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A Tale of Two Cities

Les bon temps finissent

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There was a place somewhere south of St. Charles, near the levee, out there in unmapped neighborhoods between the Garden District and Audubon Park. We'd had dinner at Brigtsen's -- smothered rabbit, Cajun-style, with lots of wine -- and in a state of heightened irresponsibility, often attainable in New Orleans, we got in a car with three strangers we'd met at the restaurant. A little club we had to see, they told us, one we'd never find on our own. It was halfway down a block of modest Caribbean cottages, in a house like all the others until you got close enough to hear the music. An emaciated, intense, cafe-au-lait-colored man was playing the blues on a bagpipe. Playing them like no one in Scotland or Ireland has ever imagined. Playing them like nothing I've ever heard, before or since. You didn't have to be a Celt to appreciate him, but I am. You didn't have to be one who particularly honors blues and pipes on his personal soundtrack, but I do. If you're lucky, there are a few times in your life when a musician will sound a note that you alone were meant to hear.

This mysterious place had no name that I could see. Like many clubs in the Crescent City and very few elsewhere, it served a clientele so chromatically and ethnically diverse that we were surprised to hear the English language emerging from a murmur of city dialect and Island patois. It looked like one of those we-are-the-world posters celebrating the United Nations -- only everyone here was cool. Possibly they were all mesmerized by the bagpiper, too. But possibly I was the only one who woke up in the morning thinking, "Was that for real?" I knew I didn't dream it, because there was a coaster in my pocket advertising some kind of voodoo beer they don't sell at Brigtsen's. That turned out to be my only clue, a useless one. This ends like a ghost story. Two days later I tried to go back there in a cab, two months later in a rental car with a local guide, a year later on foot with three natives. I found no trace of it, ever -- no club, no bagpiper, no porch decorated carelessly with wooden carvings and African masks.

I guess I'll never find it now. Eloquent eulogies for New Orleans, edged with myth and full of memories as arcane and indelible as this one, have been circulating everywhere since Katrina split the levee and drowned the only city in the United States where magic still seemed feasible. Some of the writers are friends of mine, some of their memories I share -- the whispers of courtyard fountains in the Quarter, a saxophone solo at dawn in Jackson Square, the Nevilles ablaze at Snug Harbor, drinking brandy on a Pirate's Alley balcony and watching Creole ladies in evening gowns glide among tall candles and bishops' tombstones in the cemetery behind St. Louis Cathedral. Obituaries for this ancient, long-suffering city may be premature, but the bedside vigil for New Orleans feels like the dread uncertainty when someone you love suffers a serious stroke. You don't know what will be left, what essentials will be missing, whether the changes you find will be unbearable.

We go back 40 years, the city and I, beginning in the 60s with an escape from reality -- represented by the Unholy Trinity of marriage, Selective Service and gainful employment -- that lasted seven mad and merry months. I've returned nearly every year, as often as I could, seizing every excuse: Mardi Gras, of course; a convocation of the Democratic Leadership Council where I met and instantly recognized the phenomenon that was Gov. Bill Clinton, the first charismatic Democrat since the Kennedys; the 1988 Republican Convention, the worst mismatch of natives and visiting delegates in American political history; a shameful weekend of gluttony and bliss hosted by Julia Child and the American Institute of Wine and Food; the William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams literary festivals, and most of my significant wedding anniversaries.

A new book I've published explores, in large part, what the assimilated New South is losing and how much of it we'll miss. After Katrina's awful work was done, someone asked me if I wished I could add one more chapter. I answered truthfully that I'd give anything to get New Orleans in there, to salute her stricken as I saluted her in the midst of life. A friend asked me what I loved about the city and I hesitated for a moment. It was more than food and music. A lot of us are what everyone used to call "uptight," what the doctor calls repressed. For many people, like the Republican delegates who huddled together in the center of Bourbon Street in 1988, as if not only moral but bacterial contagion might be flowing through the open doors of those strip joints, the condition is incurable. But the rest of us, the lucky ones who can find relief for our repression, keep going back to New Orleans. I loved the city because I was an improbable presence there.

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