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January 23, 2006

Going Back

Roy Meachum

BATON ROUGE - I'm back for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated South Louisiana and cut a destructive path through Mississippi, starting along the slice of Gulf Coast so well remembered from my youth.

Over the next days I will be writing a journal of return; this first entry begins on the eve of visiting my former neighborhood and other places I've known literally all my life.

New Orleans has not been my home since departing for the Army the first winter after high school. That's not true. While I have not lived in the city in over half a century, it was the home of my soul through Berlin, Washington, Chicago, New York, Washington, Rome, Cairo, and Washington again.

That situation remained, although weakened, even after settling firmly in Frederick, which did not happen until Pushkin and I took over the old house built around a log cabin, on North Market Street.

Changes, all shared with readers, caused discoveries and personal decisions that brought my commitment to this community, as long as God gives me breath. And beyond. I mean this as my final resting place.

Until the last century's end, or thereabouts, I had toyed with the romantic notion of keeping toothbrushes in both places, which is to say I sometimes dreamed about maintaining some form of pied a terre on a French Quarter side street, or maybe in my old neighborhood, the St. Charles Avenue fringes of the Garden District.

Never one to let harsh pragmatism interfere with fantasy, I even solicited prices off the Quarter's Rue Royale and a "termite palace" on Carondelet Street. Nothing more. Even caught up in wild imagining, reality's reckoning prevented doing anything really foolish.

In the event, trips to St. Joseph Nursing Home, in Monroe, for visits with my now 93-year-old mother provided a convenient excuse for slipping down the Mississippi River banks, seeking the mighty Father of Waters' big bend that formed the crescent where I grew up, on vacations from Holy Cross.

In a very real sense, the boarding school presented my world within the world that the rest of the world came to know as Big Easy. The entangling repetition is meant to make the point that only to outsiders, winter tourists and race track addicts, did the city ever appear so laid-back as to earn that latter day sobriquet.

Situated in the ripest, poorest and most corrupt region in the republic, New Orleans scarcely offered more than mere survival. To its residents, white and black, it was rarely easy, big or small.

The exceptions could be found in mansions way uptown, close to Audubon Park. They also lurked behind high walls, solemn facades and locked gates in that part frequently called by natives "the Quarter" or "the Vieux Carre," literally the Old Square. You know it as the French Quarter.

But long before Katrina ripped away the city's ragged veils of racism, poverty and decay, New Orleans was never the way the media wanted you to believe; the closest I've lived in my adulthood was Cairo.

In school, we learned the similarities along the Nile River and the conditions that lurked behind the Mississippi levees. But nothing prepared me for how the people in both cities lived generally out-of-sight from most visitors. How so many of the buildings were crumbling away. How the very different airs smelled equally of rapid decay.

Men, women and children in both Cairo and the New Orleans-before sported charm and grace and general politeness; they also tended to wear medals and charms around their necks. Catholic saints or the holy hand of Fatima, it never mattered.

Beneath my shirt and behind my beard can still be found metallic images of the Immaculate Conception, St. Cecilia and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, which I acquired long before coming to Frederick. Go figure!

Permit a digression here: the recent storms barely touched the system of massive 19th century earthworks that protected the life I knew.

The failures developed in the collapse of 20th century flood walls, fences really. They were not built high enough, the footings much too shallow, to withstand the unlikely surge from the lake. Ponchartrain was little more than a tepid pond of great size until Katrina's surge.

But the levees stood firm even after the flood walls collapsed destroying many of the homes that rose after World War II, which sheltered primarily families escaping the equality that replaced cruel segregation. The other houses you know about: the ancient wooden structures and falling down shotgun houses that housed those left behind by the "white flight."

And don't let anyone, including the cheerful recordings of native son Louis Armstrong, create confusion. It was never "where the light and the dark folks meet," the original lyrics to "Basin Street."

Whites sat in the fronts of our famous streetcars protected by signs that kept blacks in the back. None of this African American political corrective labeling: they were formally Negroes, politely "colored" and frequently called worse, even in the city famous for its myriad of residents with café au lait skins.

White flight left New Orleans to become the "Chocolate City" that the current mayor sermonized he wanted to restore. Only hypocrites said it had been otherwise. Blue eyes and blond hair were rarely seen in great swatches of the city.

Ironically, European Americans, as we are "correctly" described in modern political rhetoric, may actually claim a higher percentage of the post-Katrina population.

That's the impression formed from reading all those stories from around the country where "evacuees" have been reported unwilling to give up their current advantages and return to what was, for many African Americans, only a niggling existence, acceptable principally because of the turgid weather.

New Orleans' subtropical temperatures and soaring humidity were never the blessings imagined on snowy and icy days up north. Widespread air-conditioning made them more livable. But the folks who put the most chocolate into the mix frequently came up short when it came to the machines that produced cooling, sometimes frigid air.

Since writing this has extended into the early morning hours, I close by reporting "today" I begin the journey of discovery: exploring what's left of the buildings, streets and ambience that generated my earliest impressions and my later memories.

We will see, Pushkin and me.

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