Afterword to Why New Orleans Matters – Tom Piazza

New Orleans Map

Picked up this book at a favorite bookstore in New Orleans called Faulkner Books located in Pirate’s Alley…read it on the flight home, highly recommended and nothing I need to add to it…

Here is the afterword…by Tom Piazza:

“How to convey the mixture of gratitude and grief, anger and joy, worry and hope, that we in New Orleans live with everyday? I don’t know that it is possible. So many people have gone…died, moved away…leaving an emptiness that can’t be filled. And yet so many are still here, so many have returned, with such spirit, such insistence on being alive while they still can. The city has been wounded so badly, and yet so many people have shown us such healing love and commitment, such generosity. We have no faith left in our leaders, and we live with a constant awareness that the promised repairs to the levee system may turn out to be as inept as the original construction, a fear that everything we have worked to rebuild these past three years might wash away with the next hurricane. And yet we hope. And above all savor the precious day, the moment, each meeting with a friend, every bite of every meal.

Mortality can be a great way of focusing the mind. If you are lucky enough to still be here, alive, in New Orleans, you will find new resonance in the old saying “We are not promised tomorrow.” Do it now. Tell them now that you love them; don’t wait. You are not exempt. You just got lucky, that’s all. This time around.
An afternoon, gloomy, maybe nine months after Katrina, summer coming on, at a gas station on Lee Circle: a man in his late thirties maybe, sitting outside with a can of something in a brown paper bag, bloodshot eyes, raggedy shirt. I had just learned that a friend had killed himself, and that the house where I had been renting an apartment was for sale and I didn’t know where I’d be living. Light stuff, as post-Katrina trauma goes, but still. Plus the ostinato of anxiety regarding the upcoming hurricane season: What if we don’t get a chance to get a leg over? What if all the effort turns out to be for nothing?

The man with the bloodshot eyes had apparently been watching me walking with the cloud of gloom over my head because as I approached he said, “What’s the matter?”

Startled, I looked at him, saw the eyes, the clothes, the can of beer in the bag, and, figuring that he was probably having it considerably rougher than I was, responded, “Oh…you know…nothing worth talking about.”

“You got that depression,” he said, looking up at me, sizing me up. “It’s going to be all right. God have a plan for everything. Everybody dealing with something. People walking around talking about, ‘Why this happen to me? Why me?’ Well…why not you?”

A lesson as old as the Book of Job, of course, only more wittily and succinctly put. In that one perfectly formed question lay a tool for dismantling depression and self-pity.

The thing that made all those second-lines and funeral parades and all that house-rocking New Orleans music so profound was obviously not that they came from a mansion on Easy Street. They were defiant gestures of grace and humanity in the teeth of mortality and the worst hard times. The triumph over the pain, the recognition of life’s brevity, is what makes the reaffirmation beautiful.

Years ago, just after I moved to New Orleans, I saw a photo in a calendar put together by the radio station WWOZ. It was a black-and-white photo of a second-line, and in the middle of it was a man dancing, cutting a very serious step, jumping on one leg in the middle of the street, his body at an odd angle and his mouth open, hollering some defiant open syllable, and as I looked at it closely I realized that he was jumping on one leg because he only had one leg. He was second-lining on one leg. Someone in the crowd was holding his crutches for him.

“Why not you?” Yes. And also, “If not you, who?” Don’t think you have placed yourself out of harm’s way. You are not exempt, and you will not be exempt. What you do about it is your business, of course. But if you don’t dance, who will?

We are all involved in writing the story of our time, together: lawyers and taxi drivers, politicians and journalists, carpenters and electricians and roofers and students and real estate speculators and tax assessors and nurses and doctors and clergy and nightclub owners and everyone else in our crazy, noble, desperate society. And in the future, assuming there is a future, our children and grandchildren will read our deeds and their results, and draw their conclusions. But for now, we ask ourselves these questions, if we are serious: How do you want to live your life? What do you want to see when you look in the mirror? What legacy do we want to leave to our children? What do we, as a society, want to represent, to ourselves and to the world? Few of us have it in ourselves to be saints, to spend our lives working among the poor and the sick and giving away our material goods. But we do have the power to tell the difference…still, at this late date…between right and wrong, between selfishness and love. After such an experience as we have been through and are still going through, we may yet hope to bring out the best in one another and in ourselves. Long live New Orleans.”

-Tom Piazza
New Orleans,
May, 2008.

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2 thoughts on “Afterword to Why New Orleans Matters – Tom Piazza

  1. spot on & poignant. a beacon of light in tumultuous times. thank you. thank you Oh Tom of the Italian Square.

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