I don't know what to say about John Derbyshire, the columnist for the National Review. I really don't. He stopped in New Orleans last weekend for the first time and didn't care for it, which is totally and completely de gustibus and different strokes and whatever, but his whole column on the subject read like a parody of Niles Crane from Frasier...or, more precisely, a man who went to Tuscany and found himself disappointed at the lack of Olive Gardens:
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....
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.
"Lifeless"?? Call it unattractive, crime-ridden, dirty, smelly, dysfunctional, or whatever other pejoratives you like, but: lifeless?
But it was this that absolutely gobsmacked me, John:
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?”
Had you even heard of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina?
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.
"The Louvre? Hell, no, we didn't go! I've seen pitchers of the Mona Lisa plenty a times!"
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....
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 — Brookstone, Banana Republic — as in every other mall everywhere in the USA.
John, I feel your pain. It makes me feel more than slightly sad that a writer for the National Review would come to New Orleans, "a city with three centuries of history stacked up," and then spend a day hanging out in a mall before deciding he doesn't like the town.
Your daughter is only 14. What's your excuse?
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.
Aside from the fact that I can think of, say, six bookstores within a few blocks of Jackson Square (including the one in the home of William Faulkner), did it ever occur to you to ask someone?
Anyway, that night the Derbyshires ended up at Arnaud's, where he was to pick up an award from a mathematicians' society (long story short: he got the time wrong and missed the award ceremony, which was the complete point of his trip), but the evening was not a total loss:
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....
There you have, I think, the crux of the problem. A man who categorizes jokes about the windshields of Texas topologists as "free and fun-filled conversation" is just not going to have a good time in New Orleans.
The kicker, of course, is that Derbyshire is one of those essayists who waxes rhapsodic about the glory of sea-to-shining-sea America:
Don't let anyone tell you he understands American politics if he hasn't traveled a lot in all fifty of these United States. This is a big country, and the edges are a long way from the middle.
Trust me on this, John: I won't be taking advice on anything, least of all American politics, from a man who can't even find a bookstore in New Orleans.