Saturday, April 22, 2006

Second Line: Love Letter to a Drowned City

First published elseblog, September 9, 1995

Cities are entities. Individuals have relationships with cities, just as they do with other people. I am with cities the way I am with children, dogs and other people. Most leave me cold--too noisy, smelly, exhausting in their demands for my attention. Paris and I, for instance, never had anything to say to each other. With some, like Los Angeles, I have brief flirtations that cheer me up, and then I move on without another thought. I feel about LA the way I do about a fuckbuddy--always there when I need a grin but otherwise not much on my mind. New York always has a couch or a meal or a bed for me, whatever, and I can show up when I please.

With some, such as San Franscisco say, we start out intensely in love, and over time things change and we grow cold until we can barely stand each other and wonder what we ever saw in each other. My time in Seattle was like a typical bad marriage--we stayed together for years because the low-level misery was more comfortable than the effort to change, until the misery finally outweighed the comfort and then I left.

My relationship with Black Rock City was like one of those passionate attractions where you call each other three times a day, can't keep your hands off each other for a minute, have meltdown, white-behind-the-eyes sex, but when you try and actually have a relationship it keeps on going terribly wrong. You break up, several times, but you keep running to each other all over town, and you end up in bed several more times before the whole thing dies of attrition. You should be together, but you can't be.

I should have loved Burning Man. I believe, fundamentally, in the holiness of hedonism, and I think that one of the worst of our cultural failings is that we have so few experiences that allow for ecstasy. I think that the people who criticized burners for continuing to party while New Orleans drowned were being pissy, puritanical and wrongheaded. On the other hand, many people I love or respect still go there and still love it, and although I might trash the general hypocricy of some of Burner Evangelists, I can't bring myself to diss my friends. But I can't be in the space they're in right now--not when what has happened in New Orleans has happened. And well, Burning Man never quite did it for me.

At first, I was charmed, mesmerized, slightly high, amused and delighted. I loved the heat. It overwhelmed me, took me over, changed me from the inside. The art was at least interesting and the random rituals at least charming. But then, somehow, the place turned on me: the noise, bad, loud music going on all night long, the screaming. It seemed to me that the marvelous array of drugs, sex, nudity that lowered inhibitions made the crowd ultimately more greedy for sensation, more oblivious to each other and ultimately more cruel. The slowly accumulating aura of incipient violence outright scared me. I think that, for the most part, white people aren't very nice at all when they lower their inhibitions. So I left--sweet, sweet escape into the silent, white desert.

The playa dust everybody seems to be celebrating this week--I shook that off my motorcycle boots years ago, and never went back. But I still miss what could have been, the way I stiill miss some of those lovers who were really bad for me.

But oh my love, my sweet, sticky, decadent New Orleans and all its nasty gorgeousness. Early morning still life on the cobblestone streets of the quarter: spilled beer, vomit, broken strand of bright beads, broken feathers from a boa. Bourbon Street was at least as loud and much more stupid than Burning Man, but it was also easily enough avoided. The houses were haunted, the air was thick with ghosts and the sweet, nasty historical memories they carried with them. I always wanted to take a shower whenever I walked the streets of New Orleans because I felt so coated with sweet nastiness. Whenever I turned on the tap to take one though, I always expected champagne or gin or blood to come gouting out instead--and I wanted it.

I always thought I'd go back there. I meant to. Once two years ago I semi-planned to but ended up in east Texas instead--which turned out to be the right thing to do. And this year, over spring break, I was invited but I wasn't in the mood.

I always thought I'd go back there one more time, that it would be there for me, waiting.

And now, whenever I look at the traces of New Orleans in my house: the feather mask that hangs above my bed, the mardi gras beads all over the house, the gumbo file, red beans and Cafe du Monde chicory coffee in the cupboard, it's all I can do not to cry. And sometimes I do anyway, the way you do for a lover who is dead, who you will never get to see again that one last time, after all.


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