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The Past without History

The imagination is so starved in America that almost anything will do to stimulate interest and enthusiasm. Take New Orleans, for example. Or should I say “New Orleans,” because the one that is projected to exist in the media has long vanished from the world. The projected version is of a city of musical geniuses keeping jazz not only alive, but red hot. But if you go looking for these smoky nooks and crannies of the musical world, you won’t find them. You will find bars selling bad drinks loaded with tourists who want to hear the same wheezy versions of old Dixieland and ragtime classics, played by bored musicians who keep eyeing the exit doors and looking at their watches.

The city is supposedly the culinary capital of the country, some might even want to claim the world. But for the most part, the food served in the white-linen establishments like Brennan’s and Antoine’s is expensive, over-seasoned, more often buried under sauces that have simmered far too long on back burners. You get the same amount of starch and salt as you will find in most ordinary restaurants across the land. But the food reviewers keep pumping out high praise for the amazing chefs bringing the Old World to this wrought-iron cash register on the Mississippi.

I spent a lot of time in New Orleans as a kid, visiting my grandmother in the French Quarter each summer, and finding myself steeped in the affairs and rituals of a large Sicilian family. I loved every moment of it, from crabbing on Lake Pontchartrain with my uncles, to walking around the back streets behind Bourbon late at night with my older brother. Never once did I think this was a city that had long preserved its Creole past. It was, like so many other southern cities, built on the cruelty and perversion of white planters, and the only history in the air at night is the smell of booze drifting out of myriad bar rooms. Everyone, it seems, is drinking from morning to late at night; the tinkle of ice cubes in tumblers full of cheap gin or rum is the music of the neighborhoods. The sour smell of grass smoked on front steps and cement porches is all you will know of the supposed jasmine and bougainvillea of the brochures.

But that ‘s just how we treat New Orleans. Scrape off the slave history, the torments of King Cotton and sugar cane, the slave auction houses and brothels, the dreary slums where Louis Armstrong grew up, the dives where he blew his coronet as a kid while the old white men took mulatto girls upstairs, the rotten alleys where sailors threw up and fumbled in empty pockets for bus fare back to the ships – scrape all that away and you get a very thin gruel of pastness, a Disneyfied trumped up version of the Big Easy, a soulless, bloodless nostalgia that is all that remains of the city. The “Quarter” retains its look, of course, but the wrought iron and the potted plants are carefully arranged to conceal the gaudy modernity hiding behind them. Just outside the Quarter reality begins, on Canal Street, with its camera and watch stores crammed with Chinese knockoffs and point-and-shoots, all under the fiercest neon light you will find outside the Ginza. Or dirty, disheveled drug stores, liquor stores, discount shops, sidewalk vendors, traffic jams and all the rest of what can’t be hidden from view to contradict the artificial past.

Are Charleston and Savannah any better at keeping alive the past? The manicured parks are a delight to the occasional tourist, but they are mainly the dormitories of the homeless and the sprawling green carpet for winos and druggies who panhandle the few who venture under the great mossy oaks. Williamsburg, Virginia, where I lived for a time, is the most extreme instance of make-believe built upon a vague notion of what colonial southern America looked like. The carriages squeak by with a man done up in 18th century tricorn hat and buckled shoes, pointing with his whip at the King’s Arms and the potter’s house, the goldsmith’s workshop, the redbrick buildings of the College of William and Mary. But at five o’clock, he’s already sucking on a can of Bud and wolfing down a Big Mac, heading for home. The houses are spotless in the old town, and gardeners trim and replant everything so that the average American tourist will suspend belief and take endless selfies in front of the white picket fences around Bruton Church and perhaps take the arm of some college co-ed dressed up in wig and farthingales who has just guided them up and down the stairs of an “old” residence. No one notices the air conditioning vents along the baseboard, the thermostats behind a drape, the electric lights bathing everything in a modern glow.

The ache to escape from our mistakes, our despair at what we have made of the cities and suburbs seduces us into dreaming as we stroll along, inhaling the fabricated atmosphere of an innocent, by-gone world which may have existed in some form once upon a time but was inexorably diluted and destroyed by the relentless pressures of greed and exploitation. Photographs of Williamsburg taken in the 1920s show the dismal ruins of the town, the place John Rockefeller, an avid collector of American primitive art, saw on a visit that prompted him to fund a complete renovation of the place. He did much the same thing for Woodstock, Vermont, which also has about it a dainty, unreal purity of grand old town houses with white trim work and repointed bricks, sweeping lawns and stately kitchen gardens.

Of course Disney World is the epicenter of all such nostalgia-baiting ersatz towns, with its medieval turrets and castle moats, quaint little shoppes selling taffy and fudge at insulting prices. But this is where the imagination thrives best, with all the fake tile work and dancing toon creatures, everyone happy and willing to shake hands, tilt heads and flex the plastic-hardened smiles that make kids and parents alike go soft in the knees. Las Vegas caught on a little late in the game but scrambled to throw up fake Venices and medieval themed casinos as fast as builders could get their ladders up. How this connects with the forced sense of carnival, I don’t know. But the very sight of the made-up past is enough to satisfy that hollow place buried in the unconscious. America loves and loathes the past – it wants all the comforts of modernity but longs to see an open window in a building, a servant in livery, some vision of manual labor with all the sweat and nightmares of serfdom edited out.

The malls that sprouted up in the late 1960s were all about recreating small town life, with cute little wandering lanes flanked by store fronts pretending to be made of logs or thatched eaves that tugged on those same heart strings; the food courts couldn’t quite mask the present with their fast food counters and pre-fab food, but even the thinnest dose of nostalgia has its limits. The malls are dying as I write, having saturated the landscape with their over-priced goods and annual Santa shows. The pale, evanescent old towns under a single roof have grown stale and sad, their make up peeling, their avarice showing through the plastic planking and the bored, yawning teenagers who slump against their plate glass windows with nowhere to go. Once the downtowns of major cities were abandoned to the poor, this was the only escape – a fantasy as flimsy as it was fleeting, leaving all those shoppers hungering for the strange elixir called the past without history.

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