Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When The Saints Go Marching In

Every major American city plays a role in the national consciousness, evolving from the stereotype of itself to a haven of expectations, of something to look forward to from that place. Los Angeles embodies our creativity, Washington, D.C., our political prowess. Las Vegas represents our feel good sins, Detroit our love for the car. And if New York is the fashion plate of the country and Atlanta the genteel and charming hospitality committee, then New Orleans is certainly representative of our collective appreciation of a good, long party, our ability and need to look at the circumstances of life and celebrate anyway.

To know a person from Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, is to know a person unique from every other. I'm not talking about people who moved there, but those born and bred and raising generations in the Crescent City. A New Orleans native will introduce you to a plate of crawfish and laugh if you recoil; hurt this person's feelings and they are just as likely to utter a curse on you as they are to cry. They are the simmering soup of the most passionate parts of France, Spain, Africa and Native Americans. And they make one hell of a pot of jambalaya.

What they do best, however, is party. It is the person from New Orleans who will be the first to arrive and last to leave your pitiful attempt at a shindig. Visit their city, and you find a renewed energy to stay up all night, forgetting whatever age you thought you were. I've known people to book a flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras' Fat Tuesday, but not a hotel room. When asked why, they'd simply say, "I won't be sleeping."

New Orleans is perhaps most famously known for it's funeral party. Shielding yourself behind a black veil and whispering condolences is for another place: in New Orleans, they celebrate the fact that the person existed at all. In a society full of people who will fail to call a friend for years but travel hundreds of miles to view their dead body, here is a city which mentally graffitis on our planet the famous bathroom wall words: "We Were Here."

Perhaps that is why the images on television and newspapers are so jarring. The city which teaches the rest of us to lighten up and have a drink was brought to its knees in a one day period by an ill tempered hurricane named Katrina. No one is celebrating. No one has anything positive to say. Places we can tick off from memory whether or not we've ever set foot in Louisiana... Bourbon Street, The French Quarter... are gone, submerged under water that even fifty foot levees failed to keep out.

My sister is an Atlanta resident with a best friend from New Orleans. Despite their friendship, my sister would rarely visit New Orleans. She didn't feel comfortable sleeping with the sea above her head. When she returned from her first visit, she told us about feeling small as she walked up a hill and then encountered the water, a tough psychological adjustment from East Coast living, where the water is usually 'down there.'

My sisters and I have been known to have irrational fears, and damn if one of them doesn't come horrifically to life every now and then just to reinforce them.

The desire to help is overwhelming. With any disaster we tend to bring out the checkbook, an action which always feels trite to me: like patting a dollar into the hand of a delivery boy we won't allow to use the front door. New Orleans has given the rest of us so much, an example to raise a glass to any one good fact you can find even if you're schlepping through a million bad. Our national party flame has been singularly doused, and all we can do is turn on the television and watch. And pray.

And believe that eventually, the city below the sea will persevere, that the party will begin again... and the band will march on.

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