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A Love Note to New Orleans
Alex Steffen, 28 Aug 05

One of the best weeks of my life was spent in New Orleans. For some of that story, as Holmes said of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, the world is not yet ready. But one chunk of the travel book which got cut was all about having a great time as disaster loomed. Tonight, for obvious reasons, that beautiful, insane city is on my mind, so I thought I'd share a bit of that draft chapter (click on permalink below).

The next day I drive, hung over and worn out, to meet Poppy Z. Bright. Poppy's been called the dark princess of Horror. [...]

"Most of the stuff written about New Orleans is dark, spooky luscious haunted courtyard crapola," she says. "New Orleans is dark, spooky, luscious and all that, but that's only the stage set. Underneath it's both more ominous and just ... stupid. I live in a Third World city," she says, complete with a corrupt local government ("politics here is more a spectator sport... we mostly love the scandals"), a population that's three-quarters black, has its own weird religions and speaks its own dialect, and a poor people's obsession with food. "A Confederacy of Dunces"is really the only honest book about New Orleans, because it's fundamentally about a city that's just stuffed full of divine stupidity. Look at where they built the place – it's sinking, it's full of mosquitoes, it breeds malaria and yellow fever."

She stops, finishes her coffee in two quick gulps, and then goes on, covering magic shops, the murder rate (recounting the details of a series of sensational murders in New Orleans history), the "gaudy, idolatrous nature" of Catholicism here ("we turn the saints into characters in out lives") and the above-ground cemeteries ("we like to keep our dead in our midst, so we can keep an eye on them"), the culture of conviviality that revolves around, if

"I want to show you something," she says, "if you're up for a little adventure."

"Adventure is my FBI file name."

"I'll drive," she says. We walk out and hop into her big, old American sedan. She grimaces as she reaches around to put on her seatbelt, and explains "I hurt my back a while ago." She looks at me and smiles mischeviously, "turned me into quite the vicodin junkie."

We drive to the 9th Ward, a desperately poor, almost entirely black neighborhood. "This is the New Orleans no one wants to see," she says, as we drive by the little wooden houses and liquor stores. I count three burned out cars, then stop counting. "But this is where it all comes from."

We turn up a side street to the levy see two old ornate Victorian houses built on steamboat fortunes, and then walk up the bank to look at the river. Trash is strewn across the grass, and the water looks oily. A sign warns against fishing. "Mmm..." I say, "polluted water." "Yeah, listing the fecal chloroform count, it doesn't really put you in the mood to swim, does it?" she says.

We get back in the car, drive around: a rusted-out car in a vacant lot, weeds growing up through the empty windows; a small baby playing in a puddle on the street; four men sitting on a sagging porch, bottles in their hands. A hand-lettered sign on the side of a church, "In the beginning, Cain killed his brother with a rock. Today Cain is still killing his brother with a rock. Let's stop Cain from killing again." Underneath the sign is a crude drawing of a black Cain killing a black Abel.

"The true madness of New Orleans is not vampires and alligators in the swamps – though this place is fucking haunted – it's this," she says, waving her hand.

"Anyone who comes here and makes more than a cursory exploration will come to the bluntly obvious conclusion that this place is ridiculous and depressing, that the debauchery here is a pure response to heartbreak. This city has failed so often, there's so many things we can't do – our streets may be full of potholes, our sewer system may stink, our schools may suck, but man, can we throw a party. That's why there's a big festival every month, a big party... and, um, a permanent one going on in the French Quarter. If your world gets shitty enough, knowing how to have a good time is more than a survival skill, it's kind of a fuck you."


The next day I wake up feeling like I'd been set upon by a tribe of gorillas. I'm covered with strange bruises. I feel drained, anemic, my mood as dark as the low clouds that are rolling in from the South.

I stop at a corner shop, buy a quart of orange juice and an oyster poboy, and drive to the river. I walk on the levy until I find a place to sit and eat. The river itself is dingy and broad and running high. A few boats drift along its waters. The old blues refrain, "Keeps on raining, levy's gonna break," echoes in my mind.

And all the forecasts are for rain, and lots of it; for hurricanes of unknown intensity, for floods and windstorms and rising seas. Maybe not today, but soon enough, really. "Climate is an angry beast," as Wallace Broecker says, "and we're poking it with sticks." How much angrier we can expect the weather to get is the subject of much debate.

On the one hand are the servants of the Carbon Industries, those scientists and spinsters in the employ of the coal, oil and gas lobbies, who maintain that climate isn't changing at all, or just a little, or it's changing, but for the better. But they're already consigned to the margins of the debate. The day before I left on this trip I got an email from a friend with the news that the Global Climate Coalition, the main industry greenwashing group, was closing its doors.

Not that they hadn't already done untold harm. In the ten years since the Rio Earth Summit, where global warming was an already acknowledged and present danger, industry groups like the GCC had managed to sabotage every effort at reducing, or even simply holding constant, our national output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. They'd fought off even marginal increases in gas taxes, delayed higher standards for power plant emissions, and, ultimately, sabotaged the Kyoto Treaty.

On the other side of the debate are the great mass of climatologists and other scientists who generally agree that the climate has changed already, and that those changes will grow gradually more and more severe. Keep in mind, as well, that these are not wild-eyed radicals speaking, but the most prestigious, slow, cautious, empirical scientific bodies the world has to offer.

Their descriptions of possible signs of present global warming are dire and grim: seas are rising and seashores eroding; glaciers melting; fires, floods, storms and all manner of other natural disasters increasing in magnitude and cost; insects and diseases spreading into new territories; famines worsening and natural systems around the globe showing signs of severe stress. That's what's already happening.

Their predictions are downright terrifying. By 2050, whole seacoasts disappear beneath the rising waves. Catastrophic wildfires, typhoons, hurricanes, ice storms and tornados become ever more common. Lands which can now only marginally support hardscrabble farming and nomadic herding turn to useless deserts, while some of the best farmland in the world is hit by repeated droughts, floods, dust storms, freak frosts and plagues of insects. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people are made refugees. Wars over water and arable land increase. Formerly tropical diseases (like West Nile virus) break out of their equatorial cages and cause unknown havoc. If the predictions of even middle-of-the-road climatologists are correct, climate change alone will be a disaster for the people of the mid 21st Century incomparable to anything since the Black Death of the 14th.

Because we live in a country where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the old, 2050 seems a long way off to most Americans. It's not. I will likely still be alive (if I avoid too many more nights like last night) and if I am lucky enough to have children, they will be in the primes of their lives while the world unravels around them. Speaking in terms of history, 50 years is a heartbeat. Speaking in terms of family, it's tomorrow.

New Orleans is built on a swamp. This litter-strewn grassy levy, and its partners, are already all that keeps the Big Easy from disappearing beneath the brown waters. Yet as I'd called various officials and activists around the city over the past few days, not one of them could point to any kind of real plan to deal with the exigencies of a world where the weather is coming unglued. As far as I can tell, New Orleans has no plan at all to keep from becoming an American Atlantis.

It may be the come-down from the E, or the cloudy sky, but suddenly this all seems too much for me to think about. I'll go sight-seeing, I decide. Might as well catch it while it's still here.


I spend the afternoon walking around the Garden District. It's hot, and that and my hangover and my lack of sleep have combined to make me feel sick and disoriented, but it's very nice to walk under the trees, with the light coming through in dappled patches, and look at the old houses.

One makes me stop on the sidewalk. It's large and dirty white, and terribly worn. All the windows have been torn out, down to the sashes, and the columns which once supported the front porch have been replaced with iron rebar. A few tarps and sheets of plastic sway in the breeze, and there's a pile of lumber and a sign on the side of the house with the name of some construction company, but otherwise the place looks like it's been deserted for years.

I look up and down the street. I see no one, so I step over the low wrought iron fence and walk up to peer in through one of the window sockets. No one home, just bare studs and a heap of old plaster and lathes in the middle of the floor. I jump up and pull myself inside.

I walk carefully through the skeleton of the house, looking at the ancient timbers, the ghostly rings left on the high ceilings where once (I assume) chandeliers hung. I'm nervous. Everywhere I step a board groans or creaks: I imagine passersby outside can hear me moving around in here, and I find myself holding my breath. New stairs of raw wood have been nailed in, and though they look rickety, I climb them to the second floor. There, at the very front of the house, is an enormous empty room. Sheetrock covers three of the walls, and plywood has been laid down over the floors, but the exterior wall facing the street is a solid bank of nearly floor-to-ceiling French doors, newly painted and bathing the room in sunlight and splashes of green reflected off the leaves of the trees outside.

I sit down in the middle of the room. I can't tell if this was a bedroom or a ballroom, but I can almost feel the long presence of people here. I daydream for a while about what they might have been like [ ]. I feel swaddled in time, and buoyant, and free for a while of any burdens I can imagine. And this, too, is one of New Orleans' gifts: a history that is not heavy, but soothing and joyous and gently envious of the living. A history that whispers that whatever day's coming, it will be our day, and sweet in its ways.


"I believe in the ghosts," Sonja says in her thick accent. We're eating NOLA soul food – red beans and rice, jumbalaya, fried cat fish – and she leans across the table to tell me this. She wears a black shirt, with open sleeves that tie together with long dangling strings. A broad smile, her teeth fine and very white. But her eyes are the kicker. Her eyes are trouble: big hazel thunderheads on the horizon of a still, dark sea. I semiconsciously grab the arms of my chair. Oh, boy, here we go again. Her eyes are trouble. Her smile is trouble. There's trouble written on every inch of her skin.

Sonja’s got a theatrical manner that had led to jokes earlier in the evening about how if she continued to be unable to find a job on her Italian passport, she could always set up a card table in the French Quarter and tell fortunes as a gypsy. She was enthusiastic about the idea, explaining the origin of Tarot and saying "Yes, Madam Sonya. Yes, of course I must have a table for the cards. My public, they need me. All those other card readers? – they know nothing." Then she smiled winningly.

But right now she's onto ghosts. "This city is so haunted," she says, looking at me wide eyed and nodding earnestly. "The spirits, they are everywhere here. I see them all day."

I'm not sure I believe in ghosts, but even if I did I might find this a bit unusual. "You see them, with your eyes?"

She reaches across, pats my hand, and explains in a patient voice, "You don't see ghosts with your eyes, you feel them – you know, you feel the chill," here she shivers slightly, "or see some shadows in the air," she waves her hands around above the table. I mean to follow up here, but she's long gone, and now she's talking about Yoga, the hippy towns of the Southwest, the fickle nature of the fashion industry and how she had animals.


"No, you know, animals." Here she makes a tiny pinching motion over the skin of her arm. "Animale. It was very terrible. I can’t think of the word in English.”

I can think of one: crabs. But she catches the look of horror on my face, I think, because she reaches across and lays her hand on my forearm.

"I think from the hostel I was staying, in the bed," she says quickly, and lists the many and exhaustive methods she'd taken to eliminate what sounded like, on further description, bedbugs.

She changes subjects, asks about me. We start talking about the environment. At one point, I describe what I'd been thinking earlier on the levy bank, and how I worried about the future. I didn't think it was the end of the world, but –

"Pah," she cries, fluttering one hand in the air. Then she looks at me very seriously. "Mister, this is not an ending world," she says. "And this life now, for us, it is all to think about. The rest," she blows across the top of her palm, then smacks her hands together, "… is air." Then she sits back, drops her napkin in her plate, and smiles at me in a way any fool would understand. Even me.

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Brilliant article. I love these longer psychological pieces.

Posted by: Darius K. on 29 Aug 05

Ha! ghosts, delapidated grand houses, sewerage, E, fear, bruises, contradictions and exotic women: all the ingredients for a great tale.

What's an oyster poboy?

A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my most treasured books. It's a wonderful read but it also serves as a powerful reminder to not give up. To be WC'g is to swim against the tide, despite the debris and the effluent. It requires us to reset the moral compass, to examine and be authentic in our own lives. It's easier to go with the tide, assuming you can shut out the voice of yr conscience. So don't give up, unlike the incredibly talented author of a confederacy of dunces who thought his talents so worthless that he killed himself, yet left behind 2 beautiful gifts: his book and the lesson from his life.

Posted by: Passion Flower on 31 Aug 05



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