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Gambit Weekly In The Blood

Hugely popular novelist -- and Garden District resident -- Anne Rice talks about the city that inspires her.

By Anne Rice

JULY 13, 1998:  You aren't born here; you come into the New Orleans world with roots already shooting deep into the moist earth. No matter how far away you travel, no matter where you go, those roots hold fast, and branches connect you to the most marvelous city in America, the Caribbean City, the Spanish and French City, the city where the Irish and Germans and Italians lent their flavor to every old neighborhood during the days when New Orleans was as busy a port as New York.

To be a native of this place gives you a remarkable pride. You belong to a unique and indescribable club. You don't have to march in a Mardi Gras parade for Mardi Gras to belong to you.

Your heritage includes houses of which other people only dream. Marble fireplaces, soaring ceilings, lush gardens, white columns supporting broad galleries -- you cannot count how many of those antebellum beauties we have. They are all yours when you walk the streets at twilight under the giant oaks.

The poorest native near the riverfront knows the splendor of those glorious trees. They make a promenade up and down Washington Avenue, passing two of the lovely above ground cemeteries which are part of what we take for granted, too.

To be a native of New Orleans means to eat like a king or a queen. Italian, Cajun, French, Creole, it's all yours, even from the fast food concessions. But you can have a white tablecloth dinner in some of the finest restaurants in the world.

In a way, the most important thing about being a native of this city is that from childhood on you learn a different way of life. We are not in the American Rush to Fame and Fortune. We're more interested in the taste of a cup of coffee than making it to a meeting at the bank on time. We can be irritating to the clock-checking Yankees. "We'll call you back" is a solemn vow when we speak it, but we never tell you when we're going to make that return call -- in a day, in a month, in a year.

We do get things done, however, and according to our own style. We do now and then give progress a try. Take the question of the streetcars. I grew up in the '40s. They were everywhere. Riding in the front of the Napoleon car, right beside the driver, with the front window open, was one of the joys of my life.

Then came the buses: modern, efficient. And now what are we doing? We've sanctified the St. Charles streetcar so no one can ever remove it, and we're bringing streetcars back to Canal Street and possibly other significant lines.

What does it all mean? Progress doesn't necessarily work for us. We're really a blended melting pot. We're gumbo. American cliches don't frighten us. By the time you've grown up here -- if you've done some hard time in the northern cities -- you know that every day here is precious. Go out tonight and watch the sky turn from purple to a deep night blue.

The movie stars and rock singers, the writers who come here all fall in love with us. But they're new to the secrets; for them, excitement has to take the place of our rich, quiet understanding. We know how it's done, and when it's done and why.

We hear it in the jazz of the Algiers Brass Band; we taste it in the chicory in our coffee; we smell it in the brilliant and lush and eternally green foliage of winter; we know it when we stub our toe on a crack in the pavement and nearly fall on our face. It's okay. We played hopscotch on that old pavement. We don't care for new things. New things eat memories. And this is the garden of memories, one of the most famous and beautiful gardens on earth.

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