Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar, spring 2006
Richard Ford, "Elegy for My City"

September 4, 2005

The New York Times

East Boothbay, Me. - Who can write about New Orleans now? Tell us what it's like there. Bring us near to what people are experiencing, to their loss, to what will survive. People who are close should write that. Only they're in the city, or they're on a bus, or they're seeking shelter. We don't know where they are.

It's just a keyhole, and a small one, onto this great civic tragedy. The people who should be writing of it can't be found. An attempt to set out a vocabulary for empathy and for reckoning is frustrated in a moment of sorest need by the plain terms of the tragedy that wants telling. There are many such keyholes.

In America, even with our incommensurable memories of 9/11, we still do not have an exact human vocabulary for the loss of a city—our great iconic city, so graceful, livable, insular, self-delighted, eccentric, the one New Orleanians always said, with a wink, that care forgot and that sometimes, it might seem, forgot to care. Other peoples have experienced their cities' losses. Some bombed away (sometimes by us). Others gone in the flood. Here now is one more tragedy that we thought, by some divinity's grace that didn't arrive, we'd miss. But not. And our inept attempts at words run only to lists, costs, to assessing blame. It's like Hiroshima, a public official said. But no. It's not like anything. It's what it is. That's the hard part. He, with all of us, lacked the words.

For those away from New Orleans—most all of us—inthis week of tears and wrenching, words fail. Somehow our hearts' reach comes short and we've been left with an aching, pointless inwardness. "All memory resolves itself in gaze," the poet Richard Hugo wrote once about another town that died.

Empathy is what we long for—not sadness for a house we own, or owned once—now swept away. Not even for the felt miracle of two wide-eyed children whirled upward into a helicopter as if into clouds. And we want more than that, even at this painful long distance: we want to project our sympathies straight into the life of a woman standing waist-deep in a glistening toxic current with a whole city's possessions all floating about, her own belongings in a white plastic bag, and who has no particular reason for hope, and so is just staring up. We would all give her hope. Comfort. A part of ourselves. Perform an act of renewal. It's hard to make sense of this, we say. But it makes sense. Making sense just doesn't help.

Tell me what you feel, a woman in Los Angeles said to me today by telephone. (I have a telephone, of course.) Tell me what you think of when you think of New Orleans. There must be special things you feel the loss of. Memories. And I realized, by her voice, that she had made a firm decision already about this loss.

Oh, yes, I said, though not always the memories you'd think. I have a picture of my parents on V-J Day, in City Park, holding a baby, staring at the camera and the sun. They are all dressed up and happy. The baby is me. So, I wonder, how is that park faring tonight.

I have a memory of my father and mother drunk as loons on New Year's Eve, in front of Antoine's. It was nearly midnight, 1951. There was no place to leave me, so they had their fight (only an argument, really) in front of me. My father held my mother against a wall on St. Louis Street and shouted at her. About what I don't know. Later, when we were in bed in the Hotel Monteleone, with me between them and the ceiling fan turning, they both cried. So. What of Antoine's now? What of the waiters who a week ago stood out on the street in tuxedos aprons and smoked? What of St. Louis Street?

I have a memory of a hot and breathless summer. It is many summers joined into one. My mother took me onto the Algiers Ferry, an open boat with cars driven onto the deck. Out on the great sliding brown river there was the only hint of breeze you could find anywhere. Back and across to the foot of Canal Street. Back and across, we went. She bought me pralines. I held her hand during it all, until the sun finally fell and the hot night rose. So, now, what of that river? And the Algiers Ferry? And Algiers? All memory resolves itself in gaze.

And a last one, more up to date. My wife and I are walking home from a friend's house down tree-shrouded Coliseum Street. It is 2003, and 11 o'clock on a warm January night. We are only steps from our door, just in a cone of street light, when a boy hops out of a car and says he will definitely kill us if we don't hand it over right away. He has a little silver pistol to persuade us. Let's say he's 16. And he is serious. But he laughs when we tell him we don't have a penny. And it's true. I pull my pockets out like a bum. "You people," he says, almost happily, his gun become an afterthought. "You shouldn't be out here this way." He shakes his head, looks at the pavement, then gets in his car and drives away. He, that boy—he'd be 19—I hope he's safe somewhere.

It is—New Orleans is—a city foremost for special projections, for the things you can't do, see, think, consume, feel, forget up in Jackson or Little Rock or home in Topeka. "We're at the jumping-off place," Eudora Welty wrote. This was about Plaquemines, just across the river. It is—New Orleans—the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave.

And there are the streetcars (or there were). And there are the oak trees and the lovely French boulevards and the stately rich men's houses. And Buddy Bolden was born there and Satchmo grew up in Storyville. Huey Long lived in the Roosevelt Hotel, where he really had a "de-duct box." His brother, Uncle Earl, was crazy as a betsy-bug. If you knew a waiter you could get a table anywhere. You couldn't get divorced or married or sell your house on Fat Tuesday. And while they didn't let Jews and blacks in the Boston Club, the races still mingled and often people danced in the streets. They subscribed to the Napoleonic Code.

But so much for memory now. It charms, but it confuses and possibly holds us back. It's hard enough to take things in. When I think of my friends in the city this morning, I think of them as high and dry, as being where they belong, being themselves in their normal life that was. I turn off the TV, as I did four years ago next week, just to think my own sorrowing and prospective thoughts of them.

From the ruins it's not easy to know what's best to think. Even the president may have felt this way in his low pass over that wide sheet of onyx water, the bobbing roofs peeking above the surfaces, the vast collapse, the wind-riddled buildings, that little figure (could he see who she was?) staring skyward. Something will be there when the flood recedes. We know that. It will be those people now standing in the water, and on those rooftops—many black, many poor. Homeless. Overlooked. And it will be New Orleans—though its memory may be shortened, its self-gaze and eccentricity scoured out so that what's left is a city more like other cities, less insular, less self-regarding, but possibly more self-knowing after today. A city on firmer ground.

I write in the place of others, today, for the ones who can't be found. And there is a blunt ending now, one we always feared, never wished for, and do not deserve. Don't get me wrong. We would all turn the days back if we could, have those old problems, those old eccentricities again. But today is a beginning. There's no better way to think of it now. Those others surely will be writing soon.

Richard Ford is a novelist.