May 10, 2006: Perspective
By Adrienne V. Parks ’77
Adrienne V. Parks ’77 is the author of a novel, Acts of God. Her journal of life in New Orleans after Katrina can be found at http://notesfromatlantis.blogspot.com.
I was never a trailblazer. And at 50, I never thought I’d have a bona fide adventure. Writers tend to lead safe, rather bourgeois lives after all, as Flaubert so famously commented. So after the hurricane, when my husband and I decided to follow through on our planned move to New Orleans, many friends considered us crazy.
I was born and bred in the Garden State, went to Princeton, and married a Princeton man — Bill Bowman, Class of 1974. My husband and I lived and worked in the Northeast, producing and writing documentary films and, in my case, writing novels. We lived in a New York suburb, probably the least bohemian setting on the planet, and generally thought of ourselves as settled.
Maybe too settled. We were suffocating. Bill and I always had loved visiting the Crescent City — the food, the music, the gumbo of cultures, and the creative life that seems to bloom there as naturally as crape myrtles and magnolias. Finally, last spring, we decided to move there full-time. We contracted to buy a house, a beautiful Victorian in the Garden District with a tall oak shading the gallery and jasmine vines and sweet olives scenting the old brick paths. We were set to relocate come Labor Day.
Then, of course, something happened.
That’s how it’s referred to in New Orleans — as “the thing,” or “K,” as in, where did you live “pre-K”? I mean, of course, Katrina, a very bad natural disaster that became the worst man-made disaster ever to hit the United States, as a result of the actions and inactions of the Army Corps of Engineers ... but no, I’m not going to get political here.
We spent a month in limbo, dependent on the hospitality of friends and with all our worldly possessions in storage. We hadn’t closed on the new house yet. Some people counseled us to pull out of the deal. But we knew we couldn’t turn our backs on a place we had yearned for since we first walked down its age-worn streets, or on the friends we’d made who were fighting for the city with all their strength.
Fortunately, our property was almost completely undamaged: just a few roof tiles missing and some bushes that had seen better days. Since the Garden District, like the French Quarter, lies on the high ground next to the Mississippi, we had been spared flooding. When we received word that we still had a place to live, we grabbed the cats, packed the computers, and headed south. For a month we lived in an empty house, waiting for our furniture to make its way through the National Guard checkpoints, but it didn’t matter. We were where our hearts were. We were home.
I’m happy to report that news of New Orleans’ death has been somewhat exaggerated. Not that the horror isn’t there. Seven months after the storm, there are parts of the city where there’s still nothing but destruction — dry, leathery, mangled houses; uprooted trees; and empty streets.
The city is still deeply traumatized. We see it in our neighbors’ eyes, even in the safety of the “sliver by the river”: the dark, bone-deep stare of having looked into the abyss. We cry a lot. But we also laugh heartily and eat heartily, even if the restaurants are functioning with skeletal staffs. We go to the art museum and the zoo, and we have started to ride the streetcars again, at least on Canal Street. And still we’re surrounded with the music of angels, whether it’s Handel’s Messiah or the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra or Big Chief Monk Boudreaux laying it down at Tipitina’s.
And we had Mardi Gras. This year, Mardi Gras was like dancing on the deck of the Titanic, except the boat already had sunk and we were still alive and kicking. In such a situation, you do what New Orleanians always have done. You dance. You mask. You wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care, and you reflect that gallantry is about more than gritting your teeth and soldiering on. Gallantry is also about happiness. It’s about celebrating in the face of heartbreak and giving a big fat Molly Bloom-style yes to life, even when the smart money, the prevailing wisdom, and your own life experiences all say no.
For a while it looked like there wouldn’t even be a Mardi Gras. The logistics, the expense, even the good taste of having a major public celebration six months after a catastrophe were all debated, and rightly so. What won out wasn’t civic boosterism, but simple human need. We, the residents, needed a party. We needed to see the beautiful floats rolling by on St. Charles Avenue: Proteus, riding on his seashell. Orpheus and the great float Leviathan, which holds more than 60 riders. Muses, the only female krewe to parade at night. And Rex, the King of Carnival, costumed like the sun, riding down Canal Street to meet his rival, Comus.
We needed to see the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, rolling despite almost inconceivable losses, black and white riders alike (Zulu has been integrated for years) dressed up in traditional Afro wigs and blackface and accompanied by real Zulu warriors. We needed the satiric parades, the purely silly parades, and the truck parades, the Lyons and the Elks. We needed all of them, because when communities are threatened, they draw together and comfort their own.
Above all, we needed to celebrate who we still were. Like me, many New Orleanians are from somewhere else. They’re drawn to this place as their spiritual center, the only location where, in Wynton Marsalis’ words, elegance meets wildness. Here they find a place where art permeates every instant, where making music is as natural as breathing, where eccentricity is celebrated and momentary joy is as important as lasting achievement, and where life is lived mindfully — not only in the past or in the future, but in the now.
It’s a place uniquely attractive to artists. Tennessee Williams was once asked what made him move to New Orleans and he replied succinctly, referring to his birthplace, “St. Louis.” And it’s a place America needs, even beyond the callousness of asking (as has never been asked of any other major American city) whether people here shouldn’t just grow up and move to higher ground.
Walking down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras day, I realized the whole thing was like a Princeton reunion writ large. There were dogs with Frisbees, babies in strollers, and older kids dressed up as ballerinas and supermen. There were families boiling crawfish and grilling sausages and spreading out blankets and enjoying the sun. There was a man dressed up as a human posterior, labeled “FEMA = Fix Everything My Ass.” There was a boy who was catching beads like a shortstop; he took time out to describe how he was currently homeless (but he wouldn’t have missed a Mardi Gras). Countless people yelled, “Thank you for parading!” Those on the floats yelled back, “Thank you for being here!”
Now Mardi Gras is over. Today a gang of roofers is working on the house next door, and there are streets to clean and books to write and more boxes to unpack and elections to prepare for, as we fight to bring New Orleans back and make it better. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re coming back, come hell or high water.
And I can’t tell you how beautiful New Orleans is right now.