New Orleans

Still moving forward

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in Americana • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

When my gal got a job teaching in the big easy in the summer of 2019, the movers asked us where we were going they were excited for us. In some ways, Boston will always be special to me, but about a year and a half after I’ve made the switch I find that I don’t long to return to the former hub of my universe. As a New Englander born and raised, with roots going pretty deep into Pilgrim territory, I’ve found that I quite like living in “the land that care forgot.” I still marvel at the fact that I can wear shorts year-round. 

Of course, New Orleans is a legendary city. To some extent, every city is, but not every city is legendary in the same way. As a friend remarked, this place is pretty much designed for a nocturnal bookish jazz fan like me. I still catch myself gawking at all the palm trees, the festively colored houses, those beautiful ancient oaks that line my block and routinely shred my cell phone reception. We all have some image of New Orleans in our heads, and to some extent, that image has been re-framed and mythologized and commodified as much as any other famous place. Trying to live within “the desert of the real” is a pretty common postmodern quandary, but it’s extra relevant these days when pretty much everything that happens is displayed on a screen. But I’m happy to say that in my lived experience at least New Orleans has mostly met my expectations. 

The problem is that I haven’t gone anywhere in months. I haven’t ventured past a two-mile radius at most since the poison death cloud-first descended. Plenty of people have it considerably worse, both here and all over the country, no question. But sometimes it feels like a Charlie Brown-esque cosmic joke; like moving to Paris only for it to be pouring rain every single day for a year. There are plenty of intriguing places in the city that I have yet to set foot in and who knows when we all will finally be able to start circulating again. Instead, I’ve been living in a New Orleans of the mind. My own private New Orleans. A New Orleans of one’s own. 

So I’ve been doing what I do all the time anyway — digging deeper into New Orleans’ considerable cultural archive: movies, books, photographs, and music. The labyrinths of New Orleans culture are, of course, rich and infinite — as any local will tell you, one thing inevitably leads to another in this city. It’s all intertwined, historically and culturally, which is pretty much the entire point of the place. There is just something essentially different about port cities, which facilitate the constant influx of new people and allow locals to get away from the familiar. Soon after we got here we started watching the HBO series Treme, which became a sort of televisual Baedeker for where to eat, what bars and clubs to check out. 

I read Tom Piazza’s heartfelt Why New Orleans Matters, some Andrei Codrescu, and I reread A Confederacy of Dunces, which I appreciated more after a few sour years made gassy Ignatius’ myopic misanthropy funnier. Now that I’ve had a sample of actual New Orleans life, the idea of waddling around the French Quarter in a wool hat judging everybody for their assumed bad taste strikes me as doing New Orleans completely wrong. But you do you, Ignatius. My boss, who moonlights as a bartender at an absinthe place in the Quarter, cracked that Ignatius reminded her of a guy who arrives late at night acting weird and promptly clears her bar out. I read Empire of Sin, engaging history of the red light district, which gave the dapper, tolerant Sam Anderson his due for keeping a gentle but firm hand on the lucrative vice trade back in the lubricious Storyville days. 

Once we got settled in our new uptown digs (which is much larger and less expensive than the shoebox we had back in Boston) The Maple Leaf on Oak Street became my local neighborhood joint, with Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge coming in at a close second, tucked away in a charmingly dilapidated building on the other side of Carrollton. Cooter Brown’s, with its tastemaker bartenders and wall of beers named after celebrities, is a strong contender, as well. Snake’s is the diviest of dive bars, which is just how I like ‘em, but it doesn’t have live music, which is available anytime at the Leaf. It’s quite convenient to have a reputable music spot within stumbling distance of your place and the Leaf does not lack for live attractions. George Porter Jr, of the venerable Meters, led a trio on one night of the week and the drummer Johnny Vidacovich helmed another night, while the Rebirth Brass Band provided exactly that for whoever stopped in on a Tuesday night. 

The great James Booker is given pride of place on the wall between the bathrooms, and Booker enjoyed a long-standing residency as the Leaf’s in-house pianist in the late 80’s. As explained in the excellent documentary Bayou Maharajah the brilliant, unstable Booker could ingeniously shif between barrelhouse piano, bebop trills, Ray Charles blues shouts, and a Chopin etude thrown in for kicks. The great Dr. John, who unfortunately passed away just before I got to town, called him “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” And he would know. 

Then there’s the long-dead bohemian poet Everett Maddux, whose ruminative eyes gaze down on you on the opposite wall above the very bar where he spent the vast majority of his life, a glass of Scotch in hand, reciting Proust from memory. Maddux hid his poetic fragments in an old Burger King bag under the counter, slept in the broom closet, and swept the floor as rent. He started the longest-running poetry reading series in the South, was published in The New Yorker, wore only the best threadbare Brooks Brothers clothes, and apparently once spent the night on a park bench with a newspaper blanket only to discover that one of the articles he was sleeping under was about him. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? A friend of mine bought a brick in his honor for the Leaf’s back patio during a recent fundraiser. 

Not long after I arrived I had an extensive porching session with my neighbor, a New Orleanian born and raised, who had some answers when I asked him what it took to be “a local,” that internationally coveted status. One thing he was sure of was that you had to be over the French Quarter. He’s no prude, but he lamented about how the bro-ish types had ruined the vibe considerably. Nobody goes to the Quarter to walk straight and narrow, but after a few late-night ramblings I can definitely see what he meant. 

Maybe I’m not the boozy spring chicken I once was, but it gets increasingly annoying when you’re strolling down Bourbon Street (there are certainly similar places back in Boston and indeed all over the country, to be sure) and the party industrial complex is booming out YOU ARE HAVING FUN NOW at you from every possible direction, relentlessly, at top volume. Roving packs of sweaty drunk tourists guzzling Big Ass Beers, blasting cheesy music, and grunting and whooping every five minutes. The bloom is off that particular rose for me. Yet if you’re in the mood for some kitschy fun, Bourbon’s actually not half bad. There are great restaurants amid the Crazy Larry’s Cajun Whatever tourist traps and Preservation Hall plays the old school jazz in a tucked-away corner. As one Treme character puts it, “there’s pride on Bourbon.” And besides, complaining about tourists is one way of starting to feel like a local, even if you are still pretty much one yourself. 

I started taking different routes on my nighttime tips, maybe ambling down Royal or Chartres, passing those beautiful balconies and those ancient elegantly crumbling brick walls and poignant streetlights, the hazy light refracting off of shop windows. Then when you come out the other side, onto Kerlerec Street (which I privately renamed Kerouac Street because everything is pronounced differently here anyway) you’re not far from club-lined, buzzing Frenchman, which I’m told was the late-night strip of choice before it became overrun with starry-eyed schmucks like me. 

You can pop into the venerable Spotted Cat if it isn’t packed, squeeze yourself into The Apple Barrel to hear some blues, or mingle with the street poets for hire who will clack out something for you on their vintage typewriters. One night a local band called New Thousand &mdasdh; amplified violin, an upside-down bucket drum, and a woman belting out some Arabic-sounding vocals — spontaneously jammed on the street and the whole crowd was into it. I used to enjoy wandering around bumming cigarettes and hearing people’s stories, finding out where they were from, what they were into. I’m not expecting to do that again anytime soon. 

All this revelry takes place not far from the plaque commemorating where Solomon Northrup, the subject of 12 Years A Slave, was sold into “a notorious slave pen” in 1841 and wrote a book about the experience. Amid all the beauty and affability in this city, there is plenty of darkness, too, and the more you look into its history the more complex shadows develop. The Civil Rights movement was sparked by a direct response to the city’s blatant segregation which was challenged by the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson trial. There were anti-Sicilian race riots around the turn of the century. The UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar, suffered an arson attack in 1973 that killed over thirty people and was the deadliest attack on a gay nightclub until the Orlando shooting in 2016. 

I get pretty consistent news alerts on my computer about something ugly that happened in different parts of the city, and I can hear the wail of police sirens and ambulances on the street almost every night. People who know still say that the city hasn’t fully recovered from Katrina and the long history of corruption and willful neglect of predominantly Black citizens that created the conditions for such a disaster were thoroughly explored in Tulane Professor Andy Horowitz’s book Katrina: A History 1915-2015. All that glitters is never gold, and even a beloved American Eden hides plenty of snakes in the proverbial grass. The city sure can make you want to dance, but you gotta watch your step. 

In the past year of quarantine, COVID-19 has hit an already financially struggling city pretty hard indeed, wounding an economy that’s already heavily reliant on tourism and leisure. A few months after I moved there, the roof of The Hard Rock Hotel in the Quarter fell down, squashing some poor passersby on the sidewalk, two on-site workers, making the darkest pun of all time. The guy who’d warned his supervisor about the potential for danger in advance was deported, another reminder of the shameful way that immigrants get treated in this country. 

Many of the locals who live on tips and gigs: musicians, waiters, bartenders, and whoever else was already living check to check have been hanging on for dear life after all the painful but necessary long-term shut-downs. This unavoidable fact ought to remind anyone who needs to hear it of the fallacy and futility of trickle-down economics. It just ain’t trickling much these days. During Mardi Gras last year there was a protest where people held up signs that read “Tourism jobs: I get older, they stay the same wage.” Anybody who can mash up a pertinent class analysis with a Dazed and Confused quote ought to be heeded. 

No one knows when the poison death cloud will lift and we will finally get back to something resembling normal. I read Reddit message boards (which substitutes for actual conversation these days) filled with poignant pictures of ominous, silent streets. The music has stopped for the time being and we’re all still stuck in place. There are also delicious examples of homemade roux and watercolor paintings and complaints about the city government. Another series of photographs have been popping up of a head-slapping number of knuckleheads who have been and are still clotting up what there is of Bourbon Street doing nothing much without wearing masks, driving the COVID-19 cases up yet again. 

We’re all chomping at the bit to party these days — this year’s non-Mardi Gras was dispiriting, though some people inventively decorated their houses in lieu of parade floats. But for the love of God, this transplant begs of all you callous idiots out there: cover-up and stay the fuck at home! Listen to James Booker, Professor Longhair, Earl King, and Trombone Shorty. Watch Down By Law and Angel Heart and Les Blank’s verité documentaries. Read a book or two. Take the time to learn a little bit about the place you’re treating like your own personal playpen. This city is going to be quite something once it finally lets loose. For one thing, Jazz Fest was canceled last year and should be a financial godsend to the vendors and musicians this fall, not to mention all the other festivals that happen year-round. I’m sure there will be an incredible second line for Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the Marsalis family, who was a COVID-19 casualty. If and when those famed good times finally start rolling again, we all want to be there when it happens. •