This Is The Way The World Bends November 18, 2008Posted by The Typist in The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Charles Bukowski, demolitions, despair, Karen Gadbois, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, New Orleans, Squandered Heritage, T.S. Eliot, Veronica White, Whitney Houston
“I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead.”
–“Consummation of Grief”
One of those bleak days when someone in an email thread starts quoting T.S. Eliot, and you look out of your office window to make sure the person spouting Old Possum is not standing out on a ledge staring off into space. Outside it is a beautiful Fall day in New Orleans: cool, sunny, no hint of humidity, the kind of day when you wished the fireplaces worked. Somewhere out there in the apple-crisp golden afternoon they are tearing down someone’s perfectly sound house. You can almost see the dust rising in the distance without knowing which way to look, because you know with some certainly that somewhere, out there it is happening.
It would be enough to drive one to drink, living in our wildly dysfunctional city, if drinking were an exceptional occasion down here. But we drink because it’s five o’clock somewhere and who says a Sazerac wouldn’t go with an Oyster Salad at the Palace Cafe at lunch? I think it would be just fucking lovely, much preferable to standing out on a windy precipice spouting Oxonian doom. In fact it’s probably the perfect way to cap a morning spent driving around admiring the homes and community buildings that will soon be a patina of stucco dust on an empty lot. Another sazerac? Absolutely.
The kind of day when you wished the fireplaces worked–that’s what I said, wasn’t it? That is what started this slow slide from a pumpkin-perfect November afternoon that became two drinks at lunch and the next thing you know you’re standing someplace you ought not be reciting The Hollow Men to the fire department. And all because someone suggested today that it was OK that New Orleans didn’t work, that this was part of the charm.
I have lived places where things work. And I have lived in places that are charming. While I can’t say I’ve lived in any place that was both at the same time, I know such places exist. New York is not charming, exactly, but it is a place that Orleanians are drawn to, and one of the few places from which they never return. Cajun Boys, too. And in comparison to New Orleans, it works. Hell, they just decided to let their mayor run for a third term, while we would be hard pressed to give ours a five minute running start before we loosed the dogs.
San Francisco is charming and the last time I checked it mostly worked. They weren’t randomly demolishing houses on Telegraph Hill or painting over the murals in the Castro with gray paint. The average Xcel customer pays $75 a month for electricity. Even if they have our ruinous fuel adjustment charges, that would still be a fraction of what we pay here. With the possible exception of Lombard Street the roads will not destroy a car in three years of use. Oh, and they have street cars. Not just two kinds, but three or four different models, plus cable cars.
Here the city demolishes houses in a way not quite random but almost like a puzzle in a mystery novel, a seemingly stochastic pattern like the rain of rockets on Pynchon’s London. You come away convinced their is some method to the madness, but you struggle to find one that will not drive you insane in the knowing of it.
The strange campaign to demolish wide swaths of the city is just one well-documented example of our spiraling dysfunction. Our mayor lashes out at a council member for racial slurs she never uttered, taking the word of a fabulously incompetent department head who spends her days visiting Whitney Houston web sites looking for fashion tips when she is not presiding over both the random home demolitions and a set of garbage contracts awarded to campaign contributors that would make Dick Cheney blush). Embarrassing? I guess you could say that, but it’s more maddening. If I start to tell you about the Sewerage & Water Board hiring a rabbit with a pocket watch to inspect the lines, stop me. It may not be true, but I would believe it in a second.
New Orleans is one of the great places in the world to live. It is also one of the most difficult, largely because of the sort of nonsense that passes for governance. When we talk about “what’s to eat” we mean which restaurant and not a strategy for survival. Then you read a story about a man three years after the Federal Flood speaking wistfully of what it would be like to have a refrigerator. And he’s not even Karen Gadbois, who has dedicated much of her life over the last three plus years to documenting and combating the slow destruction of the city not by wind or water but by a malicious incompetence. You would start quoting Eliot too, if you had taken up the burden she has carried all this time.
My own advice to her: don’t stop. We would trade the mayor, his extended family and everyone else on his floor of city hall just to keep you at it. The he charm of New Orleans isn’t just our food or our music or just our eccentric ways (bog bless ’em), and it certainly is not the inmates who have taken over the asylum the way they have at City Hall. The charm is in the neighborhoods, not in a single abandoned property that could not be saved but in the whole swath of houses around it where everyone remembers St. Timothy who taught first grade, which tree came down in Betsy and took out everyone’s power, and what the Tuesday lunch special is up at the corner. It’s not just about savings houses or a corner church or store. It’s about saving a way of life
And if you want despair stay away from the hyper-intellectual overkill of Eliot. Nothing better fits a distracted and melancholic have-another-drink funk than Bukowski: pure despair for the savor of it, like a cheap cigar. But I would recommend instead that next time you drive the ‘hoods don’t just see the house with No Gas spray painted on it. Look at the ones all around, at the people on the stoop and the corner store that just re-opened. As crazy as it all seems at some level we’re winning because as whacked as daily life here can be we keep coming home.