Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Settling In/ Saying Goodbye

 Adventure = an exciting or unusual experience; it may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.

I can't believe its been a month since I last posted. Somewhere along the line life started to settle, like it always does, and I got into the swing of things. This is not at all to say that I feel completely at home here-- I think that would take years, if I had that to devote to this project, as well as the forging of some deep relationships, which I still have not. They say that Kung Fu masters go through a period of solitude and trying before emerging with deeper understanding, knowledge and skill. I don't care a lick about karate, but I think I sort of understand.

It's also often said (and I'm a firm believer) that the universe gives you exactly what you need in a given moment. What you need being different than what you may want. My urge to come down here was so strong, that it was like an epiphany. It was something I couldn't ignore if I had tried, which I did not. If I choose to look at this experience in terms of joyousness, excitement and endless fun, I might consider it a disappointment. I have had my fun for certain, but this has been more profound than that if I can use that term without sounding overly dramatic.

For reasons I don't need to hash out, solitude has never been much of a theme in my life.  And solitude, which can be pleasant and worth seeking out, is different than being alone. Which is different than loneliness. On this journey I have learned how to be alone. To become comfortable with me. And quite simply, I'm certain that's what the universe had in store for me down here. That, and some inspiration, the seeds for which I expect to blossom in their own time.

This evening I took a slow, perambulating ride through the Quarter. Well, that isn't exactly even true-- I was only going to the grocery store. But once I got going, it occurred to me that it was Monday night, and the tourist clog was at an all time low. The temperature was perfect, and the humidity low, like lukewarm bathwater. Musicians sitting on the pavement in vestibules strumming guitars. Wafts of hot garbage floating on the air. Checkout girls who address you as "baybee" dancing to the piped in Muzac. Riding the wrong way down the road on my creaky cycle. The strains of live music on Frenchmen's.

We all come here looking for the same things: oysters, brass bands, crawdads, second line parades, voodoo, dancing in bars with boys. I found a few of those things, sometimes.

I also found long, wandering walks with nowhere to go, cockroaches in my shower, wierdos, sometimes disappointment, the true meaning of homesickness, the crevices of my own mind, a bed meant for one, a creaky old beloved bicycle, the fortitude of my liver, anxiety, fear, nuance, the sound of a hundred thousand nightime frogs, sitting still, and about fourteen million other little details that will remain with me, under the ticky-tacky matter of my memory until I die.

Were this all sunshine and rainbows I don't think I will have emerged from this adventure feeling like a woman in a suit of armor, slightly dented and rusted out, a little ragged but so, so much better-- like a she-warrior emerged from battle, wearing the beautiful sheen patina of knowing more, more, more.

Thanks New Orleans, for this adventure. I'm ready for the next era.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Twice in a Lifetime

“New Orleans is a town where death enjoys respect and familiarity.”
-Andrei Codrescu

He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I didn’t know Ray Deter, but he is responsible for two of the most transcendent New Orleans moments of my life. The first, in his bar DBA on Frenchmen, wandering around looking for some good music. I found it, without a cover, without a calendar, stumbling on Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, playing so loud and so hard, the music was like its own element. Like you could reach out and touch it or cut it with a knife. I stood up on the bench along the side of the wall, danced, sang, screamed, sweated, drank, got heckled by Kermit, and laughed my goddamn ass off. When it was all over, it was the middle of the night. We were spent. We were hungry and thirsty. It was like we had to replenish our essential life force. Kermit must have felt the same way, because I bumped smack into him at the bar we retired to. He wasn’t in any mood to chitchat with my drunk ass, and I can’t say I blame him. If I was exhausted, I can only imagne how he felt. I left the man alone to his beer and his plate. I’ll never forget that night—I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since, and I’ve finally given in to the realization that moments like that are once, maybe twice in a lifetime.

Fast-forward two and a half years. I had a notion to move to New Orleans, based at least in small part on that night. I thought that I could live anywhere that made me feel like I did that evening, fixed as it was in my sense memory. I now stay in a little apartment three blocks from DBA. On a quiet night, you can hear the strains of live music coming from Frenchmen’s Street. It’s one of the things I’ll miss about this place in the way you miss your lover when separated by time and distance. But even so, since arriving, I’ve been feeling forlorn. Missing my people back home, and coming to the reality that New Orleans is a wonderful place to visit, but can be a complicated place to live in. I’ve been having a hard time stumbling across those New Orleans moments that make you “miss New Orleans” as the song says, and well, I haven’t been having all that much fun. 

But then, polishing off a bottle of wine (wine is my constant, reliable companion) on a sultry hot patio, the mosquitos nipping at my ankles as they constantly do, I heard the soul-lifting notes of a brass band traveling through the distance, only this time it wasn’t coming from Frenchmen’s, and instead from the middle of my neighborhood, just a block or so away. Glancing down the block, I saw that a massive Second Line was snaking through the streets.

Halting in front of Mimi’s bar, the crowd made a circle around the band and the second line dancers, whose job it is to keep the energy high. Some members of the crowd pumped signs in the air with a photo of a handsome man emblazoned upon them.

A couple of weeks ago, Ray Deter, owner of the DBA bar, was killed when a car hit him as he rode his bicycle through Manhattan where he owned another DBA (he had a handful of these bars across the country, famous for their excellent beer selection and excellent live music). Ray was in his middle forties, handsome, and living the kind of life that many of us dream of.

As the Second Line started up again, making its way towards Ray’s bar, his two teenage sons led the way, each plaing a tamborine; sweating, and dancing, quite literally, to beat the band. As I joined in the dancing (it’s impossible not to-- this is some of the happiest, most infectious music in the world, and if you don’t dance to this, you have a hole in your soul) I couldn’t help but imagine Ray, looking down at this scene, and feeling satisfied with his life. I thought that any life that culminates in a party like this one was a life obviously well lived. This was a funeral like none other I’ve ever been to, and I never want to go to another that isn’t like it again.

Eventually, the crowd stopped in front of Ray’s bar, blocking off the entire street, and the dancing and music continued. The band finished on When the Saints Go Marching In, as is tradition. Behind me, two tourist types, small town USA types, looked on, baffled:

“It looks like some type of a demonstration.”

I decided to enlighten them, like some know-it-all, even though this was my first time.

“It’s a funeral. This is how they do a funeral in New Orleans.”

“Oh? Where’s the funeral home?”

I pointed behind them, to the bar, where a giant RIP inside of a pink heart had been painted on the window.

Maybe it was the wine, but as I turned back towards the street to watch the final strains of Saints, I was overcome, and thought I would weep. But this emotion passed almost as soon as it came, and then the song was over. The Second Line dancers, drenched in sweat, stopped for a drink of water, and the crowd began to disperse. And in that moment, I thought to myself, “Maybe I can live here.”

I decided not to go inside the bar. There would surely be an amazing party to follow, but this had been a perfect moment, and sort of like that first night in DBA, I was strangely devoid of energy, depleted. I wanted to go home, eat and go to bed.

Before I did though, a woman said, “You know, it’s funny. All of these people getting on their bikes now, and riding home without helmets. It’s kind of like when my friend died in a drunk driving accident. After the memorial, everyone got in their cars, drunk, and drove home.”

And that reminded me of something I heard a guy say once, at the wedding of his brother, who was remarrying after he had been widowed. “Life is for the living.” For all time and everywhere, the living will take life for granted, and live it, sometimes foolishly. And perhaps nowhere more than here in New Orleans.

It’s kind of impossible for me to not draw comparisons between myself and Ray Deter, even though I never knew him. I’m an avid cyclist, and I love New Orleans music and culture and living life in the nighttime. Like Deter, I hope to have my own place one day, and one day, a group of friends who remember me as the kind of girl who brought the party. As Deter’s friends remembered him at his memorials (he had another jazz funeral, in New York,) they said they kept expeting him to walk through the door, because there would never be a party that good without Ray in the house.

But unlike Ray, I’m still living. And right now, I’m about to get on my bike, without my helmet. I’m going to go out and do the kinds of things that will one day get me the kind of funeral that Ray had. 

Life is for the living.

My New Orleans

No matter who you are, it can be difficult to espcape the cliché stronghold of a city as iconic and evocative as New Orleans. As flamenco is to Spain and chocolate is to Belgium and clam chowder is to New England and hash and hookers are to Amsterdam, so Po’ Boys and Muffalettas and jazz and beignets are to New Orleans. But like anywhere and anything, there is more to a story than just the sum of its parts.

When you vacation, you try hard to absorb all that you have always heard about, within the confines of three or so days. You see them in droves, perambulating sweatily through the Quarter, searching, usually in vain, for that New Orleans. . . .  Something.

For the hanging pots of gumbo, for the Mufalettas piled high, for the brass bands and the voodoo priestesses. And its all there, but most of the time in some sort of Disneyfied, antiseptic shadowbox designed to separate unsuspecting fools from their dollars.

New Orleans is no place for testy itineraries, packing it all in, or airconditioned rental cars. Also, there are two New Orleans. . . One for tourists, and one for locals. I’m tenuously straddling those two cities. . . .

[Actual exchange on the streetcar:

Lumpy, reddened tourist in fruit-patterned Capri pants: “How many minutes before we get there?!  

Answer: “Lady, minutes don’t exist in New Orleans time.”]

No, this city is better left to unfurl before you. It’s what happens in the intercities, when you’re not looking, and in the least-expectedness. Minutes don’t exist in New Orleans do, but it is a city defined by moments.

When you’ve been to Central Grocery for their world famous Mufaletta and they’re closed for the third day in a row, despite their posted hours; when you see that the bubbling pot of sidewalk Jambalaya is nothing more than seasoned water designed to lure you into a tourist trap, when you’ve been hustled for the fourth time today, when your Antoine’s Oysters Rockefeller proves inedible, when your ankles are blistered from walking in cheap shoes, and you think your head might explode from heat and your spirit is defeated, just sit down and wait. Wait a little bit longer now. Take this walking tour.

Wander away from the French Quarter. You needn’t go too far. Stumble upon Feelings, with its crumbling building that looks as organic to the landscape as the rocks and the trees. Go inside for a cocktail in the courtyard. A courtyard so luminescent with natural light, that the copious movie shoots that occur there do not even bother to light it. Watch the lizards traverse the hot concrete, listen to trickling waterfalls and chat up the charming old queens who own the place. Admire their extensive Elvis and Monroe collection. The weight of the world will be lifted from you.

You’ll be hungry now, so meander over to Schiros. Admire the blocks and blocks of old Creole cottages dating to the 19th century, locally known as gingerbread houses, painted all the colors of fairytales. Lavendar, pink, other pink, coral, hot pink, iris blue, toenail polish, candy. Watch your step—the tree roots are taking over, and the pavement giving way to nature’s demand. Also watch out for the copious toads and hopping frogs the size of your baby fingernail. Their otherworldly croaking will act as a soundtrack when the sun sets.

Schiro’s, like all good places in New Orleans is in an ancient edifice on an unexpected bend in the road. Inside, it’s all craggy and cracked and lived-in in all the best ways. The been-there-forever patina is an irresistible, unrecreatable blend of charm and goofy that invites you to sit right down on one of the ripped leather cushions of a barstool.

But wait. What is this place? It’s a restaurant, yes, but it’s also a wine shop and a Laundromat (“washeteria” in New Orleans parlance) and a convenience store (which they jokingly refer to as an “inconvenience store” with odd selections like ancient bottles of Anicin and lemon flavored Hubig’s Pies). It’s also a guesthouse, so if you never want to leave, as I often don’t, you can book an inexpensive room just upstairs. To my mind, Schiros is the best value eatery in New Orleans. It’s both an Indian Restaruant and a Creole one too (is your head spinning yet? Don’t worry; somehow it all comes together and works). The owners are Bangladeshi, and their curries and vindaloos are top notch. But if you’ve come to New Orleans hell-bent on local cuisine, they do that well too. Groaning platters of fried catfish, beans and rice with sausage, and po-boys can be yours for such little money, you’ll never want to spend your dough in the quarter again. From four to six daily, there’s a rotating food special—something homey and hearty and prepared with care-- a Carribean style stewed chicken and rice, a good spaghetti and meatballs, a chicken parmesan, for around seven bucks. The best part? Choose your bottle of wine from the store, bring it to the bar, and they’ll cork it, ice it down, and serve it to you, for nothing more than the price listed on the bottle. All of this, and you’ve barely spent a twenty-spot. Don’t forget to tip your faithful, friendly barman.

Now that your belly is full, you’ll want to work off some calories. Louisiana humidity is enough to weigh you down. Wander on over to the Country Club, a dollhouse version of the real thing, all whitewashed porch with pillars and torches burning friendly so you can find the place. Enter and you’ll find a decidedly gay vibe, though all respectful parties are welcome. Grab a cocktail, pay the $8 night pool fee, and head on back. (Or, you can stop and nosh on their respectable menu, play a game of billiards, or just enjoy the oontz oontz tunes on the sound system and visually undress the yumyum bartenders).

Out back, you’ll find a scene straigt out of some fantasy you had once. Or a hundred times. The torchlit pool is populated with people of every size and shape and color and sex and persuasion. Some nude, some topless, some fully clothed, but everyone having aquatic fun in this clothing optional oaisis in the middle of the city. Don’t worry, there’s a bar back here too, so you’ll never need to go far to stay refreshed on the inside as well as the outside. Some nights, movies are projected on the huge outdoor screen overlooking the pool. Call it a swim-in movie.

Once your fingertips are pruned, if you can bear it, drag yourself out of the pool and get dressed. (Sadly, you can’t troll the streets naked, but on the upshot, you can stroll and drink, so don’t forget to ask for a go-cup). What’s left now, but a good bit of dancing? Make your way to Mimi’s, and go past the divey, smokey bar area, and find the staircase leading upstairs. There you’ll find good, authentic live jazz trios or quartets, or sometimes even better, a DJ dance party. Here you’re bound to find a good old fashioned New Orleans freakshow lasting well into the night. It gets so hot with people inhaling all the airconditioning, you’ll swear it’s a thousand degrees with a million percent humidity.

Boys will jitterbug with one another, and girls will grind. Couples, and even strangers, might sink down into a corner sofa and kiss. Like I meantioned, its hot. But, I bet you won’t even care. You can do this until the sun comes up, if you’ve got that kind of constitution.

Tomorrow, you’ll need coffee. I’ll tell you tomorrow about Flora’s. But for now, let the good times roll, all over your body.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Joke

A man dies. His soul is complete equilibrium. God and the devil can't decide where he belongs, so they choose to let the man decide himself.

The man, being no dummy, decides that he wants to visit both, for a week.

So, he goes to heaven. It's nice, but kind of boring. People in nice clothes playing Pinochle, classical music, comfortable beds, but you have to turn in early. Denver omelettes, that sort of thing.

Then, he goes to hell. Now, this is really something. People drinking Sazeracs from morning til night, champagne flowing off the tits of virgins, dance clubs open twenty four hours per day, skinny dipping, sex, sex, sex, bacon, gambling, poolgirls eating cheese from between your toes, you name it.

So, when it's decision time, the guy decides: Hell. Obviously.

So, he goes. And suddenly, it's nothing but fire and brimstone, rats, roaches, automobile sized potholes, racism, hot hot heat, stomachaches, no one wants to be your friend, and, well, you know, hell.

So the guy decides to have a chat with the devil.

He's all like, "What the fuck? When I came here to visit, it was an amazing party. Now, it's like, hell."

And the devil says: "Well yeah. That's when you were a tourist."

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Almost every morning I wake to the sound of a mosquito buzzing around my ear. In my slumber stupor, I usually nail myself in the head trying to kill the motherfucker. Being from Minnesota, which is supposed to be the motherland of mosquitos, I can tell you with certainty that we aint got nothing on the deep, tropical south. Where I come from, we were told since we were pretty much embryonic that the mosquitos that make noise are the females, which don’t bite. I’m pretty sure that’s just a convenient old wives tale to get kids plagued by buzzing bugs to shut up and go back to sleep. But I take a small amount of comfort in that tale when I go to swat at this darting bug, and then don’t see him (her) for long minutes. When I finally get her, she meets her demise with a smear of lipstick red blood. 


I live in a modest little efficiency apartment, just a room really, adjacent to a fairly typical New Orleans courtyard (although mine is missing some iconic sculpture of a lady that converts to a waterfall). No matter—we don’t need more aquatic breeding ground. The courtyard, with its palm fronds and climbing vines and tropical mist is its own ecosystem of toads, and frogs the size of your baby fingernail (I’ve even seen them about the size of an ant) and lizards and even the occasional bluejay and squirrel (which make me feel more at home).

When I came down here, I wasn’t exactly prepared for battling (or acquiescing) to nature to the extent that you must in a tropical environment. Since its easier to live in this climate, everyone wants to be here, not just sexy humans like myself. Virtually every day, I do some kind of battle with some kind of cockroach. 

Down here, you have a sort of rainbow of fruit flavors of roaches.

Palmetto bugs, by conventional wisdom the most terrifying because they are roughly the size of  Chihuahuas, mostly stay outside. They are slow and lazy and dumb, and you mostly get used to them because they are always underfoot, but like I said, almost always outside. Occasionally one wanders in, and if you can stomach it, I guess you could stomp it. I’m too disgusted by the notion of the aftermath, so I just hope they’ll find their way out the same way they made it in.

Next, you have my least favorite, what I think of as the standard roach. They’re big (not as big as the Palmetto, but big enough) black, ugly, and they move really fucking fast-- their least charming quality. I’m not sure how they see (I don’t want to know) but they hide from you when you approach. I can’t stand the idea of scooping them up alive, no matter how giant the wad of tissue, so I’ve developed a strategy of whacking them with a shoe first. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they get away. Sometimes they just fall behind the TV, and again, you try and pretend they’ve vanished into thin air.

Finally, you have perhaps the most diabolical sort, what people around here call German roaches. I’ll spare the obvious metaphorical references, and just say that these are at once seemingly the most innocuous, but I’m told the most troublesome sort. They’re just roughly the size of a large ant, nothing more, and they move slow, so at first blush they’re not nearly as terrifying as the others. And yet, when you look close, they have the same body structure and horrific tentacles as your standard roach. I’m told that these travel in “packs”. By packs, I’m guessing the hundreds of thousand. I try not to think about it as I find these on the floor of my shower on a daily basis. I cover the drain with a wet rag just in case that’s where they originate from. No one really knows. I’m guessing no one wants to know.

Besides the roaches, I’ve seen rats chasing one another through the French Quarter as playfully as cats another greasy (yet clearly terrified) rat traversing the side of a building in broad daylight looking for a place to hide (he was probably crazed on some poison,) a spider lodged in a straw (thank Jezbus the straw was transparent,) and too many sneaky feral cats to count. At night, bees swarm my outdoor lightbulb. I'm not exactly accustomed to seeing bees at night, and I wonder what they want with the light.

Being down here is just a reminder that we share our world with all kinds of critters, and try as we might to fight nature, nature always wins.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On That Note

A long day perambulating around the city. Tropical rainstorm had me and a couple dozen others suffocating on the streetcar, but at least we were dry.

Wading through the French Quarter up to my ankles, I stopped off for an overpriced glass of wine after buying an overpriced umbrella.

Finally, after the daylight, as well as the rain have finally faded, I lean into the doorway of my favorite little jazz club, my umbrella at my chin. Before I can even get comfortable, a man pokes his head around the doorframe and makes eye contact with me: "You do look like a very young Lena Horne. . . " He says this in a British accent. I tip my head back and laugh, thanking him.

The singer tonight is very good. They're not, always, but she is. She's singing "Cheek to Cheek" in an Ella Fitzgerald style. Everyone is enjoying her.

Just then, a couple comes around the corner, heading happily into the club.

He: "So I said, well, I'll just go to New Orleans, and see what happens!"

She: [sarcastically] "Oh, what a terrible idea!"

On that note, I swing my umbrella around my wrist, and head on home.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friendly Ghosts

Virtually every day in New Orleans, I've been wearing a hat that belonged to my grandmother. I only had space to bring one hat, and that was the one that I wore (and am wearing) on my head. It's handmade from palmfronds, and it was just one of a big collection that she had hanging along the wall at our cabin. She'd occasionally take one down and plop it on her head before yanking me on down the dirt road for a drunken stroll. She was that kind of a gal. Before I got here, I got to saying that I was going to bring this hat, because I thought it deserved to live in New Orleans since my grandma didn't.

This hat has become something of a friend of mine down here-- it's such a conversation piece-- I must field 15 compliments about it a day. I've had people offer to buy it, and ask me to give it to them, but mostly they just tell me how nice it is. I've heard multiple stories about how there's a guy who comes down here on occasion from Hawaii and makes these hats. Through this story it has become probable to me that my grandma got this hat in Hawaii when she and my grandpa traveled there in the '70's. That was a pretty big trip for her-- my grandma was a 1950's housewife and so her fate was to spend her entire youth raising children and tending to housekeeping and cooking. She was also a restless soul like me, and was never quite happy with "good enough."  She was a voracious reader, she relished the great pleasures in life like wine and rare red meat, and she always dreamed of taking a grand train trip before she died.

Last night, I dreamed that I was speaking face to face to my grandmother. I asked her about the pedigree of this hat, and if in fact she got it in Hawaii. And then this morning, just as I was standing in the mirror placing this hat on my head, Scott Joplin's ragtime piano came on the radio. Scott Joplin was my grandma's most favorite music. It brought her so much joy-- she'd stand in the dining room, spinning records, with her drink in her hand and her head tilted back in tinkling laughter, teaching me how to clap out rhythms. This is my most enduring memory of my grandmother.

I think my grandma would be proud of me today-- for taking this chance and having this adventure. I think that if she had had the opportunity, she would have done something like this. She had a great big pair of balls, and if she had been able to, she would have made the most of it.

I've been here a month, and I'm done feeling bad. From here on out, I'm going to make the most of this. If for no other reason than for my grandma.