- By David Walsh
I’m in New Orleans and, right now, I’m missing my kids and my cat. Kirsha is off organizing her gun buy-back, so I thought I’d write a travelogue, because I’m contemplating the contradictory nature of a city that seems to be all underbellies and beguilements, but is desperately in need of the sort of intervention that Kirsha is planning.
New Orleans is Vegas without the bling, or Hobart without the dull. A stroll on the street can be an adventure, with beggars and spruikers and buskers and drunks competing for my attention. Being distracted is dangerous – the footpaths are a minefield of deep pits and overturned concrete, a consequence of the interplay of sub-tropical growth, subsidence, and a cavalier attitude to maintenance. Last night I heard a tale of a community effort to fix up the roads and sidewalks (never footpaths). This effort was inadvertently overturned by a letter to the local paper from a tourist who ‘would never return to New Orleans while the roads are in their present state’. The community response? Solidarity. They’re our roads, this is how they are, and this is how they’ll stay.
The flip side: last night we were able to attend a performance in a warehouse under a freeway featuring a giant machine that makes music. It was part of a series of music boxes that I first encountered a couple of years ago. This one made ethereal, theremin sounds, accompanied by voice and banjo. And then, an hour later, just around the corner from the music box, we heard a twenty-piece jazz orchestra playing elegant, original compositions with astonishing dexterity. There is plenty to do. Even the tourist traps are often worth being caught in.
Just as the state of the roads is accepted, and almost revered, so corrupt governance is taken for granted. When Kirsha first moved to Hobart she was surprised that traffic infringements couldn’t be ‘dealt with’. In New Orleans, getting a permit to build something is pretty easy; everything can be ‘fast tracked’. And, once permission is received, construction costs are low, since wages are off the books and illegal immigrants will work effectively and hard for just a few dollars an hour. The grey economy is thriving, except it isn’t grey: it is black, or Mexican.
Fatalism is rampant, and decadence driven by the certain knowledge of impending disaster – either the next big storm or a bullet in the bum (Kirsha has two friends who were shot in the bottom bicycling away from robbers). And don’t ask, ‘Why would anyone build a city in such a flood-prone region?’ A city that can’t fix a sidewalk won’t spend money building a levy that might thwart a flood in the future. And, after all, a decent-sized storm is a great opportunity for looters. The city remains as unprepared as it was in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy struck. The Mayor, Vic Schiro, in a forlorn effort to prevent panic, told TV and radio audiences: ‘Don’t believe any false rumours, unless you hear them from me’. The mayor at the time of Katrina, Ray Nagin, is in jail and will be for quite some time, as a result of his profiteering from that unfortunate event. There is a joke that highlights the level of corruption among these upstanding citizens. ‘Mayors should be limited to two terms. One in office. One in jail’.
Soon I’ll venture out to meet Kirsha for lunch. I’ll walk through the French Quarter, and I’m sure to hear some jazz, and it will be good enough to present on stage at Mona. It might be played by itinerants, or by Japanese visitors (who also dominate the bluegrass scene). I’ll see the colonial architecture, French, then Spanish, then French again. The Quarter has been falling down for over two hundred years, and I strongly suspect it will be falling down for the next two hundred. It is ‘elegantly wasted’, in a Keith Richards sort of way. And I’ll wander through the Marigny to the Bywater, names that reference the majestic but malevolent Mississippi, past the train crossing where the bullets bit into the bums. I’ll walk from there in the middle of the road, because the sidewalks, as I’ve said already, are barely traversable. And as I’ve also said, the roads aren’t much better, but that just slows cars down and thus makes it safe to walk among the traffic. I’ll pass a sign that says ‘Open seven days, Monday till Saturday’, and another that says, ‘Sorry, we are open’. If I walk quickly behind any young ladies, they will cross the road, harbouring suspicions that I might be a mugger (or a bum plugger). And I’ll get to our rendezvous point, a hippy cafe on a hippy street, and I’ll have a pear and brie sandwich, and it will be one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had. And the birds will chirp, and the bees will buzz, and the sun will shine, and I will ponder the wonder that is New Orleans, and will revel in the joy that wells up in me, as I notice that it isn’t such a small world, after all.