NEW ORLEANS
On My Mind

By Max Verga


Max Verga writes BENT's
advice column, Bear in Mind.

 

The president's declaration that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees" has instantly achieved the notoriety of Condoleezza Rice's "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." The administration's complete obliviousness to the possibilities for energy failures, food and water deprivation, and civil disorder in a major city under siege needs only the Donald Rumsfeld punch line of "Stuff happens" for a coup de grāce.
~Frank Rich,
The New York Times, 4 September 2005

 

New Orleans was on my mind last week as I finished editing a book I had written based, in part, on my own experiences there. I had also just spoken to a friend from the Big Easy who was visiting New York, so when news of the hurricane hit, all was spooky resonance.

I remembered a trip to the Gulf Coast two years ago when I visited Pensacola, Biloxi, and Gulfport before heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I'd been impressed by the precarious position of the houses perched along the Gulf shore, most of them taken by Hurricane Ivan last year. Seeing this week's pictures of Gulfport and Biloxi I realized that the resorts I remembered now resembled war zones.

For me, the loss of New Orleans is the loss of a friend. I had gone there for the first time almost eleven years ago and immediately felt that I had encountered someone wonderful. I knew I had to return, and I did. I made some good friends, most of whom, over the years, have moved to higher ground. I discovered that New Orleans, like the tart with the heart of gold she resembled, had a way of insinuating herself into my memory. I got to know her seamy side (which I often wanted to revel in with her), but I also learned how vulnerable she was, so beautiful but so precarious upon her delta. I can't begin to think about the loss of places that I knew and loved: the bayou surrounding the city; the shops along Royal Street, no doubt flooded and looted now; the Mardi Gras Museum in Algiers on the other side of the Mississippi; all the restaurants; the Aquatic Gardens; the shotgun houses I photographed year after year. The list is endless.

I think, too, about the friend who opened up his house to me during Mardi Gras; the two men from a Carnival crew who drove home a group of strangers from the Lords of Leather ball when we could not find a taxi; the waiters I came to know from being there year after year; the owners of the guest house where I stayed, who had turned a former brothel into a magical place. It will probably be months before I know if any of those places and if any of those people have survived.

Somehow, the notion of brothel-turned-guesthouse seems an apt one for the city of New Orleans. I know that the makeup she wore concealed flaws that shamed her, like the racism never fully cleansed from her Creole blood. Beyond Bourbon Street's tourist glitter was poverty as grim as anyone might envision in this country of unbalanced wealth. Corruption was a matter of public record, and murders seemed to occur as frequently as Carnival floats on Canal Street. But like the hooker who is as eager to put her hands in your wallet as in your crotch, New Orleans could hug you to her ample bosom and make you forget the hard living her face betrayed. You forgave her for seeing the world through plastic throw-beads. After all, when you wore those same beads around your neck you had no remorse in exchanging them for a flash of flesh.

Some will say that abandoning the city will be the most obvious way to end her misery. Some, no doubt, will even say she got what she deserved, that no city so sinful for so long can escape retribution. I can hear others argue that rebuilding will transform her raffish charm into a Disney World fake. But I can't imagine not being able to sit in Jackson Square listening to Roslyn and Dave sing and play the blues, or walking from the French Quarter to the Marigny through Washington Park, or taking the trolley down St. Charles Avenue so I can walk back into town to admire the grand houses of the Garden District.

And finally, I think about The Phoenix, the leather bar where, in a second-story back room, I learned about the kindness, to say nothing of the kinkiness, of strangers. I wonder if its name will become a metaphor for the city, or if, like the above-ground graveyards where New Orleanians bury their dead, the city itself will become a graveyard. I trust that someone will hear a street musician playing "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" on a trumpet and like me, know that the answer is rhetorical.

Not having the flesh-and-blood New Orleans to return to would be a tragedy greater than seeing it in ruins. I already miss it far too much to think about its never being there.

© 2005 Max Verga

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MAX VERGA has been an activist ever since getting a call from a friend reporting that he'd been in a riot at the Stonewall Bar only hours before. He began his activism with the West Side Discussion Group, later became involved with its offshoot theater group, and was one of the founders of Mainstream, a gay-disabled group. For more about Max, see his longer biography.

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2005