Letter From BatonrnRougernby John Patrick ZmirakrnOld LovernMv Downtown is dying. That is perhapsrnsaving too little; Downtown is nearlyrndead. The neat, grid-patterned, wellpavedrnstreets of the old Baton Rouge,rnthe white hot eemcnt Huey Longrnpounded Florsheim heel and toe against,rnthe small optimistie stores set up in thern30’s and 40’s and equipped with illuminatedrnsigns in the 50’s and 60’s withrnnames like Lerner’s Dress Shop andrnGrossman’s Hats and Landry’s FamousrnPo-Boys, the tree-lined pedestrian sidewalksrnwith jeweler’s standing eloeks andrnnewsstands, all this is nearly gone. Nowrnparking lots gape where stores oneernstood, but few ears sit in them, and fewerrnby night. The old things are passingrnawav—like streets with sidewalks, designedrnfor gentlemen and ladies to walkrnup and down on and to speak to eaehrnother in passing, replaced by the vastrndistended nonplaces of steel and glassrntowering malls, their huge eooling unitsrnpumping nonair through the nonplaeernto hose down the nonpeople who spendrntheir nontime and nonmonev there.rnOh, ves, the ears and the money are real,rnespecially the ears equipped withrnphones and German precision stereosrnthat insulate one nonpcrson from thernother imitation people who, in their realrnears, speed by like smears of paint onrnthe road that has no sidewalk or shoulderrnbut only enormous billboards with giantsrnflashing man-high teeth at the greyrninterchangeable facts passing bv.rnynd Downtown is more beautiful becausernit is dying. If things biological arernlovelier in the bloom of youth—the pertrnupstanding breast, straight back, clearrneve, and thick hair—things of artificernare their negative. Their moment ofrngreatness, of sheer poignant grace whenrnthey must be the more loved, is whenrnthey are dying, when the sun’s lightrnshines sickly on them from the cloudlessrnjaundiced west, as the time-ruinedrnlace of the wedding dress, the sepia-ancestorrnprints, the shreds of battle flags,rnand the fishbone-delicate spines of deea’rning books attest. There is somethingrnin the sensate soul that loves the emptyingrnlanes of the whitelcss city (the pinkrnfaces fled to chop down the pineywoodsrnand put up aluminum churchesrnand aluminum siding in taxless subdivisionsrnbeyond the buslines where therernare no blacks, no poor, no memory), thernstores that the old white and new blackrnowners cannot afford to remodel and sornbear the traces of time, proving that indeedrntime has passed and that the pastrnwas a time, not the cold imperial machine,rnthe endless ravening Present thatrnmarches onward like a Terminator.rnI am not speaking of nostalgia. Thernvery things whose beauty I have learnedrnto see in the yellowing light were oncernstark and cold and new themselves,rnburning at noon silver wounds into thernmemory of those who knew what theyrnreplaced. The streetcars whose passing Irnmourn and whose forlorn rails still showrnlike stretch marks here and there, whenrnthey displaced the horse and carriage,rnmust have seemed the verv monstrousrnengines of Progress. 1 would have hatedrnthem then. So the Mass of Trent, whosernmelancholy, humble strains can bernheard in most cities only in the oldest,rnpoorest, least-renovated churches nearrnthe hollow old heart of town, must havernjangled baroque and cacophonous in thernlate medieval ear, seduced by the sweetestrnold strains of text-mangling polyphonyrnand the fervid Gallican excess ofrnlitany and gesture. That was four hundredrnyears ago. Now sung by old forgottenrnpriests in what tattered goldrnthread and stained silk escaped the bonfirernof the 70’s, with reluctant writs ofrnpermission, rebounding off unplasteredrnwalls to the ears of the poor, the old, thernalienated, and the eccentric who clutchrnbone rosaries in anger-clenched knuckles,rnthe Latin Mass breathes the very airrnof consolation to the soul. To the soulsrngathered kneeling about the marble altarrnrail, the very cracks in the rail are precious,rnscored bv other nourished soulsrnthat now wait breathing the gray air ofrnPurgation until our prayers for them accumulate,rnthe Ghurch Suffering and thernChurch Perduring.rnConservatives should love the poor;rnwe love all old things that endure, andrnthe poor we have always had with us.rnThe poor preserve the past—they can’trnafford new ugly soulless acquisitions andrnmust make do with what has becomernbeautiful over time. While thin palernmen in Bauhaus angular rooms in coolrnmachine-tooled Germany inventedrnatonalism and fascism, black cane-choppersrnand sharecroppers dug through therncompost of our tangled pasts to raise thernBlues over the Ford-tossed dust ofrnSouthern roads, reaching deep intornAfrica our common rootbed to producerndeep sad songs that as soon as sung oneernsounded venerable and saered, so muchrnof the past did they carrv in their strains.rnCivilization is not a private matter,rnnor is it subject to reno’ation, self-help,rnor Utopian renewal. As delicate and ambiguousrnas its father the brain or itsrnmother the body, its life is the publicrnsquare. Any city that lacks a publicrnplace where men without paving or feelingrnshiftless mav mingle and argue andrnfeed the birds does not deserve thernname. It is a giant hospital wing, withrnprivate rooms and only a common toilet.rnIt deserves to be destroved by fire. Mayrnthe malediction of an angrv God fall uponrnit; may its lawns wither and its kidnev-rnshapcd pools turn black with rottingrnfish of m’stcrious provenance; mayrnits pets die of loneliness; mav its garagesrnbe infested with raccoons and opossums;rnmay its over-dressed elose-eoiffedrnplanned Montcssori children neglectrntheir Japanese lessons and run off to joinrnthe circus or the Marines; may its Unitariansrnlose their faith; mav its Republicansrnlose their jobs.rnThis process b’ which the new andrnappalling gains over time the luster ofrnrarity and fragility—an act of sympathy,rnperhaps, of our mortal flesh for otherrnfleeting things and not of the mind,rnwhich alone davdreams a terrestrialrneternity—will continue. One hopes,rnthough he cannot imagine, that a purple-rnplastic Circle K store will in time seducernthe sympathv as the huge plaintivernrusting root beer mug of Frost-Toprncurrently does; one wishes, though herncan hardly hope, that the telegraph Englishrnand gvmnastics of the modernrnMass will someday be gentle, soothing,rnand dignified; one imagines fondlv thatrnthe countcrtop condom racks will somedayrnmake us laugh genth’ at human fol-rnIv, as their iron-girded men’s room ancestorsrndo now in truckstops. It is thernlaw of history. But O, it is hard to picture!rn]ohn Patrick Zmirak is the assistantrneditor of Success magazine.rnDECEMBER 1992/45rnrnrn