Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cotton bolls and Testicules de Cheval

Two years ago I was in Louisiana the last two weeks of August. Hell, every year since 2001 I’ve been in Louisiana in August. Two years ago I decided it was time to visit the fair city of New Orleans and so arrangements were made for fabulous touring, eating, and drinking excursion with two favorite customers.

Since 2001, I have been attracting hurricanes too, both the storms of nature and the storms of life. This attraction is so strong I have customers who now request I don’t visit during hurricane season. Well, all know what happened August 29, 2005. Obviously my trip to New Orleans was canceled.

Yesterday, the first time since my aborted tour, I entered the city. I had the best possible of all guides, a native New Orleanian, a student of history, and a disciple of preservation. Carefully as we traversed the thin strip of road separating Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain he set the stage. He pointed out remnants of Cypress groves, the slow death by saltwater invasion of the surviving trees, and fish camps knocked off their moorings by tidal surges. Only the disrupted fish camps were the result of Katrina, the rest of the destruction was man-made or a combination of man and nature.

Leaving Manchac Pass and the swamp behind us, we entered Metairie. Diligently he called my attention to high water marks on the landscape, buildings that had made the news, and sites of now demolished structures. It was interesting – in a casual observer way – until we took the exit and suddenly I was driving 17th Street, and at ground zero of the levee failure.

As we slowly drove these streets I felt as if I were a rude voyeur. Each rebuilt and abandoned house radiated sadness. It was so distressing to see so much pain – and from my own perspective I couldn’t even begin to understand how the survivors and pioneers can return each day to their neighborhoods – where the past so clearly confronts them. Replaced homes sit next to the abandoned. Cheerful colors clash with the X’s of investigation. I felt I was reading a private diary each time I glanced at a house or window that proclaimed the date of inspection, the number of bodies found or not, the number of pets, and the ultimate decree of structural worthiness.

Thinking I could see nothing any more heart wrenching, we drove a mere two miles away to the Metairie Cemetery. I thought we were going to look at crypts and delve into the historic past, but no. There – blinding my eyes with their glare – waving in the wind – snapping with impatience were the flags. A flag for each repair job that will never be fixed – each dream ended, each life lost. A sobering moment calling for the examination of recent history and what has, or has not been learned, as opposed to the lesson of lives well lived from the preserved past of the mausoleums.

Unsettled, but still feeling in control of my emotions, we drove another 3 blocks to participate in an unplanned celebration. The FEMA trailer in CWEsq’s Mom and Dad’s driveway was departing. Although, I must say, it was hard to focus on the joy when I felt crushed by the odd sense of antiseptic newness in a place of memories. How do you discuss forced remodeling with people who loved their home the way it was two years ago? How do you compliment someone on a newly hung picture when you know it is a substitute for a well loved piece of artwork that is missing? It is a minefield (indeed a mind-field) to express any sentiment to these amazing people, without feeling like an insensitive oaf. Several times I had to duck my head, step into a darkened hallway or lag behind, so as to hide the emotional toll I felt, yet had no right to indulge in with those who have faced it and moved on.

The next stops were not nearly as painful, although they were sweltering. Driving into the heart of the old city we did indeed take care of “business” – and paid homage to the New Orleans Cotton Exchange. This venerable building is where the price of cotton was set for the entire state of Louisiana. Prices agreed upon here effected more than the Louisiana farmer and factor (another name for a cotton buyer). The machinations of this market rippled across the continent – determining the Futures markets in New York and far across the ocean in Bremen, Germany and Liverpool, England.

Continuing our historical march, we gazed at the back of General Lee, watched the mighty Mississippi roll by, recognized that Church and State have not always been separated as many wish to claim, and heard stories of lawless men, hiding seeking sanctuary in “Pirates Alley”.

I do not know what it is about my demeanor, but people are always volunteering stories to me – such is the case of the Plein Air artiste who shared the story of pirate trading and refuge taking which occurred just off Jackson Square right next to the Presbytere. I imagine I would seek respite in the same place, should I have known I could stop at the Café Du Monde for snow capped confections of pastry fried in cotton oil and powdered with sugar cane sweetness while sipping a cool coffee.

In truth, the Beignets are much like my New Orleans visit. They reek of a culture long past, combine the history of several different commodities (sugar, coffee, cotton), and are still pleasurable to look at today. One bite, a mess is made, and the holes revealed. Just like the city itself, look below the façade and I see the complexity of the structure – and wonder how it holds together. There may be a spot of amour in my coeur for this demoiselle dans la détresse, but it is the personnes excellentes who have captured my thoughts.

As we exited the French Quarter it was the music of the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez which lifted my heart and left a smile on my face.

“Oh when the Saints Go Marching in ….” I’m sure it will be to a heavenly rendition of New Orleans.


Woodstock said...

I can not imagine visiting New Orleans for just the reason you described: the sadness that permeates everything. It is the same reason why I will never visit the Holocaust Museum here in DC; those feelings get into everything and I would be overwhelmed.

Part of me says that those who stay in New Orleans, a city that really shouldn't exist where it is, are dreamers of the highest order. Whether they are investing in a structure that has been there for ages or in the idea that society (read: our government) will change I don't know. The other part of me wonders if they should be admired or pitied.

I have not been back to New York since Sept. 11, 2001. I don't know if I can go back there either.

tp said...

What a beautiful commentary on the present N.O. The emotion it evokes leaves no one in doubt about what was, what's left, and what's to be ?????? What a sad treat - we've been to some of those places on a past trip - also, the binnettes ARE messy - and slightly over-rated, I thought.