Thursday, June 28, 2007

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

The last time I saw New Orleans, it was the same old shit. I had parked the rental truck with the pickup on a trailer across the service entrance to the school next door to my apartment on Camp. I had a typical New Orleans run-in with a woman who needed to get her car inside the gate I was blocking. After much one-sided haggling, I moved the trucks, she drove her car inside where she proceeded to hand deliver a letter before driving back out again 2 minutes later. That was somewhere in the area of 1484 days ago. A lot has happened there since I left.

Now, today, I’m back. It’s really hot. Hotter than I remembered, but not as hot as I imagined. Just sitting I can feel the sweat beading on my face, on my forehead, under my eyes, streaming through my beard. It’s probably not that hot, really – it’s only 9AM after all. My sister has an apartment on St. Peter & Royal in the Quarter – right above the old A&P on the corner. It’s a primo spot. The city swirls & swarms under the wooden balcony 24 hours a day. It’s only a block to Bourbon and 2 to Jackson Square. These streets are a lot cleaner than I remember – the city has a new department that cleans up after all the tourists, pretty much during all daylight hours. They swoop in with enzymatic sprays, hose the streets free of puke and daiquiri, they pick every errant cup and bead strand from the gutters. I definitely don’t remember that.

I’m surprised at the number of tourists – for the most part there are more than I imagined there would be. Although, Jackson Square is populated by tumbleweeds on weekday mornings now. Not even the psychics and trombone players are out. Seems odd to me, although its not really tourist season. Downstairs & across the street, some dudes are unloading their truck filled with roof slate for the building across St Peter. The foreman is a big fat mustachioed guy wearing a shirt that reads, “Rock out with your cock out.” Yeah, that’s more like it. Quarter folk. Guy in a purple silk shirt, Gucci sunglasses, tight jeans, tallboy of Budlight in a paper bag. Its 9am. Talking to a big fat black man and a troubadour with a squeaky voice wearing a porkpie hat with a guitar & a bucket slung across his back. Peeling paint. Exposed brickwork in the plaster façade across the way. I can see the ceiling in the apartment diagonal across the intersection has a night sky painted on it. Living above a “crap-for-sale” shop. Used to be called “curios”, now its just crap. Damn its hot. Much of the city appears returned to normalcy. The Quarter looks better, even. Cleaner for sure – without the horrifying former scent. The beignets at Cafe du Monde are still extraordinary, and the service still sucks. The St Charles streetcar still isn’t running, but there is a Canal-Mid City line that is – something that was still being built when I left. Uptown looks okay – Magazine Street also looks improved, busy. Lots of new shops & infrastructure. And Plum Street Snowballs is still the best in town, I’ll have you know. Those kids are good & heavy handed with the sweetened condensed milk. Its still hot. One evening, just as the sun is going down, a wedding traipses up St Peter from the cathedral & hangs a left on Royal. Blowing their horns and waving their handkerchiefs.

In all honesty, when I lived here, I never really ventured into the 9th ward or much into Bywater & points east. But now I drive the streets east of Elysian Fields and view the abandoned homes with spray-painted instructions on every door. The water marks! So high! Almost no one lives here anymore, in the Bywater. I cross the canal on North Claiborne and to the left, along the “levee” is a vast swath of prairie. How quickly the earth reclaims. Cement steps leading to homes that no longer exist. Paved streets leading…nowhere. Stranded trees. I see that They have had the foresight – or hindsight really – to build a cement wall atop the levee to protect the prairie from further flooding. No one will die stranded on the roof of their home next time it rains, since there are no roofs to stand on. I forgot my camera at home and wrestle with the idea of returning to document some of what I see. I feel like an asshole for thinking like this. Like a tourist. On the way down what I think used to be Deslonde street headed back to Claiborne, I pass a home – still lived in, adorned with signs: “Shame on you, tourist, for not stopping!” When I cross back over to the west, I don’t return.

One of the days I was there, it rained one of those late afternoon two-minute cloudbursts that leaves the streets wet & all the leaves shiny. It smelled like hot rain & sweet blooming jasmine. Do you know? Can you smell that? Do you see?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Anthony Doerr

The PantheonI have just read the new book by Anthony Doerr, author of the magnificent About Grace (seriously, one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read in my life - go buy one tomorrow if you have never read it) and The Shell Collector, that is a work of nonfiction covering the year he spent in Rome with his wife & their newborn twin sons just after the publication of Grace. (The new book is called Four Seasons in Rome.) I normally never, ever read books like this - in the mold of Frances Mayes, or the like - they are often trite & make me feel less worldly & monetarily inferior for staying home. But, I am particularly fond of Doerr's writing and I was recently in Rome for the first time back in October, so.... The awe he experiences while seeing these 2000 year old buildings, piazzas, & streets is palpable & insistant - at least for me, since my own experience was so recent & so similar. At 31 I had never been out of the North America before - see my markography site for my whole experience - and was particularly amazed by the Pantheon (my humble pics seen here). Built in 125 AD by Hadrian (just like most of Rome) it has stood its ground for over 1800 years. A thousand years ago it was ancient. Doerr says, "When you see the Pantheon for the first time, your mind caves in." He describes the desire to visit this marvel when the first snow arrives, so he can see snow fall through the oculus, the 27-foot wide hole in the center of the dome - "because to see snowflakes drifting through the hole at the top of the dome is to change your life forever", he is told. While I spend much of my time mired in cynicism, a large part of me honors and admires works of art for arts sake - one of which is undoubtedly this Pantheon. "...the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself." Doerr comments on the beauty & immensity in the enormous stone columns and that "it is impossible to be close to (the columns) and not want to touch it." I wholeheartedly concur.

The columns of the Pantheon

Four Seasons is essentially a love letter to the city of Rome - but at the same time, a love letter to his newly formed family. Doerr's awe at life extends well beyond the marvels of an ancient city - there is just as much amazement for him in the first staggering steps of his sons - observations that keep him humble & grounded so that he is constantly aware of how lucky he really is.

***About Grace is a story about a man named David Winkler who has prescient dreams. When he has a dream that his infant daughter, Grace, will drown in his arms in a flood, he leaves his whole life behind - wife & daughter - to hopefully save her life. It is a tale of profound loss and incredible sacrifice - but ultimately one of redemption. My favorite passage is this: "What you realize, ultimately, when you have nothing to lose, is that even though the world can be kind to you, and reveal its beauty through the thin cracks in everything, in the end it will either take you or leave you."