfish prick. I will return to my city, even though I had rather gotten accustomed to the fact that living there isn't healthy for me.
I know many citizens feel the same. But it has been noted often that New Orleanians took their greatest fear, a hurricane, and turned in into a classic drink, the Hurricane of Pat O'Brien's (even the New York Times is onto that). Who will enjoy a Hurricane now? Will the funerals of the babies floating in the waters of the Ninth Ward be jazz second-line affairs? Will we still pride ourselves on fatalism and harmony, when death and anarchy reigned in New Orleans?
I hope so. Maybe it will only take a generation to forget. I don't know, though; and not knowing, doubting, is like poison for me, for us all. We will watch like hawks in the coming months, hoping to see les bon temps return. We will do our best.
Come give us a hand. Visit the Quarter. Get drunk. Get a hooker. Toss some money into someone's cup. Flash your tits. Be a tourist. Or come seriously. Hear the music, savor the atmosphere, the mysterious and lovely malaise, immerse yourself in our culture, whatever is left.
We'll need you very much.