Monday, November 21, 2005

I Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

I recently received a call from Neal, who was one of my best friends in New Orleans. He relocated to southern California after Katrina hit, and only got back to New Orleans last week to retrieve his salvageable possessions. He told me that the city was starting to look like its old self again, at least in the lower Garden District, which is where we used to live. He said in some areas it appeared as though nothing had ever happened.

It was good news, of course, and it triggered a powerful new rush of nostalgia in me.

I moved out of New Orleans with my daughter one month before Katrina hit. My wife and I were in the middle of divorce proceedings, and once it was decided that our daughter would live with me, I decided to move us to Asheville where I had family I could rely on to help, when things got tough. I had spent the previous thirteen years in New Orleans, and -- in every real sense -- that city became my true home. There is no other place in this country where I feel as immediate a sense of belonging. Like Neil Young said, "all my changes were there." (I think he was talking about Toronto, but never mind.)

When the storm hit, and the extent of the damage became clear, I felt an overwhelming urge to be there. If my daughter hadn't been with me, and I wasn't aware of that far larger responsibility, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been down there at once. I know that probably sounds ludicrous, considering the great suffering going on there, but New Orleans had come to mean so much to me that I felt I should be present for what was arguably its darkest hour. I felt I should help it, in whatever way was possible, to recover. I admit I also felt the writer's compulsion to witness: I knew I was missing a singular opportunity to gather incredible material. But I don't want to reduce the feeling I had to a purely mercenary impulse. I loved New Orleans, and I felt as though I had betrayed the city, somehow, by dodging this particular bullet.

And of course I still love New Orleans. Which is why, when Neal called me a couple of days ago, it was a relief to hear that it was actually healing; but it was also heartbreaking, in a way. I can only liken it to being in love with someone who, while you are gone, is beset by some awful circumstance; something happens which pares away the peripheral layers of being and what is left, what you find upon your return, is a leaner, tougher, sadder version of the person you left behind. You still love this person, and it is possible that you are yet loved in return; but you missed something crucial, something defining. And, in a fundamental sense, you are strangers to each other from that moment on.

So the work of rebuilding goes on. My friend Andy Fox is there, and his aggressive good will and civic activism are exactly what the city needs if it is to assume a character that can somehow overcome this miserable moment in its history. And I look forward to the day -- soon, I hope -- that I get a chance to revisit the place, to stop by the Avenue Pub, where I worked for eight years, and have a beer with whatever old friends remain.

But I know it will be bittersweet. I still love New Orleans, but I don't think I know her anymore.


At 1:46 AM, Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I really loved this post and understand the feeling you have towards your city. I feel that way about Youngstown, Ohio too. Certainly not a city of the same sort of fame as New Orleans, but like you and Neil Young say, where all my changes happened. Now that I'm in Japan, I feel far away yet my connection to the city remains, so it can get hard when I read its online newspapers. Anyway, maybe one day you and New Orleans can get reacquainted. There's always that too.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Tim Akers said...

I know how that feels, sort of. Oddly, I feel that way about Asheville. I grew up there, but I'm the one who changed after I left it, and when I come back it feels utterly familiar and utterly foreign at the same time. It's left me without a real sense of place, sort of like the place I remember doesn't just not exist now, but never existed in the first place. Yeah, that wasn't really clear.

I was pointed here by Vandermeer's blog. I keep trying to write an appreciation of "You Go Where it Takes You" and keep failing. I'm on my third or fourth draft now, and it's just not damn good enough. Anyway. I hope Asheville maybe becomes for you what it was for me. It's not a bad town.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Chris, Thanks for dropping by! I suspect New Orleans and I will become reacquainted at some point, but of course I'll have changed, as well. I guess I'm lamenting the closing of a very significant chapter of my life as much as I am the city's more cataclysmic change.

Tim, I've actually lived in Asheville before. I went to middle school and high school here, although that was in the 80s. I wonder if we were here at the same time. I'm excited to read what you have to say about "You Go Where It Takes You." One thing I'm trying to learn as a writer is that the more often you rewrite something, the less likely it is that it will ever see the light of day. Go ahead and post that critique!

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Tim Akers said...

Well, it's not a crit, it's an appreciation. And I'll keep it warm until it's ready for daylight. As far as Asheville, I lived in the area from 1972 to 1991, when I moved to Chicago. So yeah, there's probably some overlap.


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