Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Basin Street Blues

The calendar has rolled around again to the end of August, and like a lot of other folks I’m thinking about New Orleans. I remember going to bed on the night of August 28, 2005, (or maybe it was early early in the morning on August 29…I was still in grad school then) believing everything was okay. The storm had passed, and the cities I know on the Gulf (Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola) seemed to have escaped. But when I woke up the next morning, that picture of safety had been traded for about the most awful thing imaginable.

I never lived in New Orleans, but I visited it often during college (just five hours east on I-10, cruising along the coast and through the bayou). And growing up where I did, New Orleans was always in the architecture of my imagination this magical, far-away place of glamour and big-city life, a distant shiny thing on the horizon down the river (New York City being too far away to be possible). Like Memphis, only more so.

So when I did finally visit for the first time, over Labor Day weekend of my first year of college (it was 1997, and we learned that weekend of Princess Diana’s death), I fell in love. (I’m sure this feeling was helped along by the presence of the boyfriend I was visiting, who was matriculating at Tulane.) New Orleans was a beautiful, many petaled flower unfolding before me, wrapping me in its ornate perfumes. It was like I had imagined when I was little, only more so. Since then, I have harbored a secret, romantic wish to live there, but I know that’s not likely now; the river of my life has taken a different course.

I felt far away then, in 2005, (an eight-hour drive from Home, so 16 hours from the Crescent City), but now, sitting here at the other end of I-10, I could be in a different country. The sun shines and the traffic rolls on here as if nothing ever happened “back East,” as if “back East” might just be a figment of our collective imaginations. Late in 2005, I was visiting Los Angeles in advance of my move out here, and a long-time Angeleno remarked to me that he didn’t believe money should be spent rebuilding New Orleans. His attitude was “It’ll just happen again, and it’s not worth that much to our national economy, so why bother?” I wanted to retort “Why should the rest of us want to help rebuild Los Angeles after your next big earthquake?”, but I held my tongue. His comments hurt, because I knew that his attitude reflected this disconnect from the rest of the country that I would feel out here.

But a few things that make me feel closer: I’ve noticed that newscasters (at least on the radio) have gradually reformed their pronunciation of the city’s name over the last two years. Instead of “Noo OR-LEE-enz,” we now hear “NuWOrlans,” much closer to the native language. And at this time of year, I can hear those familiar voices on the radio: the Cajun almost-Northeastern accents, the African American accents, the old-time accents from small towns in Mississippi; these almost sound like Home to me. And Home is why things, cities, get rebuilt -- we all need one, even if only to imagine it.

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