For Miriam who never loses faith…
One way to understand the situation between the river, the city and the rest of the country is to see the division the river seems to necessitate, nearly straight down the middle of the United States, an intermediate temporal boundary between east and west that actually solidifies at the environs of New Orleans.
This natural political development and importance of trade played an important part in the settlement of the area by French, Spanish, Indian, Black, French Canadian, English, Irish, and Haitians. This is not the south of the Carolinas or Virginia; in fact some don’t call it the south at all as it’s too far either left or right; politically, socially and geographically.
The syrupy humid air seems to embrace you in a passionate kiss, clinging and overtaking the senses, standing in direct contrast to the rest of the country. As the humidity rises from the pavements and streets, it sweats out the anxiety and sickness of all who walk there. Old buildings, homes, and cemeteries in different shades of decay as in life and death create an atmosphere of a place forgotten by time and by all who inhabit its dwellings. But this view is not meant to generate disgust but validation of the area; one thing for sure, New Orleans is not pretentious.
The city and surrounding area carries its share of guilt about it, a kind of intense bewilderment. As an example, you can see the brilliant sun and clouds at sunset courtesy of the chemical skies along the river provided by a multitude of industrial plants; a variegated red haze, billowing in the horizon suggesting either the beauty inherent in nature or an amalgamation of demons gathering for their nightly enterprise. You know the emanations from these industrial plants that line the river are dangerous but still beautiful to behold all the same. It’s the same sense of greed and guilt about food, drink, and decadence that is as much a character of the city as Jackson Square. The phrase “as you leave the New Orleans, the good times just ain’t as good” is far from an exaggeration, but over time what you love too much can kill you.
If you visit the area for any amount of time, you will fall in love with it and become an honorary citizen by default. If you already happen to live there, be careful, the city will suck you in. Disciplined is the name of the person who can live here and keep his soul intact, adrift is the name of one who can’t. I know many who visit often and must leave only to return again and again. There is a certain sense of fear in being captured by the proverbial fluidity of a city surrounded by water and positioned as much as 8 feet below sea level in some areas while enclosed in a hollow vault of humidity.
Jack Kerouac called New Orleans an open oyster ready to be tasted, only to flood over its levees and pull you down into the depths, forever shutting you in. A stranger to this area is taken aback when asked “how are you” instead of “what do you do for a living”. And what you do is not necessarily what you do to make money. You’re a writer and you may have never published but in the eyes of everyone, you’re a writer. What you do is the equivalent to what your passion is and in whatever phase it might be, a sort of private fame. For if this city is about anything, it is about passion.
Take a walk up and down Bourbon St. and stop for a second or two by every establishment playing music. By the end of your stroll, you’ll have heard just about every kind of music and even more amazing is that all you’ve heard performed live in the moment and each style seemed like it originated right there on the spot. New Orleans has an amazing way of adapting different forms of music and making them seminal to the musical culture. Now we know many of the famous musicians that hail from the city and they are great and deserving of our accolades. But I want to tell you about a couple of different experiences in regards to music that I’ve had.
Whenever I visit the city I usually go out on my own for the first day. The second and third days are for family. In this way, I get one full day to see and do everything on my personal agenda. And along this line of thinking my first stop is usually the St. Louis Cathedral. My main reason is if it’s hot and humid outside, the cathedral affords me to sit in cool temperatures. My next reason is if I go at the right time, someone’s playing the pipe organ. A treat no matter what the weather is like.
One particular day, the mass had just finished and the pipe organ began by playing Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. The Cathedral was finally quiet after the shuffle of feet returned outside. About 5 minutes into the pipe organ’s performance, I heard a single trumpet coming from outside toward St. Peters St. playing St. James Infirmary.I sat there amazed! It was sublime in its simpleness. I mean why not, two entirely different forms of music in style and meaning working together, playing off one another. I thought only in New Orleans could Bach meet Cab Calloway for an impromptu concert. Then an eerie thought came over me, Marie Laveau’s tomb is only a few blocks west from here and did I hear a laugh coming from that direction? Saints and sinners, it was all I could do to hold back my fears.
On another visit, at about one in the morning. I had been to a party and I was now walking back to my hotel on Royal St. Unlike Bourbon St. at that hour, Royal St.is quiet with its array of antic shops and stores.
Coming from the south end of Royal St., away from Canal St. I heard the strumming of a guitar, my attention heightened by a fresh breeze conjured it seemed for my purpose as I walked in that direction. With an old worn Martin in hand, a tall gangly kid of 17 or so was singing Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’. His voice resonated with the brick and mortar of the buildings as though they were a part of him and not separate as the sound growing louder into the darkened night sky. It was one of those spellbound moments, where everything’s purpose was set in stone, and in stone we became as one soul. And I listened as I’ve never listened before, as a blue train traveling throughout the night with the single sound of the whistle breaking the darkness of the countryside…
It is not the big productions at the Jazz and Heritage Festival which you will miss in your life, it is the performances going on all around you… a lonely guitar in an empty alley, a trumpet with his back up to a church, a second line gathering up the street in the Treme.
Lagniappe (Something Extra)
The underlying motto of this city that swirls in the atmosphere and to the streets is ‘he who lives fully, dies fully’, Bon temp roulade…‘Let the good times roll’. And along with this is ‘Lagniappe’, something extra for something acquired. Thus the name “The Big Easy” evolved, named for the overabundance one can acquire. As, they say everything is easy if you allow it, but only if you allow it. Such is the entanglement of character in New Orleans. For overabundance can lead to any direction, right or wrong, good or bad. It can be too much depending upon the subject but never too little. And that my friends the truth no matter where we live. It’s just that in New Orleans it takes a little more self-control but we’ve got extra of that too.
They’re trying to wash us away!
I’m reminded of another motto labeled on the city for some long forgotten reason, ‘The city that care forgot’. As long as I could remember when locked down because a hurricane was threatening, the conversation would always go something like this, “New Orleans is on borrowed time, one day a storm is going to go straight from the warm waters of the gulf and head to New Orleans and that will be the worse flood ever, even worse than the flood of 1927.”
This proved to be prophetic when on August 29, 2005, Katrina came to New Orleans, uninvited.
Katrina 2005- 1,833 fatalities Great Flood of 1927- 250 fatalities
Please read- Of The River and the City- Part 1
Please read- Of The River and the City- Part 2