“My New Orleans,
Peter M. Wolf
“Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour — but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands — and who knows what to do with it?” —Blanche DuBois, Scene 5, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Over and again, the land planner Peter M. Wolf’s stories of growing up in that extraordinary city, of leaving, then returning, then leaving and coming back again, and again, remind us of that little piece of eternity. Reading his memoir, “My New Orleans, Gone Away,” we feel the warmth, the charm, the exuberant confusion of this unique place. Not unlike the ebb and flow of the Gulf tides, Mr. Wolf pulls himself away from New Orleans in order to pull himself back. And back. And back. . . .
What else could this book be but an odyssey? Mr. Wolf goes to a New England boarding school, the same one his father had attended, only to come home, then go off to Yale. Back in crusty New England’s New Haven he meets a wonderful cast of characters his freshman year, including Calvin Trillin, who is honing his own observational skills as a writer and humorist.
There is an endearing moment essentially the first day of freshman year in the dormitory when Mr. Wolf takes Mr. Trillin to the correct store so that he Midwesterner can be decked out in proper preppie garb. During their years at Yale, that very same Midwestern Trillin and some of their other New York City friends indoctrinate Mr. Wolf on all matters Jewish. (As a boy, Mr. Wolf had dabbled in Hebrew school — his family was perplexed by his initial interest — but soon he found other ways to occupy his time.)
Nonetheless, serendipity abounds for Mr. Wolf. At one point in the memoir, when he is in graduate school, the philanthropist and art supporter Dominique de Menil telephones him to ask him to present lectures to a special group she has created. She adds in private air transportation so that he can maintain his student life. The experience for him is both illuminating and touching. De Menil and her husband shyly come to Mr. Wolf’s door in their home at the end of the lecture series to present him with a painting to thank him for his hard work, proof again that in Mr. Wolf’s search for place he is grateful to those who surround him with art and beauty.
Throughout, Mr. Wolf is looking for his identity. His search is for his Southern roots, as well as for his Jewish roots. And, yes, there is that confusion that many Americans experience. Mr. Wolf writes beautifully about his family, grandparents, parents, and other relatives. They were cultivated, fascinating characters. In one scene, Mr. Wolf writes of the time his father taught him to repair the lighters that sat in every room of the large house. He mastered the task so well that his mother allowed him to repair even the very fancy lighters — a moment of great accomplishment for a boy.
Oh, and by the way, what book about New Orleans does not include important information about food? Mr. Wolf writes about the finest French Quarter restaurants where his forebears had, essentially, standing reservations, where he eventually acquired the great honor of a house charge. He also writes about taking Bud Trillin and other pals to a place, seemingly out in the swamps, where New Orleans mafia presided. (Right — New Orleans and mafia in the same sentence? Believe me, you’ll be convinced it was true and desperate to discover a hole-in-the-wall eatery as splendid as this one.) Mr. Trillin wanted to return tout de suite. A food writer was clearly born in this episode.
“Gone Away” in the title of course connotes Hurricane Katrina. And although Mr. Wolf does indeed visit the city after the hurricane, that section is not at all a focal point. In truth, the “Gone Away” figure is really Mr. Wolf, who has taken the lessons he learned in his birthplace and used them throughout his land-planning career, figuring out what is important and what should recede.
After all, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French because the area was on relatively high ground given the fact that the lower Mississippi was flood-prone. The inhabitants were a wild bunch: riffraff, fortune hunters, and gold diggers. In 1722, a massive hurricane struck, blowing down most of the city. After that destructive event, the administration enforced a grid pattern dictated by earlier city planners.
Even when Mr. Wolf writes about sections of New Orleans that are less than all right, the city glows. Place, place, place — that’s what Mr. Wolf has thought about his entire career as a planner of communities. Reading this memoir we think about where we live, what these places mean to us, what they meant to our ancestors, and, of course, what they will mean to our progeny.
In his career, Mr. Wolf has parlayed (ouch — given the way that word has evolved from French to English) his understanding of place in many delightful ways. He was a trustee of the New Orleans Public Library and the fledgling New Orleans educational television station soon after his graduation from college — even then he was focused on the importance of the area. He has been a chairman of the board of fellows of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. He has taught at Manhattan’s Cooper Union, has received a Fulbright, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the Graham Foundation. He has also been an artist/scholar at the American Academy in Rome. But back to that place we were focused on. . . .
Lafcadio Hearn once wrote about New Orleans: “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become a study for archaeologists . . . but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
What American place is more exotic than New Orleans? None could be more outré. Less tight-lipped, bodice-tightened, finger-pointing. Laissez le bon temps rouler. New Orleans: In the palms of our hands we have that eternity. What should we do with it this afternoon?
Laura Wells is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Star. She lives in Sag Harbor.
Peter M. Wolf lives in East Hampton.