Thursday, June 25, 2009

Life in the Big Bath Tub

"The bottom line here is, when people decided to live in this fragile area, they disrupted the natural system...
What's going to happen is the ocean's going to take it over again."
Roy Dokka, Louisiana State University geologist.

People speak of New Orleans with near exasperation. They ask, "Why would anyone live in a place sinking into the ocean where another hurricane could wipe it out anytime?" I myself have asked that very question numerous times, but only now can I answer it.

Because it's New Orleans.

Nowhere have I seen such an outpouring of genuine town pride. Bumper stickers abound: I Love New Orleans. New Orleans: A Wonderful Place to Live. The local gym features slogans like "Rebuilding New Orleans one Rep at a Time."

Say what you will, but I've never felt the need to slap a bumper sticker on my car pronouncing my love for any place I've lived, but people in New Orleans do so in abundance.

But, the facts are there...and locals know them. For example, they can recite little pieces of trivia like this one: Louisiana loses a football field's worth of land every 90 minutes. The entire city sits below sea level a mere 55 miles from the Gulf. The land is sinking as the Mississippi Delta is settling, and marshlands are disappearing more quickly here than anywhere else in the U.S.

Common sense pragmatists and cornfed midwesterners may want to scream from the tops of their lungs: RUN! But, folks here don't want to run away. This is home.

For some reason, New Orleans keeps reminding me of Steinbeck's opening line in Cannery Row: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a nostalgia, a dream." I think New Orleans can be swapped out for Cannery Row in that line. It's a feeling you get walking through the French Quarter, this sense that you are walking through time. It's one of our oldest cities, hanging precariously on the edge of swamps and certain destruction, swirling continuously with the vivacity of being truly alive.

Music is a way of life, a distraction from potential destruction, a balm for the blues. On any given night, people haunt the dance floors in costume. At dba, two women make a melodramatic entrance in demon attire and my friend whispers, "This is what I love about New Orleans. You never need an excuse to wear a costume."

This place has life oozing from the cracks of the sidewalk, from the strewn debris, from the mildewed highway overpasses, and houses bending under the weight of abandonment. From our safe couches in California, Indiana, and Minnesota, we can shake our heads at these headstrong New Orleanders for staying put...but there's a chance that these folks are living more passionately for the simple fact that they understand in a very real way that life is short and fragile.

Sure, a hurricane may come one night and wipe out the entire region. But you better believe that beforehand, the city will be spiraling in a joyful kamikaze commotion unlike any other place on earth.

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Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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