“New Orleans is a city surrounded by water -- Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and myriad bayous, canals and waterways. Because we are below sea level, we need complex systems of levees, drainage canals, spillways and pumping stations to keep the life-giving water from killing us.” – from http://www.gumbopages.com
I’ve never been to New Orleans. I’ve never seen the French Quarter, eaten a beignet or a King Cake, or joined in the Mardi Gras revelry. My knowledge of the city is based on photographs, movies, and the lively images I’ve conjured in my own mind. It is a composite formed by PBS documentaries on Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy novels and Tennessee Williams plays, and the Mardi Gras debauchery in Easy Rider and the bordello scenes in Pretty Baby. And by music, of course. Lots of music. Corrupt and decadent, florid and outsized, and unlike any place else on earth, New Orleans has always typified for me everything that is simultaneously seedy and exotic and alluring in American culture. It was always on my list of future vacation destinations. One day I would visit there, take it all in. The images, real or imagined, would become reality.
And now a different set of images emerges. They call it the Big Easy, a name that surely must leave a bitter taste in the mouth these days. There is nothing easy about New Orleans in this late summer of 2005, nothing remotely hospitable and welcoming about drowning and starvation and E. coli bacteria. The dead float in the canals and streets, unreachable, human buoys bobbing on the surface. Fires rage in the drowned city, and there is no water pressure to put them out. People die shockingly, casually, by the sides of impassable highways, and they are simply moved aside and covered with dirty blankets. It is too much to take in. It is Hiroshima and Auschwitz and the Twin Towers, misery compounded by horror, and it is live and in color from the birthplace of jazz.
I cope by doing what millions of other Americans do. I pray. I write my checks to the American Red Cross. I worry and fret, feel helpless, angry, and very, very sad. “Can you believe what is happening in New Orleans?” I ask a co-worker. He shrugs his shoulders and mumbles noncommittally. “Yeah, they’re screwed,” he says, and I want to punch him, slap some sense, or at least some common decency and compassion, into him. Apparently I am not coping all that well. I need a better strategy.
And so I play music, in this case the music of New Orleans. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but it reminds me of the greatness of what has been and of what may be no more, and of the faint flickering of what may one day rise again. And it gives me hope. God knows I need that. And God knows there is a lot of the music to play – the great zydeco recordings of Clifton Chenier and Queen Ida, the rich Cajun gumbo of Beausoleil and Marc and Ann Savoy, the incomparable R&B/funk of The Meters, The Neville Brothers, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, and Doctor John, the superb blues recordings of Professor Longhair, Lightnin’ Slim, Irma Thomas, and Slim Harpo, the early rock ‘n roll of pioneers such as Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, and Lloyd Price, the modern-day contributions of stalwarts like Lucinda Williams, The Subdudes, Sonny Landreth, and Jon Cleary. New Orleans natives or residents, one and all. And that list doesn’t even begin to account for the kaleidoscopic innovations of New Orleans jazz, from Kid Ory and Sidney Bechet through Wynton Marsalis and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. At the center of those vast changes, and emblematic of that creative ferment, is Louis Armstrong, and I play his music more than that of any other New Orleans musician – the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens, and, with increasing frequency, a sweetly sentimental song that has taken on its own pathos in the past few days:
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong, this feeling's gettin' stronger
The longer I stay away
It is the song that links the man with the place. Louie Armstrong recorded better songs. But nowhere else did he come closer to the intersection of his own life and the sense of loss that fueled his greatest music. Louie didn’t write the song, but he owned it as surely as Sinatra owned New York. And now I listen to it and try to own it myself, try to find the point of connection that will help me process this unfathomable loss.
And all too quickly the urgency turns to schmaltz:
Miss them moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurryin' into spring
The moonlight on the bayou,
A Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about Magnolias in bloom
And I'm wishin' I was there
Perhaps it is inevitable. The beauty of a real, vibrant city turns to cliché and sloppy sentimentality. The dirty, smelly, in-your-faceness of the French Quarter is transfigured into dreamy Creole tunes and hopelessly saccharine romanticism, mockingbirds and magnolia blossoms and moonbeams. Louie always was the master of cornpone.
And just as quickly the churn in the gut turns to dispassionate observation, political debate, the detached study of two-dimensional images and sound bytes. I am suffering from informational and emotional overload. Not only my brain, but my heart, has started to shut down. New Orleans is becoming simply “news” to me, something to be digested for half an hour before bedtime.
I hate this. I hate the fickleness of my own heart, which breaks for a few days, and then is bored and ready to move on to a new tragedy. I hate how quickly I become the co-worker I despise, with his flippant dismissal, his blatant disregard for basic human kindness. And I hate how easily sidetracked I can become when a very real, enormous tragedy becomes little more than flickering images on a screen. Apocalypse in New Orleans? Yeah, that’s big, but the Cleveland Indians are playing the Detroit Tigers.
I play New Orleans music in order to remember, but all too quickly I forget, grow calloused. Even the Mardi Gras funk and party music of Bourbon Street sounds unreal and forced to me, unintentionally ironic. “Meet the boys down on the battlefront,” The Wild Tchoupitoulas chant, one of the great fanny shakers and party tunes of all time, and I envision troops in their Iraq combat gear trying to evacuate the refugees at the Louisiana Superdome. “I was in the right place/But it must have been the wrong time,” Doctor John sings, and I wince when I hear it. No kidding. He didn’t intend it that way, but now it sounds prophetic.
There are a million displaced, homeless persons, thousands dead, every one of them with their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, now gone. I cannot fathom millions. I cannot fathom thousands. But I can imagine a face, just one face. And I need to find that face, I need to find that point of personal connection. For the sake of my soul, I need to cling to the urgency.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that's where you left your heart
And there's one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans
It happens over Labor Day. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but New Orleans has come to me.
In spite of the soaring price of gasoline, my family has decided to visit my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. And so on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend I sit in a church pew in Muncie, Indiana, a thousand miles and a million sorrows removed from the Big Easy. I listen to a terrified woman named Mercedes talk about her family. Mercedes is now a professor at Ball State University, but she grew up in New Orleans. And now she misses the ones she cares for. “They thought they could ride it out,” she tells the congregation, weeping. “And I haven’t heard from them since last Sunday. I don’t know where my mother is, where my father is, where any of them are. I don’t know what’s happened to any of them. I’ve heard nothing.”
This is a Presbyterian Church, which prides itself on doing all things decently and in order, but there is nothing decent or orderly about the emotional wreckage on display this Sunday morning. The pastor has handed over his pulpit to someone with a raw, gaping wound of pain and uncertainty, grief and terror. Surrounded by stained glass windows and a fifty-foot pipe organ and polished hardwood pews, it is evident that this poor, distraught woman wants to scream. Listening to her, feeling my heart ripped open against my will, so do I. But five minutes of agony is sufficient, and we return to the liturgy – safe, comforting, predictable.
But I cannot forget her face. There is nothing else to do but drive home on Monday, pray for this frightened woman and her family, for a city of sodden, homeless, desperate people, and play Louie Armstrong once again. How can I miss what I have never known? But I do. And I listen to Louie’s old song, listen past those campy vocals, past the cornball verses, strain to hear something good and lasting and true. And it is there, as it always is, in the sound of the horn. It is an insistent cry that cannot be smothered, that cannot help but sound blue, even in the slightest of pop songs. Yes, there it is: it’s the horn.
And so I talk to God about the ache in my soul, about Mercedes, about the dead with their names and their individual stories, bobbing in the chemical-filled waters. I close my eyes and listen and imagine Louie’s glorious trumpet notes floating free over a ruined city; finally, at long last, something good that floats.