Saturday, September 10, 2005

N.O.L.A., R.I.P.

Early this summer, Father A., accompanied by the beauteous Mrs. A., paid a visit to New Orleans. We were there to see her childhood home, a stone's throw from Notre Dame Seminary and a long walk from Tulane.

But make no mistake, this was more than a homecoming; it was a traditional Big Easy tourist visit: sazeracs and hurricanes; crawfish and beignets (although not together) -- and music. Lots and lots of music, from the perpetual spring break of Bourbon Street to the more grown-up sounds of Frenchman Street.

Our favorite was a dimly-lit and mercilessly un-airconditioned boite called the Funky Butt, on the north edge of the Quarter across from Congo Square. The walls were covered with pictures of naked tushies, and you didn't want to use the bathroom if you could help it. (And if you needed cash, they sent you to the gay bar next door, which had not only an ATM but also -- oddly -- an extensive collection of religious icons by Robert Lentz).

At the Butt one night, we heard an astonishing saxophonist named Devon Phillips, and on another Big Sam's Funky Nation. Our bearded jazz-buff bartender told us with real pride that Big Sam is the great-grandson of Buddy Bolden, one of the creators of jazz music.

And we met some wonderful people: from Richard, the amusingly adled ex-PGA pro, who regaled us with his memories of the Key West and the Conch Rebellion, to the coffee-hour crowd at St. Anna's Episcopal Church, who were embarrassed that their Mass hadn't been high enough that morning.

But that was then. Today, New Orleans is a disaster area, where snipers and bandits are struggling with burned-out cops and National Guard troops just arrived from their last disaster area. Tomorrow, if the worst predictions come true, New Orleans will be something else again: a city that needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt, a city whose identity was lost along with its neighborhoods. The new New Orleans will become another bland, modern American city -- and the old New Orleans will be a vanished memory, washed away by the flood. It will be an American Atlantis.

So, here in the safety of New York, I raise one last metaphorical glass to the old city. Here's to you, Congo Square and the Funky Butt; here's to you, Devon and Big Sam, Richard and Gloria and the crowd at St. Anna's. I hope you are alive; I hope you are safe and dry, with food and water. And I hope, someday, to see you all again.

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