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Archive for Monday, September 5, 2005

Resilient New Orleans will dance again

September 5, 2005

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It has always had my heart in a box.

In the clip-joint souvenir shops in the gaudiest blocks of the Quarter, with canned Cajun music drilling rock-concert-loud into my ears, I could never resist opening the toy wooden coffins to see what was inside. I knew it would be just a cut-rate voodoo doll - a wad of rags, cheap plastic beads and blind, button eyes. But every time, it made me smile. What a place, what a city, that can make you laugh at coffins and believe in magic - all the way to the cash register.

What a place, where old women sit beside you on outbound planes complaining about their diabetes while eating caramel-covered popcorn a fistful at a time. "It's hard, so hard, sweet baby," they will say of their disease, then go home and slick an iron skillet with bacon grease, because what good is there in a life without hot cornbread?

What a place, where in the poorest cemeteries the poorest men and women build tin-foil monuments to lost children in a potter's field, while just a few blocks over, the better-off lay out oyster po' boys and cold root beer and dine in the shade of the family crypt, doing lunch with their ancestors and the cement angels in cities of the dead.

What a place, so at ease here at the elbow of death, where I once marched and was almost compelled to dance in a jazz funeral for a street-corner conjurer named Chicken Man, who was carried to his resting place by a hot-stepping brass band and a procession of mourners who drank long-neck beers and laughed out loud as his hearse rolled past doorways filled with men and women who clapped in time.

Now, for those of us who borrowed that spirit and used that love and then moved away, these past few awful days have seemed like a hospital death watch - and, in fact, for so many people it has been. And we stare deep into the television screen, at the water that had always seemed like just one more witch, one more story to scare ourselves into a warmer, deeper sleep, and we wonder if there is just too much water and too much death this time.

Ever since I was barely in my 20s, I have loved it the way some men love women, if that means unreasonably. I fell in love with the city and a Louisiana State University sophomore on the same night, eating shrimp cooked seven ways in the Quarter, riding the ferry across the black, black river where fireworks burned the air at Algiers Point. I drank so much rum I could sleep standing up against a wall. The sophomore left me, smiling, but the city never did.

There is no way to explain to someone who has never lived here why every day seemed like parole. Every time I would swing my legs from under the quilt and ease my toes onto the pine floors of my shotgun double, I would think, I am getting away with something here.

How long now before the streetcar rattles down St. Charles Avenue and beads swing into the 200-year-old trees? How long before Dunbar's puts the chicken and stewed cabbage on the stove, or the overworked ladies at Domilisie's dress a po' boy on Annunciation Street, or the midday drinkers find their way back to Frankie and Johnny's on Arabella Street? Does my old house still stand on Joseph? It was high, high ground, on the lip of the bowl, and you could hit the Mississippi River with a silver dollar if you threw it twice.

I cannot stand the idea that it is broken, unfixable. I look at the men using axes to hack their way into 100-year-old houses to save people trapped there by the suffocating water. I know there is life and death to be fought out for a long, long time. But I can't help but wonder what will come, later.

My wife, as wives do, voiced what most of us are afraid to say.

"I'm glad you took me there," she said. "Before."

We went there on our honeymoon.

Just a few weeks ago, I spent a week there, walking along Magazine, walking the Quarter, not minding the heat because that is what the devil sends, heat and water, to make you appreciate the smell of crushed cherries and whiskey on the balcony at the Columns Hotel, to make you savor the barbecued shrimp, to make you hear, really hear, the sound of a 12-year-old boy blowing his own heart out into a battered trumpet by a ragged cardboard box full of pocket change.

How long, before that city reforms. Some people say it never will.

But I have seen these people dance, laughing, to the edge of a grave.

I believe that, now, they will dance back from it.

Rick Bragg is an author and journalist.

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