There must be a certain malaise in the air. Alexis and I recently succumbed to its psychic virulence, and have been pondering the meaning of life, living in New Orleans and, most importantly, whether what we do, as artist, scientist or blogger, means anything in the end. Does our work make the world a better place? We are left staring at our bowl of gumbo in which floats chunks of things we have done that diminish by the minute, writer’s block, the painfully slow recovery of New Orleans and the need to break out, all spiced with the singular flavor of impotence.
Existential crises aside, Lex and I have steady jobs. Many we know, who returned to New Orleans soon after the Federal Flood and were simply happy to be home, aren’t as lucky. This time last year, a divey haunt turned into a palacial recreation room, every fleur-de-lis and manhole cover became a symbol of pride, each string of beads a pearl necklace fit for a queen, even our local paper became a celebrated slab from God. Money was spent in the hope of a better tomorrow … after Carnival 2006, after St. Patrick’s Day, after Jazzfest, after the summer, after the Katrina anniversary, after each football game, after Christmas. New Orleans will start to look up after after after after …
Days have turned into months and now a year, and these same people lament that they have lost so much money living here that they cannot leave. A close friend who works in the service industry says, “I would leave if I could, but I can’t so I stay. Besides, who else will have me? I don’t have the same connections, however dwindling, anywhere else.”
When a waiter, bartender, cleaning lady, shopkeeper or cab driver, how does one pay the ever-increasing rent, health insurance, cab fare and growing debt? It’s especially hard when you’ve lived in New Orleans for a good 20 or 30 years, or your whole life, and simply lack the physical, emotional, financial and psychological wherewithal to start over somewhere else. Then again, New Orleans is the land of misfit toys; it’s where many with large brains and brimming potential came to hide and sleep. Where else can they go?
This is what Lex and I try hard to combat as citizens of New Orleans. She and I adore the laissez-faire attitude, but also worship accomplishment. We help ourselves and the local population by being out and about in the parish’s music, food, people and air, writing and taking pictures of New Orleanians every day, every other week entertaining thoughts of where else in the world to live and trying to keep the aforementioned life quandary at bay. No, we are not Atlas and Bheema reincarnate to shoulder all of New Orleans’s, much less the world’s, burdens, nor do we pretend to be. As empathic beings, however, how can we not feel with the rest of our city and keep that enervation from permeating our own psyches? We can only do so much, and then some. As always, Craig Giesecke puts this best:
Ever since the population started returning and places started opening back up, just about everyone who’s been here and had an extra dollar to spend and brought friends/family to town has been working to spend it locally. That’s what it’s all about, right?
… The problem is we’ve passed the point of overload. There simply aren’t enough of us living here anymore to keep so many of the local icons up and running. The current population of Orleans Parish remains roughly half of what it was before the flood — and that means only so many people with only so much money buying only so many meals or making only so many other purchases in so many days. If we want a nice night out in the French Quarter and we go to Antoine’s — it means we’re not going to Galatoire’s. Or Tujague’s. Or Muriel’s. Next time we go out, we’ll hit one of the other places — but will all those other places still be around six months later when we can afford to go? Maybe. But the “maybe not” is now looming much larger than before.
New Orleans or not, 2006 going on 2007 or not, ultimately we are human beings on this planet. We put one foot in front of the other and do our best each day, even if the board game places us two steps back for each one forward and each of us is out $200 for simply being alive. As long as you keep doing, things will happen. “Everything comes to he who hustles while he waits.”
So, why am I still in New Orleans, with its sporadic mayor, police chief, progress and joie de vivre? For right now, it’s where I feel the most myself, the most American, the most meaningful. It’s where I see my aspects of this city, and ones I have yet to come across, to their rightful paths and let them fly from there. It’s where, to quote Mark, I have come home to try.
If we want a city that resembles the one of memory and desire, perhaps it is best if we are left to ourselves to build it. Give me enough people like Shearer, like the New Orleans bloggers listed at right and I believe we can do it: ourselves alone … Going it alone, with fair compensation from the government for the damage they caused, will be painful. Some will try and not make it, risk everything to return and rebuild or reopen, only to lose everything. If we must go it alone, this will certainly be a smaller city, and some will leave ruined and broken by the effort. Whether we are recalled as heroes or fools only history will tell, but I think I know the measure of those who have chosen to come home and try. There is no finer place to be an American today than in their company.