Ruminations

Let the Good Times Roll

The real New Orleans, it turns out, was experiencing late August temperatures in the low 90s, and early-fall humidity ratios rising towards the high 90s. It allowed smoking near public buildings, didn't forbid visitors from drinking in public, and must have set aside incalculable sums each year for air conditioning that would harden Hades' own tits. 

It was also the city of legend, a great American city too easily forgotten, it lingers quietly in corners, casting long shadows across our collective consciousness. New York City may never sleep, but if it did, it would dream about New Orleans.

Absorbed by the U.S. as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans was a prosperous port city that would provide Americans easy access to the riches of the Caribbean with its well-established sugar plantations.

Louisianan's reactions to their new state status were mixed. They were French-speaking and had long maintained close ties with their European metropole, but they had had a long and culturally diverse history, having also belonged for a time to Spain, and were influenced by local Native American populations, Portugese and Italian immigrants, West African traditions like voodoo, and the presence of the Arcadians, known today as Cajuns, who took to the Bayou as part of a self-imposed exile from Canada. 

These diverse influences had resulted in a vibrant Creole culture, most famous for its cooking, which includes staples like daiquiri drinks, jambalaya, red beans and dirty rice, gumbo, and pecan pie. Geographically, Creoles held the belief that they were living not in the southernmost part of the United States, but in the northernmost part of the West Indies. Linguistically, they continued to speak French until it was outlawed in schools and government, in an effort to enforce English as the national language, in 1913. Religiously, they were deeply Catholic, a byproduct of their French motherland. Socially, they are said to have lived in a caste system, as opposed to a system divided by race, where anyone could rise (or fall).

Most importantly, Creoles believe themselves to be fun, easy-going people, the type of people who mind their own business. They may not like what you do, but they don't think it's their right to comment or interfere, and they expect to receive the same courtesy. 

This attitude separates the culture of Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, from the rest of the South. Whereas racial tensions flare with upsetting regularity in other Southern cities, Louisiana seems to stay largely above the fray. New Orleans does not have riots, not even during the Civil Rights Movement, and if you Google "New Orleans + riots," your search engine will return to you with historical tales of a massacre in the antediluvian year of 1866. The last four decades have a seen a turn towards political conservatism, with flare-ups on issues like abortion here and there, but nothing compared to its righteous red neighbors, Mississippi and Arkansas. 

Once defined by Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, the annual celebration of debauchery, New Orleans' story was rewritten on a national scale in 2006, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The city, which sits at sea level, was flooded. Everyone who could leave did and those who were left behind struggled to survive on their rooftops until help arrived, lived (if you can call it that) in the "last resort shelter" of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, or died.

The people are heavy with memories. The dates and the days of the week and the time and speeds of the wind have burrowed into the brain. They recall the aftermath, too, but the dates are not as crisp or clear, for the storm lasted days but putting their lives back together has taken the better part of a decade. People left at 7:12 p.m. on Friday, August 25 after their mom got out early from her night shift; they returned "sometime in the middle of October."

The man who drove our shuttle to the swamp tour, an old white guy who served as a volunteer police officer in St. Tammany Parish, said that people didn't leave because they chose not to, because they were lazy or didn't appreciate the severity of this supposed catastrophe they'd been hearing about all their lives. That's why he didn't leave.

The woman who drove our taxi to the airport before our departure, a young black woman in her first week of college when the storm hit, said that people didn't leave because they couldn't. She was lucky. She had family who had cars and could pull together to pay for gas. Others, like her best friend's aunt and uncle, who died with their children when the levee near their house burst, died from poverty. 

The narratives are different, but they do not duel. People tell different stories, that's just the way it is. No sense picking at old wounds, or even worrying about the potential for new ones since the Army Corps says it's being handled. There's food to eat, heat to be escaped, and bon temps to roulez. 

Please note, by going to the bar at the top of the page and selecting "Photography" > "New Orleans," you can view the photographs I took over the course of my trip. 

Subscribe to my mailing list

* indicates required