For five years, I taught English at the University of New Orleans. It was pre-Katrina, 1980-85. When the end of my five-year contract arrived, I had to decide whether to leave or stay. I left.
Many of my colleagues would do anything to remain. They loved the city. If their non-tenure teaching contract expired, they shopped around until they found some other kind of employment that would allow them to remain, even if it meant changing professions, for New Orleans is addictive. Travel outside the city for visits, conferences, vacations, etc., was minimal, and they rejoiced to get back to the city, to good food and sensual indulgence—to jazz, and to a culture that mimicked as closely as it is possible for life to mimic a sound, a tempo, a tone—jazz. It was a brothel morality, a place where any sort of ethic was viewed with deep suspicion, and where corruption was a way of life. It was decadence, smeared over with a thin disguise of the righteousness of tolerance, a religion that rejected religion. It was “drowning in the sweet and pungent scent of a magnolia blossom,” to quote an English expatriate I met there.
He had lived there for fourteen years when I met him, having arrived in his adventurous twenties, following the pied piper sound of jazz, which he’d discovered in his native Nottingham. Like many others, he hadn’t intended to stay. But he was still there when I left and showed no sign of leaving. It was there he discovered an irresistible lure to a transvestite pastime.
People discover things there. Tennessee Williams discovered his homosexuality there. Mark Twin said the city was an aquarium; you find out “what’s underneath” in New Orleans. I arrived there a rabidly socialist anti-Christian; I left as a conservative Roman Catholic. (Who knew?)
I know I make it sound like a den of iniquity, and that’s not fair (even if it’s largely true.) It’s a place to visit—if you love jazz, if you would love to live, at least temporarily, a jazz lifestyle; or if you love an adult theme park—or maybe if you just love good food, or the charm of hidden courtyards, and old brick trimmed in iron lace.
That’s what tourists go there for. But if you live there, it’s a different story. And if, after years of residency, you have to decide whether to leave or stay, you find yourself weighing things with a scale you didn’t have when you arrived. I was surprised by my reason to leave—another discovery, I guess. I craved red clay and tall pines, hidden violets in the woods, and wild lilies. I craved nature, and not art. For like Paris, there’s no nature in New Orleans, just art. Plant however many crape myrtles and oleanders in however many quaint little courtyards you want, there’s no nature. The city is underwater—and I love earth. I didn’t know how much I loved crops and fields and farms and such, and strait-laced Southern Baptists with their well-scrubbed children congregating on country church lawns for an Easter egg hunt. So I went home to Georgia.
And I haven’t been back. Now I’m writing a novel about New Orleans, titled Beatitude. And I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that friends have stopped asking how it’s going. I’ve abandoned it, returned to it, until I’m sick of it myself. I know why: Because I can’t write any more, can’t put another word on the page without going back. The city does not beckon, but the novel demands, and so it is now a simple pragmatic necessity to go and smell that musky river smell again. I doubt Katrina changed things very much. New Orleans isn’t so much a place as a state of mind.