Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I said I wasn't going to do it. I said I would, at all costs, avoid the nostalgia, the forced and fabricated gestures of rejuvenation, the scylla and charybdis that shadow the survivor's path: the stone way of infinite regret or the rapids of pollyannism. Instead, I was going to keep to myself, spend the evening with my evacuation mates, and promptly forget the significance of this date.

And yet, and yet. Of course I should have known that New Orleans wouldn't let me walk away quite so easily. Ask any of the numberless people who came here once, just for a visit, that was then extended into a vacation, that became a sublet, that became the past twelve years. So, my wife and I were just going to head down to Decatur in the French Quarter for lunch at Stanley's (which is the informal side of upscale restaurant Stella). Before we'd even made it out of the Marigny, though, we heard the siren call of the second-line: da dat DAAA daaa. To which, we responded, as though by no will of our own, "HEY!" And we were in. She ran off to snap some photos, and I chained our bikes to a stop sign and caught up. This was the activists' second line, beginning at the Industrial Canal (border between the Lower Ninth Ward and what has become, by default, the Upper Ninth Ward, where I live. Before all the national attention on the L9, the Upper Ninth was just the Ninth Ward.). The mix was about 60%-40%, I'd say, between locals and out-of-town activists and organizers. Lots of anti-Bush stuff, lots of stuff about the horrors of OPP. There were anarchists and communists and National Black United Front members. Oh, and a brass band. And some Zulu stilt walkers in blackface. This is New Orleans, afterall. And yes it was angry and righteous, but it was also clownish and fun.

I passed on the nostalgia special at Stanley's; it was a burger or bocaburger with salad and chips served on a paper plate, the same menu they served as one of the pioneer restaurants reopening just weeks after the storm. Instead, we had oyster po-boys. Whoever had the idea of putting the sweet cole slaw in the po-boy . . . sheer genius!

From there we rode our bikes down to the Convention Center for the official event, complete with Mayor Nagin. I was busy watching the Black Men of Labor and Treme Brass Band (both groups featured in the Spike Lee movie) warm up, milling around in the press of the Press (there were undoubtedly more cameras than second-liners on hand), when I heard a short burst of applause behind me. I turned around just in time to see General Honore march by. A woman held a sign nearby, "General Honore, You are my Hero." Nagin received no such welcome.

The band played hymns as we waited, "Oh What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Glory Land," and "Amazing Grace," in which the lyrics soon faded into a simple repetition of two words, "Praise God, Praise God, Praise God, Praise God." Hands joined and raised all around, and in the last lines the words shifted again: "I'm back, I'm back, I'm back." For a moment, I could forget about all of the cameras.

We finally got the media show on the road. I figured I'd make it down Convention Center Blvd to Harrah's and then peel off. But, as I've said, these things have a way of drawing you into them. The farther we walked, the closer we came to the Super Dome, marching from one icon of post-Katrina misery to the other, the less it felt like a staged event and the more it felt like a genuine expression of the people there. Anderson Cooper stood in the neutral grounds shaking hands as though he was running for office. I felt like thanking him for keeping the light on for us, but I didn't want to miss a beat.

Outside the Super Dome, everyone stopped and the band started up their hit, "Gimme my Money Back," changing the words to "House Back, House Back" and "City Back, City Back." And then the two hundred or so remaining paraders passed under a covered drive, singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow." I learned the words from singing at St. Aug's. Today, I taught them to a woman in from LA: "I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow. I know He watches me." A very, very good walk, my friends.


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