City of the dead

I spent Mardi Gras this week in a New Orleans graveyard. For the second time in less than a year, though the first time since Katrina, we said goodbye to a grandparent in the vast city of mausolea called Lakelawn Cemetary. It was so much sadder this time.

Gravediggers know better than most people in New Orleans what rising water can do — which is why most New Orleans cemeteries are above-ground. Row after row of family tombs crowd the landscape like so many midget Roman temples. Last year it seemed novel, if a little macabre, to bear the casket through the alleys of the tombs to my wife’s family plot. The sun was bright. Flowers livened the drab gray houses of the deceased. Flags waved from numerous veterans’ grave sites.

This year the mood of the family was made darker a hundred-fold by the devestated cemetary, a scene very little would need to be modified in for a B-grade horror movie. On this gray day nearly every mausoleum was stained about four feet off the ground with the puke-green demarcation of high water — a grim reminder that most of the bodies of loved ones were submerged during the weeks before the floodwaters receded. If not assisting grave-side ceremonies the reduced cemetery staff (typical wait time for a burial was three weeks post-mortem) were put to work pressure-washing the horizontal bands of slime from the tombs. The grass between the rows was dead, moist, and fetid. It is difficult to say goodbye to someone you love when you are forced to imagine what might have washed out from the soaken caskets in the ooze on the ground.

Around New Orleans people were partying of course. The press made a lot of New Orleans parading on with Mardi Gras despite being so hobbled. But the truth is that the partiers seemed like actors reciting lines, going through the motions. It reminded me of the lone sober person at a party who acts crazier than the drunks in order not to be called out.

Not much has visibly changed since the last time I visited New Orleans. The city is still awash in trash, tarps, and trailers. The question I asked myself this time was: how do you start a city from nothing? Urban areas start slowly, accreting people, services, markets, and social networks over decades and centuries. But what happens when you know you want a city to exist in this spot, right now? What do you start with? Schools? OK, but what will bring the parents back? Business? OK, but who will you sell your wares to? Government? OK, but what if they’re utterly incompetent in the absence of the patronage machine that sustained them? I don’t have an answer. To me, this is less a question of disaster recovery or urban planning than one of human need. What factors begin (or restart) the gravitational pull that sucks in enough matter to create a city?

Yet good spirits persist. We bought a king cake on the way out of town. Running it through the metal detector in the airport the scanner operator said he’d tell us where the baby was in the cake for $5. When he did anyway gratis we thought he was letting us in on an Easter secret. Was the baby always in the green section? Was there some pattern than only true New Orleanians know? The operator chuckled as he said to my wife “Dawlin’, I’m runnin’ a scanna heah. I see ev’ry baby dat comes tru wit da cakes.”