City of myth

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sept. 20, 2007

Dear Leslie,

Late one night after a girlfriend and I moved to New Orleans a gunshot cracked near our apartment building. I ran outside. Big-city fear wasn't familiar to me yet. People were helping a young man through the door of an apartment. I followed them in. An ambulance had been called.

He instructed me in putting pressure on an artery at the top of his leg to stanch the bleeding from the bullet hole nearby. He seemed to have a medical background.

Two teenagers approached him outside the apartment building and demanded his leather coat. One of them shot him without a word when he argued. They took the coat and vanished.

He had just moved to New Orleans, too, after graduating from Harvard with some kind of medical degree. He was perspiring but knew his life was not in danger.

Living in New Orleans was like that, sweaty and bloody and unpredictable and not necessarily hospitable. Aww, have a Hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina survivors who live in Cape Girardeau now still are in shock. Still looking perplexed, they speak of helicopters overhead that never stopped to help them, of feeling abandoned and homeless two years removed. Sometimes they stare into their post-traumatic stress. They miss a city they know will never again be the New Orleans they grew up in. New Orleans has become a myth.

Poets and artists are the rememberers, the keepers of culture. Last year our local university press published a book of poems about the hurricanes that turned the South upside down two years ago and still haven't let go. "Hurricane Blues" attempts to convey and understand a natural disaster so enormous as to seem unnatural. Poets from all over the country contributed words to describe and mourn this Apocalypse. Some were there, some can only imagine. Missouri poet Walter Bargen wrote "Rescuers ... pushed aside the dead."

"Let's see or not see, let's think or not think, but let's breathe because we have no choice for the moment unless you're being dragged through New Orleans in the petrochemical gumbo-gush of Lake Ponchartrain, hearing a final time the gurgle of late night saxophones and the lapping waves of applause as she teases off her pasties and thong in submerged floodlights, crossing each new night's gulf of unbridgeable sadness, as you spin past open doors smoky with water, above the sidewalk canopies that cling to the sides of buildings like sunken canoes, and catch for a moment a wrought iron lamppost with a limp arm, your whole body limp, no longer face up to the sky, no longer face down, except to those stranded on rooftops who see you pass as they wave their arms at passing helicopters, the whump-whump-whump of defeat and rescue, as you perform your trick, floating above the street, a slow motion superman. You didn't know that to gain superhuman powers you had to hold your breath forever never to be rescued."

We left New Orleans shortly after the day a man with a machete accosted my girlfriend as she walked home from work in downtown New Orleans. When he jumped out of a car and demanded her purse she threw it at him and ran. The lesson of the leather coat.

Funny to miss a city like that, but you do.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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