A Dream of New Orleans, Interrupted

Commentator Andrei Codrescu notes why people of New Orleans had a special love affair with their city. Perhaps, he figures, because it had smells and sounds that couldn't be mistaken for elsewhere; it was a "dream state" because of this — where the American Dream came unmoored. He paints pictures with words of some of the things that made his adopted city special, such as what the air feels like at 3 a.m. on a Thursday night in late August in New Orleans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has lived in New Orleans for many years now. He left before the hurricane. And the city's still very much on his mind.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

Each day has its own pictures: bumper-to-bumper traffic two states long, a frenzied mob in a domed prison, rising water, the hungry pushing carts out of looted stores, rooftops in a lake as vast as the eye can see. Dead city, silent city. The survivors, the tribes, stadiums filled with refugees, helicopters over a dead, unlit city. A ragged parade of decadence spitting defiance. Television cameras as numerous as marchers. A can of tuna and a strand of beads. Dead pets rotting away behind locked doors. The smell of putrefaction visible.

Muck, darkness, heat. An eviscerated pigeon. Two dogs shot by a hired executioner. A sea of horrible stories rising like swamp fever from the foul mouth of dear ones from exile. We are all working in this pit of sorrow to unfreeze time.

I think what people in other cities find hard to understand is just how much New Orleanians love their city. Everybody in New Orleans loves the food, the music and our sense of time--slow time--that's peculiar to us and to us only.

There is a velvety sensuality here at the mouth of the Mississippi that you won't find anywhere else. Tell me what the air feels like at 3 AM on a Thursday night in late August in Shaker Heights, and I bet that you won't be able to say because nobody stays up that late. But in New Orleans, I'll tell you, it's like ink and honey passed through silver moonlight. Accuse me of poetry. Go ahead. But prove that it isn't so. You can't because New Orleans is made of a tissue of poetries that wove each other together over time.

Take food, for instance, and what they think New Orleans food is in New York or in Seattle. And whatever it is they think it is has already come back to New Orleans and been absorbed into our food. In other words, New Orleans is itself, but also all the reflections of what others project onto us. Same goes about the music and about all the places that music made world-famous. New Orleans is an essence, something that is boiled. Would be so pungent you'd think that a perfumed boil on the devil's head burst open. But right now we feel everything feeling: anger and sadness, sorrow and terror and guilt--especially guilt. The same sweet laissez-faire that makes our lives so enjoyable may be at the roots of that civic complacency that turned a blind eye on corruption and gave no thought to tomorrow.

Louisiana isn't called the dream state for nothing. Katrina found us dreaming. If our voluptuaries had been on guard, we might have saved a city. We could have been preparing for this for all the years that we know it was going to happen. Instead, we made libations to the gods of chaos. Our politicians, like our citizens, lived in the moment--a beautiful, fragrant, delicious, sexy moment.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

(Credits)

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): I'm Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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