The river is our defining place, the soul of our geography. People ask, why build a city here? The answer is now what it was almost three hundred years ago, when my ancestor debarked a ship and left for the Cote des Allemandes: the River.
I grew up as far from the river as one can get and still be in the city, in a lakefront reclaimed from the lake’s shore in living memory. For me the Lake and Bayou St. John and the great drainage canals were the defining waterways of my youth. These were accessible, and mysterious in small ways.
The old Spanish Fort on the bayou, the antique pedestrian bridge that crossed the Bayou just there, the ribs of a long sunken boat visible just beneath the surface beneath the crumbling brick walls: behind the levees one entered another world. Even the Orleans Canal seemed a bucolic waterway in it’s last stretch before the lake, reached on the east side by crossing a vast park filled with trees and climbing a tall levee, which seemed mountainous to a boy used to an apparent flatness in the world.
In those days before the Moonwalk or the Riverwalk, the river was a distant and mystical presence, often spoken of but rarely glimpsed up close. It hid behind floodwalls and levees; behind the warehouses that lined Tchoupitoulas Street, themselves fortified by ramparts of railroad tracks. The riverside neighborhoods were alien and dangerous, like the Loup Garou, waiting to swallow naughty little boys. The River had at once as much and as little reality as the godhead I was told resided in a tiny wafer of glutinous bread.
The immensity of the River was inflated when revealed from the heights of the bridges that spanned it, the Huey P. Long and the Greater New Orleans Bridge. It was, to a small boy, like a snapshot of a pre-Cambrian world; from something so huge and remote, one expected great monsters to suddenly break the surface, and swallow the toy ships.
When I was much older, and had seen the river up close from the decks of the ferries or from high atop the Trade Mart building, I remember riding the Canal Street Ferry to Algiers with my father, to walk the streets he knew as a child new to New Orleans. His family came up from Thibodaux in the early 1930s, leaving a house where French was the first language, on another Canal Street facing a different bayou than the one I knew growing up.
We strolled through the streets and looked for the house of his early boy hood, and he told us of days when they would swim in the river. Swim in it! I had only heard tales of sucking quick sands along the shore, and of whirlpools that would swallow anyone unlucky enough to fall in, taking their bodes down to great depths peopled by mythically giant catfish, never to be see again. And my father swam in those waters.
On that day, the River entered my life as a force, as something to which I had a connection. It lost none of its mythic proportion. Instead, my father was raised up into a figure out of Bullfinch’s or a character from Twain.
Before that day, my father made the river an indelible part of his history. He had joined the Second Battle of New Orleans, and help lead the fight to save the River from plans to further sever it from the city by building an expressway between the Quarter and the River. He was president of the American Institute of Architects in New Orleans, and had challenged the head of the downtown business establishment pushing for the expressway to debate him on citywide television. The publisher of the newspaper had threatened to without my older sister’s wedding announcement in retaliation, in words that a hundred years earlier would have ended not on WWL-TV, but beneath the Dueling Oak.
My father became the man I think of when I look at the self portrait he painted that hangs in my office, a figure who moved across and not just through the landscape of history, when I learned those tales.
When I came to work for the small newspapers in Gretna and St. Bernard, I became a frequent passenger of the ferries. For a time, my only vehicle was a small motorbike, and I came to rely on the ferries almost exclusively. My working days often began and ended standing at the railing of the lower deck, watching the deck hands hand lines as big as my arm, as the pilot let out a blast on his whistle to announce our crossing.
That was when the river really entered my life, when I began to feel myself a citizen of a river city, at the mercy of the currents and the skills of a pilot, planning my day in part by the schedule of the boats, mindful of its floods and the debris that swept past the ferry rail, bound for the sea.
Now, when I take my children back to New Orleans, we inevitably travel to the zoo, and return from Uptown on the riverboat Audubon that travels from the foot of Canal to the Park and back. I point out the bright new container ships and the rusting banana boats, explain the mysteries of the Plimsoll mark, and name the wharves as we pass them like a list of the boats on the shores of Troy.
Now that I hope to come home to stay, I think often of the river. A famous author once wrote of memory and home and a river, and told us that we can’t go home again. The ancient aphorism tells us that we cannot step twice into the same river. I know that they are right. I believe that they are wrong.
The city I return to will not be the city I left. Too much was lost in the flood, swept away by the waters of my childhood, the waters of the lake and the canals I once thought idyllic. But before I had crossed the Parish line twenty years ago, the city in my rear view mirror was not the city I grew up in. Time and commerce had done more to erode the city of my childhood than even the greatest river on the continent could.
What will I find then, when I return to the river and it’s city? I know that when I return, I will go back to the Moonwalk. I will climb the steps that my father helped to build, that are in my mind his great monument, and the river will be there. It will not be the same river he knew and swam in as a boy or fought for as a man; it will not be the river I first saw from high atop the Huey P. Long Bridge or the one I watched from the levee at Riverbend as a youth; it will not even be the river I took my children down just last year.
It will be as much a river of memory, and a river of dreams, as a physical river,. But that, in the end, is the river it has always been, from the time of LaSalle and Bienville until today. I will find that river there, just where I left it, up and across those steps. I will take my children and climb them, and there I will tell them the story of their grandfather and the river.
And I will be home.