Old News: From the Archive to the Present

This time, I’m not sure how I feel about being in New Orleans. It seems as if I don’t know half the people I run into, and the other half all stand around like cows in the rain, trying to figure out what to do next. We pretend to be hanging out as usual, but we have other lives in other places to go back home to in a few days, the lives that pay our bills someplace else, the lives we can’t import here to live where we would prefer to be. No time to see many people you want to see and who want to see you, but lots of time to try and figure out where, whether, if you fit into the scheme of all these new people who seem to have materialized from some other planet and taken over your life. Or, more accurately, the place where your life took place regularly–and still does, on occasion.

It rained like hell yesterday. I still love a good August thunderstorm in New Orleans. Today was a gullywasher–two or three inches of street flooding along Bayou St. John, and halfway up the wheel wells on UNO‘s almost-deserted campus. I wasn’t too worried about the rain, but I was worried about what might be in it. The imposing tall clouds form yesterday’s drive through Mississippi blew west, oddly, and came up the Rigolets into the lake, building into black squalls that dumped on UNO’s hapless Friday afternoon book-buyers. I hunted for alumni merch, found a couple of things, then waited in line. A couple with huge piles of stuff and the inability to decide which textbooks to ditch in favor of stuffed animals wearing “Somebody at UNO Loves Me” t-shirts cut in front of me and my little fistful of goodies. I had about a two-hour window to scour the archives for old Gambit articles I didn’t have anymore. I switched to the main bookstore line, which consisted of two registers, run by two confused students, supervised by two adults leaning on the counter and flirting with the three New Orleans cops guarding the entrance from whomever might want to knock over the UNO Bookstore.

After 15 minutes, I left the coffee mug, the alumni sticker, the t-shirt, the pin, and the stray book on a shelf, grabbed a quick salad, and trudged across the spongy turf, picking out the slight ridges in the soggy grass so as not to destroy my relatively new shoes. After wending my way to the front door of the library, I found the entrance walled off by great sheets of plywood, locks, and a sign directing patrons to the “other” entrance. Oh. So I walked around the library, which led me to a pitiful, run-down entrance that had never once been open to my knowledge ever in my undergraduate or graduate days at UNO. A librarian directed me to the stairs to the second floor, where I was to walk back across the library, then catch the elevator to the archive on four.

Finally, I was able to get my hands on bound copies of my old newspaper articles from the ’80s at Driftwood and Gambit. I didn’t have time to make copies, so I decided to write down the issue dates, titles, and pages as quickly as possible. It turns out that I’d written an awful lot more bylined material than I thought I had. Licking my fingers and flipping the newsprint (an archivist’s nightmare, to be sure), I managed to find almost every article of which I no longer had copies.

It was funny, reliving all those days fast-forward. Here again were the strange, clunky headlines to which my editor was prone. I would make corrections; he’d change them back. Here also: the exhilaration of getting paid to write about such luxuries as used bookstores, oyster sauce, terra cotta building facades, and duck decoy carvers. I got paid to do that. I got paid to do that without having a college degree. I was a lucky so-and-so. Long lunches, every day, particularly the one immediately followed by the entire brick structure collapsing thunderously after some idiots without a permit tried to enlarge a picture window in the side of the building. The shock on people’s faces as the cupola of the Cabildo crumbled in a fire so hot, we could feel it roasting our cheeks three stories down on Jackson Square. The afternoon meetings we’d have after putting the issue to bed, during which one of us was expected to put on some sort of creative diversion (water pistols, Carter’s Little Lizard Pills, etc.). There again were all the ad reps, doubling as models for the occasional fashion spreads. All those great columns. So much good, interesting, useful journalism we did in such a small space. People loved Gambit, with its quirky mix of civic policy-wonking, historical tidbits, quirky features, gumshoe reporting, arts coverage, music listings, and fashion and antiques and architecture spreads, and wrote us to say so.

Even then, we were screaming at the top of our collective lungs about the very issues that threaten to destroy New Orleans once and for all right now. We knew who was dumping what into the river and how they covered their tracks. We knew the coast was dissolving into the Gulf and falling off the continental shelf. We knew nothing but trouble would ever come out of Cox Cable.
And I can’t speak for anybody else, but I entertained the fantasy that people actually listened to what we had to say about all those desperately important issues. Going through the archives today only reminds me of how often I’ve harangued the TV in recent years, slavering and raving about so much of this being old news.

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