Coming Back to Life – The Sounds of New Orleans (March 24, 2008)
Monday, March 24 2008 @ 12:30 AM EDT
We just watched Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – one of those quickly-forgotten love stories; like cotton candy, melting away before you can really taste it… but a treat. Satisfying in its own way.And while I was caught up in the little drama on the screen, I was also scribbling on a napkin, hoping to retain just this one thing: soldiers singing opera on a beach in Greece, marching to a cadence of joy in the middle of a war.
Interesting, too, to reflect that military battlegrounds are “theaters,” and that the pain of war is portrayed in these musical terms. These thoughts, as I am recently entrenched in so many written accounts of Katrina, New Orleans, death and destruction, and the ways we articulate the individual journeys home from that war.
Each author I’ve read shares one thing with all the others; a deep isolation, trying to reconnect with the other survivors and finding that his path is choked with misconception… he writes it all down, wallows in it… most of these writers simply could not turn their heads away. Call them self-indulgent, but they had to scratch down their impressions, using words like the rythym of drums, calling to each other like an ancient tribe.
And those of us who read them pick up the references between the lines, the unifying factor being the death of the beat, that loss of swing, the notes that fell to silence as the city collapsed beneath the pulse of rising tides and dancing wind.
In Heart Like Water, Joshua Clark speaks of a moment without a single sound. The city is a corpse, not even the hum of flies attending it. The undercurrents of the living city simply ceased.
And this is what, to me, measures the rebirth of New Orleans. I listen to the pulse and the musical score is revealing itself in a different kind of symphony these days.
Wal Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street is as far from the heart of the city as the coastline of Greece in that movie. Just another urban strip mall as far as I’m concerned, but it is here that I hear the music, feel that weak pulse, in a way I can explain for the first time in a long time.
Here, there are no landmarks, just the raw thrust of commerce at its basest level. The worst in our collective character is exposed on the sweat shop produced racks of cheap clothing, the carts jacked all across the parking lot because we’re lousy citizens, too lazy to put them back where they belong.
Looking at these little clues, I know we’re a hopeless case – a lost cause. This tribe of humanity is going down on a slow burn of mass carelessness and cheap thrills. It’s all but over now.
It is mid-afternoon, four o’clock or so, and I’m walking to the car with my daughter, just a little discouraged by the wave of disconcern for the city all around me. As we walk, my four-inch heels click on the pavement, and so do hers.
She grins at me, raises an eyebrow at her silver “space boots,” and she skips a step, matching her beat to mine. We are in sync now, and the longer we walk, the more it becomes a march.
The grocery cart has a click-clacking loose wheel, and this imperfection joins the click of our heels as we add it to our awareness.
There’s equipment in the lot next door; big, skeletal, Jurrassic hunks of steel doing big, earth-moving stuff over there. It has a clang, back-and-forth, up-and-down – BANG. And we let it in, add it to the groove of the afternoon.
Maybe it hasn’t died after all.
We reach the car and our buggy-rolling, heel-clicking jazz-swing thing becomes a rest. It’s not death – just a pause between the notes.
I love that my daughter “gets” this. We load the car, digging the solo by the monster machines over there.
I look at her and frown. It’s a question.
She answers with machine noises and we get into the car, laughing and beating the dashboard with our fingers. That’s her response.
But we might need words, too, to define the moment, put flesh back on the corpse.
“It’s like jazz,” I tell her. “The city IS the song. There’s no plan, it just happens.”
She shrugs, then rolls down her window to hear the song again. She corrects me,
“It happens because we MAKE it happen. We had to hear it.”
And so it is. We didn’t need the words after all.