I myself don’t know what it means to miss New Orleans. I never left.
As I now, finally, have power and am able to read my September e-mails, I find that scribes from Carlos Fuentes to Richard Ford have written about what this place meant to them. And, I hope, and believe, what it will continue to mean.
But while many one-time and part-time residents of our city weigh in, I have not yet read anything from the hundred or so of us who stayed here in the French Quarter, those too stupid with love for this place to leave it for Katrina. Those who stayed for fear the city we know, and perhaps even the love we have for it, might slip away.
We are now finally, finally exhaling, exhausted, alone, even lonely, as returning neighbors flood into these spaces we had to ourselves, rip our city’s attention away from us, walk our always cracked and crooked sidewalks, now more cracked and crooked, and barges again slide through our river’s panorama. The ghosts of we who never left can only nod and wink at each other as we skulk through these new shadows.
It will be years before we can distill all that has happened into vocabulary and voice. And years before all will stop happening. But, now, we need restoration. Not renovation. You restore, you don’t renovate, your spirit.
Between my apartment and the Mississippi River lies only a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum. Since it opened, I’ve watched the young people who worked there, leaning against their building below the hanging Ripley’s sign, dawdling away their workdays gazing vacantly at drifting clumps of tourists.
Outside right now, there are, instead, young men in fatigues standing on that same corner, tapping their fingers on their M-16s, ticking away their own work routine. Yesterday the Ripley’s sign was still on the sidewalk beside them, where it has been since Katrina pulled it down. They told me it was going to the dump along with the other displaced urban décor on the curb—tree limbs, garbage bags, a lamppost. So I hauled it up to my apartment, stuck it on my mantel here beside me. Believe it.
As the army does now, the kids at Ripley’s spent many slow hours there. People did not come to New Orleans to see a franchise they could see in New York or Vegas, intriguing family entertainment as their museums may be, nor to eat at the Fatburger next door.
Many came knowing only what they had read about us. Our literature is a reason eight million people stayed in our hotels and ate at our restaurants every year. The men and women who have transformed themselves into writers here have etched New Orleans into the world’s consciousness.