New Orleans: 'The city that was part of my blood is gone'

Born and bred in Louisiana, the novelist Ronlyn Domingue has the Deep South in her veins. Here she reflects on what made New Orleans one of the most remarkable places in the world - and why it must be resurrected
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The Independent US

New Orleans is part of my blood as well. I can trace my ancestry to a marriage record at St Louis Cathedral, a ceremony that took place in 1762. According to family legend, this French man's descendants founded Buras, Louisiana - where Katrina made landfall.

As Alison checked e-mails and websites to find out what had happened to friends she's not yet heard from, a woman sat down across from us. She was from Lacombe, Louisiana, and had not learnt whether her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild were alive. I saw the luminance in this woman's eyes as I had in Alison's - a glaze so intense that the colours of their irises were obscured. Drowned.

I turned to my e-mail. I replied to friends and family asking about my safety. (The hurricane's left edge hit my town of Baton Rouge and created a mess of debris and power outages.) I avoided those messages with attachments. I was not ready to see what this drowned city looks like. Imagination is overwhelming enough.

I want to remember New Orleans as it was, protected from the juxtaposition of the present. My first memory. My grandfather, his voice as big as his heart, was a train engineer. He and my grandmother brought me and my younger brother and sister to the city for a night. We stayed in a small, dimly lit hotel room that smelled like the crayons I had used on the two-hour ride.

The next morning, we had breakfast at a restaurant on Canal Street. The staff knew my grandfather by name and treated us to an enormous breakfast. I have never again had grits so smooth and buttery. I was dazzled by the storefronts on Canal, enormous glass windows displaying clothing, wigs, shoes, and sporting goods.

Our ride on the St Charles Avenue streetcar seemed to last for blissful hours, the clank of its wheels on the tracks a detached harmony from the rhythm of Paw Paw's train. I wish I could remember my first look at St Charles's oak trees and those beautiful houses but what I have, other than the sound and the image of my family's relaxed faces, is the feeling of the breeze against my eight-year-old cheeks.

I did not return to New Orleans until I was in college. I went as a reproductive rights activist, not a tourist. I drove that weekend, and Alison directed me through the city she knew so well. I loved the street names, a syllabic poetry ... Prytania, Euterpe, Tchoupitoulas. We spent the night with a young woman who lived in a battered old apartment building with wood floors, multi-paned windows and crumbling plaster. We had a delicious and inexpensive dinner at Taqueria Corona on Magazine Street, a small Mexican restaurant I would visit many times again.

The next morning, another young woman, whose name and skin were a blend of her German and Indian descent, drove us to the event site. That was my first look at the French Quarter, its narrow streets bordered by buildings perhaps visited by my ancestors, its wrought-iron balconies both fragile and fixed by the endurance of time.

Bourbon Street was detectable by scent before sight. I felt inexplicably drawn to Jackson Square and its anchor, St Louis Cathedral.

During the following years, I visited New Orleans many times.

I learnt the language of a city founded before America declared its independence - the "neutral ground" was a street's median, some people still called sidewalks "banquettes", and driving directions were often given based on a destination's relation to the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain.

St Charles Avenue never failed to enrapture me. The oak canopy dappled sunlight on those who strolled the sidewalks, sometimes reaching far enough to protect those waiting for the streetcar to pass. The entrance to Audubon Park didn't hint at its ponds and paths behind the trees.

Tulane University, directly across from the park, was grey and sturdy. I would always see a detail I hadn't noticed before in one of the many beautiful houses, the eclectic mix a history of architecture as much as the city itself. I loved the oddly rolling landscape that led to the Milton H Latter Memorial Library, once a mansion that belonged to a silent film star, and appreciated how much of the building's authenticity remained intact.

I ate some of the best meals of my life in that city ... Bella Luna, Lola's, Café Degas, Jacquimo's, Antoine's, Delmonico's, Nirvana, Bennachin. I devoured Tee-Eva's pralines, smooth and rich as the ones my maternal grandmother once made, and snowballs served the only way they should be, with ice shaved so fine that it melts on its way to one's tongue.

Never one to enjoy being in a crowd, I avoided Mardi Gras in New Orleans all my life until this February. Three months earlier, Atria Books signed my first novel, set in 1920s New Orleans and present-day Louisiana. The only date my publisher and executive editor could visit with me was on Mardi Gras Day. After an astute, quiet driver brought us to our hotel, we were somehow presented with tickets to a private party at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. We spent three hours tossing beads to passers-by, amazed at the costumes, the abandon, and the number of tourists' bare breasts. The smell of alcohol intensified as the afternoon grew unseasonably warm and a sudden rain shower invoked Bourbon Street's heat.

My last visit to the city was on 12 August. I visited bookstores in Metairie and New Orleans, preparing for my novel's upcoming release. I had intended to bring my camera to take pictures of places mentioned in the book. If I met readers during my travels, I wanted to share photos of the landmarks those characters - and I - loved so much. I planned to return soon enough to take a few shots, purchase fountain-pen refills from Scriptura on Magazine Street, and eat a nice lunch. I had no idea I would not be able to return to the place I found so beautiful, so unique, so alive.

I just realised that I wrote this in past tense. I didn't intend to. I didn't know the shock had worn off to leave me with this grief so soon.

As I think about the places I visited, I find myself reflecting on the people of New Orleans. Miss Tee-Eva who made those pralines. Aaron at Top Drawer Antiques who sold me and my partner a number of pieces through the years. The cordial waiter at Bennachin whose name I didn't catch. The hundreds of natives with that unmistakable accent, the innocuous harshness so much like those from Brooklyn, New York mixed with creative grammatical contractions and Southern stretch of syllables. The hundreds of thousands of individuals who made that city hum - their diversity, their talents, their very lives.

I always felt tenacity and pride in the people of the city. As if, regardless of their differences, they all knew they lived in one of the most remarkable places in the world. Millions of others have been drawn to visit, and at times become part of, this power, this spirit. The city itself - the jazz clubs, shotgun houses and mansions, storefronts, parks--was simply the body in which it lived.

Right now, it's too soon to tell how New Orleans will be resurrected. My choice of words is deliberate. This hurricane didn't knock the wind out of New Orleans, it knocked out its life. I haven't been able to fathom that thousands of people have died and that with continued delays in providing food, water, shelter, and protection, we may lose thousands more.

Volunteers and private donations are crucial, but immediate, comprehensive support from our government and its resources must happen. The survivors must be a top priority. Anything less is unconscionable.

When Alison and I left Starbucks, I had no idea that she would depart hours later to go further north, a decision I supported and understood. The storm brought her to my doorstep, and the aftermath pulled her away. She left my home knowing her treasured Arts & Crafts house, circa 1911, was still strong and dry, built on the lip of the bowl that is New Orleans. She left with hope that several friends had been evacuated and knowing many more were alive and safe. When I told her goodbye, I knew it wasn't the last time I'd see her, but that the wait may be long. Rebuilding a life takes time. New Orleans, we miss you. Come back soon.

Ronlyn Domingue's first novel, 'The Mercy of Thin Air', will be published in October by Simon & Schuster. She is a native of Louisiana.