I read a book a few years ago about the secret gardens of New Orleans. I was obsessed with the city at the time — the cemeteries, the food, the bleat of horns falling from Preservation Hall into Frenchman Street. Jazz — both the dirge when someone leaves, and the celebration following the caskets being entombed after the funeral that celebrates the time you had. Following my second visit to the city, still carrying the scents of bougainvillia and magnolia in my mouth, and wearing that sweat-damp memory of swamp on my skin, I left again broken-hearted and aching.
It’s a city with three hundred years under its belt, and every piece of that past sings through the cobblestone — the fever epidemics that packed the cities of the dead; secluded moments under dripping galleries, the streets mirrored with rain; thieves and beggars and charlatan magicians; the mysteries of those night-shrouded rituals that remember a priestess dancing with a serpent in the old Congo Square. I remember dancing in New Orleans while the band blasted through “I’ll fly away”, crammed between as many sweaty bodies, arms thrown over my head, spilling beer. I remember those pints shared in the darkest alcove of Lafitte’s, avoiding the tourists, talking about pirates and how Luisa Teish described the city as “tipsy” because of the volume of drowned souls who made the Mississippi their grave. I remember languishing over those wrought iron rails, hands tangled with beads and flowers, and laughing with the people on the street below. Friends entangled in each others arms. Walking barefoot down bourbon street at three in the morning. I remember placing a hand on the tomb of Marie Laveau but never leaving a mark because I never needed to make a wish — I already knew I’d come back.
For my friends bereft of an adventuresome spirit, it’s a hard thing to describe: that love affair. It’s an assault that leaves a mark on the heart and infuses the bones, becoming part of you, and you carry it with you years later whether you want to or not. You can probably guess at the parallel, here, given the title of this post. I’m talking about a haunting in the most practical sense.
New Orleans was my first love. New Orleans is still my first love, and as I sit here today in my humid apartment, sleep-deprived and nostalgic for everything that wasn’t (and I’ve asked myself time and again why I didn’t stay — and I had my reasons at the time, but now I’m older and unsure of the future, and I don’t really have an answer beyond the practical: no job, total solitude, no friends in the area), I understand that these are excuses and not reasons. My heart was elsewhere, lost in some elusive patchwork that didn’t hold together in the end, but shaped a piece of my shadow that I cross now and again when the sun shifts in just the right angle and it falls before me so I can take a good hard look at the things that cobble together in the density.
(We’re on a goddamn roll, today, guys. I could underline the subtext here, but you know what I’m talking about.)
A simple truth came out of this: I had a dream of renting a place in the Quarter, taking six months off to write; to find a little piece of myself that I left behind at the bottom of my mint julep. Sometime, someplace in the not too distant future — dreams like these are still possible, inasmuch as you’re only ever limited by how wild you want to be. How unattached to your comforts. How close you are to scraping despair buffered against that desire for something more that shapes who you will become.
But you’re still standing there staring at all that darkness under your feet, and that keeps your grounded from making those life-altering, intense, mind-blowing, soul-trauma decisions. Right?
Then there was Katrina.
I went back after the storm expecting damage. Destruction. The waterline was an ever-stretching brown line marring the sound barrier lining the highway. I watched that fucking line from the cab ride in all the way from the airport, looping around a place that I felt I owed so much to for a few short moments it gave me: Faulkner, Williams, Capote, Twain, Bellocq… even Laughlin. Artists and writers. Heroes. Legend-makers. Their spirits imprinted on every word that you ever produce forever after and then some because you remember the flavour of them and they shape the way you see the world.
Flattened houses. The ruins of the Ninth Ward. Treme in shambles. Mountains of forgotten lives and homes littering the streets so you couldn’t see where grass met concrete. I opened the window in that cab, asking the driver to turn up the radio because the music is a metronome that sets the heart skipping. I could’ve cried, but the it’s hard when you’re listening to a song that owes itself to a wake.
I was angry. I was elated. I was terrified of what I might find after the flood waters had receded.
“After the storm,” for me at least, is a resonant thing that has a life of its own. It’s a concept that suggests there was life before and there will be life after, even if you’re still wading through the wreckage. Some things endure while others are washed away, but most of all you have the opportunity to rebuild, and to never forget what brought you to where you’re standing.
At the worst point of being sad, before the conversations about broken hearts started happening and people just sort of acknowledged that I couldn’t yet find the strength to go into detail, there was always someone to throw an arm around my shoulders, or offer a hug, or scratch my back, or pour me another beer. I woke up from a dream a few nights ago and realized how deep the parallel ran: this feeling is like walking through an endless three feet of muddy water where you can see the debris of everything you’ve lain waste to. You know there’s an end point where the shallows will drop off, and if you can make it to that edge in your sodden clothes and although the going’s hard, you know you’re going to hit the river and you’ll be able to swim again. Get swept up by the current again. Until that point, you just have to keep walking.
The Quarter was alive that spring, in spite of weathering Katrina. The bustle and the lights and the food as rich as ever; it’s spirit a little battered but unbroken.
I went and I ate Coop’s fried chicken and gumbo and shoved my face full of beignets from Cafe du Monde. All that powdered sugar giving me jitters, followed by iced coffee cranking up the ringing in my ears. I made the loop through the Garden District and wound up in front of the Mayfair house trying to catch a glimpse of Anne Rice; paid my respects to the former house belonging to Trent Reznor. Stopped and smelled the magnolia trees. I was hunting for Storyville legends that year, so I hung out on Basin and wandered St. Louis One — pressed my hand against the tomb of Marie Laveau again, and gave my thanks for bringing me back although I hadn’t asked the first time. I even looked at a few houses for rent in the former Channel. I spent all my money, but I didn’t linger. The part of the city I knew I’d take home was in the experience, and that’s another fist around the heart that gives a little squeeze every now and again to pump the blood a little harder. Push out the poison or spread it, whatever. You know its there.
Coming back felt like I had unfinished business to resolve. Leaving the second time gave me a modicum of closure where I could make the connection between the darkness where ideas are born in the early hours of morning, and that constant yearning for something other that I couldn’t put my finger on.
That’s the thing about New Orleans — for as bright and boisterous as it is, it acknowledges that someone’s mourned before that parade happens. It endures, and so do we, even and especially when we return to remind ourselves.
It hurt less to leave the second time; again, something unexplainable. I worry about growing older and growing harder; becoming less enchanted with the world around me. I worry about the next schism in my life that will leave me changed and what that will mean, and I remember someone who didn’t worry so much; who only wanted to stand next to the speaker and holler along with the band.
As they say in the South, “It’s coming up a big cloud.” Literally and figuratively, with the hurricane warnings starting for Toronto and Quebec. “Rotating storms.” Right. I’d be more worried about the calm at the middle, and what comes of that later.