I'm having a hard time writing this admittedly off-topic post. When Typepad's nice little template asked me to categorize this, the only place I could find to land was "No Category Selected", so that became the title as well. Please forgive me in advance, since I'm not going to stop and edit -- if I stop, I won't be able to write this at all.
I visited New Orleans for the first time this year. Each summer for the past several years, my friend and colleague Richard has invited me to join in the New Orleans Writing Marathon that he coordinates in the French Quarter every July. Richard and I are part of the same national organization; his project site is in southeastern Louisiana, while mine is here in NYC.
I first met Richard in November of 2001. He was running a Saturday morning writing marathon at our annual national conference in Baltimore, and my site director suggested that I attend. In a hotel room, Richard explained to a group of about fifty educators that they should just fall into groups, walk around the Inner Harbor, stop in cafes or bars or parks, write, read their writing aloud to each other, walk some more, write, drink, eat, read, repeat. I fell in with the awe-inspiring Richard and the remarkable Kim, as well as a lovely Southern woman and a charming man from a midwestern state, and I began to write about the experience of being a New Yorker at a national gathering just two months after 9/11. I wrote about being introduced to people, and how a hush would come into their voices and they would take my hand between their hands and say, "Oh. You're from New York." Letting me know that yes, we were all in mourning, but they understood that my city and and I were still waking our dead. As I read this out loud in the cafe at Barnes and Noble overlooking the Baltimore Harbor, I cried. I looked up and found that everyone else had kind of lost their shit, too. The only other thing I remember from that day is that Richard and Kim told me to that I had to write, to not stop writing, to stop "trying to make time" to write and just do it.
Six weeks ago I flew down to New Orleans and checked in at the Hotel Richelieu in the French Quarter. I didn't know a soul except Richard, and G wasn't joining me until a few days later. I found myself talking and listening to Chris and Ann about writing and cooking and students and classrooms, and going down to the pool courtyard for a smoke with Melanie and Dave. I met Richard's lovely wife, Doris, and later walked in wonder and joy through raucous nighttime Bourbon Street to go have dinner at Galatoire's with Margaret and Mary and Tracy and Jeff. I wrote with Dave and Patty and Ruth while having drinks at Harry's Corner at 9:00 in the morning. It was New Orleans, after all. We crossed Jackson Square and went to look at Faulkner's house in the alley around the corner from the St. Louis Cathedral, and then went and wrote in the Cathedral. We had coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde, and read our writing, and then went and wrote some more. I wrote with Richard and Karen and George and Ellie in the Paul McCartney Suite of the hotel, and in Richard's tiny apartment, and in Molly's At The Market, a bar with a writer-friendly reputation. Each evening everyone came together for a read-around in one of the hotel suites.
G flew down, and we walked and ate and drank and explored, glorying in a new place together as I showed him my latest haunts, the Clover Grill and Molly's, Coop's Place, Fiorella's, and of course the Cafe Du Monde. A few days later we returned to New York. I brought home feather Mardi-Gras masks from the market and beads that Doris had given me, all sorts of edible treats, many thick creamy pages of writing in my leather-bound book, and memories of a whole new set of friends and colleagues.
I decided that New Orleans was the American place that was most like being in a wonderful foreign city. The French Quarter reminded me of both colonial cities in Latin America and the European cities that they in turn echo. But New Orleans is a wonder unto itself, with gorgeous curlicues of wrought iron and greenery that drips from balcony to balcony in the steam of a summer day. What a lush, exotic beauty you are, New Orleans. You are, you are, and you will be.
On top of one of my cabinets there are still boxes of Cafe Du Monde's beignet mix and cans of coffee and chicory. There are pralines from Loretta's in the fridge, and a giant jar of olive salad from the Central Market in the pantry. I haven't yet gotten around to making a beignet breakfast for my family, or dividing up the olive salad into small jars to give away. But I can't even look at all of that right now. I know there's neither cell-phone nor land-line service in many hurricane-hit areas. I know that the power is out in New Orleans and much of Southern Louisiana, and that means servers are down and I can't yet expect an answer to my wish-filled emails. I've heard from Ann and Chris and Tracy, and Tracy's heard from Karen. Like the rest of those in the world who have loved ones on or near the Gulf Coast, many of us are hoping to hear soon from Richard and Doris, Melanie, Dave, George, Patty, Mary, Margaret, Jeff and others. We're waiting.
P.S. After I posted this last night (or this morning, actually), I finally fell asleep for a while. I dreamed I was sitting in a cafe with Richard, and although during writing marathons most of us write in notebooks, I had this laptop with me. I had just finished this post. I pushed the computer across the table to Richard, and he read this piece. He looked up at me and said, "Can't you stay in New Orleans another day? We could edit this and send it in to the Quarterly..."
Update: As you can see from the comments, Margaret and Mary as well as Tracy have been heard from, to my increasing relief. And Richard and Doris are fine, as I heard from their NYC-based daughter yesterday. So although grief and devastation continue, I take comfort in hearing of the safety of these friends.