June 8, 2006

From a Wedding in New Orleans

From a Wedding in New Orleans

On August 29th of last year, Jay Forman wrote for this site from a Days Inn in Hammond, Louisiana, that he had arrived from New Orleans with his fiancee and a box of unaddressed wedding invitations. On October 8th he married that fiancee, invitations unsent, in — I swear to God — a town called Uncertain, Texas.

Last week I was in New Orleans to see Jay, a friend from college, confirm his vows in a house on St. Charles Avenue. The pastor quoted from a piece Jay had written for The Times Picayune, Crazy love keeps a native at home.

New Orleans is my home. It is where I was born and where I grew up. It is where much of my family lives. Despite every reason it gives me to the contrary, be it interfacing with the soul-crushing bureaucracy of Traffic Court, public works projects that span geologic epochs and of course the annual threat of hurricanes, I love this city and it breaks my heart to see it in such pain. It breaks my heart to hear people in New York refer to coverage about reconstruction efforts as “last year’s news.” And, despite the fact that it would probably be healthier to move away, it would also seem to me to be some weird form of abandonment.

Jay Forman, Crazy love keeps a native at home, The Times Picayune, December 17, 2005

The streetcar tracks on St. Charles are still silted over and in some places impassable with fallen streetlights. But for that, though, uptown New Orleans looks a lot like it did before the storm. Bars are open, and you can drink “Restoration,” a new brand from the Abita Brewery. A few blue tarps. One or two FEMA trailers.

But on Claiborne — an artery ten blocks to the lake side of St. Charles — traffic weaves because the streetlights don’t work. Beyond Claibone the city starts to die. It’s not that it’s destroyed, as in the Lower Ninth Ward, where houses still sit in the middle of the street; it’s that it’s dead. In Mid-City and Lakeside no stores are open, few cars are parked on the street and the lawns have gone tropical. You can see a floodline, but it looks more than anything like everyone agreed to drive out of town and then never came back, which is essentially what happened.

And the people I went to college in New Orleans with, now thirty years old, the ones who stayed in the city ten years ago because they liked the way it was slow and cheap and gentle, these people are exhausted.

Neely Whites, who owns with her husband several houses and is exactly the kind of young investor the city needs, has decided she’d rather rebuild Mobile than New Orleans and is selling her property. Jeff Clary, who owns eight houses and now a roofing business, swings a hammer seven days a week. Sitting on a front porch with a beer in his hand — which is what you’re supposed to do in New Orleans — he looked a little dazed to be not working, and discussed with Neely such third-world matters as who to bribe to get your lights turned on.

To rebuild is not a single act of defiance; it is months of insurance forms and toxic mold and then more insurance forms, work that tears at patience and marriages and, repeated over a half-year, can make the choice to stay seem no longer worth it. We watched New Orleans suffer a blow live on television, but a catastrophe lasts longer than its most dramatic moments. New Orleans is still bleeding out.

In the marina where Neely kept a boat before she found it folded in half in a pile of mud, hulls still litter the docks and poke half-assed out of the water; there are some messes that haven’t even been gotten to yet. And Jay Forman, six months after describing in the paper a love — a codependence — with New Orleans, is considering moving to Oregon.

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