November 23, 1998
When I was a teenager growing up in New Orleans, I was not insulated from the shocks to my young sensibility afforded on every turn by trips from the suburbs into the big, bad city. From an early age, I had been affected by all of the strange, terrible and depressing sights one could see along the streets of the downtown business district, the adjacent French Quarter, and along the riverfront. I would make forays into this urban jungle by bus when I was old enough to do so by myself, and I'd be drawn to and riveted by every tragic specimen of the human race I passed. Although I didn't exactly comprehend what homelessness meant, as well as all its various sociological implications, as a 13 or 14-year-old I was unusually and grimly attentive to the lines of disheveled men lined up for meals and a cot at the Ozanam Inn on Camp Street. This was New Orleans' own Skid Row. How mortified I was, coming from my comfortable middle-class existence, to have to be confronted by this horrible aberration in the normal order of things.
Once on Canal Street, I'd hasten quickly to my destination, usually Maison Blanche Department Store or a bookstore, and try to avert my gaze from the beggars and limbless men in wheelchairs, shaking their tin cups. I saw the mentally ill alcoholics and occasionally heard their insane rantings. I was scared and repelled. This was part of life in a big city. I hated it. It depressed me terribly. I'd come home from breathing bus exhaust fumes and listening to horns honking and dodging crowds of people with a dull headache and a psychic knot in my soul. Why was I so affected by these sights and sounds? Other kids my age didn't seem to be bothered. They probably thought it was funny. But me, I would wonder, "What if that ever happened to me, if I was out on the streets with no place to go?" I imagined all kind of scenarios as to how the homeless men ended up on that deadly, blighted street with the empty buildings and broken glass. It made no sense. Was there any hope for them? What did they think as they stood in lines for soup and a sandwich?
New Orleans affected me this way when I was young. It was, and is, one of the poorest urban areas in the country, at the bottom. It contains massive housing projects and a welfare-dependent population. What contrasts between the upscale Garden District and university areas of the city with their mansions, beautiful old trees, and parks and the vast, low-income areas. This dichotomy between the rich and the poor always struck me as absurd and unjust. But New Orleans is a city of contrasts and always has been. It was built on the wealth of the slave economy in the South that yielded its up its bountiful cotton crops as bales of cargo for the steamboats making their way down the Mississippi to the old port city. It was founded on a malarial, flood-prone cypress swamp on a bend in the river where no city should ever have been built. Its history and culture are fascinating and weird beyond belief.
Here are some observations I made in a journal entry from Nov. 1, 1971. I was a 20-year old college sophomore, living on campus at the lakefront, attending the University of New Orleans:
"Last Friday I rode the Elysian Fields bus downtown to meet my father and realized again how this bus route slices its way through just about every conceivable cultural zone of New Orleans, from the exclusive Lakefront area to the forlorn decay abundant in the regions of St. Claude and Esplanade avenues. One can see poor blacks and poor whites in close, yet fragile proximity, bound by the common ties of indefinite entrapment within crumbling neighborhoods. Traffic streams down Elysian Fields [the irony of this name should never be lost on the observer of the street scene in New Orleans] incessantly, and inhabitants of the old buildings, which are strung together nearly unbroken through zone after zone of ethnic groups, pass just as continuously along the glass-filled, cracked sidewalks. My gaze is riveted to the many people I spot in quick succession, mostly old women or young mothers, sitting on porches or stoops, watching as their neighbors trod unconcernedly by or their grandchildren or children pull wagons or ride bicycles in front of their houses. They have for a front yard a choked traffic artery and are probably desensitized to the perpetual noise.
"Common sights are signs on the fronts of buildings announcing, "Furnished apartment for rent." Several blocks form a perfectly typical running narrative of urban life, starting with an oyster bar, old apartments, a funeral home of grotesque but commmercially appealing architecture, and more old apartments which rent out to anyone for $8 -$10 a week. Whenever passing one of these in particular, I always spot several old men and one or two rapidly aging young men, rocking passively in their chairs, or leaning with arms folded over the concrete ledges of second floor balconies looking out at the traffic and just staring with extremely tragic, hopeless expressions on their faces..."
As I mentioned, these fragments of city life affected me deeply from an early age. I look back on this entry these 27 years later and know, for one thing, that I am glad I don't live in that city anymore, but at the same time I feel a kind of sadness, from the perspective of many years having passed, that I was so unhappy at so many points in my youth. At the same time, although I experienced much unhappiness, I also came from there. I grew up there. It was once my home. For that reason, I will, from time to time, look back on those beginnings and my growing up experiences in the "City That Care Forgot."
I had a brief flowering of childhood and then it seemed to be over. I guess I saw myself as more adult than teenager. I wasn't like my peers. I was too serious. My journal entries from those college years reflect that.