Perdido Street and Agincourt: Guest Post from Wet Bank Guide

Sep 14, 2006 by

We are too much a rabble, leaderless and increasingly dispirited. I heard nothing in the mayor’s 100-day remarks Wednesday to remedy that. We lack the charismatic leadership we need to see us through this dark hour, our Henry V to rally the tired few to the great battle that will remake the world. Instead, we get Mayor Hamlet, Prince of Denmark or somewhere, anywhere else but New Orleans, wandering the ramparts of Perdido Street and wondering how to proceed.

I see more and more on-line commentators, and some in the newspaper, remark that they are starting to have thoughts of moving on, of leaving the city, of giving up. No one I know personally is ready to leave, and people I thought lost to Texas continue to trickle in despite all the challenges. Still, the conventional wisdom of the street points to the sprouting forests of For Sale signs as indication that many who haven’t yet returned, and more than a few who are back, are making other plans.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this sort of chatter in August. The first serious month of hurricane season was filled with an endless tide of contrary news, the threat of a storm in the Gulf, and the looming anniversary. Even for the most heavily medicated population in the developed world, it was a depressing prospect. Can we make it, people asked each other with the breathlessness of exhausted swimmers struggling to make their way to the shore.

The mayor and his circle give us no confidence. Leadership is the rescue we need now every bit as much as the people on the roofs of last year, watching the helicopters circle then leave; the 100-day promise was another lifeline tantalizing dangled before our eyes and then withdrawn. Perhaps we should drape our houses in bedsheets roughly lettered: Mayor Nagin, Please Help Us.

I remain convinced the city will survive. We the 200,000 who have come home can be enough if we do not surrender, if we insist that our leaders step up to the difficult challenges we face as a city, as a collective. We only ask they they work as hard and as ingenously as those who labor all day to save their businesses, and still go home at night to work on ruined homes, that the mayor and his cohorts navigate the paths of Entergy and RTA and recovery finances in the same way the majority of us hack our way through the jungle of insurance, SBA and LRA.

The rousing speech Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his Henry V is something I have carried with me through the years, the product of most of a degree in English Literature from the University of New Orleans, and a number of years spent working alongside a Shakespeare enthusiast. Henry’s position was bleak. He was at the end of a long land campaign, surrounded by the French who had cut off his line of supply and retreat, facing a choice between victory and defeat, with no place for retreat. It is a marvel of motivational speech, a statement that rings true to the American ear across the centuries with its martial setting and its celebration of exceptionalism.

It is the speech I would hear from Perdido Street, but have no reason to expect; the sort of speech we must demand of our own leaders, if they wish to be counted among the 200,000 who saved the city. It is the speech we must all give to ourselves, should post on our shaving mirrors or on the doors of our new refrigetarors, to remind ourselves we are here because we have chosen this place to fight.

Its opening words are the best response I could offer to Mayor Hamlet’s vacuous remarks, and the truest antidote to them. If you read this blog, you are among the 200,000, the happy few. I do not mean to indict those who have not returned, by choice or happenstance. It is mostly beyond their control. Instead, I mean to remind the 200,000 that they are living through a special place and time in history, one that will be long remembered. When people look back on this time, they will read of the president and the governor and the mayor and laugh, or perhaps cry in catharsis at the tragedy of hubris strutting to its doom. There’s nothing we can do now to remedy the leaders who hobble us, except to prove them wrong, to write for ourselves the scene that ends not in tragedy but in triumph.

…proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
and say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
-Mark Folse, Wet Bank Guide