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Big Easy Living: We are a product of our memories

On Jan. 25, 2012, The Times-Picayune will turn 175.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem as old as it once might have to me. Especially since I worked for the TP for almost one-fifth of its entire history.

When you consider that the newspaper was born in the same year that Samuel Morse patented the telegraph, Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England and Charles Dickens came out with’ “Oliver Twist,” well, you can imagine how timeworn that makes me feel.

The celebration of this important landmark in local legacy journalism already has begun: Beginning Aug. 3, readers were asked to share their memories about old new Orleans, in words or pictures. These recollections will appear on, and some will be printed in The Times-Picayune.

As publisher Ashton Phelps and editor Jim Amoss point out in their call for contributions, “our identity is indelibly shaped by the collective memories that make us America’s most distinctive community.”

Memories are both illusive and tangible things. They are equally chronicles of our pasts and harbingers of our futures. They are shape-changers, too, often gliding in and out of our minds in subtle new guise as they mature.

NolaVie recently published a summer series called I Remember New Orleans, garnered from readers’ eloquent musings. A former bellhop at The Roosevelt Hotel recalled the era of Claudette Colbert, Gen. Eisenhower, Jack Webb and Earl Long. A small-town girl reminisced about her trips to the big city in the 1930s, where they dined at Arnaud’s because Antoine’s was too expensive. A sometimes tourist wrote about an almost-celebrity encounter at the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel just a few years ago.

So often, memories soften with time. The focus blurs, and sharper edges disappear. And we tend to bank the good ones, drawing often on their emotional dividends.

I think this even is true of Hurricane Katrina. I rarely pause to recall the moldering pile of soggy furniture and spotted kitchen pots and pans that we tossed on the front curb. But I often think with pleasure about the busboy at Panera Bread in Sugar Land, Texas, who, when he learned we were storm-tossed New Orleanians, gravely asked if we would stand up so that he could give each of us a hug.

I would be hard-pressed to select a single New Orleans memory to put into any collective bank account. I’ve lived here for 36 years, a newcomer by local accounts, yet this city has given me a rich stock of memorable moments.

Perhaps it would be that crystal blue morning in 1977, when Stewart and I sat on the edge of the Mississippi River, Jackson Square at our backs and the strident notes of a calliope piercing the air, and we looked at each other and said, “How can we ever leave this city?

Or perhaps it would be the rainy late afternoon in May a couple of decades later, when I sat in my car at the edge of the Fairgrounds race track, window cracked, and listened as James Taylor’s voice wafted from the Acura Stage across to me, crooning about cowboys and moonlight ladies and sweet baby James.

Should I choose a memory coined in taste and aroma, paying tribute to our formidable culinary roots? I think sometimes about my new-to-town fresh-faced wonder when a local attorney took us to Corinne Dunbar’s, that stately mansion on St. Charles Avenue where diners all arrived at the same time, like invited guests. We were entertained in the front parlor before being ushered into the formal dining room for the establishment’s famed oyster and artichoke casserole. So much crystal. So old New Orleans in atmosphere.

Maybe an auditory memory would better serve the collective consciousness. My personal pick would be the night we sailed away on the steamboat Natchez, back when Jazzfest still sponsored evening concerts, and spent a couple of hours in a hot, sweaty crowd collectively mesmerized by a rockin’ B.B. King, back when he rocked best.

For sheer exuberance, there was the once-in-a-lifetime gush of humanity that poured into Bourbon Street after the Saints’ Superbowl win. I don’t think my feet even touched the pavement as I was swept along by an unprecedented collective good will.

I’m sure that many folks will cite the city’s celebrated icons in their memory write-ups – from Indian chants and marching clubs to the clock at D.H. Holmes or whiplash on the Zephyr.

But I think our collective memory best celebrates our culture when we think between the lines. I savor memories of a saxophone’s lonely wail, of tap dancing on rough pavement, of the smell of garlic and the glimpse of a camelback shotgun behind a leafy veil of oak branches.

We are New Orleans; our memories, collectively, define us. I hope you will add your memory to The Times-Picayune project (to do so, click here).

Because in New Orleans, we all have something to say, and wonderfully diverse ways of saying it.


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