Hey, Mister, the new New Orleans

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Feb 21, 2006 8:05 PM

What about some good news for a change? What about Mardi Gras' making in New Orleans not its comeback but more, I'd say, its predestined appearance? Life goes on. That's what this Mardi Gras thing is about in 2006.

 Life goes on because it must, irrespective of the media's professional/commercial fixation on the direness and heartbreaking contingency of life. We learn, even amid the ruin deposited by Hurricane Katrina, that the human capacity for comeback remains maybe the most striking human trait.

 I think you have to love -- and I comply earnestly with the obligation -- a city that can drown and then towel itself off and head back to work. Yes, with many a pain and a sob. Always, even so, let us prefer effort to recumbence.

 Much was wrong with New Orleans even before Katrina, as we have been told ad nauseum ever since Katrina. Much remains wrong, with more than half the pre-Katrina population gone, the city government broke, the levees unrepaired, whole neighborhoods abandoned and prospects for the future unknowable.

 The combined governmental presences in New Orleans -- state, federal and local -- haven't been able so far to decide where to park thousands of the housing trailers made available by federal beneficence. Yet, Mardi Gras happens: not according to edicts from far away but, rather, due to local willpower and intention. A city that loves something, even so raunchy and quasi-pagan a something as Mardi Gras, and that determines not to let that something die -- you have to say that city has an imperishable soul. O death, where is thy sting?

 How well do I understand that of which I speak? Better than some might; not so well as others. My last Mardi Gras was years ago, though I have to confess it was extraordinary: gumbo at a St. Charles Avenue mansion while awaiting the masquers on parade, plastic "doubloons" and flashy beads and the contagious plea, "Hey, Mister, throw me something." The Athenians ball, white tie and tails and swishing silk. The Boston Club balcony for the Rex Parade, the midnight meeting of Rex and Comus. And the nagging ubiquity of Mardi Gras' signature ditty -- "If ever I cease to love, if ever I cease to love, may fish grow legs and cows lay eggs, if ever I cease to love … "

 Think you'll ever hear a sillier piece of music? So what? It sings to the enduringness of some things -- things played out according to rule and precedent and code, passed lovingly from one hand to the next.

 New Orleans -- the city -- is in some ways the silliest place you could ever imagine, with its bon temps fixations and its genius for evading the crucial questions of life, such as: How long can we go on this way? I have to say, in New Orleans' defense, how much nicer it is as a place than a certain city on which it now partly depends. I mean Washington, D.C., whose peculiar form of silliness involves seeing all questions as matters of life and death. And money. And power. And the power of money.

  At some indeterminate point in the past -- perhaps when Bienville arrived there -- New Orleans determined to live for the moment. There is little future, you might say, in that. But the longer the moment lives, which is almost 300 years in New Orleans' case, and the more surely tradition and custom shape its character, the more you come to treasure that moment. And the longer you want it to live.

 Pre-Katrina New Orleans -- gone. We all know that. But floats roll, and throats call, "Hey, Mister!" And who knows? More minds than before may take in the Christian connection to the whole thing: Shrove Tuesday as the last inebriated outcry before the solemnity of Lent.

 Lent, we might usefully recall, isn't about extinction. It's about redemption, about One More Chance to Get it Right.

 One More Chance: Could that be what our beloved Crescent City needs? If so, I say, "Hey, Mister -- do it!"