It helps a little bit, even as your heart is breaking over those TV hurricanescapes of New Orleans under water, to remember that "the city that care forgot" has always danced with death.
New Orleans was born amid ghastly yellow fever epidemics, where corpses stained with black vomit were piled on carts to be hauled to above-ground crypts. The sepulcher flower vases bred the fever-freighted mosquitoes.
Climate, Catholicism and voodoo shaped the city, along with Latin fatalism, languorous hedonism and an atmosphere of poignant and elegant decay. It's no accident that Anne Rice lived there to pen her vampire tales.
And yet, inseparable though they may be, New Orleans has always been more about the dance than about the death. Somewhere in the shade of its majestic live oaks and the shadows of its lacework balconies, among the saxophone riffs in its echoing alleys and the soft magenta glow of its crape myrtles at twilight, the flickering ghosts that haunt New Orleans whisper huskily of sweaty, sensual love and the promise of enduring memory. Even the street names whisper promises: Desire, Amour, Abundance; Pleasure, Treasure and Joy.
It is not comforting to realize that, in the wake of Katrina, bloated bodies are floating on those streets today. But to speak of New Orleans's resilience is simply to cite its history -- a demographic and cultural melting pot of German industry and French and Spanish elitism, of Irish gregariousness and Sicilian emotionalism, of African exuberance and American frontier cussedness that embraces death, too, as a part of life.
Lives, levees and live oaks are merely temporary in any case. Katrina's catastrophes will no more define New Orleans than the Nazi occupation defined Paris, though they may last almost as long.
For those of us lucky enough to have come of age in New Orleans -- even more than for the tourist who falls for her instantly -- the decadent majesty of the city is like a forbidden love. You want desperately to explain the depths of your enchantment, but you know in your heart that others will acknowledge it merely as an easy infatuation or a passing fling. You know they will never awaken at night drunk on the coffee-and-banana fragrance of her docks or the beery sweat of her pre-dawn streets or the humid hum of her streetcar summers. How could they ever understand the depth of your passion?
How could they understand your love for a city in which life itself is an art form and the poorest, least privileged inhabitant a knowledgeable artist?
Thus with children one seeks to inculcate a New Orleanian view of life at the proper age, by carefully introducing the concept of breakfast beignets, jazz lunches and gardenia-scented patio dinners, where they set fire to dessert.
One instructs them to notice the immense cultural difference between the growling, attempted intimidation of street beggars in Washington ("Spare some change?") and the amused, self-confident hustle of New Orleans street people who will bet you $5 they can tell you where you got them shoes. ("On yo FEET!")
This catechism usually works, but not always in the way intended.
One April Sunday afternoon in the French Quarter, you are bemoaning the touristy changes of the city and the decline of its music when you come upon a Dixieland band playing in the middle of Bourbon Street with a musical integrity, artistry and enthusiasm unheard in decades.
Shaking hands with the drummer afterward to impress on him an appreciation of his New Orleans authenticity, you learn how much New Orleans energizes the global culture.
"Ich bin ein Berliner," he says with a grin. "Is great privilege to play where is born Louis Armstrong."
Yesterday, agonizing over the TV pictures of breached levees and rooftop rescues, of overturned trucks and flooded freeways and all the detritus of a drowning city, you wonder at the fate of all the wacky and wonderful Orleanians you've known who give the Big Easy its peculiar charm -- the green-haired white punks and the stoned Gypsy juggler, the young black saxophone player on the corner playing Gershwin with amazing grace. The old black carriage driver with the mule named Mother-in-Law. Jerry Strahan, who manages the bun-shaped Lucky Dog carts and their eccentric French Quarter vendors -- and also wrote a respected book of World War II history. The exterminator who defends New Orleans from the voracious Formosa termites -- futilely -- and all the hand-crafters of Mardi Gras beads and floats.
You want to know that blues singer Marva Wright is safe, and the wise-cracking guy who dips the gravy onto poor-boy sandwiches at Mother's, and the map curator at the New Orleans Collection museum. You want to know about the woman who gets the alligator meat for restaurateur Dickie Brennan ("Gucci gets the hides") and the waiter who ignites the Cafe Brulot at Arnaud's.
You learn a few comforting things about New Orleans's resilience from television. Yesterday one amazed newsman reported that the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the Quarter refused to have its Orleanian style diminished. The kitchen staff pulled a gas grill from the patio into the dining room to cook a full Creole breakfast for stranded hotel guests, complete with a piano player serenading the diners with "Stormy Weather."
Some TV anchors, however, will drive you crazy with their New Orleans "knowledge," claiming that "A Streetcar Named Desire" took place in the Garden District and that voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried "in St. Peter Cemetery in the French Quarter." Marlon Brando yelling "STELLLLLLLA!" in the Garden District? I don't think so. That was the French Quarter. Marie Laveau's tomb is in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 across Rampart Street, right next to the tomb of Dutch Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, who even in death knows the value of a good location.
A few years ago, I took my youngest daughter on her first visit to New Orleans. Then 11, she bought a cape and took to drifting wanly in it among the tombs near Marie like some waif out of Charlotte Bronte. She had her palm read by an amiable Gypsy, shopped for crystal balls and tarot cards and took ghoulish delight in the voodoo museum. She seemed to understand intuitively that death, particularly ghastly death, is part of the historic warp and woof of New Orleans. It has always been part of the theater of the city, even part of the fun.
But that, of course, is in the abstract.
Just last month, as she sat eating incomparable fried eggplant with powdered sugar at Christian's Restaurant, a onetime Lutheran church where the food comes out of the kitchen right where the altar used to be, the now 16-year-old, eyes rapturous with delight, asked why she couldn't go to college at Tulane "so I can be around wonderful people like this all the time."
Today Christian's is not far from the levee break on the Industrial Canal and is likely under water. Along with those wonderful people. What can I tell her now?