Dispatch from New Orleans: Snapshots of the Big Easy

I’m picked up from the airport, and we drive past palm trees and make our way to a backyard crawfish boil for somebody’s birthday. Everyone there’s from the midwest or the west coast. A bunch of people work in or with charter schools. I steer clear of political conversations.

Later, we’re on Frenchmen Street, which smells like Chinatown but more pungent. In Brooklyn, music is a young person’s game. Here, the ubiquitous music is played by the ancient ones, lines of life etched on their faces. Fueled by Abita Amber, nicotine, whiskey, and an hour’s worth of jet lag, we drink and dance and forge friendships that won’t stand the light of day. A girl’s pepper spray pistol is fired into the darkness of an empty park, and I taste its tang in my mouth.

In the morning, the night’s jazz is replaced by the chirps and clicks of birds and the occasional tinkling of a piano in a neighbor’s parlor. The residents in Bywater live in wood-paneled, gingerbread-detailed homes haunched on bricks. The houses are coated with bright paint faded by time and mildew, their doors covered by shutters to ward off hurricane winds. They look like faded photographs of themselves. I read poetry on a cluttered, vine-covered porch, the sun warming my bones.

The French Quarter is all old stone and worked iron and faded brick. Fortune tellers and human statues and street painters ply their trade. A riverboat stuffed with tourists chugs along the muddy waters of the Mississippi. I read some words and snap some photos and make my way around on a borrowed bike with a thick wheels and a squat, bright purple frame. In my notebook I write, “We feel the absence of a thing more than we feel the presence of it.”

In the evening, we’re in a dive on Saint Claude listening to a songstress from Georgia, a friend of a friend. She wears a white dress and cowboy boots and wields a big voice. When she sings onstage, there’s idle chatter in the bar, but when she steps into the crowd and plays without amplification, the room falls silent and captivated. We make our way to Frenchmen Street for more music. We talk to a girl from Bay Ridge who wants to trade the Big Apple for the Big Easy. I don’t know whether she’s smitten with New Orleans or just looking to escape New York, as if that were easy to do. A girl from Germany bums a smoke and talks to me about Savannah, Georgia. It seems everyone is always just passing through.

We drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. Abandoned, rotted homes sit next to new constructions in wide, flat fields next to narrow streets. The houses here rise increasingly higher and higher on concrete stilts, almost parodic. In the hot sun, it’s hard to imagine the waters rising, but rise they did. It’s strange to realize that it’s been nearly seven years.

New Orleans cuisine is fried and fried again. Fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried crawfish tails. In portions that force tourists to loosen that Bible Belt. The food sits heavy in my gut as we walk under the neon lights of Bourbon Street. A street drummer makes a racist joke against the Japanese and the crowd titters. Parents lead their young daughters by hand past strip clubs and nearly nude women. My friends get in an argument with street preachers. We carry the debate back to Frenchmen Street, where weary patrons are either amused or nonplussed by our heated discussion on morality. The music becomes background. I maintain that we can’t quantify right or wrong and am accused of having no morals. The early morning finds us in an empty park carrying on, friendship restored by a flask of Jack.

We sweat in the early afternoon sun and walk along old train tracks past a break in the barbed fence at the Army Reserve to catch a sliver of the Mississippi. The sky changes with storm clouds on the horizon. We hug and make promises to visit again. We split a taxi and ride toward the airport in weary silence. I watch as lightning flashes in the sky. I wonder whether my flight is delayed and hope that it isn’t.


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