[NOTE: We’re coming up now on the fourth anniversary of Katrina, meaning soon there will be a new round of books and essays and TV segments and so on. Before all that kicks in I have decided to re-publish this essay, was originally written when the city was still reeling from the flood. I revised it a bit to include as the afterword for the second edition of Letters from New Orleans. That’s the version below. Maybe I should wait and put this up on the day of the anniversary itself, but what I had to say when I wrote this wasn’t meant for anniversaries. It was — and is — meant for every day. For any day. Today, for instance.]
AWAY FROM NEW ORLEANS
(Or, Regarding Katrina)
A month or so after the first edition of Letters From New Orleans was published, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Because of the book, I was asked by various news outlets to write about or comment on this event and, for lack of a better word, its “meaning.” The specific nature of the request varied. Somebody wanted me to talk about “the arts and culture of New Orleans.” Somebody else wanted me to write something on the “psyche” of the place, in a way that would “draw a picture of the world that lives, fatalistically but also optimistically, with the proximity of natural disaster.” Mostly they wanted an explanation of what it is that makes New Orleans different. Again: they wanted meaning.
As Katrina’s eye passed just east of the city early on a Monday morning, August 28, I was on an airplane from Newark to Las Vegas. I was headed, for professional reasons, to an apparel-industry trade show. We had long since moved from New Orleans to New Jersey, but because of friends in Louisiana and a very acute awareness of all the things that make New Orleans different, I was worried and distracted. When I landed, the early word on the hurricane was that, for New Orleans at least, things looked better than expected. I spent the next several hours hustling around Vegas’s enormous convention center, in a strange bubble where the only news that circulated was about the authenticity of some hipster street-wear line or gossip about the hottest “urban” brands.
Meanwhile, the news in the real world was changing. In a hotel room, I watched events unfold on television. People were stranded. There was looting. By Tuesday morning there was word that at least one levee had failed and water was now rising through the city. It was clear to me, at this point, that a nightmare was unfolding. It was at about this time that the requests for an explanation of New Orleans, its special-ness, and its meaning, began to arrive in greater numbers. It looked to me as if there were quite likely hundreds or maybe thousands of people who were going to die in their attics in poor, mostly black neighborhoods; the rule of law was collapsing; a majority of the city was now said to be flooded; there was no word on when power might be restored; even the hundreds of thousands who did get out of the city were now in an open-ended homeless and jobless limbo. I did not feel like explaining New Orleans. I felt like crying.
Many times it has been pointed out that New Orleans is different from most places partly because it is surrounded by water and has lived for hundreds of years with the possibility of just this kind of disaster. Perhaps, it has often been speculated, there is a connection between this and the city’s almost un-American joie de vivre; at the very least, there is something of the fatalistic in the juxtaposition of the good-time life and the constant threat of destruction. That may all be correct. It may also be correct that the perfect metaphor for this carnivalesque place is the mask, a constructed façade that hides another and quite possibly much less attractive identity. Obviously, these are notions I have explored myself, in this book..
Many people think of New Orleans as a picturesque vacation town, a zone in which to act wild and crazy for a time in an atmosphere appropriately soaked in the carefree, the possibly dangerous, and the authentic. The aftermath of Katrina, I suspected in the days after the storm, would have the effect on many people of feeling that they had seen a mask fall away.
Certainly anyone who has lived in or really knows New Orleans already would have known that behind the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District lay a sprawling and sometimes desperate underclass. Generally this fact is mentioned only in the “arts and culture” context, as a backdrop to, say, the creation of jazz, or more recently the rise of several major rap stars. But clearly it is just as true in a socio-economic context: the city has long been full of people living in brutal poverty; the city has long been full of cheap violence.
I was back at home in Jersey City by late Tuesday night, watching with anyone else who cared just how badly things can fall apart. It was hard to believe the city that care forgot could disintegrate into chaos and misery. It made me angry and it broke my heart. I had written many words about what it is that I think makes New Orleans special, different, unique. I had written them in tones of love, and I have meant them all. Now I wondered, however, if thinking about what sets New Orleans apart was, while understandable, somehow the wrong thing to do.
If a mask was falling away, it seemed to me that the attempt to localize what we saw was also an attempt to be distant from it. That is a comfortable approach to take, but it is also a misleading approach. It is comfortable to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in New Orleans, rather than to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in the United States. And it is comfortable to think that there must be something different about the people of New Orleans because they were so willing to live right on the edge of mortality; they must have some strange penchant for denial.
But we all live on the edge of mortality. A penchant for denial is the most un-strange thing in the world. Masks are a routine function of daily life – and they were of course precisely the thing being sold at that Las Vegas apparel convention that I was so anxious to escape. A penchant for denial is what allows most of us to gossip about fashion or search for meaning or otherwise go about our business in one city, while the social contract dissolves and trapped people die of thirst in another.
Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate. Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans apart; it is what binds them to us all. More than any of the many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable, this is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their future.
This essay is adapted from one that first appeared on openDemocracy, and subsequently became the afterword to the second edition of Letters From New Orleans. All author proceeds from Letters From New Orleans (still) go to relief-oriented nonprofits in that city.