Summer was starting.
Grading was over.
We rode to the skate parks to explore the city.
Meeting in the West Village, Tim and Mel told me about their year.
It was hard.
ALS and Covid, the blues hit.
But that was then.
Summer was here.
Tim was telling me about his exploits in the East Village and NOLA.
The next morning, we made our way out to slow it down.
It all blurs.
A younger singer stood outside of 4229 Dauphine St, New Orleans, her debut at Vaughan’s, the iconic 9th Ward Music venue, singing:
“Summertime and the livin' is easy”
She hit the deep note perfectly.
Oh my god, said the elder man sitting on the street in front of me, applauding.
The teenager and I look at each other.
We’d been listening to Janis Japlin sing this song over and over again when she was a kid, when I was baby sitting taking care of her.
“Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good lookin'
So hush, little baby, don't you cry
One of these mornings
You're gonna rise up singin'
Yes, you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky…”
She was born in 2005 after the storm....I’d been at this club the previous fall, seeing Kermit play there on one of those late Thursday nights back in 2004.
This is our third trip to NOLA together, the teenager and I, our second on our own.
We’d only arrived a couple nights before, staying at Balcony Guest House on Royal Street in our favorite neighborhood, the Faubourg Marigny.
My frequent hosts Erin and Kevin describe it as:
“.. a wonderful 18th and 19th century neighborhood, which was the first “suburb” of New Orleans that was developed outside of the original city limits – The French Quarter. The neighborhood is an eclectic mix of professionals, artists, writers, hipsters, bohemians and old-timers. The neighborhood is bound on the north by St. Claude Ave (the major intersection to the left of the house) on the south by the river, on the east by the French Quarter (Esplanade Ave) and on the west by Press St and the railroad tracks. On the other side of Press St and the railroad tracks but within the same north/south boundary is our sister neighborhood, the Bywater, which is very similar to the Marigny... The neighborhood on the other side of St. Claude Ave, which is the major street at the left end of the block is a bit different than the Marigny and Bywater.”
We spend the next few days exploring the spaces between the trees of the Esplinade and the View Carre, the “Old Square” Marigny and the Bywater, walking along Dauphine, my favorite street in the city. Most of the time I’m here I’m trying to make sense of the past, within this unique space and its mix of cultures, free men, the colonized and colonizers, Spanish, French, and the US, Creole and Cajuns flavors, overlapping. I always forget whose who, and whose spices came from where in this distinct mix. Houma puts it: the Creole “mixed colonial French, African American and Native American ancestry. The term Black Creole refers to freed slaves from Haiti and their descendants. Still another class of Creole originates with the placage system in which white and creole men took on mixed-race mistresses in a lifelong arrangement…In this arrangement, the women had property, their children were educated and entitled to part of the man’s estate upon his death. In New Orleans, these people made up the artisan class and became wealthy and very influential. “Cajun” is derived from “Acadian” which are the people the modern day Cajuns descend from. These were the French immigrants who were expelled from Nova Scotia, and eventually landed in Louisiana after decades of hardship and exile.” And they are still here, informing this distinct space. Some call it the northern most city of the Caribbean, a trade port between the Caribbean and the Mississippi to the north.
Walking past the Esplanade, I look at the trees across the thoroughfare, the crusty punks on the corner, the shadows, the memories, the vampires and magic.
Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, used to live here. She writes
“But during all these years I had a vague but persistent desire to return to New Orleans. I never forgot New Orleans. And when we were in tropical places and places of those flowers and trees that grow in Louisiana, I would think of it acutely and I would feel for my home the only glimmer of desire I felt for anything… .”
Many of us have that feeling.
I have it as we sit listening to Dixie Jazz at Bamboula's on Frenchman Street eating friend pickles and catfish.
“There will be other songs to sing. There will never be another you,” the band sings.
Our waitress pulled an
all nightery the previous night.
But she’s in a good mood, making sure everything is coming.
I scour the music listings.
Kermit is playing at the Magnolia Mansion in the Garden District; his shows always offer a mix Red Beans and rice and jazz. So we make our way over:
“Grab your coat
Don't forget your hat
But leave your worries
Leave 'em on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street…” he sings,
sounding more and more like Satchmo, who sang this song, before him, as did Billy.
We only stay for a bit.
Our friend Anne Christine wants to meet at the Artisan Café on St Claude.
The author of The Pox
Lover, a memoir of the turbulent 1990s in New York City and Paris, d'
I wake with a bit of the Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s novel of seven years in a sanitarium.
By 945 AM, we drop by Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop, down the street from the Balcony Guest House. On the way, we pass Big Daddy's Bar, where people are still drinking. Caroline had that whisky here that took her out before we went to Galatoire's a few years ago.
The simple breakfast at Flora is an ideal way to start a day of touring about, words and music, images dancing from the room.
Jesse, the teenager’s friend, jumps on the piano, playing us a medley of songs from Hunky Dorey, life in mars, etc. A Church of Stop Shopping EarthRiot jacket patch hangs in the back.
I read a zine titled, “More Poems about Bro Sex and Bohemian Lifestyle.” And scour the set lists for the night. There’s DBA where the Rebirth Brass Band is playing and Treme Brass Band at Vaughan’s and the AllWays Lounge and Cabaret on St Claude, for burlesque shows.
Its almost more than I can plan for.
After breakfast, we walk down Dauphine, taking in the smells, the quirky houses on the way to Frady’s One Stop, an oddball grocery, which offers po’ boys and deviled eggs on 3231 Dauphine; the owner is obsessed with Luci Ball.
Greetings Ben and Dodi, says the always amiable owner, Dodi, I missed you. Welcome back, he says, chatting away, sometimes about Luci Ball, sometimes about arriving at 5 AM every morning, except Saturday, when he sleeps in and arrives at 545.
Frady’s is on Dauphine and Penitence,
the best corner porch around.
It’s usually an early stop on my trips here.
Down the street from our favorite junk shop, up the street from my favorite cross street here, Dauphine and Desire.
Seems every street corner is teeming with stories, poetry itself.
We walk toward the end of the world, a decommissioned old military base, turned squat, with mutual aid corner and whimsical murals and graffiti.
People are milling about, having slept there.
This is what the world might look like if we all slowed down.
The teenagers see it as a space between utopia and dystopia, somewhere between this world and another, this life and another, between a dream life and these walking days.
Walking through it, you see syringes on the ground and hear voices inside.
I think of what Anne said the night before.
“I have lived in Haiti. I have seen a life without government. I want a little government…”
To beat the heat, we stop at Bacchanal, a wine-&-cheese bar offering live music in a shady back patio, with lots of fans and a fresh breeze at 600 Poland Ave.
The Tangiers Combo, a Mediterranean infused jazz group, of guitar and accordion, is playing in the back.
“I Love Paris,” is their first song, with transcontinental vibe filling the back yard.
“Born of the roots of many cultures in the Northern-most Caribbean town, New Orleans, The Tangiers Combo transports listeners to the vibrating land of poets, writers, musicians and cultural refugees. ..The Tangiers Combo combines French bal musettes, Latin waltzes, American songbook classics, and Caribbean beats. A steady homage to New Orleans' jazz heritage forms the backbone. Forgotten tunes and favorite standards weave a tale of musical intrigue and delight.”
All week, world music overlaps with a traditional New Orleans repertoire.
A little jazz and a breeze, some cheese and a Pimms cup is just what the doctor ordered.
“I think you need a new doctor,” says the Teenager.
She’s probably right.
Music all day long, from Bacchanal to Vaughans, where we enjoy some crawfish, tunes and friendship, kids dancing with their parents the Treme Brass Band, doing summersaults in front of us.
Scotty pulls over to greet us, inviting us to see more jazz afterward.
We miss the musicians.
But Anne Christine and Scott chat away.
Anne regales us with stories about Lesbian Avengers, activist strategies, and dangerous alligators and they ride home.
The teenagers get turned away from the Always Cabaret, a lounge on St Claude, putting on burlesque shows.
Its hard to shake the Sally Bowles dream of a never never clubland, where all life is a cabaret.
But unlike my days on Bourbon Street when I was 16, they are getting carded a lot.
The blues grasp. We go our separate ways.
I catch some karaoke and keep on walking through the masses making their way through this majestic city. The smell of vomit becomes all the more pronounced the closer we get to the quarter, where I found that Big Daddy’s, a strip club where I used to hang out as a teenager, was closed.
My mind wonders back to a night I stayed all night high on crystal meth, meeting new friends, with my brother, and Matteo. And the city opened up right there. Many have similar memories:
Cities are always changing.
This is the only constant of city life.
On Frenchman Street, people are screaming inside Café Negil.
I walk inside and its like a religious revival.
Drinks in hand, hands in the air, everyone is singing along:
Woah-oah-ah-ah-ah uh, uh
La-la-la, la, la, la
Woah, la (ha, ha, ha, ha)
Strumming my pain with
his fingers (yes, he was singing my life)
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song..”
Roberta would have been proud.
It wasn’t the last time I heard these words on this trip.
The exuberance cleans some of the desperate 42nd Street, Bourbon Street vibe.
More music fills the street outside, a tuba player and drummer holding a beat, with a circle cheering them on. Some of the people who were at Vaughan’s hours earlier are still out dancing.
We all are.
We sleep in the next morning. The Magic Mountain and a cup of coffee help welcome the day, dreams of witches and magic, illness and death, life and transcendence propel the story. Not much plot, but it is oddly comforting, helping me make my way through the haze of morning.
By this point, it feels like we’ve been in town for days.
Our routine begins with a breakfast at Flora, maybe some piano.
The teenagers had a rough time the night before, stumbling into a friend from New York, who seemed lost, and not in a good way.
Its one thing to romanticize jumping trains. The reality of poverty, the sensation of being strung out – is anything bur romantic.
But the sun is shining.
We stroll back to Frady’s and the Bargain Center of Dauphine.
Ruth, one of the owners is sitting smoking a cigarette outside.
“I like it here. You see kids. And the Second Line Parades every day, for no reason,” she tells me, recalling her years here.
At Frady’s a line runs out the door. I sit outside drinking a sweat tea, talking with a few of the others. “The deviled eggs here are my favorites,” a younger black man tells me. “They are always kind to me inside.” He pauses, reflecting on the years he spent outside of the city after Katrina, displaced and drifting. “New Orleans is the only place I know where people help each other out. If you are in trouble, people help you here. In New Orleans, they help you if you need help. They don’t do that in other places, not at all. They helped me find housing,” he tells me.
The conversation gradually shifts to cemeteries nearby. A few folks on the bench suggest we walk to St Vincent and then to St Roch Cemeteries – both in walking distance.
“Are you tourists,” asks a man at St Vincent Cemetery. For the next hour, he tells me about things. “My mother is there. My brother is there,” he explains, pointing. “I am going to be there,” he says, pointing in the same direction. “The graves are above ground because under the ground, the water preserves the bodies. And it spreads disease.” Whole families are buried in one tomb. They have to go in and re cremate them.”
From graveyards to rates of mortality after the Civil War to Creole and Cajun histories, the conversation goes on and on and on about the dead, the ways they bury and remember them here, the rituals and economics and land use questions of piling bodies in a flood plane. “It only went up about three feet here during Katrina.” Cemeteries are gateways to conversations about morality and mortality. I could keep talking all day. But the kids are getting anxious.
That afternoon we find ourselves walking through the quarter.
Outside of Jackson Square, its hard not to think about who drafted his Confederacy of Dunces about this space, an homage to a hotdog vendor’s existential struggle amidst the ruins, failing to procure a book contract in his lifetime.
“I am an anachronism. People realize this and resent it,” he writes. His novel never saw the light of day, not until after he killed himself and his mother took the manuscript to Walker Percy, the literary lion of New Orleans. He saw something in Toole’s homage to this sentiment, his words, capturing the feeling:
“... I tried to end our little duel. I called out pacifying words; I entreated; I finally surrendered. Still Clyde came, … apparently convinced … we were back in the golden days of romantic old New Orleans when gentlemen decided matters of … honor at twenty paces…”
Like the hotdog vender Toole describes, people are selling their wares throughout the square. Walking up to the Cabildo, where the Spanish signed the deed to the French and the French signed the deed to the United States, history feels very present here. It’s good to be reminded. We sit looking at it all. And then make our way, through a side street.
Behind Pirate’s Alley, we take in Faulkner’s old home. Faulkner drafted his first novel here, trapsing about with his friend Sherwood. Anderson’s short story “A Meeting South,” conserns evening with himself and Aunt Sally, a grand New Orleans, chatting with a young writer, wounded in war and with too much drink:
“He told me the story of his ill fortune-…I liked his tone and I liked him. This happened in New Orleans, where I had gone to live. When he came, my friend, Fred, for whom he was looking, had gone away, but immediately I felt a strong desire to know him better and so suggested we spend the evening together. When we went down the stairs from my apartment…”
The story is about what happened there. The character is thought to be a young Faulkner who caroused with Anderson for a number of years here, while drafting his first novel, before the two had a falling out.
The days getting hotter and hotter. We need a break from the sun. Before we know it, we are deep into red beans and rice at Buffa’s on the Esplanade, and back to Vaughan’s.
The Magic Mountain is getting better and better.
Her friend left so we go to breakfast on our own, recounting the people we’ve met here, the Brooklynites, the writers from Hells Kitchen, on and on, Remmy, from Williamsburg, who spends a month here a year, a week every few months.
We talk about dreams and where to live a life, where we work harder or in a dreamscape such as this?
At Flora, we listen to a younger couple play the piano, thinking about time passing, the summer coming up, and then the fall when she moves out West to make her own life.
Kids grow and make their own lives.
So, we enjoy the time we have.
Anne Christine shows us her photos and books and we chat about writing and the city in flux.
Books such as Force of Circumstance by Simone de Beauvoir, Janet Flanner's World: Uncollected Writings, and sylvia beach and the lost generation - they show her how to write.
All afternoon we explore St Roach’s cemetery.
And we make our way back to Flora for pecan pie and sweet tea, talking about what we’ve seen. The quirky, street graffiti is striking and whimsical. The teenager sketches impressions. The people live well here.
That night we finally get reservations for Galatoire’s, a century-old spot serving French-Creole fare at 209 Bourbon Street, that’s my favorite place to eat. My family has eaten there for generations. We get a spot on the first floor. The last time she was here, her Grandad brought her a few days before the storm.
Today, Bev and her grandfather, who met her on that trip with us are gone. But the restaurant is still there.
The same gumbo and escargot, opened memories, the same ghosts of meals with dad.
The teenager and I talk about where its all going, all the adventures she’s had and is going to have, opening her wings to fly, thinking about Sally Bowles, off to the end of the world.
We walk back to the end of the world, reflecting on the decommissioned military base, turned mutual aid, squat, art space and bird sanctuary.
“It reminds me of utopia,” says the teenager, looking at the graffiti.
“I hope you find all you seek” says the labyrinth.
“Open your heard to love…”
Back we walk, past Vaughans, now empty, a worker in back preparing for the day of crawfish and red beans and rice, and live music.
The art of living is wondrous here.
Words of the street, “Stop Killing people”
“Your joy inscribed itself on the sidewalk and it has never been washed away,” says another mural.
Past the railroad tracks, past Desire, we stroll, back to Penitence and Frady’s and our friends and memories or eating at Galatoire’s and Dad and Bev 16 years ago. Before they headed back to Texas, Katrina hit, and they passed. And COVID came and the world changed. And that little girl is about to take her wings and fly, away from Flora, Brooklyn in the distance.