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.

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