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The Birth of Symbols 

Even as the Mardi Gras parades rolled out their giant Greek deity heads and pseudo-classical papier mache dream courts, a new ghost parade gathered strength. Invisible to the bead-blinded crowds, the images of the past two years marched and flew above, between and below the crowds. I glimpsed Flood, Fire, Death and Exile astride the black horses of Despair, Paranoia, Fear and Disbelief.

Don't get me wrong: I was having fun even as a few beads of cold sweat rolled under the happy beads around my neck. A single strand, as befits a local. The tourists, bent under ostrich egg-size beads that have been growing every year -- from grapes to beach balls -- rolled by in glassy-eyed wonder. My Fat Tuesdays have been growing stricter every year instead: I don't go anywhere without my whip. Anyway, even as all space was being filled by créme-de-joy, I saw how my city had begun to symbolise things very different from tradition. To America and her myriad screens we now represent Queen Catastrophe with all her Court of Questions: What is a city? What is a community? Will New Orleans be anything in the future except a drunk beaded lizard weaving through a quartz mine? That's not bad, mind you, but we are losing our grip on dimensions of New Orleans that don't just whore.

I've been leafing -- when I wasn't rolling -- through two amazing books. The first, Orleans Embrace with The Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carre (Morgana Press) is a lushly produced inside look at the mysteries of the French Quarter through the eyes and lenses of local aristocrats TJ Fisher, Roy F. Guste Jr. and Louis Sahuc. Each of these gents is a story, or rather a cornucopia of stories, and their collaboration makes for a coffee table that can brew, not just hold, your coffee. Looking into these Quarter interiors is both the sensual opposite of the loud vulgarity of the streets outside, but also their complement. One can see, now and then, a few melancholy but fetching and anonymous crowd stragglers disappear into the gardens and courtyards of Old New Orleans, only to emerge days (or years) later with a polished pallor (polished by books) into the fetid air. I know. And the second book, A Collection of Forty New Orleans Artists (Constance), bursts with the vitality of young artists who were just making their mark in the city when Hurricane Katrina came. Most of them were displaced, but many came back. A series of postcards in the book tell the story: "Jeff Pastorek; returned to midcity," Samia Saleem, "Previously the Treme, currently Seattle." So here are two dimensions of New Orleans lost in the space between the perennially goofy symbols of Mardi Gras and the grim figurations of Sober America. I'd put my money on the Secret Gardens and the Young artists, but I don't know what I did with my wallet.

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