New Orleans was the original capitol of the American imagination, before this country owned Louisiana. The port at the end of the great midwestern river system that provided the economic engine which begat this nation, its’ place in the country’s heart – and mine – is as central as that of New York or San Francisco. A tad reduced in circumstances, there’s no question in my mind that the city was the center of the Midwestern imagination for more generations than America has owned Minnesota.
I was raised in the upper midwest, mostly. New Orleans was the place you went on a whim and a dare. Since moving to Washington, it was the place one old friend and two new had chosen as home, and one of the choices left by the wayside in my own life. My only work of fiction concerns an encounter between William S. Burroughs and Elvis Presley beneath a portrait of Baudelaire in a New Orleans bar, instigated by Walter Matthau during the filming of King Creole.
I can’t imagine, can only imagine, what my friends are going though. They took that road, cobblestone and sinking brick, and in their various ways made the place their town, stepping into the stream of memory and creation that the city has ever-generously rained upon this nation, upon us, on me.
Released or spewed forth upon us in a great arc across the country, what will the diaspora bring? What news of the Quarter? What fresh mix of fertile muck do they carry on their boots? The Mississippi Delta shines, yes, like a National guitar. It’s the place where everything good about a huge country filters into the swamps. The cargo of alluvial deposits drops, concentrating the finest silt and ensuring the region’s polyglot fertility. It’s no accident that New Orleans sits on the same river as a town called Memphis. The Mississippi is our Nile, and New Orleans the domain of its’ ancient kings, whose ways and troubles we have adopted until we cannot see them for what they are, for good and for ill.
Here lies Vera. God help us.
Vera Smith’s makeshift tomb strikes me as a symbol not only of the devastation and foolishness that have killed uncounted numbers in the past week. It also strikes me as an expression of the character of New Orleans and the nation, the organic character of this country – improvisatory, interim, sensible, creative, adaptable, tragic, flawed.
I read yesterday that Vera’s full name was Elvira Smith. “Elvira” is said to mean impartial judgement, while “Vera” has connotations of truth and faith. Vera’s body lies beneath the earth of a rock garden and a spray-painted sheet. In time, I trust, we will duplicate her makeshift burial palace in bronze and marble, lest we forget. Do her honor, citizens.