I had two simultaneous thoughts when, just months after the destruction that was Hurricane Katrina, I got a call inviting me to come to the American Library Association convention in New Orleans in June. The first was, "New Orleans? Will there even be a New Orleans again by then? Or ever?" And the second was, "Of course." It felt almost like a civic duty to go and spend money in this city I'd never been to, but so many Americans loved.
Still, I have to admit that this was a trip I wasn't exactly looking forward to: it'll be so depressing, I thought. (And hot, which it was, but that's another story.) How will even the most well meaning of organizations, like the ALA, not to mention a politically complicated (to put it kindly) municipality ever get it together to host such a large event? But like 18,000 other book people, I booked my stay.
The convention was held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, not far from the Superdome, both of which figured shockingly in the misery of Katrina's aftermath. And from all accounts from those who'd been to such events before, ALA New Orleans was pretty much business as usual: booths and books and garrulous, partying visitors. There were also some events held elsewhere, including at the giant Hilton Riverside hotel. For the most part, it was pretty much been there/done that. "How are you finding New Orleans?" I asked one author who had visited the city many times before. "It doesn't seem that different," she replied.
But of course it is different, which didn't escape several visitors who took cabs out to the only public library, of eight damaged ones, that has been reopened. Not only did this trip allow out-of-towners a gruesome view of devastation that may never be repaired, it exposed them to the sometimes scary fact that many of the city's cab drivers and other "service professionals" are out-of-towners themselves, since the city's entire workforce seems to have decamped to Texas. Book people weren't the only ones having trouble finding their way around.
Still, I found the whole experience to be a profound one, and not just because it fed my ego about "doing the right thing" by spending a few days and dollars in a place that really needs them. The ALA was the first major convention to visit New Orleans since Katrina, which means book people were among the first to make an effort to help out a city that it seemed others (i.e., Washington) had forgotten. And I was proud of us all for turning an ordinary business event into a chance to support the restaurants and bars (oh, yes, those famous French Quarter bars) and shop for New Orleans resurrection T-shirts and rubber wristlets declaring that this part of the South, at least, would rise again.
Okay, book people have a tendency to be clannish and competitive and just a bit on the cheaper side. But for a week last month, we were joyful and friendly and helpful and generous—even if there was not necessarily a percentage in it.
So good for us.
Now I'd like to see which, if any, other big-deal, big-profit industries follow suit.
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