I’ve never visited New Orleans. I’ve been afraid to visit during Mardi Gras, not so much of the scene but more what it might bring out in me. People say Jazz Fest is the better time to visit: all the fun of Mardi Gras with less of the frat boy element. I think I’d rather go when there’s no significant thing going on. I’d like to see how the city is when it’s simply being itself.
One book that awakened in me a real desire not just to visit New Orleans but to go and stay a while, experience it and understand its rhythms, is Letters From New Orleans by Rob Walker. In his professional life he’s a journalist covering advertising and marketing for the New York Times, as well as an editor and more. But he also lived in New Orleans for a few years, and during that time he wrote emails to friends about his experiences. Earlier this year he published the collected letters in this book. It’s wonderfully written, graceful and simple yet full of insight, presenting the city in a way that’s rich and textured. It’s clear that New Orleans can be at best only half-captured in words, and it’s all the more appealing for its mystery.
I wanted to show you an excerpt that would give a feel for the book, but it’s so hard to choose just a small portion. Each bit flows into the others and connects back to what’s come before. Look, here’s part of a chapter that talks about the levees, and how people build these towering structures on them at Christmas time for the sole purpose of burning them in a mass conflagration.
So E and I drove up River Road, which runs along the levee, then at Pauline we doubled back and found a place to park in Gramercy. The levee is a man-made hill, its ridge about 20 feet higher than River Road, stretching out like an endless wall between the water and the towns near the water. Heavy rains in states further up the river make its water level rise (it’s at an unusually high 13 feet above sea level around New Orleans right now), and without the levee there would be — and there has been — disastrous flooding. So the levee is a central fact of life in the River Parishes, or in any community along the Mississippi, from the Delta to New Orleans.
At the top of the levee is a foot path several feet wide. From there it slopes on either side, at an angle steep enough for children to have a good time rolling down. That’s what they were doing on Christmas Eve Day in Gramercy and Lutcher.
We walked the levee and studied the towers close up. A few locals had assembled shapes more ambitious than a simple tower. The volunteer fire department made a huge boat out of logs. There was another log-boat a few hundred feet away. And then there was the cottage.
The cottage — big enough to walk around or lie down in, or to sit on the front porch — was such an impressive structure that we had to compliment its creators. The ringleader identified himself as Reginald, and said he’d been helping make bonfire-fodder pretty much his whole life. He and his crew seemed to be the only black bonfire-makers in the immediate area, and in the big, taped-off area in front of the cottage stood a wooden cutout of a black Mr. & Mrs. Claus, embracing. Reginald showed us pictures of last year’s project: a log Impala. Another year they built a log Superdome. This year they’d made the cottage. We told him it was a shame to think of burning it down. But that’s why we built it, he shrugged.
Really you’ll just have to buy or borrow a copy — it’s a quick read, fits into anyone’s schedule. When I first read it I wished it had been longer. I find it both saddening and soothing to read these days.
It’s hard to imagine how an area can recover from devastation like New Orleans has experienced this week. Then again, cities like New York and San Francisco have overcome their various disasters, man-made, natural, and combinations of the two. I think we have to help, and we have to hope.