Unnerving New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana.
I had never felt the full neurosis of my “east coastness” until New Orleans. That esprit de laissez les bons temps rouler is supposed to be liberating. But that wasn’t the case for me. Upon touching down at Louis Armstrong International Airport I felt my muscles seize up like a disturbed quahog. New Orleans was trying to woo me with its balmy weather and oozy music, and my limbs were too stiff to receive the vibes.
The paralysis set in upon entering my first bar of the trip, d.b.a., on Frenchmen street. Or rather, it set in as I was attempting to leave:
“What do you mean I don’t have to chug this drink before leaving? I can take it WITH me? But that’s so….civilized!”
My stiff little heart went into shock.
(I should clarify that I was aware of New Orleans’ loose open container laws before arriving. Hell I had been here before! But that prior knowledge did little to ease my nerves as I scuttled, head down, drink in hand, out of the bar. I was prepared to be reprimanded by a bouncer, apprehended by an officer, struck down by a heavenly thunderbolt. I could almost feel the little plastic cup searing the word “sinner” into my palm.)
Across the street from the bar, strands of white lights crisscrossed the sky above an open-air arts and crafts market. Past the stalls of jewelry, wood carvings, and bric-a-brac, outdoor “living rooms” had been arranged with painted metal couches, coffee tables, and lamps.
Charlie and I plopped down on a rocking bench and reviewed the events of the day. We had listened to a street-performing brass band and watched a barefoot old woman pick up a child which was not hers and dance with him. We had seen purple clouds envelop a church from all sides but never besiege the steeple. We had inadvertently filled our lungs with the powdered sugar of beignets. And we had been invited to a cocktail party – the compulsory houseguests-of-the-neighbors-of-the-party-throwers invitation – where we gathered in a cream-carpeted living room to watch a certain Dr. John, aka “the Night Tripper,” jam away at a grand piano. His name sounded familiar but I couldn’t identify it precisely. Charlie assured me he was a big deal.
With memories tallied and to-go cups depleted, we returned to d.b.a. where Walter Wolfman Washington & the Roadmasters were jiving onstage. I studied the photographs which hung beside the bar: portraits of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday. One portrait struck me as eerily familiar: the tipped hat, the distinctive pony tail. I swilled my whiskey and thought, “Didn’t I just see that guy at a house party?” I felt myself succumbing to the time-warped voodoo of New Orleans.
Like anywhere else, it takes time (and more than a little booze) to ease into New Orleans and synchronize with its urban clock. Each city ticks along at its own pace. New York is frenetic and unrelenting, Paris is erratic (so many jours fériés, grèves, and manifs to disrupt the tempo), and New Orleans sways along like a bewitched rocking chair: slow, soothing, and interminable.