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Tour of Duty

This is it, the thing we can;t stop thinking about or talking about. In some way, I have not gotten used to it, this every-day, every-moment obsession. In some horrible way, it;s worse than ever.



"The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. ... It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life." -- Jack London, White Fang

But at least the land of which London wrote was of the untamed variety, the kind of stark wilderness that throws up its own fences to keep those romantic souls drawn to inhospitality on its raw margins.

No, this is nature thought long-ago conquered, leaving behind only controlled traces of itself, scattered among the conqueror's stores and churches and parking lots.

Yet now it is all latte-colored desolation and all those other things that Jack London used to describe the Alaskan wilderness so long back.

Yet now can we say that nature is the conquered thing?

Time was when some say nature was an ally when we most needed one. If a friend died, nature itself sobbed and despaired. Trees hung their heads, birds changed or stopped their song, rains came and mirrored our tears.

We know better now. Nature doesn't care if we sing or cry; it passes us and our songs and sorrows without a sideward glance. And why not? We are pretty indifferent to us, yes? How important do you have to be before your fellow citizens even know you are gone?

These thoughts and others like them are all around when my sweetheart and I get in her car and make ready. We've got a visitor from Maine who once lived in New Orleans and now mourns us from afar. She has a new digital camera and way more questions than we can answer.

We start with Lakeview and its arroyo-like dust. There is one thing that all this dust throws a blanket over and that is magic. You know, that sense of sparkle and wonder that hangs over places that first engaged your eyes and your mind when your eyes were closer to the ground and your mind was closer to the sky. Now that sense, which had never left certain of these places from that early time to this late one, was suddenly gone, and in its place was only dust, that thing promised us when we are gone.

It's hard not to look away. It's hard to know what to compare this to. It's seldom that a music that once thrilled you now repulses you.

We move on to the Industrial Canal and beyond. There's the grainy, long-ago newsreels of WWII Stalingrad, bombed-out, shelled-out buildings, block after block, fallen or even more, half-fallen where they stood, ruined but not yet destroyed, shattered but not yet abandoned. Along St. Claude Avenue, some of the shells are again occupied by a half-hidden army, moving in the inside shadows of generator light, sniping at the enemy. They'll have to be rooted out of the rubble, house by house. ...

In front of Fats Domino's house, there are other cars coming by, with couples posing with their arms about one another at his fence. Here and there are posters pasted on houses pleading or commanding bulldozers to stay away. Even here, even now, that unwillingness to let go. ...

Remember when you were a kid and went inside a house lived in by old people? Remember that old people's smell? It's moved outside now and there's no getting away from it.

In Chalmette, again there are no birds to sing or cats to chase them. In Chalmette, again there is hell without the flames.

We pause the car from time to time to let our visitor take pictures. In front of one house, there's a mirrored dresser among the ruins and someone has scrawled on the mirror, "Gene's stuff. Do not remove."

This is not a tsunami in the Philippines. This is my home. These are my homies. This doesn't translate to television.

We stop in front of a house and a young woman comes out of an adjacent trailer. "I had a house in Lakeview," my sweetheart calls out, clearly wanting to show some solidarity. The young woman makes a promise: "It'll look better soon. We gotta get some _____" and names some minor adjustment expected soon. My impulse is to blurt out, "Not in the next 25 years." But anyone who would fling such hopelessness in the face of the hope I'd just heard deserves to suffer tongue removal.

A bit further on, I read some graffiti spray-painted on a house front: "Times are hard in St. Bernard." It is a rhymed catchphrase from my youth and I go to say it out loud, to snatch back a smile from then. But my voice cracks like a man about to cry.

This is it, the thing we can't stop thinking about or talking about. In some way, I have not gotten used to it, this every-day, every-moment obsession. In some horrible way, it's worse than ever. ...

One of the horrible ways is the promise of a city that will be rebuilt in some idealized way and never again will crime and poverty be seen. And if they are, well then, maybe New Orleans is not worth saving or coming back to.

We are New Orleans. We share with others like us sureties known to our sense and our thinking. If, indeed, the time has come to pass on, let us pass on with those sureties in our eyes, our memories, our mouths. No Six Flags over the Crescent City. It's better to be remembered than safe -- and easier, too. There are memories in life, but no safeties.

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