Flew into New Orleans this morning, low over Lake Pontchartrain, thinking about broken levees and industrial canals and waterlines, the big sucking sound of the lake rushing back into the low-lying areas of the Crescent City after the initial storm surge. Also recalled taking Amtrak’s Southern Crescent, across the lake on a track bed so narrow you could only see water out both sides of the car. That was in 1985, after graduation–used travel money from my parents to go from New Haven to New Orleans. Europe without a passport, and a friend’s apartment in the French Quarter to make it even more reasonable and attractive. This morning, the big lake sparkled under a clear sky, and a nearly inexplicable line of shadow Xed the railroad tracks; the shadow cast by a jet contrail, seemed unlikely given altitude but as the plane passed under the trail I could see the shadow reach down from the vapor and touch the lake. Magic. Almost as good were the big river’s oxbows, first in Memphis then again on the descent in NOLA, the wonder of rechannelled flow and the stilled waters of the old course, and Mark Twain’s observations about the shortening of the river.
I’m back in New Orleans for the second year of portfolio reviews run by PhotoNOLA as part of its photographic mois. The city seems brighter this year, and there’s an international art festival taking place. But the shuttle driver narrating our way from the airport to the International House Hotel mingled desperation–the litany of “FEMA trailers, wind damage, bad activities, it’s gone, they took it out, the abandoned hospital, water lines”–with eternal NOLA spirit, you enjoy your good times and pleasures. Dance in spite of it all, because of it all.
Back at the Napoleon House, a half loaf of muffuletta and a Dixie longneck in front of me, I yearned to recall more about 1985. I’m twice as old now as I was then. I’ve been to Europe, and China. I’ve been divorced. My friend in the French Quarter moved to New York to pursue professional goals, forsaking the Big Easy for the Big Apple. I have four children in my life, and emotional complexities and nuances, in a stream both sweet and tart that reaches as far as the Mississippi from the Twin Cities all the way downriver to New Orleans. I am still compelled by photography, and I still find wonder in the streets of the Quarter. The sandwich is still warm and tangy, the beer still as plain and respectable a product of Louisiana as a Grain Belt would be in Minnesota. It’s true, you can’t step in the same river twice.