And all that jazz ...

HARRY SHEARER is a satirist and actor. He has a weekly show on KCRW.

TALK ABOUT love at first sight. A day-and-a-half visit, bracketed by carom-shot flights from Seattle via Dallas, and I was absolutely smitten with New Orleans. What was it, exactly, that snared me as it has so many others?

It was 1988, and I was visiting Jazzfest, the famous festival that so far exceeds the boundaries of its name as to embrace all the music that can claim Africa, the Caribbean and the American South in its roots. I had a couple of meals but nothing astonishing, aside from the sauce-upon-sauce tautology of eggs at Brennan’s. What made me fall in love with New Orleans was, simply and inexplicably (like all great love affairs), New Orleans herself.

Two return visits that year, one in the blast furnace of August, sealed the deal. Bringing my then-new wife for her first visit, and watching her fall in love with the place, made it official; ultimately, we bought a place there, which we stay in as much as we can.


Here was a city in the United States but not of it -- the only city in our country where “culture” didn’t solely mean “let’s act like the classy Europeans do.” Daily life had rhythms and meanings unknowable to the outside world -- nearly every square on the calendar has some special significance for the New Orleanian. The city has absolutely different ideas about life and death, and other little topics, from what the rest of America thinks. And it’s as grandly welcoming to all comers as the employees in the brothels where, a century ago, on the pianos in the front parlors, jazz was born.

It is corrupt. God, is it corrupt. It’s as crooked as the course of the river that gave it its nickname, the Crescent City. It is elegant. It puts on the most amazing airs, building cotton-candy hierarchies of faux royalty and stringing necklaces of plastic beads on the magnolias and live oaks at Carnival time.

It is poor. You may have noticed that almost everybody who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate was black. And it is fascinating in its racial histories and divides, a city where Creoles have ruled society and, lately, City Hall.

New Orleans partakes of Southern American folkways in its pace -- Caribbean slow -- and in its tendency to make every errand, every chance encounter an opportunity, if not an obligation, to “visit.” Its pleasures -- food, music, architecture, the careening highs and lows of conversation that must sustain through three-hour dinners -- are legendary. Its amazements -- the above-ground cemeteries, the street musicians who could play in clubs if they wanted to take a pay cut, the children’s Mardi Gras parade, the dog Mardi Gras parade, the Baby Dolls, the lore and the beauty of the Mardi Gras Indians -- are endless. Its cheesy side -- Bourbon Street, Canal Street, drunk college kids throwing up in the gutters -- gets too much attention, but confusing that side with New Orleans is like mistaking Disneyland for L.A. Worse, actually.

How much of this New Orleans, the “land of dreams,” will be there when I get to go back, after the water has been pumped and drained, after the sediment has somehow been sucked up, after the debris has been cleared by the city’s world-class cleanup crews? Already the speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), has hinted that he is reluctant to spend billions of federal dollars rebuilding the city, given its vulnerability (although he quickly tried to back off that statement).

The culture lives in its people; unlike Quebec, that culture isn’t legislated. Will those people -- the musicians, chefs, sound engineers, writers, waiters, bartenders, hotel staff, photographers, mask makers -- have a way to make a living between now and then? It’s easy to know how to make a contribution that will help the immediate relief effort. It’s harder to know how to make a contribution that will answer that question.


Do I romanticize New Orleans? Yes and no. Every time I go back, I think to myself, “Maybe this was just a lovely infatuation, and now it’s over.” And then, every time I open the front door and stroll into the French Quarter for the first time, and look around and inhale the intoxicating mixture of divine cooking aromas and flowers and decay, I know that the affection has only deepened.

But I also live three blocks from the street corner where the best gospel singer/choir director/keyboardist I’ve ever seen and heard was dumped after he was murdered for his Lincoln Navigator.

The city has a real, cruel, savage side, and poverty certainly doesn’t gentle that side down any.

The song asks, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I fear I do, in a way the songwriter never meant. The slowness of the official response to the situation, to the breach in the canal floodwall and to the needs of so many stranded people, means that I may be missing it for a long, long time.