Sunday, August 18, 2013

The New Orleans That I Once Lived In No Longer Exists

On August 29, 2005-a date that will live in infamy-the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was suddenly, if not deliberately attacked by natural forces in the forms of Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita. The “infamy” involved in this tragic set of circumstances proved, at least in part, to be in the responses (or lack thereof) of federal, state and local officials to the resulting tragedy. 
In short, the bureaucrats and fat cats dropped the ball; and Joe and Jane Average ended up paying for the piss-poor planning and lack of foresight on the part of their local and federal officials.

The New Orleans I once lived in no longer exists; except in my fading memories and, I suspect, in the memories of all of us who are now a part of the vast New Orleans Diaspora. I count myself among them even though, strictly speaking, I am more of an expatriate. I’ve heard it said that “you can’t go home again,” and that “you can never step in the same river twice.” If these maxims hold true, then so it is with the land of my nativity, the city that I called home for nearly 30 years of my life.

               How easily it seems that “The City That Care Forgot” and that the rest of the country remembered during Mardi Gras, the Essence Festival, Jazz Fest and any given Super Bowl Sunday that occurred in the now renovated and re-christened Mercedes-Benz Superdome, became “The City that the rest of the country Forgot to Care About” when the levees failed. Those of us from New Orleans don’t have the luxury of that particular bit of selective memory.

               It could be that the city that I once lived in was fading into to distant memory long before Katrina and Rita came along, and that was one of the reasons I left; maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic now. Being the sensual place that it was, I suppose New Orleans has always existed, in part, as more of a sensory experience for me than as an actual location. My memories of the place always involved something I deeply and vividly saw, heard, smelled, tasted or felt; and when it comes to  stimulating those senses there are few, if any cities (in the United States at least) that could hold a candle to The Big Easy.

               For some the city represents a fun getaway…where you can literally “get-away” with doing and saying things you wouldn’t dare to do or say anywhere else. For some it represents the frustrating, and apparently inherent ineptitude of the Napoleonic Laws that permeate Louisiana politics; for some it represents the apparent corruption of our local politicians and law enforcement officials, as made infamous in the movie from which the city derived one of its more colorful nicknames.
               I remember living Uptown at one time, between Tchoupitoulas and Magazine Street. I lived within walking distance of a Canal Villere Supermarket and a famous local music hall named Tipitina's. One night I was even treated to an impromptu sidewalk serenade at Tipitina's when the immortal Lady T, Ms. Teena-Marie performed one of her famous concerts there. I say "impromptu sidewalk serenade" because Lady T sold it out of course, and according to the Fire Marshall, wasn’t ‘nobody else getting up in there!

As far as I’m concerned New Orleans is not just a place, it’s a state of mind, body, heart and soul.

I remember one of the last times I went back home, prior to Katrina, my Dad took my brothers and I on a road trip to the Houma/Thibodeaux area of Louisiana; these were the rural cities where his side of my family, and my Mom’s side originated; and the places we respectfully referred to as “The Country.”
“I’m gonna show ya’ll the house where I was born.” He had said.
In spite of the fact that he had been largely absent during my upbringing, I idolized my Dad, and I was looking forward to seeing the place where the man, the myth and the legend originated. I was somewhat nonplussed, however, when we reached our destination.
               My Dad got out of his truck and gestured at the place with a sweep of his hand, then stood staring silently. Along with my younger siblings, I got out and beheld what basically amounted to an abandoned and decaying pile of something that used to be a house, but was now a vine covered ruin.  We could see that my Dad was experiencing something on some deep, emotional level that he couldn’t quite articulate, so we remained respectfully silent, even as we exchanged furtive, quizzical glances with one another.

For me New Orleans represents an ancestral home; the place where my grandparents are buried, along with my great-grandparents, all the way back to my maternal ancestor Joseph Champagne, my sandy-blonde haired, blue-eyed three times great grandfather, the son of a former slave and her former owner. So in a sense, I suppose what the loss of my city represents most to me is a loss of a sense of history and belonging.
Just like the biblical Abraham with his son Isaac, or Moses and his son Gershom, I too feel as if I am a stranger in a strange land; and I am raising my son in a place that is not his father’s ancestral home. That wouldn’t bother me so much, were it not for the fact that the place this his father remembers no longer exists; and I feel as if there is not now, nor will there be in the near future, a place to which I may one day travel in order to instill in my son a sense of identity, pride and familial history.
Dad, I think I know what you were going through now….

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