Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Second Chance for a Second Line

There was nothing as beautiful, or as ugly, as New Orleans in the summer. I moved there from New York City in June 2005, just in time for the hottest months of the year, into half of a pretty, cream-colored, Victorian double-shotgun house on Iberville Street. I shared with a girl who was a writer, like me, and her two cats, who battled with mine for territory, though there was plenty for all three. My favorite part of the house was the picture-perfect front porch, with green trim around the windows and doors, beautiful white columns, and a little iron rail across the front. The oppressive heat didn't make sitting on the porch feasible or comfortable, and I couldn't wait for cooler weather to sit outside and watch life saunter past me down the street (a saunter is as fast as it got in New Orleans). I longed to add a porch swing but never had the chance.

In the summer, everything in New Orleans slowed down until it almost stopped moving. The people slowed down to a crawl, and even the words that came from their mouths came more slowly. Sometimes the music moved so slowly that I could almost feel each note brushing against my skin as it floated past me on the street. The air was so thick and heavy that I could see the dirt suspended in it. Walking through it was like trying to wade across the Mississippi.

Everything in the city was always dirty. I was always dirty, from the moment I stepped out of the shower until the next time I stepped back in it. Even in the shower, the cleanliness of the water was suspect. I loved the fact that New Orleans was such a dirty city. Clean cities have no soul. Dirty cities always have something to hide. That's what makes them interesting.

When it rained, it came down so hard and with such determination that an umbrella was useless. It lasted for only a few moments before the sun came out again and steam rose from the street, baking it and eliminating any evidence of rain. Sometimes, during more powerful storms, the electricity on the streetcars would fail, leaving riders trapped, stranded without AC, sweating and stinking. I've twice experienced power outages on a streetcar. It didn't smell pretty.

I waded through the Quarter every day. I spent hours in the aquarium, contemplating leafy sea dragons and rockhopper penguins, just because it was air-conditioned. I walked the length of the Riverwalk Mall again and again, though I rarely bought anything. At night I would huddle around my cold bottle of beer in a little bar just off Bourbon Street and listen to people talk.

It was impossible to go anywhere in New Orleans and not become engaged in conversation. The people around me wouldn't allow that. It wasn't a city for the solitary soul. I would have had to possess a serious personality flaw or a tragic body odor affliction for someone to not speak to me, and even body odor didn't seem to deter many people.

On weekends I walked to the Sound Cafe in the Bywater for my writer's group meeting. On Thursdays I went to poetry readings at the Gold Mine Saloon, where the crowd was sometimes small but always enthusiastic. New Orleans is a city of words.

I had moved to New Orleans to write. My new friends told me to start writing as soon as I arrived, because if I didn't write my first novel within my first year, I never would. I would fall into the slow-moving, ambitionless rut that seemed to absorb so many people who lived or moved there. Then, they told me, I would spend my days drinking and talking about how I always wanted to write a novel.

My roommate tended bar in a little place on Frenchman Street called the Spotted Cat. I spent weekday afternoons in the Spotted Cat, listening to the jazz bands that played every afternoon. The place was cozy, and many of the bands would play without amps or microphones while passers-by pressed their faces to the glass doors and decided whether or not to come in.

Sundays found me tired but reluctant to stay home. Going to the Quarter required waiting for the streetcar, so instead I walked to the bar at the corner of Iberville and Carrollton to watch TV and chat with the bartender. I didn't have cable at home, and the bartender was cute. On the walk home I would have to side-step armies of scurrying cockroaches on the sidewalk. I didn't step on them if I could help it. I hated the sound of exploding roach guts.

I loved Bourbon Street like tourists loved Bourbon Street, with wide-eyed wonder, though to admit it makes me incredibly cheesy. Partiers could drink in the street in the French Quarter. In fact, it was encouraged, though their libation of choice had to be confined to a plastic "go-cup." The only thing I didn't love about Bourbon Street was the tourists. They moved too slowly for me. I needed to learn to slow down.

New Orleans was saturated with music. Parades seemed to spring forth from nowhere, jazz bands and marchers mourning or celebrating, depending on the occasion for the parade. Some needed no occasion, and most were followed by a second line, revelers who became so enraptured by the music that they followed along, dancing and rejoicing.

Even places where music played no longer couldn't escape their musical history. Congo Square vibrated with the ghosts of dancers drumming and writhing to African beats.

Every doorway on Bourbon Street erupted with the strains of blues, jazz, or zydeco. Kevin Austin sang at the Tricou House most weekend nights, and afternoons at other Quarter venues. He was a little blind guy who stood no taller than I did (I'm only five-two) and had the most beautiful voice I'd heard in New Orleans.

I wasn't working while I was there. I had saved for so long to move that I didn't need to work yet. I would have eventually. I'm not lazy. I dreamed of copyediting for the Times-Picayune, or across the river in Gretna for Pelican Publishing, or for one of the advertising agencies in the city.

I was doing exactly what I wanted to do upon arriving: drinking and reading and writing, talking to locals and tourists, and absorbing even more Crescent City history than I knew before I moved. Stories always sounded better coming from someone who lived in a historic building that I had heard about only in a book. One patron of the Erin Rose, my favorite Quarter bar, led me outside and pointed down Conti Street to the former home of Norma Wallace, the Madam of the last functioning legal brothel in the city before the Navy shut them down in 1917. He rented an apartment inside the building. Once someone I knew lived there, it ceased to be merely a building. It became a character in the drama that was New Orleans.

My days of leisure in the Big Easy ended on August 29, 2005. My roommate and I evacuated to Madison, Mississippi, to ride out the hurricane. For several days we had no power and got very little news. After two days we drove into Jackson to a local bar that had power and a television. For most patrons at the bar, it was our first look at what had happened to New Orleans and Mississippi. I think that moment shattered all of us.

Now, my life has reverted to the chaotic mess of a New York City copy editor hitting the streets to look for work, struggling to find myself and to find my words. I sometimes think the words I need are stuck in that lump I get in the back of my throat when I think about New Orleans, or read about it, or see one of the numerous TV specials about it, and they come out only when I cry.

I didn't celebrate Mardi Gras this year. I sat alone at home and listened to Louis Armstrong. There are no parades for Mardi Gras in New York, and there is nothing slow and easy about life here. New York is cold and hard, and so are some of the people who live here. It's hard to really see things because I'm moving so fast just to keep up with everyone else that the beautiful things are often just glimpsed as I speed by them.

I don't want to live like this. I don't want to run every day, and I don't want to be cold and hard. I want to sit on my porch. I want to revisit my leafy sea dragons and rockhopper penguins. I want to second-line with joyous abandon. I want to live my dreams, and right now my dreams are big and easy and shaped like a quarter moon hugging the Mississippi as it passes by.

Copyright © 2005 Melissa Lewis

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