Less than a year ago my son, Jack, and I visited old friends in New Orleans. It feels now like we must have been having antediluvian dreams.
It was October and still too hot for us Mainers. White, heavy heat that could have been worse. The French Quarter’s streets were as narrow as when they were built, the houses as low and close, the door frames worn and dark. It was a place of seedy, pretty nooks and crannies.
It felt relaxed and formal, hospitable and dangerous. It was the place musicians from up north called the Big Easy because gigs were easy to find there, and the place slaves feared being sold down the river to.
We sat on benches drinking bottles of water and watching street sweepers, tourists, drunks, dogs and instrument-toting musicians amble past. Everybody ambled. It hardly felt like a city at all, more like a gigantic town.
Even the tourist spots were tucked away. We walked back and forth looking for the Voodoo Museum, which turned out to be three rooms in the front of an old house, stuffed with bizarre artifacts. Feathers, shrunken heads, amulets, specimens that could stump cryptozoologists, short biographies of famous voodoo divas typed decades ago and stapled to the walls.
We walked through Audubon Park in milky heat. In the zoo we ate McDonald’s french fries while peacocks wandered among the tables. We drank beer and soda on the porch of a 19th century hotel. An ancient trumpet player in a swing-tunes jazz band blew us away while we ate breakfast on a sidewalk.
In the early evening of the Halloween parade we saw mummies, skeletons, lion tamers, tight-sweatered girls, and many, many drunks. We picked up beads and candy thrown from passing floats. We drank coffee and ate beignets in the evening. Every chance we got, we ordered red beans and rice.
Our friends, Leigh and Richard Collins, lived in Algiers Point, across the Mississippi River from the Quarter. To get back and forth we rode the ferry, which was free and took less than five minutes.
We walked along the grassy levee, a beautiful parklike thing, and wondered when the river would stop taking pity on it.
We met a guy with a goatee and a watch chain hanging out of his pocket whose gracious Southern speech implied the year 1890 had never budged. We missed National Public Radio essayist Andrei Codrescu’s postmodern irony because he was out of town. But we talked with some of his cronies, who swore and drank beer, and loved and groused about New Orleans like dockworkers.
It was assumed that in New Orleans, all things are possible. Whatever came into your dream you could do, for better or worse, and if it turned out bad, it would still be hot tomorrow. As far as anyone knew, like in Randy Newman’s song, New Orleans had won the second world war. (“We knew we’d do it.”)
What dreamlike possibilities. “We can find you a teaching job,” our friends said. “Why don’t you, Jack and Bonnie move down here and ditch the seven-month winter?”
What dangerous temptations. “In Maine it’s cold too long,” we said, “but in New Orleans it’s hot too long.”
When the satellite photos of Katrina appeared, we worried about the house in Algiers Point. Our friends drove to Alexandria, La., fleeing hell along with everyone else who had a car.
Levees on the east side of the river broke, and neighborhoods we drove through last fall went under. Some of the faces we saw in our travels around town are surely dead now. The zoo animals lived because the ground is higher out toward Audubon Park. By all accounts the French Quarter has, like life, found a way.
The Collinses are staying with relatives in California. Soon they will head to Houston to help a school for refugee kids. Their house survived because the levee held. A neighborhood posse shot and killed four looters, and the National Guard is using Algiers Point as a staging area. Andrei posted a bulletin from Baton Rouge.
What’s happened is that the land of dreams has not really been destroyed, it has just submerged. It will never again be the way it was. But it’s definitely going to resurface. Like from sleep.
Blue blue morning, blue blue day
All your bad dreams drift away
It’s a blue blue morning, of a blue blue day
Lose those bad dreams
(Randy Newman, “New Orleans Wins the War”)
Dana Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.