If New Orleans is not fully in the mainstream of culture, neither is it fully in the mainstream of time. Lacking a well-defined present, it lives somewhere between its past and its future, as if uncertain whether to advance or to retreat. Perhaps it is its perpetual ambivalence that is its secret charm. Somewhere between Preservation Hall and the Superdome, between voodoo and cybernetics, New Orleans listens eagerly to the seductive promises of the future but keeps at least one foot firmly planted in its history, and in the end, conforms, like an artist, not to the world but to its own inner being--ever mindful of its personal style.
.I began speaking. First, I took issue with the media's characterization of the post-Katrina New Orleans as resembling the third world as its poor citizens clamored for a way out. I suggested that my experience in New Orleans working with the city's poorest people in the years before the storm had reflected the reality of third-world conditions in New Orleans, and that Katrina had not turned New Orleans into a third-world city but had only revealed it to the world as such. I explained that my work, running Reprieve, a charity that brought lawyers and volunteers to the Deep South from abroad to work on death penalty issues, had made it clear to me that much of the world had perceived this third-world reality, even if it was unnoticed by our own citizens. To try answer Ryan's question, I attempted to use my own experience to explain that for many people in New Orleans, and in poor communities across the country, the government was merely an antagonist, a terrible landlord, a jailer, and a prosecutor. As a lawyer assigned to indigent people under sentence of death and paid with tax dollars, I explained the difficulty of working with clients who stand to be executed and who are provided my services by the state, not because they deserve them, but because the Constitution requires that certain appeals to be filed before these people can be killed. The state is providing my clients with my assistance, maybe the first real assistance they have ever received from the state, so that the state can kill them. I explained my view that the country had grown complacent before Hurricane Katrina, believing that the civil rights struggle had been fought and won, as though having a national holiday for Martin Luther King, or an annual march by politicians over the bridge in Selma, Alabama, or a prosecution - forty years too late - of Edgar Ray Killen for the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, were any more than gestures. Even though President Bush celebrates his birthday, wouldn't Dr. King cry if he could see how little things have changed since his death? If politicians or journalists went to Selma any other day of the year, they would see that it is a crumbling city suffering from all of the woes of the era before civil rights were won as well as new woes that have come about since. And does anyone really think that the Mississippi criminal justice system could possibly be a vessel of social change when it incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than almost any place in the world, other than Louisiana and Texas, and then compels these prisoners, most of whom are black, to work prison farms that their ancestors worked as chattel of other men?..I hoped, out loud, that the post-Katrina experience could be a similar moment [to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fiasco], in which the American people could act like the children in the story and declare that the emperor has no clothes, and hasn't for a long time. That, in light of Katrina, we could be visionary and bold about what people deserve. We could say straight out that there are people in this country who are racist, that minorities are still not getting a fair shake, and that Republican policies heartlessly disregard the needs of individual citizens and betray the common good. As I stood there, exhausted, in front of the thinning audience of New Yorkers, it seemed possible that New Orleans's destruction and the suffering of its citizens hadn't been in vain.
The millions of vacationers who came here every year before Katrina were mostly unaware of this poverty. French Quarter tourists were rarely exposed to the reality beneath the Disneyland Gomorrah that is projected as 'N'Awlins,' a phrasing I have never heard a local use and a place, as far as I can tell, that I have never encountered despite my years in the city. The seemingly average, white, middle-class Americans whooped it up on Bourbon Street without any thought of the third-world lives of so many of the city's citizens that existed under their noses. The husband and wife, clad in khaki shorts, feather boa, and Mardi Gras beads well out of season, beheld a child tap-dancing on the street for money and clapped along to his beat without considering the obvious fact that this was an early school-day afternoon and that the child should be learning to read, not dancing for money. Somehow they did not see their own child beneath the dancer's black visage. Nor, perhaps, did they see the crumbling buildings where the city's poor live as they traveled by cab from the French Quarter to Commander's Palace. They were on vacation and this was not their problem.
Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it's as if the audience--dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing--is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music--she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone--the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers' gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstop of time itself, where time might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed.
White folks have controlled New Orleans with money and guns, black folks have controlled it with magic and music, and although there has been a steady undercurrent of mutual admiration, an intermingling of cultures unheard of in any other American city, South or North; although there has prevailed a most joyous and fascinating interface, black anger and white fear has persisted, providing the ongoing, ostensibly integrated fete champetre with volatile and sometimes violent idiosyncrasies.
When I got to college, the fake ID thing wasn't that important, since pretty much everyone could get away with drinking in New Orleans. But the drugs, well, that was a different story altogether, because drugs are every bit as illegal in New Orleans as anywhere else--at least, if you're black and poor, and have the misfortune of doing your drugs somewhere other than the dorms at Tulane University. But if you are lucky enough to be living at Tulane, which is a pretty white place, especially contrasted with the city where it's located, which is 65 percent black, then you are absolutely set.
The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z'herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po' boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week--yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don't eat day and night, if you don't constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.