»  National Review Online

January 8th, 2007

  Big Easy


New Orleans boasts a street intersection of Race with Camp. That is not a bad summary of this city as it appears to a first-time drop-in visitor — myself, for instance, who spent last Friday and Saturday in the Big Easy with my family.

•  Race.  From the tourist's-eye view, New Orleans is a black city. The servicepeople at the airport, the hotel, concessions, stores, museums, and fast-food outlets are uniformly black. Most of the people you pass on the street, outside the tourist precincts, are black. I think this is the blackest American city I have been in.

•  Camp.  I'm sorry to say I have low tolerance for "camp" in the second of the group of meanings logged on Dictionary.com: "something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental." New Orleans is full of that kind of camp. The whole Mardi Gras business is pure camp. It always has been: down in the waterfront district by Jackson Park there is actually a museum of Mardi Gras, which we visited. The Mardi Gras thing goes back for ever (well, to 1699), and it's been camp, camp, camp all the way.

It is, of course, grossly unfair to pass any kind of judgment on a city after a two-day visit. I'm sure New Orleans has delights I did not savor, depths I did not plumb, charms I did not perceive. After the horrors of Katrina, there is, too, some discomfort in passing any negative comment at all on the city — something like kicking a man when he's down.

Still, I'd have to say that I found New Orleans an unattractive place. There is something lifeless about it, and that something is not altogether Katrina's fault.

As usual on my first morning in a new city, I left my hotel Saturday morning for a half-hour stroll, to wake myself up, get some flavor of the place, and buy a newspaper and some drugstore items. Walking west and north several blocks from my hotel — the Ambassador on Tchoupitoulas — I did not find a single drugstore, nor any kind of small convenience store of any kind. Nor did I see any boarded-up stores abandoned because of Katrina. I saw nothing but streets full of blank frontages that seemed to have nothing much going on behind them. I suppose some of them were residential, and some commercial, but a lot were just empty ruins — ruins that plainly pre-dated Katrina.


Not that the place is utterly un-entrepreneurial. Katrina herself has generated some business. There are Katrina tours, Katrina books, Katrina DVDs. I found this all a bit macabre.

Then again, the macabre side of things has always been celebrated in New Orleans. The first two tourist-promotional leaflets on the rack in our hotel lobby advertised tours of (1) a swamp, and (2) a cemetery. Derb to wife: "OK, they have swamps and cemeteries. What else have they got?" I guess this affinity for the macabre must go way back. A city like this, actually built more or less on a swamp, must have been a death trap back in the days before the conquest of tropical diseases.

We passed on all the tours, anyway. Swamps? — no, thanks; and a person of my generation got all the impression he needs of New Orleans cemeteries from that psychedelic scene in Easy Rider.

(Driving in from the airport, we passed some walls with yellowish tide-marks halfway up them. "That's where the Katrina waters rose to," explained our driver. Then we passed a big cemetery. "The cemetery was flooded, too," he added. "But the people in there didn't mind …")


The news here is crime. The Times-Picayune for the morning of January 5, the day we arrived, reported that twelve people had been murdered in the city that week. Front-page main headline: KILLINGS BRING THE CITY TO ITS BLOODIED KNEES. This was a few days after Police Superintendent Warren Riley had declared, at a news conference, that the 2006 murder count of 161 was "the lowest in 30 years." As the Times-Picayune noted, however:

On a per capita basis … even the most optimistic projection of the post-Katrina city's drastically shrunken population makes that figure an increase from previous years.

Mayor Ray Nagin seems to acknowledge that. He has recently mooted the need for a curfew to curb the murder rate. Goodness knows what a curfew would do to the French Quarter night life — the city's principal source of commercial revenue, I imagine. It's a measure of how bad crime is getting that Nagin would consider the idea.

A local explained the cause to me thus: "An awful lot of people left after Katrina. Then some came back; but they weren't the ones you would have wished to come back."

The most recent murder, in the early hours of Thursday morning, was of a young wife in the pleasant middle-class Fauborg Marigny district. The woman and her husband had a 2-year-old son. Police found the husband, shot three times but still alive, clutching the infant near the front door of the house. The wife had been killed by a gunshot wound to the neck. The husband has survived.

These were educated white liberals — they had been dormitory-mates at Harvard — who had returned to New Orleans after Katrina to do good works in "the community." The husband, a doctor, ran a clinic that turned no-one away. The wife … well, let the Times-Picayune tell it:

Hill wore thrift store garb and made experimental films, a craft she sought to share with other women, holding "film-making bees" in which they made rudimentary films … Gailiunas [i.e. the husband] sang songs about love and leftist politics in a solo act called Ukelele Against the Machine …

The couple also ran a feed-the-homeless enterprise named Food Not Bombs. You get the picture. These were not Republican voters.

What happened to this young couple was unspeakably horrible, and there is of course no excusing such barbarism. It is hard, though, not to shake your head at the couple's unworldly naïvety. What kind of people did they think they were going to encounter when they got down and dirty with "the community"? The Times-Picayune story quoted a neighbor of the couple saying this: "They would never do it, but they should have answered the door with a gun." Hard to disagree with that — either part of it.


January 5th, the day we arrived in New Orleans, was my daughter's fourteenth birthday, so naturally we spoiled her shamelessly all day. The spoiling consisted mostly of letting her walk around in the tourist malls down at the waterfront, occasionally buying some modest item.

There was no trouble finding those malls: Nellie, like (I suppose) most other 14-year-old American females, is gifted with malldar. Put her down blindfolded in the middle of a strange city, turn her round three times, and let her loose: she will head off unerringly for the nearest mall.

Normally I wouldn't have indulged this, but heck, it was her birthday. It did make me feel slightly sad, though, that a bright and lively young person, taken to a city with three centuries of history stacked up, should seek out a shopping mall, of the kind that is exactly the same, with the same vendors — Brookstones, Banana Republic — as in every other mall everywhere in the USA. This one didn't even have a bookstore I could hang out in. Come to think of it, I didn't see a bookstore the whole two days poking around New Orleans.

January 6th, which was not Nellie's birthday, we took the kids to that Mardi Gras museum to try to get some history into their silly heads. Whether anything stuck I don't know, but we feel better for having done our parental duty.


Fixed to the iron railings outside one of the grand houses in the Garden District we spotted a small weather-beaten bronze plate, several decades old in appearance, inscribed as follows: "At this address in 1897, nothing happened." What's that all about?


On Saturday evening we reached the main point of our visit. The MAA (Mathematical Association of America) has been having a big bash here all the first week of January, culminating in a President's Dinner on January 6th at which various awards were to be presented. One of these awards, the Euler Book Prize, went to me for my 2003 effort Prime Obsession.

I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. For one, I am not a mathematician, only a writer with an undergraduate math degree, so I was sure I'd feel like a bit of an impostor in a room full of real working mathematicians. For two, I'm mainly known, to the degree that I am known, as a conservative writer. Most mathematicians are academics, and most academics are left-wing, so I anticipated some discomfort there.

As it turned out, I was worried about the wrong thing, which is usually the case. Arriving at the President's Dinner (at Arnaud's in the French Quarter — great food, by the way), I was scolded by Martha Siegel, the MAA Secretary, for having missed the award ceremony. It had been held that afternoon! Somehow I'd not received, or had misplaced, the notification for the afternoon event.

I made groveling apologies and there seemed to be no hard feelings. Nor did anyone visibly mind my being a conservative. In fact, we sat at dinner next to Fernando and Mari Gouvêa, both keen National Review readers. Nor was my non-mathematician standing any hindrance to some free and fun-filled conversation. Anecdotes about famous mathematicians were of course bandied about. I had not previously heard the one about Texas topologist R.H. Bing and the car windscreen, reproduced on the MacTutor database here.

After dinner we walked back to Martha's hotel and she went and got my award, and presented it to me in the lobby. Thank you, thank you, thank you, MAA. I can't think of any prize I ever won that has meant more to me. And thank you, Martha, for being so nice about my incompetence.

Altogether a very convivial event, my blunder notwithstanding. I don't think I have ever spent time in the company of mathematicians, or even of any individual mathematician, without coming away thinking that these are simply the best people there are. We need more mathematicians. Less politicians, less celebrities, less lawyers, and more mathematicians.

[Note added later.  Several readers grumbled about that "less." Should be "fewer," of course. I have a blind spot about that … Although linguists can make a case for "less," in at least some cases.]