In honor of the death of New Orleans’ venerable newspaper, The Times Picayune, I am republishing the essay I wrote for the city after Katrina, on Sept. 9, 2005.

The passenger pigeon, the last of whom died in 1914, by Audubon.

I know a little more about the shady side of New Orleans than someone who has never been there should.

Someone I know grew up near there in a little Southern town run by her grandfather. She and her mother lived in his house, her father having been run off by the tyrannies Big Daddy inflicted on his daughter and grand-daughter. After years of hearing about what a hero Bog Daddy [legit typo] was, my friend showed me a photograph of him and I gasped.

The evil light gleamed from his eyes, made them look bright and moist, young and completely malicious, in the face of a too-vigorous middle-aged man. He had held her mother by her ankle over the toilet when she was a child, telling her revealed child underpants that he would flush her all the way to China.

Sexually stunted, she left her husband, whom she disdained as not being of her own class, and fled home to Papa. Papa held my friend over the toilet by her ankle, and told her revealed child underpants that he would flush her all the way to China.

And that, and the stories my friend tells about all her chic boarding school friends in New Orleans, is New Orleans, about Mardi Gras and blighted women’s lives and drunkenness far beyond any I’d ever heard before. I had never heard the phrase she used as repartee: “knee-walkin’, snot-slingin’ drunk.” Hahahahahaha.

That story never broke my heart, though, because I am the survivor of a most unusual Southern family my ownself – one of my names is for the Lesbian aunt who shot herself in grandpa’s library — and it wasn’t about the city of my dreams. My heart is broken now though, and I’ve been at pains to understand why.

My dream of New Orleans is partly based on a family water color, now gone with the wind, I suppose, that some artistic lady ancestor had painted on heavy, ribbed midnight blue artistic lady paper. It was of a swamp, with a mangrove tree, Spanish moss, waters, an egret. There were stained Audubon prints at home of all kinds of swamp and marsh birds. To me, home means blue herons and egrets and long-legged, long-beaked stalkers on the wall.

Great blue heron, by Audubon

Then there’s “Blue Bayou,” the old Roy Orbison song, which I like for itself but whose aesthetic I always wanted, one day, to create a house to live in.

A piazza. A dark old wide-planked floor. Shells. Mosquito nets. Cisterns, tree frogs. It is my first memory, lying in my mother’s arms, looking out the window as she rocks in her rocking chair in Puerto Rico. The stars are twinkling, the tree frogs are singing. My first thought on this planet is that the singing of the coquis is the music the twinkling of the stars makes. New Orleans is my latitude, the only one I’ve ever felt at home in; the sight of a palm frond and the scent of wood smoke, fresh-roasted coffee beans, and red earth makes me know I have, once again, despite everything, come home. Havana and New Orleans are the capitals of my latitude, and Havana — Arab, and run down, like Granada, or Alexandria — is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to.

Baseball in Old Havana.
By Claudia Daut for Reuters/Corbis.

I’ve always been deeply touched by the idea of the swamp that underlay Washington, D. C., where I live. The Capitol is built over Tiber Creek. There are about three acres of the original swamp left; the geese and herons, with their six-foot white wingspreads, pick their way among the plastic gallon milk jugs which wind up the Anacostia River to their graves in the smooth, black mudflats. Standing on the observation platform behind the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – founded as a water-lily farm years ago by an African-American, in a now-forgotten neighborhood – the swamp is lovely, dark and deep. It looks like what was here before any of the rest of this mess arrived. You can catch a glimpse through the old scrub trees of some kind of gigantic satellite disk or tracking device which marks the fact the swamp is surrounded by a federal city built on what was once a swamp.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the last remnant of D.C.’s primordial swamp.

I knew too much ever really to want to go to Mardi Gras; my strange Southern family belongs to similarly exclusive and arcane – and much older – genealogical societies, so snotty they’d never think of marching in a parade. Indeed, the debutante party for which the Saint Snotty Society exists is so old-fashioned, in a kind of nearly Muslim way, that the orchestra hired for the ball is hidden behind a screen of green leaves. Can’t have the hired help ogling owah wimmin. They still call eggplant guinea squash, and what they call musicians like Peter Duchin you don’t want to know.

So to belong to the krewes and get snot-slangin’ drunk with horrible old Big Daddy at Galatoire’s was not the draw. It was, I think, the Frenchness and the Africanness. Black people named Jean-Baptist; the Creole, Cajun Napoleonic Code mix, mixed with prosperity and culture. There’s always been money in New Orleans, and even the poor people could enjoy some of the benefits.

It was the cosmopolitan aspect without the New York neurosis or the LA narcissism. It was the South. As with my deeply racist, deeply civilized Saint Snotty Society cousins, everybody, black and white, gets into a boat at least a dozen times a year and fishes and shoots. You eat what you catch and clean it too, and then return to the hierarchies of workaday life. People aren’t afraid of the natural world, including sex of all kinds, and death at the hands of the most appalling fates.

The attitude in New Orleans was real. The sweetness. The music. The food.

And now it gives me a little comfort to think of the empty city, Saint Louis cathedral, and all the old Frenchmen who paddled up and down the Mississippi and gave French names to tiny heartland American towns, unbelievably tough French trappers and hustlers in Indian clothes, St Louis sitting there now under blue skies, baking in the sun, with nobody to see it. Marie LeVeau’s own marriage certificate was kept at Saint Louis’, and I think of the completely empty city and hope halfway that Big Daddy and the Mardi Gras girls gone wild never come back again, that George Bush and his goons abandon their idea of Epcot New Orleans and let the marsh come back, slowly up from the Gulf, so the reeds and the grasses and the trees can spread and grow up and out through the windows of St Louis, where the clock has stopped, and the birds can come back, the herons, and the tree frogs, and the Spanish moss, and the passenger pigeons, too, as Audubon, a French Creole his own self, saw them at the turn of the 18th century. The blue sky over New Orleans dark with passenger pigeons. My dream come true. On blue bayou.

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