Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Rescue from Boredom

In a moment of extreme self-examination, in a “what am I doing here and why?" type of moment, I open not so randomly to this:

“Yes, it’s true that, statistically, we live “less” than people who go to bed at a plain hour in the joyless working hells of virtuous towns, but we live experientially twice as long. Having stayed up in the bars and saloons of New Orleans for a few years now, I can attest to their life-enhancing qualities. Some of them are veritable time machines. I know a three-hundred-year-old man who occupies the stool at the far end of the Saturn Bar. His longevity is the result of having no idea what time it is. He hasn’t seen a newspaper in two hundred years. He is plotting to rescue Napoleon from exile, boredom, and history.”

One Night in New Orleans

After a duel with a duo of cockroaches in the bathroom, I was in no mood to finish off my chicken fried bacon BLT in the kitchen of my temporary apartment. If the roaches are willing to eat toothpaste and soap scum, just imagine how they might feel about pork belly. Stepping out onto the porch, my hair wrapped in a towel to wick away the incessant perspiration and give my shoulders a break from the heat, I take a seat on the bench. Glancing to my right, the porch swing belonging to the neighbor is swinging mightily. Checking out the branches and my own arm hair, I register that there is no breeze to speak of, let alone a wind. Either the neighbors heard my shuffling to come outside and decided to make haste to avoid me, or, who knows? This is New Orleans.

Below me, I notice a drain and sewer service van. He’s blocking the driveway, and it is rather late-- past midnight. He begins dragging heavy equipment out of the building, but not before pulling a towel out of the cab, with which he makes a great show of wiping down not only his brow, but his entire face and both of his arms, shoulder to hands, over and over again. The landlady (Cruella,) and the caretaker, Tommy (all greasy hair and cromagnon brow, and seemingly BFF—lovers?—to Cruella) are also on the curb, thanking the drain man profusely. The drain man refuses to respond, and seems, for lack of a better term, disgusted. In between telling him what a good job he has done, Cruella and Tommy are talking in hushed tones amongst themselves. 

Meanwhile, the porchswing still sways in absence of its catalyst.

The longer I watch the drain man, Cruella, and Tommy in their surreptitious exchange, the more uneasy I become. I don’t like this place, I don’t like the cockroaches in the bathroom, I don’t like these people and their mysterious late night plumbing crisis, and I most definitely don’t appreciate the ghostly pink porch swing. My mind begins to concoct scenarios. Codrescu’s tales of crime, murder and ghostly, ghastly scenes overtake my judgment. I wonder if I should stay here any longer, even tonight. My instinctive, reptile brain is luminescent with defense mechanisms.

I hear Tommy tell the drain man that the situation was certainly “unique.” Now. If you have spent any time at all in this city-- where red devils take morning coffee with you, where handicapped people are spilled out of their wheelchairs onto the sidewalk, asleep (?) and no one takes a single moment of notice, where rats share with you your backyard, where lesbians all but make love in the rain in the daylight on street corners, where brass bands are your lullabye and your alarmclock, where a girl walks the streets twentyfour hours a day holding a fishbowl filled with blue booze-- you might imagine that circumstances would be well unusual to have a New Orleanian describe anything as “unique.” 

With a palpable start of surprise, Cruella notices my presence on the porch, and she’s suddenly sweet as a praline. “Hi Mecca!” This alone evokes suspicion on my part. I tell her about my “visitors,” and off the bat, she knows I’m referring to roaches. She apologizes, says she had an emergency this evening, and that she’s not going to try to fix anything else, at least not tonight. She makes her way to her apartment. Tommy and drain man make a brief exchange in Tommy’s apartment, and drain man is off like a shot. 

I want to wash off the ick. I want to flee. I want to do anything but stay here tonight. I think of chasing down the drain man to ask him what he found, but truly, I don’t want to know. I turn out the lights and acquiesce to the night, still in my clothes. The rats coo their disgusting song, the roaches do their thing with the soap scum, and I try to tune out the clang of the ceiling fan as it fights with the Louisiana humidity.

Tomorrow is a new day in New Orleans.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Well. What a couple of weeks. It would be impossible to recap it all, but suffice to say that drinks were drunk, food was eaten, dances were danced. I had a major computer problem that prevented me from writing here, so I took to pen and paper, which suits this city much better anyway. Easier to "work" while hunkered down over a glass of wine at a a blues club.

While I've been having my fair share of fun, the transition has been equal parts tough, and challenges abound. I finally took my leave from my gracious host Jo, and left her to liberate her home from nearly three weeks of houseguestdom. She must be breathing a heavy sigh of relief. For the moment, I'm in a temporary housing situation that is interesting to put it lightly.

The house is on a lovely street in the Marigny/ Bywater area, the same building that will house my more permanent apartment in a week. I met the landlady via an ad I had placed on Craigslist in search of temporary housing. In short time, I received a phone call from a person I have come to dub "Cruella." She was terse, and she was telling me how it was going to be. Were it not for my conviction to "stay open to all possibilities" while on this journey, I would have hung up on her fool face.

Cruella is a tight, grey, petite woman with enormous breasts. She looks like she might have been beautiful once upon a time, but some fate, the likes of which I cannot begin to fathom, has taken the joy altogether out of her. The building houses approximately six rental units, and she lives on the property. When she let me move in yesterday (in exchange for $200 for a week) I was told that I "walk heavy." I was also instructed on how to open and close the door, how to put my shoes on the "welcome" mat (ha,) instructed that she expected me not to cook, but that I could put my things on the sink edges but not inside of the cabinets. My other items were to go right into the walk in closet, and that I was to make my bed each morning. I was to be scrupulous about cleaning up after myself. I was also told that the plaster was put up in this home in the 1920's. I didn't find out why that was relevant until 7am this morning.

The apartment, which seemed charming enough in the daylight, has a depressing quality by night. Decades of cigarette smoke has accumulated in dank yellow clouds upon the ceiling. The walls have been plastered, and then plastered over again to hide a century of flaws, and the heavy curtains hang with the dejected pallor of a million sad tales. The bedding is cheap and scratchy and as I lay awake in the insomniac irritability of being alone in a strange, dark room, I pay attention to every itch and scratch in silent prayer that the linens are free of bedbugs. When I came to look at the place, it was fresh and chill with the central air, but now, she has it set to low, which at least takes the heavy Louisiana humidity out of the air, but the air is still, silent and dank and I wish I could throw open a window to remind myself of life. Outside, like most other places in this city, you can hear the night chatter of rats. I pretend its crickets or frogs.

I put the local radio station on very low to keep me company-- I can usually count on this station for jaunty rockabilly, vintage country, and lovely old blues, but in the middle of the night I'm awakened by music so haunting and otherworldly it causes me to hit the off button.

At five, I hear footsteps so close, I swear they are walking past the foot of my bed. I am on the top floor, so they cannot possibly be coming from above. It happens again, so close, that I bolt upright in bed and switch on the light. I remember that in my grandparents old house, the floorboards would stick, so that after you had climbed into bed, an hour or so later, they would unstick themselves in the very pattern of your own footprints the hour previously. I decide this is the same phenomena, as it is the only reasonable explanation at the moment. That, or the fucking place is indeed haunted.

At seven, Cruella gets on the phone with her mother. It's as if she is standing at the foot of my bed. I learn that the walls here are walls in name only. They might as well be made with paper mache, and in fact probably are. I could probably push a hole through a wall by leaning on it. I am regaled, for the next two hours, with why Cruella is such a bitch. She comes by it honestly-- her mother. I remember with a start that I had forgotten to turn off the fan before I left, and I have no doubt that I'll be scolded about this upon my return. (She'll enter the apartment in my absence, I haven't a single doubt.)

I haven't slept a solid night in precisely twenty days, and I'm looking at the world through the reddened, bagged eyes of the non-sleepers. The zombies. My heart flutters constantly with palpitations, and I have a slight knot in my belly from homesickness. Some moments, like this one, I have to fight back waves of tears.

It doesn't help that I've been reading Andrei Codrescu's essay My City My Wilderness, where he recounts tales of the brutal police corruption and horrendous violence that plagued New Orleans in the '80's and '90s; terrible stories of bloody murder, disappearances, and mind-boggling human cold heartedness. 

I'm lonely. I miss my friends and my boyfriend, my beautiful niece and my sister.

And yet, this is where I ought to be, for now. This strange, strange, often eerie city filled with characters, ghosts, and redolent with life has jolted me out of my comfort zone, and made me aware of my aliveness-- heartaches and woes right along with the laughter and fortitude I had become accustomed to back home. I'm not a crier. A half a year can go by before I shed a single tear. Here, I'm overcome by emotion several times a day.

Speaking of emotion, the smooth jazz in this cafe is sending me into fits of violence, so I'll have to take my leave soon. But before I hang up, a scrap from my notebook:


Last night, leaning in the threshold of the door at the Spotted Cat, I watch two couples dancing. Let me first say that under normal circumstances, I abhor people who stand in thresholds. Catlike in their nonchalance for others, their indecisiveness, their refusal to make a decision (in, or out?) making it impossible for the rest of us to simply pass through. But in New Orleans, it's a thing. If you're the first to hold up a door frame, taking in the auditory pleasure of a gypsy jazz band in non-committal appreciation, soon a gathering will follow you, and suddenly, it's a party. On a good night, dancing might flow onto the sidewalks, maybe even the streets.

From my vantage point in the doorframe, the window got disjointed into a double-sided frame, like a dissected television screen. On the left side, a shiny happy couple, maybe lovers, maybe not, but dancing beautifully, skillfully, like jewelry box ballerinas. In their early thirties, in the prime of their adulthoods, virile, straightbacked, pink-cheeked, coiffed and in sync.

On the right danced a silver-haired couple. Lovers surely, married probably, they danced more expertly than the first couple, but perhaps not as perfectly. The wife, clearly tipsy, held her balance precariously and yet, even with her unsteady gait, was elegant in her floral dress, her heels, her chignon held back with a silk flower. Her partner leaned his face into her silver hair every chance he got. They smiled in the contented way of Cheshire cats, their eyes closed as they shuffled.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the window, the young couple danced their way to the right.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Haunted City

Just as at home, I love having the streets to myself after a night of carousing. Late night is one of the only times a girl gets to contemplate the planet to herself. In Mpls its tearing around the corners of downtown on my bike long after the corporate set has retired to the suburbs. In Mexico, its when the tide and the sand and the moon and me converge. It seems impossibly serene, and its when I'm most happy. Here, it happens less, but for long moments it can be just you and the Quarter. Judging from the throngs of people taking in the "haunted New Orleans tour" I'm not the only one to find things spooky magical this way.

A feral cat, instead of bounding away at the noise of your presence, looks you in the eye and then saunters around a streetlamp to follow you with her gaze as you pass. Just then, a gust of wind comes up to stir the fallen leaves, the magnolia and whatever those drooping, fragrant purple flowers are. You pass a courtyard with a naked lady fountain in the center that makes your heart swell, it's so lovely. You think that if you were to look out at that for all of your life, you could be happy for the remainder of your mortal days.

But just as your reverie is coming into its own, just as your hair is about to stand on end, some fool in a pink shirt turns the corner and you realize you're not alone at all. It's you, the pink shirt guy, and your hunger. It's late, so you dip into the cash-only, open 24 hours Verti Marte, where they sell suspicious prepared foods, overpriced bottles of wine, and chips. You settle on a bag of Zapps, and head home.

More haunted magic will head your way tomorrow.

NOLA Observations, For Today

On the heat:

Ask anyone you pass by while strolling the streets how they are, and they’re likely to reply: “Hot!” Minnesota gal that I am, I’m somewhat tickled by this. It’s sort of the equivalent of saying: “Cold enough for ya?” One would think that in Louisiana in June, that heat and humidity would be taken for granted, a simple matter of course, rather than grounds for discussion. But just like anywhere, weather is universal and what else is there to connect us but our few frames of reference about environment and mutual humanity?

A confession: today I finally broke a sweat for the first time, instead of the usual sheen of perspiration that just makes me feel sexy. A sweat that was dripping into my eyeballs and ruining my eyemakeup. And today, when a lady asked me how I was doing, I replied, quick, easy and simple, “Hot.”

On the “pests”:

In the French Quareter, cockroaches (locally known as Palmetto Bugs, code for Very Large Cockroaches) stroll down the street as easily and confidently as a horse and buggy. Thanks to my Mexico time, I’m primed to be mostly unbothered by them,  despite the fact that they scoot along up and down building facades, and along the sidewalks as innocuous as the foofy dogs that every old lady and gay seem to have on a leash by their side. I’ll probably feel differently once I find one in my bed or shower, knock on wood.

One thing I already feel differently about is the rats. At night, their chirping abounds, and if someone, your neighbor perhaps, hadn’t stupidly told you what that sound was, you might have thought it was some pleasant sort of night bird, or a cicada perhaps. But no, it’s the chirping of giant mice, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll see them having a snack in the kitchen of one of your favorite local restos, casual as a regular. What you should do about your own late night eats after that sighting is entirely up to you. Whatever your choice, in New Orleans you’ll be reminded every time you turn a corner that we share our world with so many kinds of creatures.

On the drinking :

Sure. This town is known as a tourist trap for drunken frat boys and obnoxious tourists staggering down Bourbon sloshing a go cup onto their shoes. But. The tourists have nothing. On. The. Locals. It’s Monday night, and I’m sitting in a packed local bar as we speak. Most are either diligently drinking, or having casual conversations while diligently drinking. I’ve been exploring the city all afternoon, and yes, I’ve been in a packed bar all afternoon with people diligently drinking. At the last bar a placard read, “Remember, you can’t drink all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.”

It’s never a not-okay time to drink in New Orleans. Simply walking down the street you can hear the crack of a beer can opening, yes, first thing in the morning. It’s true, New Orleans is a wet town, and drunkards stagger down the street with paperbagged beer cans in their hands at all hours. At noon, business people are popping in for a bump. At three, hipster chicks are headed down to the corner bar for some cold beers after their dip in a pool or bike ride. By NO standards, I am a light to moderate drinker.

It’s cheap to drink here. Where in many cities it might cost you upwards of twenty dollars for three decent glasses of wine, here it will cost you merely twelve. It’s always a good idea to have yet one more. When people are not drinking, they are conversing about drinking. But usually, they are drinking while they are conversing about drinking. I can’t tell what this is about.

In most of the world, conventional wisdom will tell you that if you drink to excess, you are trying to avoid something in your character, attempting to compensate for something in your childhood, or generally medicating a wound. But here, it’s difficult to reconcile that. Here, it seems that people are living life to the fullest extent. If it means having a martini or five during lunch in the lobby of an overly ornate hotel bar, and then making conversation with a southern belle, then so be it. If it means contemplating life while hunkering over a poboy and a bourbon at three in the afternoon, then so be it. If it means sloshing a beer over your shoes while jamming out to a brass band on the corner of Canal and Bourbon as the sun goes down, is that so horribly wrong? I for one will have to say no, no it isn’t.

And yet, now and then you see a man sitting on a porch with his teeth grown in all askance. They’re in the wrong places altogether. The whites of his eyes are completely awash the color of fresh blood. Bloodshot cannot begin to describe this. He has a beer off to the side of his left hand. This man is a ghost, and not a man at all. His young son is flitting around the edge of the balcony. New Orleans is a complex place.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Here I Am, Today

Gotta write some things down to get my head together. Sister left this morning. We had a lovely time, but now it's time to switch gears and get a focus on real life. Whatever that means. It's a bit of a tough transition, but I'll manage. Jo is busy with work, J is working at the farm where he has taken work. He'll be away four days out of seven, and with Jo not taking work at the farm as originally planned, I'll have to find other living arrangements. They've been gracious, but the house is too tight for the three of us. Haven't found anything promising today, so might try a guest house for a week or so just to get acclimated and rested. Sharing space is tiring, though it is wonderful to see Jo. Her work life is stressful just now, and a houseguest may not be the ideal addition to an already chaotic situation.

This weekend the three of us are working the Creole Tomato Festival, which I'm looking forward to. I'll be able to meet with a potential employer here. More details on that to come when I myself know more. It's also strange to need to keep up on Metro work, I feel so far removed from Mpls and all that's in it. Ideally, I'd like to transition away from that job and fully immerse myself in the culture here, not having to think about what's happening up north for awhile, although of course I already miss my peeps. I am feeling a lowgrade kind of stress, but overall this transition has been rather smooth. Here's to knocking on wood and hoping it continues in that direction.

A few impressions of what I think and hope will be my new home, at least for now.

Yesterday I was greeted by a man dressed as a red devil. Horns, red paint, and silver teeth. He was window shopping and looked in no particular hurry, with no particular place to go. He looked up from his business, smiled at the two of us, and in the haughtiest, most erudite English accent wished us a simple: "Hello."

These are the sorts of things that happen in New Orleans. If you feel like dressing up like a devil for the day, to do some shopping for tea cups, go right ahead. No one will mind. People are warm and chatty here. It's easy to make friends-- before you know it someone is offering up their favorite places to eat and imbibe, a sage word of advice, and a phone number. When you pass folks on the street, if they are local, 9 out of 10 of them will address you. "How y'all doing?" they say. It's a beautiful example of the southern hospitality that I believe is alive and well. A simple acknowledgement from one human to another.

Of course it's hot, but mostly I'm unbothered by it. It's wonderful to forget about the notion of sweaters and jackets. Like one man said to me: "You'll never wear socks again." Fine with me. I wake up to the sounds of trombones and horseshoes clomping down the street. The men tell you what a beautiful lady you are, and then they let you pass by without further harassment. This quote aptly describes the people here:

"There is something left in this people here that makes them like one another, that leads to constant outbursts of the spirit of play, that keeps them from being too confoundedly serious about death and the ballot and reform and other less important things in life."

There is a collective sense that money and ambition is not all there is. Sure, folks want to get ahead as much as they do elsewhere, but they're willing to push pause now and then on the race to get where ever it is they may be headed. I'm happy to be leaning on a corner along with them.  

That's all for now. I think I'll take in a courtyard, a spot of shopping, and a glass of wine. You know, for inspiration.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Me: "I'd like to change my billing information."
T Mobile guy: "I see we have you in Minneapolis. New address please?"
Me: "1032 Bourbon Street, New Orleans."
T Mobile guy: "That's not an address change. That's a paradigm shift."

Well, pretty much.

Fewer than 48 hours, and too many interesting moments to count. Really. Could not have asked for a better time thus far. Brain muddled from far too many cocktails, too little sleep, and a lot of heat, so for now, an (incredibly insufficient) list. But, the best I can do just now, bulleted for your organizational pleasure:

  • (Second) best fried chicken of my life, at Jaques-Imos, next door to the Maple Leaf, a NOLA music institution. Waited about an hour for the chicken, made fun of bartenders for how long it was taking: "Who's making this goddamn chicken?" Answer: "It's fried chicken, baby." Upon arrival, crisp as potato chips outside, moist as a New Orleans evening within. Filled with flavor. Collard greens. Mashers. Hot sauce. Fat boy tries to hit on me by telling me that NOLA food ain't got nothing on outstate LA. I believe him. He is fat. Find out he's a med student. Give him my number for no reason other than he's reasonably friendly and I'm a too friendly MN gal. He'll be bugging me for sure.
  • Stoop sitting last night. Characters abound. I wait for the final group to pass by because I believe they must have a nugget. They do. Brother: "I had a dream last night. And in it? I was doing not shit." Laughter ensues.
  • Perfect coffee at Envie, the J's fav coffee shop. Not interesting perse, but comforting. 
  • Near flood this afternoon. Niq and I decide to spend the day wandering aimlessly. When the heat proves to get the better of us, finally, finally, like wearing a wet blanket, we dip into a nondiscript pub. People chat, people send drinks, we play the jukebox. The rain comes and comes and comes. Ray, the fat cat who sells timeshares has to move his white BMW as it's threatening to flood. He sends us yet another drink upon his departure. I play Joan Jett, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kid Rock (upon request from the one obnoxiously drunk guy) everyone else was just getting a bump in halfway through the work day. Flood subsides. Everyone has to go back to work after all, much to their chagrin.
  • Everyone here talks about food. Small talk, even when it is about to flood, is about food, not weather. Oysters, shrimp, crawfish, chicken. This is what people talk about. And drinking. They know how to live. I see a sticker emblazoned on the side of a cocktail shaker: "Be a Neworleanean, no matter where you are." I like it here.
  • Niq and I go for Rebirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf. It's nuts to butts and SWAMPY. The weather is sultry as a whore in a damp red dress. I like it a great deal. Anyone who warned me of the heat can suck it. This weather is gorgeous. It wears you like a mood. Like a love affair. You can't just shake it off. It defines your day. Life here is all around, like a shroud. I'm happy, like slipping into a warm bath. 
  • I cannot wait for tomorrow.