A Lost Romance

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

Never will forget my first day in the French Quarter. August 30, 1970. I was slipping into New Orleans for a few days on my way to Chapel Hill for my senior year at UNC. I was walking down Bourbon Street holding hands with my favorite girl in the world. A skinny slip of a boy, no older than eleven, fell into step beside me as though we were old friends. As he spoke, he cast his gaze down at my shoes.

"Morning captain." I liked the rank. "Suppose you want to give me a dollar if I can tell you where you got those shoes?" I was charmed enough to suppose I did. "You got those shoes...on your own two feet...on the sidewalk of Bourbon of New Orleans...great state of Louisiana...that's where you got them shoes, captain, you got 'em on your feet."

You could never put a price tag on the joy of loving New Orleans. If the dollars fell out of your pocket, it usually wasn't worth worrying about. She wasn't necessarily the best looking girl on your list, but she sure was the most alive. If tomorrow morning didn't promise to be the most pleasant, that was tolerable. By afternoon you'd have forgotten what ailed you, and the night still lay ahead.

This is a lament, nothing more. It isn't an elegy because I'm no poet. It isn't a hymn because I can't get that majestic. It isn't an obituary because the patient hasn't quite died yet, she's just in the throes. It isn't a prayer, though if ever an American city needed a prayer it is the jewel of the Louisiana Purchase tonight. Some people get peace from praying amid hopelessness.

I'm not a good enough writer to revivify for you all the places you heard and read about. Better writers than me have been to the Acme Oyster Bar and Pascal's Manale and Antoine's and Brennan's and Galatoire's and Le Ruth. Keener observers have eaten the beignets in Jackson Square, stayed at the Royal Orleans and the Royal Sonesta, taken the short ride to the Garden District or the long ride out to Mosca's. But I've done all that, and I can tell you if you've lived in this country and you never saw the Big Easy, you missed a one-of-a-kind place.

It should have been treated with more care. Its circumstances should have occasioned more urgency. It was a place worth making a stand for. You can't recreate that kind of history and tradition and connectedness to our cultural origins. And the people who let it go so casually will answer for their sins. When the saints go marching in, they'll be watching from the sidewalk, not strutting their stuff amid the trombones. They didn't understand the music, but the universe will.

Good night, New Orleans, and God bless you. Rest assured the cretins who cavalierly let you go will be forgotten long before your memory begins to fade.