I’ve said before that “I think it’s the kind of place that either grabs you by the neck or it doesn’t - you either love it immediately or don’t like it much at all. I don’t think there’s a middle ground with New Orleans. Anyway, in my experience it not only grabbed me by the neck, it left scratches.” Tom Piazza seems to agree. In Why New Orleans Matters, he writes, “New Orleans inspires the kind of love that very few other cities do.” Amen, brother.
I finally got around to reading this short but powerful book, and ended up flagging so many passages I figured I should put at least a few of them to good use here. I wish I were capable of some kind of literary criticism, or at least a low-grade analysis of the book, but I’m not. Or at least I don’t have time to even consider that option. So instead, I offer you the highlights from my list of favorite passages (it was a long list).
on the weather
“…not to mention weather that for at least seven months a year is equivalent to wearing a towel soaked in steaming hot water wrapped around your head.”
“You sensed it as soon as you entered the city. The air smelled different; it felt different, heavier, on your arms, more like a liquid than like air.”
on the religion in everyday life
“If all of it sounds vaguely religious, I would say that it isn’t that vague. New Orleans is the most religious place I have ever been, even though much of the population is profoundly profane, pagan, and steeped in the seven deadly sins and some others not even listed.”
“New Orleans is a city of elegance, beauty, refinement, and grace. It is also a city of violence, poor education, and extreme poverty of a type that you can’t imagine if you haven’t actually seen it. Even in its most desperate precincts it is a city of deep and powerful humanity, of endurance, resilience, humor and affirmation in the face of adversity. Yet it may be worth stating what should be obvious: the good times, in New Orleans as elsewhere, ride on the ill-paid efforts of people who did not get certain breaks.
“There is no way to avoid this fact if you are going to discuss New Orleans honestly; it is part of what makes the city what it is, and part of why all the beauty – human and physical – of the city represents such a triumph of humanity. In the black gospel tradition, which is so central to New Orleans culture, there is a saying: ‘No cross, no crown.’ If you don’t accept the burden of your humanity and your finiteness and your suffering and, perhaps more important, that of the people around you, you will never reach the ennobling reward that the word Heaven represents to a believer. You can’t have a triumph without triumphing over something – whether from outside or from within yourself.”
on returning to the city after the hurricanes
“If you do not live in New Orleans you can try this simple experiment: Put a chalk mark on your wall at a point three feet from the floor, then imagine everything below that line coated with toxic scum, swollen with foul moisture. If this is difficult to imagine, take this book, place it in a sink filled with water and leave it there for a week and a half. Then pace the soaked book on the floor and try to imagine the entire floor filled with several layers of such books. If it is still hard to envision this, take all of your books, place them in your bathtub and immerse them in a mixture of water, urine, spoiled food, feces, weed killer from the garage, and perhaps your beloved cat, preferably drowned and bloated. Make sure to turn all the lights off and to leave the house as nearly as possible sealed to the fresh air, which, come to think of it, isn’t really fresh air anymore in New Orleans.”
“...if you are yourself from New Orleans there is no reason at all to keep thinking about any of this, unless you are like the very privileged uptown white woman in late middle age whom I talked to just a few days ago, a property owner who lives in one of the parts of Uptown that had not flooded and whose property is just fine and who has had electricity for most of a week … [who says that] the severity of the disaster had been so overstated on the news – all that focus on the Ninth Ward and all that. ‘The Ninth Ward isn’t New Orleans,’ she said to me. ‘You can come to New Orleans a hundred times and never even see the Ninth Ward.’
“So true, I thought – and that kind of savage, self-satisfied, ignorant attitude of large numbers of the criminally oblivious privileged is also a part of New Orleans. God plainly loves them because they have electricity, and it is also plain what God thinks of those who don’t. They hold many of the purse strings, and they will be trying with everything they have to determine the future of the city.”
how one woman’s lack of a conscience (a soul?) spoke volumes about how a government feels about its people
“And what about New Orleans? What is the future of the culture that came from all those neighborhoods with their own sense of being, formed over decades and decades, where parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had lived? Former first lady Barbara Bush, visiting the Astrodome, told a radio interviewer, ‘So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.’ How could they possibly miss a place where they were, you know, underprivileged?
“How could they miss a place where they knew everyone on the block? Or where they could walk to the grocery store and buy food and seasonings out of which they could prepare meals that were unique to that place and which they had eaten since childhood and which made them happy? How could they miss a place where there was music all the time, and where they could sit out in the evening on their front steps talking to people they had known for years, and joking in a way that everyone understood, or where their son had gotten dressed in his high school band uniform that they had saved hard-earned money to buy, and then went out to play in the band for the Mardi Gras parade? How could they miss the place where their granddaughter took her first steps, or their father had kept his uniform from World War Two in a cardboard suitcase lined with newspaper?
“How could you even say such a thing unless you assumed that people who were – you know – underprivileged had no past, no sense of life, no memories and no feelings – in short, weren’t really people at all, as we know them? That they were incapable of finding dignity and a reason to live even in the teeth of a hostile situation? The ‘underprivileged’ people of New Orleans spun a culture out of their lives – a music, a cuisine, a sense of life – that has been recognized around the world as a transforming spiritual force. Out of those pitifully small incomes and crumbling houses, and hard, long days and nights of work came a staggering Yes, an affirmation of life – their lives, Life Itself – in defiance of a world that told them in as many was as it could find that they were, you know, dispensable.
“This may seem obvious to you if you are reading this, but it bears saying over and over again. They are not dispensable. Not to New Orleans, not to America. And any scenario of a rebuilt New Orleans that does not embrace the fact of their centrality to New Orleans, that does not find a way to welcome them back and make jobs and a new life for them, will be an obscenity.”