This is a story about New Orleans: about lights and rivers and trees that died and trees that didn’t; about what the words “levity” and “levee” have in common; about the smallness of “me” within the bigness of the city, and how New Orleans is a grander version of the small bigness of each of us.
The first time I went to New Orleans was on a school trip in 2000. I was 15 going on 25, and a senior in high school in Michigan. I showed my breasts to a string of lecherous men, for beads I thought were “the good ones” but discovered many years and a few Mardi Gras later were really just standard, much like the men I thought were “the good ones” back then. I had orange hair that I wore in little bobble buns and a lip piercing and a patch that said Smash Patriarchy! sewn onto the back of my green flannel jacket, which had been my grandfather’s before he died. I remember the men’s eyes on Bourbon Street: heavy-lidded, wanting. I remember a blightish lot outside the quarter where we parked the van. Blight was familiar enough to me; I went to high school in the green oasis of a university town but grew up in one of the crumbling industrial zones that surround it, near one mulberry tree and two highways and a lot of closed auto plants. I didn’t know many cities in the year 2000, and Canal Street felt grand. A handful of men had already disappointed me, and a good handful more were yet to let me down: some sooner, some later, some who’d chaperoned that very trip. But I felt happy there, as if life were a tree with so many branches, and they all belonged to me.
My text time in New Orleans came 10 years later. I was 25 going on forever 29. I knew cities now—I’d adopted the country’s biggest as my new, true home. But Katrina had happened, and my memory had fogged New Orleans into gray mist. What sort of place would it be? One that enchanted me, it turned out. I’d come down for a Mardi Gras weekend: to overindulge, to fog my troubles with booze and sexy strangers. I’d wanted to behave badly, but in the end I was so stunned by the city that I forgot to. The sun blinded me, its simple possibility. My heart was caught in an electrifying tug as I watched sweet children play loud music for the world to dance to, and felt a deep thrum just below the city’s surface, one that doesn’t go away no matter how late or how murky. The beautiful light of the place was like a candle flame I wanted to protect with my hand, but much bigger. I’d have let it burn me just to keep it strong and sheltered. Happy Mardi Gras, said the locals to their neighbors, and to me, and they meant it. French was made to talk about ennui, to show all the various shades of mal-être (“illness of the being”—see, they even have a word for it), but New Orleans is pure joie de vivre. Sometimes I felt allergic, my New York-bred misery and misanthropy baring canines in the face of all that joie. But my discomfort didn’t matter. The joy kept on. The men who had set me back or held me down couldn’t stop me from moving forward. I drank and whirled and let the times turn goodly along, and I knew I would never spend another ten years away, as long as I had the choice. New Orleans was also let down by men, and it has mattered very much, but the shine the city sprays like an uncapped hydrant onto anyone who stands in its streets matters too—not more, but simply also. The city felt permanently dirty, and so many of the trees had died from the poisonous floodwater, but I’d take it over any green oasis.
I most recently returned to New Orleans several months ago, during the tenth anniversary of Katrina. I am 31 going on 32 and then 33 and then all the subsequent 30 numbers until I die or turn 40. I don’t dare editorialize about Katrina—I was far from it, in a safe and dry office cubicle feeling nauseated and helpless while people just like me but slightly different were left to crumble or wash away—but I will never forget its bleakness, its heaviness as one of our nation’s most shameful disappointments. I will also never forget the way life happens in New Orleans. It is like how each of our own small lives unrolls: onward despite the past, onward because of it. The streets were blocked off for President Obama’s tour—his presence meant to convey how much he wanted not to let us down. People stood by to remember the reason he came. Unlike the city’s near-constant celebrations—the trumpeting bustle of its ongoing parades—the heart of this day was still. I spent much of it inside, in city bars and quiet interiors, where New Orleanians congregated, to talk, to listen. I soaked up their stories—which remain; which keep going, like the river—and I brought them inside me so they’d live there too: their dark and their light, their love and their loss. Later, I biked to the levee to watch the sun set on the Mississippi and felt the quiet grace of the planet and the collective cri de coeur (another fitting Frenchism) of its flawed creatures rise like a tide inside me. Near me was the Tree of Life, that timeless towering oak, radiating green. I placed a hand on its trunk and its trunk lay under my hand, a single point of contact. The Tree of Life is still alive. So many branches on my own tree are gone now; the farther I walk down my life’s line, the fewer places my path can take me. And yet… The path took me here. Earlier, I’d stopped in a dive bar on my way to the Bywater and spied a Mardi Gras 2000 poster hanging on the wall, faded behind smeared glass. It had changed, and so had I, and so has New Orleans, but here we all were, still together, rolling on.
Sarah Van Bonn is a world-wandering writer based in New York City when she’s not on the road. Her work has been featured in/on WNPR, The Rumpus, South Asia Journal, MakeBlank, and various elsewheres. New Orleans ties for first place as her most-loved American city beginning with the word “New.”