The city in this disaster may or may not be New Orleans
. I’ve been gone so long its hard to be certain. Before the levees failed and swept away entire neighborhoods, so much had already begun to be abandoned to the elements.
Long before the catastrophe, the iconography of my childhood was slowly eroded until only the skeleton of streets remained in some places, the names evocative of a distant, gilded age and faded ambition: Melpomene, Robert. E. Lee, Desire.
The corner stores that differentiated one quarter from another—the visual anchor that placed you on one crumbling street of narrow, clapboard houses instead of one across town—were boarded up, as if in anticipation of the storm that would come, or were converted into the efficient national brands I could walk out my door and find a block over and 1,200 miles away.
The houses, the clapboard shotguns and stucco-covered cottages and newer GI Bill ranches of discolored brick, will look I think much the same, sagging slightly on their piers over the remains of streets that once were paved and curbed. Those streets, that look as if retreating Panzers had torn them up in the last desperate battle for Berlin, will be as I remember them.
Will I be able to tell the difference between the Krauss Department Store building of September 2004 and September 2005? Twenty years ago I was approved for credit by an unseen bookkeeper at the far end of a pneumatic tube, which disgorged the cardboard payment book given to me an ancient female clerk, who had perhaps witnessed the city’s first airplane. Before the storm, it was already an abandoned ruin. Will I be able to find the high water mark hidden among the graffiti?
The storm and flood that people will measure there lives by, so many memories of before and so many days toiled out after, will be remembered a century from now the way we think of the past: the great fires of the eighteenth century, that left the French Quarter a monument to Spanish architecture, or the yellow fever epidemics that gave birth to a neighborhood called Cemeteries—another in a long line of disasters that must befall a city if it is to grow ancient and wise.
Until I can return and see for myself, I offer this: a portrait of a city I have not seen since the last Mardi Gras before Katrina
, as drawn from frantic or tearful late night calls from my people on the ground, the patchwork of memories of what I knew for thirty years, and imagined portraits of what remains drawn from those studies: dispatches from an imaginary disaster.