Twice in a week I was called on to dispense advice about visiting New Orleans. A professor in Vienna wrote that she and her boyfriend were planning an exotic vacation to the home of the jazz they loved. She asked for advice on where to stay, and I told her to stay in Room 8 at The Columns. Two days later, a musician from Athens, Ga., told me that he was planning to bring his new bride to the most romantic town in the world, and I gave him a detailed list of places I love in New Orleans, including my very own secret hangouts. This is a discreet guy even though he's famous, so I thought I'd be safe. But are they going to be? After being so cheerily helpful, I started having my doubts. If these people come and get creeped out, mugged or murdered, I'd have to answer for my knee-jerk boosterism. I decided that I just wouldn't answer this kind of query any longer.
I used to delight in it. Total strangers wrote to me after the storm, asking for tours and offering to help. I hooked them up in any way I could. I hesitated a bit when a professional from Shreveport asked me if he should move in with his boyfriend in New Orleans. What am I? Freaking Ann Landers? But then I advised him anyway, by saying that New Orleans had to be better than Shreveport, no matter what. But is it?
These days it's a new ball game, and it's good to remember that I don't work for the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. If the city wants visitors, it better make damn sure that they are given bulletproof vests along with pamphlets about the glory of the past. Those pamphlets are a lie anyway; there was never any glorious past in New Orleans. There were a few moments of respite from a nasty past, moments when romance-writers and hacks nostalgized it as quickly as they could. Things like slavery, riots, curfews and brawls were the rule, and it took some finessing to romanticize all that. I admit to having done it myself, not because I didn't know the ugly side, but because so many beautiful things bloomed from that evil mud, veritable fleurs-du-mal that are appreciated worldwide. Slavery was bad, but the music it gave birth to is a healer of souls.
What we are experiencing now, post-Katrina, is one of those all-mud periods when the nastiness is everywhere and beauty has a hard time staying on top. The psychologists told us that about a year and a half after the catastrophe people were going to break down. So, it's no surprise that a city, which is composed of people, is breaking down, too. I'm not going to add to the long list of causes, excuses and explanations, except to note, as others have, that if this battle for the city isn't won right here and now, we'll have to tell our friends to stay the hell away.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).