NEW ORLEANS – You could live in a kind of dream-state in New Orleans, lulled into ignoring the crumbling houses you drove past, and their destitute inhabitants. In a city so beautifully green, so full of beguiling architecture, so appealingly laid-back, how easy it was.
I've been there for nearly 15 years now, all the while participating in one of the city's great unspoken rituals: locking out the world of the other New Orleanians, those who were poor and more often than not black.
From your car, they wore a kind of mask, engaging you sometimes with a gaze that might contain anger, if you slowed down. You'd shudder at it a little bit, feel residual guilt but above all, carry on with the dream. You'd turn your head away, and look forward to the next eccentrically-ornamented shotgun house or spreading live oak.
Even before the storm, you were dimly aware that to do otherwise — to awaken from the old New Orleans dream — would be to go half-mad.
Last week, all that changed.
The reality of what New Orleans actually is, was thrown up in our faces: We couldn't turn away now, we couldn't deny that those fellow residents we'd never really known or understood had become refugees, milling and dazed or angry.
Before Katrina, you understood, intellectually, that thousands of your fellow citizens were living precariously — you could cite the grim statistics, wonder about the solutions, hope that something, someday, might happen to change the numbers.
Those of us who lived there and wrote about New Orleans engaged in this exercise. Suddenly, stunningly last week, the arid abstractions became tangible for me. No "someday, something" thoughts or hopes intruded on the here-and-now suffering I witnessed.
How often does such a transformation occur?
Twice in the last decade and a half I've fled other, ostensibly more desirable places, to return to New Orleans. I would tell people that the city had its hooks in me, without going into the details of this devil's bargain.
Turn your head and look what you get in return: a rare American city whose neighborhoods are still scaled to the humane dimensions of the 19th century, banana and palm trees year-round, a place where the vine growing out of the wall, and the crack in the ceiling, might be considered ornamental rather than blemishing, the gentility of the inhabitants.
This extends even to the crooks: Walking up Poydras Street three days after the storm, I encountered a man busily hot-wiring a car amid the debris. He shouted an apology: "Sorry to be behavin' like this, man, but I got to get out of this state."
You also get a nourishing cultural tradition, entirely native to the city, that is often a defining element in the European urban fabric. True, you can walk into some of the fanciest houses Uptown and barely find a single book. But you also know that for 200 years now, men and women in New Orleans have turned their attentions away from commerce, and towards the goal of capturing life in this place, and life in general, in literature and music.
It was partly this tradition that drew me to settle in New Orleans. It seemed to me an ideal place to write a book, so quiet in the leafy neighborhoods during the day, so mysterious and promising at night. And so it proved to be.
Having spent my childhood in Europe, it was evident to me also that the singular fact of the city's birth under the corrupted Latin monarchies continued to reverberate, beneficially, into the present.
The French have a phrase for it: "douceur de vivre," pleasure in living. What other American city is oriented towards this kind of pleasure, where just a simple walk around the block can be restorative (if it doesn't turn out to be lethal)?
For a writer with limited means this is vital. I recall returning on weekends, during an exile in Manhattan a decade ago — coming back to the thick green warmth of New Orleans — and feeling as though I had been injected with the pleasantest tranquilizers.
Sometimes at night, under the dormer window of my house, built 170 years ago by an illustrious free black man who contributed sons to the Union war effort, I could hear gunshots. Best not to dwell on that, though. Don't fall into the paranoia and barely concealed racism of other whites in Uptown.
Over the years, riding the streetcar downtown took on a kind of fetishistic significance for me. I would have at least that minimal contact with my fellow citizens, even though some whites scorned this mode of transportation.
I lived in the Garden District but didn't traffic much with it. I could be detached, I thought. The neighborhood's pleasures could be enjoyed without acceding to the noxious attitudes of many of its denizens.
From that perspective, it was almost amusing, in a sour way, to hear the chatter at the downtown hotel where I rode out the storm and its aftermath along with a colleague, various tourists, and some fancy Uptowners. As the waters rose and the city seemed to be descending into anarchy, their fantasies of insurrection echoed those found in the literature on antebellum New Orleans.
In the plush dining room, dimly-lit by an emergency generator, there was loud, agitated talk of armed gangs marauding in Uptown, looting and pillaging in the elegant abandoned homes. And there was talk of the summary way this problem should be disposed of. I recalled the 1803 memoir of a French traveler in Louisiana, Charles-CÄesar Robin, who was struck by the Creoles' obsession with security, with keeping the slaves in check. After the 1811 slave rebellion the heads of the leaders were placed on poles along the River Road.
The Uptowners have lost their world, along with everybody else, though it will be far easier for them to recoup. It was strange, making my way gingerly through the fallen trees to my own home, to find it almost unchanged, the children's toys exactly where they had left them, though you knew that that life had disappeared — whether forever, one can't say.
But listening to Uptowners' talk it was evident that, for them too, the enticements that normally exist to salve the New Orleans reality had been stripped away.
The Garden District was no longer shaded by trees but buried under them. Chunks were missing from downtown office buildings. Streets were eerily deserted.
The veneer was gone. What you were left with was that long line of misery, the other New Orleanians finally hoisting themselves from floodwaters onto buses to leave. The radical assault on their dignity in the preceding days in the unspeakable Superdome seemed to leave them as much amazed as angry.
America had failed them. Yet for those who asked, looking at the TV pictures, "How could this happen in America?" the answer has to be, New Orleans never was America, or at least not the America that equals the national aspiration.
It was hardly the only city that doesn't measure up to this standard. But in New Orleans, your average fellow-citizen was not going to have a healthy bank account, with all the accoutrements. In that respect, the tourists who come to the city with fantasies of exoticism, of otherness, and leave with these dreams more or less intact, get it more right than the band of well-off actually inhabiting the place, bathed in their illusions of normalcy.
Illusion died, as an American city imploded.
New Orleans is now in a kind of state of nature. I noticed, returning to my house mid-week, that all urban sounds had disappeared; only the birds could be heard, and buzzing insects.