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From famous writers and personalities who call the city home, whether by birth or simply love, these pieces written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina serve as a timeless tribute to New Orleans.
Sentimental, joyful, and witty, these essays by celebrated writers, entertainers, chefs, and fans honor the life of one of America's most beloved cities.
Paul Prudhomme writes about the emotional highs New Orleans inspires, Wynton Marsalis exalts his native city as soul model for the nation, while Walter Isaacson shares his vision for preserving his hometown's pentimento magic. Stewart O'Nan recalls the fantasy haze that enshrouded his first trip to the Big Easy when he was thirty and bowed to Richard Ford to receive his first literary prize. Poppy Z. Brite thanks New Orleans for helping her discover the simple pleasure of Audubon Park's egrets, and Elizabeth Dewberry explores what it means to work Bourbon Street as a stripper.
My New Orleans captures the spirit of the city that was -- and that will be again.
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Rosemary James, a former reporter for The New Orleans States-Item and WWL-TV, is cofounder of The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to writers and their readers. The author of Plot or Politics, she and her husband own Faulkner House Books, one of the country's most famous bookstores and the heart of the literary scene in New Orleans.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
New Orleans Is a Pousse-Café
In the beginning they called it L'Île de Nouvelle Orléans.
The city is entirely surrounded by water, and down through history its people have learned to be afraid of that water. High levees whose purpose is to protect New Orleanians from all that water border the city. They have not always done the job intended. The levee breaks and flooding after Hurricane Katrina provided just one more opportunity for a reaffirmation of their faith that water is the enemy, the very devil.
Post-Katrina, I heard a woman from the Lower Ninth Ward say on CNN that the levee breaks in her neighborhood were the work of "our enemies." It was clear that she was not exactly sure who the instrument of the devil was in this case, possibly "terrorists," but it was equally clear that she was sure that the devil had a hand in it.
Water for New Orleanians is a nasty business, embedded in the language, language with the mystical quality of calling up vivid images, emotion, sensation instantly. Old dirty water is an image poet James Nolan equates with home:
...we can always
go feed the ducks near
the solemn stone lions
at the City Park lagoon
and siphon off some
black tadpole broth
where swans preen
in mean perfection
and stale bread crusts
bob, bloat and sink
among mosquito hawks.
The late civil rights leader and poet Tom Dent associated water with images of evil, such as "riversnake," and bad history such as "...stuffed black mammies chained to Royal St. praline shops..." in his poem "Secret Messages," a blues ballad to jazz immortal Danny Barker.
In her narrative poem "Madhouse," Brenda Marie Osbey, poet laureate of Louisiana, emphasizes through her narrator Felicity the need for Vaudou protection from water:
"...The bahalia women are coming from around St. James carrying the bamba-root in their hands. Believe on those hands, and they will see you through seasons of drought and flood..."
And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have inspired new verses, such as these lines from a new poem, "The Good Shepherdess of Nether," by Andrei Codrescu and David Brinks working in concert:
...near the heady waters of the 17th Street Canal
it's Sunday, August 29, 2005
O Good Shepherdess of Nether
throw me a rope made of your best linens
pull me up to your thighs.
When a reporter for The New York Times showed legendary New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint photographs of his flooded New Orleans residence, the musician's first glimpse of his home in the aftermath of Katrina, he was silent, studying them, then said:
Good heavens, I'm getting drenched just looking at these pictures. The water is whipping my body.
When New Orleanians are not in the midst of a disaster made by water, they generally prefer to forget that water and its dangers exist, turning their backs on some of the most gorgeous water views, already making carpetbagger real estate speculators salivate in the wake of Katrina. Check it out, the next time you visit, soon, when we are prepared to receive you in the style to which you are accustomed. You will find, for instance, that views of the Mississippi River from residences or restaurants are few and far between. All those flooded homes in Lakeview were without a view of the lake.
The energizing electricity of this life on the edge, way down here at the end of the world, surrounded by all that water, is among the most seductive of the powers of our siren city. And its citizens and visitors alike are charged with creativity by zillions of conflicting ions continually bouncing up against and off each other.
While New Orleanians know deep down that water is a source of both their charge and impending disaster, however, most days they'd just rather not think about it, content to enjoy their good little life with a Sazerac and a plate of soft-shell crabs almandine behind the closed café curtains of Galatoire's or inhaling the aroma of Oysters Ellis passed by a favored waiter like Tommy in the Rex Room at Antoine's or taking the first bite of Ella Brennan's ridiculously sinful Bread Pudding Soufflé -- conceived as something "light" to respond to the "nouvelle" craze -- in the Garden Room of Commander's or watching the maitre d'hotel at Brennan's working that old black magic with his flambé pan, playing with fire, making it dance on the tablecloth without burning it, letting the flames soar to the ceiling as he browns the butter and sugar and burns off the rum for Bananas Foster. They'd rather be eating gumbo z'herbes and fried chicken with Jessica Harris and Leah Chase on Maundy Thursday at Dooky Chase or debris with Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's any day of the week or hear Patrick Van Hoorebeck of the Bistro at Maison de Ville catch a newcomer once again with his comment "we serve the second best crème brulée in the city." The newcomer, without fail, inquires, "And where is the best to be found?" Patrick replies, "I'm still looking for it."
Why think about the breaks in the levees when they know the levees will break again eventually, since their cries to Congress have been ignored for the forty years since the levee breaks of Betsy? New Orleanians would rather contemplate the bottom of a glass while perched on a high stool next to the eccentric ghost of Germaine Wells in Arnaud's bar or keep company with the shades, as they say in Vaudou lingo, of Owen Brennan at the Absinthe House or Tennessee Williams at Café Lafitte...or smell the pipe smoke of Faulkner, still haunting Pirate's Alley all these years after he described it in letters to Miss Maude as "...the very best place to live."
They would rather listen to Charmaine or any or all of the Nevilles, moving to the music, body to body, partners changing casually, seamlessly, on a steamy night at Tipitina's or come home happy, covered in mud after the proverbial rainy day at Jazz Fest, or put on headphones for the Marsalis Magic Hour to hear Wynton's quartet do "Free to Be" or hear Allen Toussaint in concert sing his "Southern Nights" or get on the glad rags to hear a talented young surgeon, reinventing himself as a pianist in his New Orleans debut, hands racing madly across the keys of a concert grand in front of the altar at St. Louis Cathedral, playing the awe-inspiring compositions of nineteenth-century Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who married the salon traditions of Europe to wild Congo Square dances to produce a unique New Orleans sound, heralding the advent of jazz. They would rather stroll through secret gardens with Roy Guste or read Creole novels with Jervey Tervalon or birdwatch with Poppy Z. Brite or feed the gorillas at the Audubon Zoo with Randy Fertel in memory of his eccentric father or reminisce about the Irish Channel with Mary Helen Lagasse or buy luscious antiques at Patrick Dunne's Lucullus.
New Orleanians for the most part don't sound like anyone else in the South -- more like people from the Bronx, only softer, more musical. They would rather hear the sound of their voices -- "Where yuh been, dahlin' " -- or read the work of people like Patty Friedmann, who can capture those dialects, which vary among each of the eighty-seven separate and distinct neighborhoods of New Orleans, than brood about a watery demise.
Instead of worrying about water they know they can't keep in check forever, they would rather swing with the local pastimes -- curing a hangover with the traditional Monday plate of red beans and rice at the Gumbo Shop, drinking green beer at Parasol's in the Irish Channel on St. Paddy's Day, or lining the streets to give kisses to Italians in tuxedos, the price for the prized green, white, and red crêpe paper flowers on St. Joseph's Day, or tossing dog treats to canine revelers parading with the Krewe of Barkus, or...
...they would rather rub shoulders with those they take to heart, like that sensational redhead Lolita Davidovich, who wowed them with her portrayal of Bourbon Street's exotic dancer Blaze Starr, the paramour of crazy-like-a-fox Earl Long. And Lolita's director Ron Shelton, who bowled them over with his understanding of a great love story. Davidovich and Shelton fell in love with each other and with the city, and New Orleanians loved them back -- as they do Francis Ford Coppola, who generously lends his French Quarter house for literary causes.
They would prefer to play with those who have never been strangers, such as Julia Reed, whose home-cooked buffet dinners for casts of hundreds are legendary; Harry Shearer and his bride, composer and jazz singer Judith Owen, who come to New Orleans for inspiration breaks; Roy Blount, Jr., whose rambles about the city are famously funny; Rick Bragg, who can't get his heart out of the New Orleans box; and Mark Childress, who can tick off a thousand reasons why New Orleans should be saved for the rest of the world.
They would rather scream their lungs out pulling for the Saints, begging without real hope for a winning season, or begging for throws from masked float riders, such as Christopher Rice, a float captain for Orpheus. They would rather roam the Vieux Carré looking for Lestat with Anne Rice, suck crawfish heads and laugh with one another over the latest peccadilloes of politicians and bet on the lottery or the horses at the Fairground, and tend balcony gardens, drenching the unsuspecting caught walking below when they sprinkle their plants. (Sometimes they gleefully and quite deliberately turn their hoses on foul-mouthed, ill-mannered college brats caught with their pants down peeing through the iron fence on St. Anthony's Garden or on the doorways of cathedral neighbors.)
They would rather get high on music, and food, and each other, enriching their bodies and their souls, than worry about things over which they have little control.
I said they, because techni...
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