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Believe It or Not

From French Romanticists like Chateaubriand to Whitman to Faulkner to Ford, for almost three hundred years authors have penned an indelible, silent music from this Crescent City’s heart. As Andrei Codrescu, a newer transplant, pointed out, “If New Orleans went into the memorial plaque business for all the writers who ever lived here they would have to brass-plate the whole town.”

The French Quarter is the oldest Bohemia in the United States. Our credentials surpass New York’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s Tenderloin. We’ve seen three hundred years’ worth of flood and fire, plague and war. And we can see another three hundred, stack those memorial brass plates three deep. But our writers must come home first, bring others, and inspire future writers to come. Believe it or not, they do have something to come back to.

But it is only natural that, for now, exodus consumes headlines and hearts. And profound, shame-filled grief for the many no one could save, as well as for those who may never come back.

A few days after Katrina, I walked alongside a mother pulling her baby in a plastic bin through waist-deep water from the Superdome to the convention center, and sat beside a father just returned in a new Escalade to his Lakeview home, ten feet deep in mold and mud, while he smiled, strained to remember the faces in his family photos now gone. Both of these people are today in Houston, their new home.

Mud has always been an indelible part of our landscape—whether it’s our river, convulsing with the sediment and garbage of a country, or the Mardi Gras muck three feet deep along Bourbon Street’s gutters minutes after midnight on Ash Wednesday, the embodiment of human excess in all its forms. But for the last month, mud became our landscape, an inescapable common ground.

So those who do come back must dig. Where we can, we need to incorporate into our city what is left, painful though it will be, whether that be a destroyed Ripley’s sign or a neighborhood. We cannot wipe it clean away, and put in its place a new string of franchises or casinos.

We’ve done every bit we can to hold down the fort. Now, writers of the past, present, and future, it is your turn. Return, grab your brooms and shovels, sponges and mops, and get to work, as we here already have. If you need to borrow any of these things, give me a call.

Until Katrina, I often rattled and wobbled through these streets on my half-busted ’56 women’s Schwinn bicycle, weaving through trash and vagrants, limos and horse carriages, stopping everywhere along the way, sharing stories of yesterday and creating those of today to be told tomorrow on the same corners, in bars, cafés, and courtyards. But for the last few weeks, I’ve rattled and wobbled through ash-gray, empty shells of neighborhoods, their only color the red spray paint marking the number of bodies and dead dogs inside homes (which is almost always zero), neighborhoods I never had the chance to know, and ones that may never again inspire stories. The warehouse that stored my publishing company’s books, now molded and crusted in sediment, is in such a neighborhood. But, just as those books will be reprinted, those places that can be salvaged await restoration. And beg their future tales to be told.

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Believe It or Not (January/February 2006)
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