Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Reconstruction of the Fables

New Orleans is not Baghdad. I keep telling myself that, hoping that maybe it'll help me sleep at night. Yes, we've always known it was a bit of the Third World, the "northernmost Caribbean city." It was bad enough thinking we lived in the American Port-au-Prince. But now, with the reports of mercenaries roaming the streets, Haliburton and that gang of thieves getting no-bid contracts to set the city right, and the President talking about the "hard work" ahead there, it seems we've found our real sister city.

Sarah went to Lakeview yesterday and came back shaken. In a city inundated with refuse, sanitation workers are losing their jobs. French Quarter businesses untouched by the storm remain shuttered. If they reopen, their insurance dries up, and there's not much market for boas and jester's caps these days.

Without those boas and billiard-ball sized beads, without the jester's caps and the "bitch fell off" t-shirts, how will folks even know they're having fun? Will they still know to yell "woo-oo" at punctuated intervals? Will they still be able to tell how "crazy" they're being?

These things disturb me as well, and not just because I, like many New Orleanians, tend to sport a feathered boa from time to time. They bother me most of all because, when I close my eyes and try to imagine where New Orleans is going, a great chasm starts to open up. The flood-drenched parts of the city--L9, the East, Lakeview, Gentilly--we know even less of their future than we know of the future for the t-shirt shops on Decatur St. And if we can't count on the feathered boa trade, if we can't know for certain that at any hour of day or night we can still find an alligator claw keyring, what can we know of the future for the rest of the city, the reclaimed swamplands that radiate out from the river.

In New Orleans, we lived with the devil we knew. Abysmal school system. Generations of poverty. A war zone's murder rate. Government corruption so entwined in the roots of the city as to be ineradicable. A third-world economy precariously balanced on a fickle tourism industry where the disparity between the worker's wage and the profit margin fortified the invisible walls of race and class that sectioned city blocks like post-war Berlin. But what fresh hell awaits us now, creeping in with the profiteers who siphon away the stream of generosity and opportunity born of federal shame? Will we recognize that devil's face? Will it be content to gobble its gains and let us go on about the business of being New Orleans?

New Orleans is not Baghdad. It's not. It isn't Baghdad. Good night.


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