|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2005-6|
It's funny the "firsts" you remember.
My first experience with a hurricane was in Claymont, Delaware, when I was 5 or 6. I remember watching the wind toss a trash can into the air and hurl it down the street. I remember being p.o.ed when the power went out, because the TV went out with it. Always the techie, I begged my father to make it work by candlelight. A day or so later we toured the wrecked coast, and among the debris I found the chrome hood ornament to a Mack Truck. A bulldog. Kept it for years.
It must have been around then that I saw the word "Louisiana" for the first time - on a bottle of hot sauce. My daddy was addicted to the stuff.
My first visit to Louisiana came many years later. I had just started at UC Berkeley. After Dad got transferred here, our family lived - briefly - in a town up the Mississippi river from New Orleans. My first, appalled impressions: stupefying heat, air so thick you had to swim through it, whitewashed shells spread on the roads instead of civilized California gravel, and my reaction when I asked for a men's room and was directed to a door marked "W". "Doesn't that mean 'Women'?" I asked.
No. It meant "White".
My culture shock notwithstanding, Louisiana began to assert an appeal. Certainly this had something to do with the local girl who took me across the levee one day to show me the riverside flora. I can't remember her name, but vivid as today's weather is the way her dress clung to her body and how the sweat below her collarbone shone in the sun.
But my affection for our new home could mainly be ascribed to the legendary city downriver. The California I knew, you see, was a golden land, with little room for other than golden people. Undoubtedly this was just the paranoia of a skinny adolescent but life seemed locked tight against me. UC Berkeley opened that perception with culture, knowledge and challenge, bracing to one's brain and political passion. But N'awlins split me wide open, offering more fundamental connections with the world.
How? Why? I've always summed it up in a word: Texture.
Late on a summer night, riding through the non-touristy parts of the Quarter or around City Park or through the Carrollton or Gentilly neighborhoods, you experienced a strain of city-based synaesthesia. You could hear the humid heat, feel the debauched history, taste the defiant poverty that fed the fundamental aesthetics of New Orleans. No true soul is pure, and New Orleans had beaucoup soul foxy, sexual, cynical, sweet - and above all, sensual. To the detriment of my weight but the delight of my soul, my life began to gravitate around restaurants - grand, expensive places like Brennan's, Commander's, Galatoire's (I never ate at Antoine's) - family seafood joints like Sid-Mar's, Bruning's, Fitzgerald's - tourist attractions like Café du Monde and Morning Call, homes of the impeccable beignet, and Felix's, where Dad introduced me to raw oysters - neighborhood havens like the splendid Italian cafe, Liuzza's, and Buster Holmes', red beans'n'rice so divine it got play on Saturday Night Live - skid row dumps like the Hummingbird Grill - even fast food stands, and there's no place like Popeye's. My skinniness was happily doomed. The phrase is more than a clever cliche, it is engraved on our spirits in gold: people in other cities eat to live, but in N'awlins they live to eat.
They lived for other things, too. I'll never forget my first stroll down Bourbon Street, the spinal column of NOLa's inimitable French Quarter. Jazz was in the air. I'm as musical as a boot, but even for me, a lot about New Orleans was encapsulated at Preservation Hall. It was crowded and hot and you squirmed on pillows tossed onto the cement floor - but you sat at the feet of genius. These were brilliant old musicians, contemporaries and bandmates of Louis Armstrong. They came from New Orleans, from forlorn and ramshackle slums like the Ninth Ward, where people were called yats because they said "Where y'at?", and when they played you could feel the sad sweet soul of the city glow in your very veins. Listening to Willie Humphrey play the sax or Sweet Emma Brown pound the piano with her one good arm made you cry for lost beauty. You could never hear that music played quite that way with quite that emotion anywhere else in the world.
Music and food were all very good, but we are talking about New Orleans and the French Quarter. Harry Flashman himself spoke to this topic, in Flash for Freedom, but I'll forbear quoting it. Suffice it to say that it wasn't only jazz that I remember from my first excursion to Bourbon Street. The rat-trap strip joints lining the avenue also imprinted themselves on my lizard brain. Mere blocks - and mere decades - away, Storyville had lured foolish gentlemen to waste their goods on high-yaller hussies, to the accompaniment of Jelly Roll Morton - and I saw the reprinted Blue Book to prove it. Clearly this strange new city of mine did not cloak its attractions keyed to a young man's emergent appetites.
New Orleans' brash sensuality really made its point in 1969. It was the year of the Jets and the Mets, the moon landing, People's Park and a meteorological bride of Frankenstein named Camille. On August 17, the Gulf Coast played host to the second hurricane of my life, a big, bad blow that savaged nearby Biloxi and tore at the Crescent City like no other storm since the infamous Betsy. My family spent its passage in the Royal Orleans Hotel. My brother and I ascended to the roof and watched the winds rip a banana tree to shreds. Some of my ideas about life were also shredded, for Camille was simply the crowning word in New Orleans' ongoing argument: Live in this world, cher, for to be sure, you will die in it.
Say no more. Her name I remember, and God bless and keep her, wherever she is.
I met that girl at a NOSFA meeting. The New Orleans Science Fiction Association was perhaps the second best thing about 1969. Back at Cal I'd discovered - through Poul Anderson, best and most generous of fellas - the Little Men, a group rich with professionals and Worldcon chairmen and important BNFs. Lovely people, and yes, Quinn Yarbro, I mean you. But we were of different ages and saw one another only on Thursday nights. NOSFAns were my age, with my interests and my enthusiasms, and most importantly, their lives literally revolved about the club. More so than the Little Men could ever be, NOSFA was a community. I practically lived with these soul mates. Through them I discovered fanzines - viz - and more to the point, found that fandom could be a righteous and fulfilling way of life. It's been that way ever since. My mates from NOSFA in 1969 are in large measure my mates now.
So those were the delights of New Orleans - delights that took a boy closed upon himself and opened him up - not unlike a Felix's oyster.
There were dark corners, of course, to Louisiana and the Big Easy. Public corruption was so common it became a spectator sport; the populace reveled in the state's sassy dishonesty. When former governor and current federal inmate Edwin Edwards ran for his last term against the racist charlatan David Duke, his unofficial slogan was "Vote for the Crook!" (I did.)
Scandal wasn't always charming. Since Katrina, horror after corrupt horror has suppurated forth. Rumors of hospital euthanasia - helpless nursing home residents abandoned to their fates - and, as ever, obscene police misconduct. No one familiar with the New Orleans Police Department's internal war with brutality and venality could be surprised that bad cops stole cars and looted homes during the evacuation, and, a month after the disaster, beat a harmless drunk within a hair of death. Long before Katrina, New Orleans had two cops on Death Row. It was humiliating to the good police and enough to make even the biggest fan of the Big Easy blanch.
And then there was Race. That "W" on the bathroom door may have come down soon after we moved there, but the animus it betrayed has persisted - and will survive even Katrina. No other place that I have ever lived has suffered a worse racial and social divide than New Orleans. As someone says in this issue's letter column, the Easy was actually two cities, one rich with old family money, predominantly white, and the other locked in poverty in dilapidated housing projects (or "pro-jex," in the local lingo), and mostly black. Because of New Orleans' relatively small size, the two "sides" existed in close proximity - and mutual fear and loathing. It was tragic. Both were essential to the soul of the city: New Orleans drew its charm from its aristocratic heritage; its music, and its special sensual appeal, it took from its poor. As Clint Eastwood may have realized when he made the movie by that name in New Orleans, the city was a Tightrope - joyousness stretched tight over a chasm of bitterness, sadness, rage.
Noisy, dirty, dangerous, sleazy delicious, romantic, entrancing New Orleans sank deep hooks. Twice since my college years I've tried to leave, and twice I've come hustling back. This last time I stayed there for 22 years. That's a significant slice of a life. In that time I became a lawyer, worked a Worldcon, forged a life-altering friendship with a special neighbor and more. Since the century changed I've again taken on the joy, risk and hope of marriage, and when I brought my bride home, it was to New Orleans. When at the end of 2004 Rosy and I had to move to Shrivelport (as she calls it), I was devastated - but I reassured myself that no matter where we settled, Rosy and I would often return to the Big Sleazy. There was simply too much New Orleans in me, and too much in New Orleans calling me home.
Then came Katrina.
Gone? Is it?
In October and November of this year, Rosy and I returned to the Big Easy. It was a profoundly wounded place. Weeks after Katrina's passage, the streets were still rife with mud-coated, abandoned cars - some parked on the neutral ground, in vain attempts to avoid the high water. Taped-up or doorless refrigerators stood sentinel before almost every home. Mounds of trashed furniture, pulverized sheetrock, twisted gutters, mushed carpet, ruined clothes, downed trees, covered every curb. On West End Boulevard the mound was a mountain, taller than the empty homes around it. The flood's waterline showed brown on almost every building - knee-deep, neck-deep, higher, worse. Inside the buildings, ruin festered and poisonous mold coated what walls remained, overlapping splashes of black, shoulder-high. Rot and decay and corruption - real corruption. Everywhere.
Or practically everywhere. The French Quarter was an island of light and motion - the highest point in the city, in every respect. When the tourist trade returns Felix's and Galatoire's and Antoine's and Arnaud's will be up and running. Before the hurricane Preservation Hall was already featuring jazz merely inspired by the great artists of times before, because all the real guys were dead - it will surely reopen. NOLa's port facilities needed refitting, and now will get it. Bienville himself noted that the bend in the Mississippi is a perfect locus for commerce. Centuries of hurricanes haven't changed that.
Our people, SFdom, came through the storm physically okay, though all of their homes suffered damage - Dennis Dolbear's and John Guidry's, as you'll see, were nigh onto demolished, and John, bless him lost his mother to the stress of the evacuation. Anne Winston's grandmother was another victim, and my own loss was grievous. But I can no more imagine New Orleans without Dolbear or Guidry or Annie than I can imagine Dolbear or Guidry or Annie without New Orleans. I suspect all of our people will be back. They won't be alone. On our second trip to the ruined city, we noted people cleaning up and repairing homes - only a few, only the barest beginnings of a rebirth, but there.
But I cannot help but think of the poor, the disenfranchised, the people of the genuine Big Easy. Their homes and their 'hoods are beyond repair. They cannot rebuild. Could W's entrepreneurial fantasyland or Habitat for Humanity's prefab constructs restore the real community they inhabited - with spirit, identity, history, common ground? Can all the charity in the world restore a city's soul to itself?
New Orleans will re-open, beyond doubt, and a lot of what the world envisions when it thinks of New Orleans will be there. The French Quarter will feature grand restaurants, music that sounds like jazz will echo in the streets, streetcars will clang past the Garden District towards Tulane and Loyola Universities; and the Saints will play beneath the patched roof of the Superdome. But I question, how can it be real? The soul of the city grew in compost: violent history, perverse injustice, joyous lawlessness. Will the new New Orleans be anything more than a sanitized simulacrum of before?
We have no choice - we must wait to see. Years will pass before my adopted home is even habitable. Decades must pass before the character of the new New Orleans becomes known. In the meantime, and the short run, Mardi Gras 2006 will fall on February 28th. We'll be there, in the French Quarter, in the Big Easy, in the New Orleans that survives, celebrating survival. Join us.
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is (c) 2003-2005 by Guy H. Lillian III.
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