My New Orleans

The magical spirit of my hometown does not lie in the buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina -- it lives in the people who call it home.

Published September 4, 2005 7:32PM (EDT)

Before he died of a brain tumor three years ago, my father's last wish was for my mother to build a regal family tomb in Metairie Cemetery. It took two years to complete. Several days before the interment ceremony we held late last year, my mother's assistant surprised her with the news that she had traveled to California and located the unmarked grave of my sister Michele, who died in 1972, when my parents were too financially strapped to buy a headstone. On a crisp November afternoon, my mother and I united a father and a daughter who had been separated by both death and physical distance for too long. I didn't even think about their final resting place until three days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed my hometown. My family's mausoleum stands several yards from where an oblivious motorist drove straight into a lake of water on Interstate 10 in full view of television viewers across the nation.

I am trying to find a quick and efficient method for mourning 20 years' worth of memories, and it is proving to be an impossible and irresponsible task. Each new helicopter shot of the city's drowned streets reveals another radius of ruin that encompasses the homes of friends and former lovers. The sight of Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park suggests the destruction of an eccentric drama teacher's opulently decorated home. He held decadent Christmas parties and kept an authentic sealskin top hat perched atop his bookshelves. East of the breach in the levee at the 17th Street Canal lie the ruined homes of the first boy I ever loved and the first boy I ever had a true intimate relationship with, as well as the home of my mother's loyal assistant, who brought my sister back to us.

One of my friends did not evacuate. "We're playing cards," she assured me by phone the night before Katrina struck. "We've got a boat and an ax so we should be OK." Around midnight, the phone lines jammed. Then came a message from her, after the hurricane passed. "Everything's fine. There's no water in my neighborhood." Her tone was soothing, lighthearted. Maybe I had a done a lousy job of hiding my fear (and my anger) when she told me she wasn't going to evacuate. Clearly, she did not have access to CNN. After the levees broke and her neighborhood filled with 12 feet of water, she was unreachable once again. The enormity of what has happened to New Orleans makes it difficult to worry about her specifically. I end up listing the cold facts about our friendship like a mantra that might hold her in my thoughts before I'm hit with the next television image of the devastation -- I've known her since we were 17. She took me to my first gay bar. She drove a Cadillac that was in such a state of disrepair she had used masking tape to keep the taillights in place.

Those of us who have migrated to the coasts of the country from its often maligned middle like to view our hometowns as time capsules. We fault them for being too fixed and too rigid, but we also enjoy the ability to slip back into familiar routines upon returning home. Both of those luxuries have been taken from me; New Orleans has spilled past the boundaries of my conflicted feelings for it. Those of us who are from there are being left with a storehouse of memories that have lost their physical referents.

It has been difficult for me to summon immediate hope for the city's recovery. New Orleans was financially strapped to begin with, its roads ranked among the worst in the nation, its new mayor making his first valiant strikes against the rampant political corruption that has plagued the city since its inception. But it is also one of the few cities that even hardened cynics refer to as having a certain spirit. That spirit does not depend on the specifics of its infrastructure. In the words of my friend Eric Shaw Quinn, New Orleans has never offered permanence to anyone and there's no reason not to believe that something just as unique will replace her.

Instead it has managed to foster a wild hybrid spirituality that combines Catholic and Pagan influences into an adamant insistence upon enjoying the city's sensual beauty in the face of nature's constant encroachment. Mardi Gras, the city's most defining communal celebration, requires only the creative expression of the city's residents, not the specific use of landmarks and buildings. Hopefully, the current violence will not mask the fact that this city has responded to insurmountable obstacles with an institutionalized kindness and generosity. (It is criminal that a city that gives so freely of itself to outsiders has been subject to such ambivalence and ineptitude from our federal government.)

This is also a city with a long history of wearing down any invader that has tried to bring it mediocrity, convention, or most importantly, despair. There is no reason New Orleanians should view Hurricane Katrina as any different from the corporate influences that failed to escalate the city's lackadaisical pace or deprive it of its cultural identity. The continuing news coverage of the catastrophe remains rightly focused on the refugees. However, the rest of the city's population, the evacuees, remain too scattered throughout the South to have a coherent voice in the media. While the New Orleans we know may be gone, I believe the city's many evacuees will find a sense of righteous indignation over this natural assault, and with that anger will come a determination to replace the city they once knew with something just as unique and magical.

By Christopher Rice

Christopher Rice is the author of the novels "A Density of Souls," "The Snow Garden" and, most recently, "Light Before Day."

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