On My Mind
Max Verga writes BENT's
advice column, Bear in Mind.
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.
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
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
© 2005 Max Verga
Let us know
what you think of this BENT feature.
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.
A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2005