THE BLOG
01/09/2007 01:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A New Orleans Dispatch--the Dark and the Light


The weather has been intensely varied--one day gray and muggy, the next New Orleans-wintry, 50s and sunny and dry and bright. The emotional weather has been similarly changeable. My first moments back in town were spent stocking up on groceries, and I could have been blindfolded on the way to the store and still known instantly what city I was in: the other folks in the store, and the people at checkout, displayed the kind of easy, informal chattiness that marked this as indisputably New Orleans. No grim automatons wait on you in this city. Long before Katrina, New Orleanians loved to talk, to "visit", and, whether it was a brief quip or a long disquisition on the trouble with the city, they all indulged their proclivity. My response is to instantly feel as though I'm home, back in an actual community, where people feel the need, the impulse to share.

And then, the next morning, the weather took a sharp turn for the dark. The news Thursday morning continued the drumbeat of crime stories--a murder a day--that had begun with the new year. I normally pay little attention to crime stories. They're the media's crack, the porn that news directors crow, like a mischievous five-year-old, "made you watch". The stories this year had been of street shootings, of victims found with heroin or cocaine on them. The narrative, of drug deals gone wrong and gang turf battles, was a familiar story of 2006 in New Orleans, and other cities. But Thursday morning's story was chillingly different. The victim was a woman who, with her husband, had responded to a knock on the door of their Faubourg Marigny home at 5:30 a.m. She was shot and killed, he was shot and wounded, found bleeding, holding their two-year-old son in his arms.

We were talking about this story at my favorite coffee place a few hours later. The owner, a warm and generous woman who with her artist-musician husband, had proudly built a welcoming, nurturing space for the Bywater neighborhood to gather, was her usual ebullient self, even as she admitted to concerns about whether they were doing the right thing, raising their two-year-old daughter in a city where such things were happening, or whether they were "just being stubborn". Moments later, a man was telling her assistant at the cash register news that made the assistant bring her hands to her cheeks in a gesture of shocked surprise. Moments after that, my friend heard that news: the woman killed was the mother of her daughter's playmate, a filmmaker known and loved in the community, her wounded husband a doctor who had opened a pay-what-you-can-afford clinic. They had moved back after the flood at her insistence. And now...

My friend tried to regain her composure, but lost the battle. Distraught, she announced the closure of the shop for the day, and we all slowly, sadly filed out.

I'm not a total stranger to violence in the city. A few years back, one of my favorite performers, a gospel-R&B virtuoso who sang like a cross between Prince and Little Richard and played organ and ran a choir and...you get the idea, had been murdered, his body dumped on a corner not six blocks from where we live. I pass that intersection almost daily, always thinking of him, of the loss. But the cold, random cruelty of Thursday's act, and its effect in devastating my friend, was even worse. Now, when the city so desperately needed idealistic spirits like those two, was a particularly horrible time, as if there's a good one, to savage them. And it made me wonder whether my friend's question had been answered.

I ran into two sound engineers later Thursday. One was professing strong optimism about the city in 2007. When I asked why, he said that sixteen months of doubt and pessimism were enough, that the only thing he could change was his attitude. The other engineer, a young dude in his twenties with plenty of interesting work on his plate, was speculating aloud whether it was worth staying here.

My proximate reason for being in town, aside from owing myself some New Orleans time, was a Thursday evening meeting at Loyola where an organization I'm part of, Friends of New Orleans, was hosting a group of law students from around the nation, the Hurricane Network, for talks by John ("Rising Tide') Barry and King Millington, a local banker and now expert on coastal restoration, on how and why the levees failed, and how and why the coastal wetlands had experienced such dramatic reduction--the fast disaster and the slow-motion one. It was a powerful evening, the marshaling of facts so crucial to the area's future, that one wished somebody from one of the much-vaunted new news bureaus the networks opened up here had bothered to drop by. We all know better; the only national news story out of New Orleans this week, on NBC and in the NYT, was the spate of murders.

But my emotional reason for being in town was that, contrary to the popular belief that Mardi Gras is a day in February, Carnival season began Saturday night. Twelfth Night is the official kickoff for the season of benign craziness, and I hauled myself out to the terminus of the streetcar line right in front of City Park where a group of early celebrants takes a now-traditional streetcar ride every Twelfth Night, masking, costuming, drinking, and throwing the first beads of the season. After two days of looking over my shoulder, and maybe choosing to drive to a restaurant or a club to which I might otherwise have walked, it was cleansing, in the evening's first darkness, to see families with children gathering around the old lime-green streetcar, just out for an hour of contagious silliness. The clouds lifted. That's what Carnival time can do.

There were some fine meals--the food in town tastes even better after months on the road eating perfectly good grub from the dialed-down flavor palette of most American cities--and some good music. I even got the chance to humiliate myself, playing a friend's upright bass at a Sunday night gig for one song, which was one song too many. And several friends confided to being on the verge of major life decisions that have nothing to do with FEMA, insurance, or the Road Home. As I was leaving town, the Marigny neighborhood, deeply wounded and furiously angry, was announcing plans for a march on City Hall, in hope that somebody might do something to stop the crime wave. City officials have already announced the possibility of a curfew. Musician friends of mine have taken to asking "Where's Clarence?", in tribute to Mayor C. Ray Nagin's recent lust for invisibility; T-P columnist Chris Rose Sunday speculated that Nagin might just be "bored with us all".

At such a moment, when the small businesses that are the backbone of the city's economy are struggling to stay open--hanging on till the fall (which disappointed), now hanging on till Jazzfest, and when national Democratic leaders appear to be doing a credible impression of Republican indifference to the struggle of a federally-flooded city to recover, the only rational place for New Orleanians to place their hope is in, of all things, a professional football team. As the Twelfth Night celebrants boarded their streetcar to the music of a brass band, a spontaneous chant arose from the crowd: "Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?"

P.S.: The Marigny neighborhood was aroused about another recent murder, as well, the killing of the drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, shot allegedly by a 17 year old who had an argument with the musician's stepson.