My first trip to New Orleans lasted about 12 hours. During my Junior year of college in 2003 our university choir toured the deep south, singing the Vespers at different episcopal churches and trying out our white person chops on a few spirituals. We made stops in Nashville, Graceland, Apalachicola, and on the last night, before returning to California early the next morning, ended up miles away from the French Quarter the night before Mardi Gras. Once we arrived at the hotel, we quickly split off, each small group jumping into cabs to take the $45 ride to Bourbon Street. From the moment we entered the quarter, the streets were swarmed and everything moved in slow motion. The crowd shouted, its voices, eyes, and hems of shirts directed upwards at balconies so packed with people I swear they neared collapse, suffering under the weight—all tall windows, elongated shutters, scrolled, swirling ironwork, and colorful architecture obscured by the condensed debauchery. The stagnant air smelled like sick and sex. I kept my eyes down, trying to ignore the genetalia flashing in my periphery until my friends picked a gift shop, purchased a few feathered, bedazzled masks, and we were, thankfully, on our way.
I recently spent a week in New Orleans over the Thanksgiving Holiday visiting my dear friend Dahlia who had recently enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. After taking an almost 6 year break from school, everything felt new to her. She hadn’t had to write an academic paper, or be in writing workshops, hadn’t had to worry about money (at least not in this way) or carve out time to actually do her own writing in quite some time. When we would chat on the phone during her first months there she would say she was “learning to be alone” and would talk about the city as though it was the only part of her new life she understood. “The city is grieving,” she would say. And so was she.
Dahlia lives in a diverse Mid-City neighborhood. The dilapidated houses with trash strewn backyards inhabited by incessantly barking dogs adjacent to newly renovated duplexes, floor to ceiling windows lining front porches opening into brightly lit kitchens presents a checkerboard of economic status. We rarely saw a white person walking down her rainbow-ed street lined with colored houses in varying states of newness and decay. On one porch sat a Latina woman, a three-year-old child playing at her feet. Stuck to one of the porch beams was a large sign that said, “Thou Shalt Not Kill. –God,” and as we went by I wondered about past acts of violence that would necessitate such a sign.
For the two days she had to go to class I drove Dahlia to and from school, and each time passed one of New Orleans’ famous above ground cemeteries, what Mark Twain called, “the Cities of the Dead.” New Orleans’ water table is so high, you cannot dig more than a few feet down into the earth without the grave filling with water. And if you try to bury a body the earth will simply spit it out after a season of heavy rain. We walked the cemetery the day before Thanksgiving, meandering down the long, grassy aisles and crossing between the tombs when there was room. I wondered aloud what happens to the bodies inside these miniature stone mansions. I kept imagining the decay building behind the flower vases and tiny bolted doors, until, when it was opened, death spun out into the air, not just above ground, but saturating the ether.
One day while Dahlia was in class, I parked the car in the French Quarter and went off in search of beignets. The weather was icy and grey, the open air markets chilled and empty, the bars only half open, the streets full of tourists and their children. I arrived at Café du Monde and walked under the green and white striped circus tent. I looked around for the “to go” window but had temporarily lost my ability to focus in the haze of people pooling around green tables and powdered sugar. The waiters, all rushing about with mountains of steaming white powder, passed by, and I thought about asking. But instead I sighed, and left.
Two days prior Dahlia and I decided to drive through the French Quarter and ended up in stand still traffic on Bourbon Street. Every face on the sidewalk was indistinguishable from the next in the cool sunlight: pale skin, straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, boot cut jeans, colored fleece, and sneakers (the Midwestern tourist’s uniform). We stopped by a bike tied to a street sign, old, dirty, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the handlebars as if in homage to the last time I had paid this street a visit. The scents of partiers past wafted through the windows, a hint of alcohol and old vomit at 1:30pm even months after Fat Tuesday. We passed shop windows full of I heart NOLA Tshirts, bars with neon signs and Day of the Dead decorations, through Jackson Square. “Slaves were sold here,” Dahlia said quietly. Today, on the curved stairs sat an audience of white faces gazing down at a group of black men breakdancing on the sidewalk. I hoped they did not feel sold.
A few nights later we had dessert and drinks at a French Restaurant a few miles from Dahlia’s apartment. While eating our Lemon Icebox Pie, the middle-aged couple at the table next to us asked where we are from. We exchanged pleasantries about Boston and Uptown, the ritzy, predominantly white part of New Orleans where the woman, Paula, had been born and raised, and listened to stories of the multi-million dollar home they were currently selling, in addition to Terry and Paula’s enthusiastic drinking habits.
"What do you guys do?" I asked.
"Well, Terry's a contractor, but I get mailbox money." She wiggled her hips in her chair and rubbed her thumbs against her index and middle fingers.
“I’m confused. Is that a thing?"
"Oh, honey, yes. I open my mailbox and there’s a check! And I say, 'I didn't know I owned that land!'" We all laughed for no reason.
We were looking for a place to eat on Thanksgiving, so Paula listed off several restaurants with women’s first names before mentioning Crescent City Steaks in Mid-City.
"I live right by there!” Dahlia said, “On St. Philip!”
They both leaned towards her. "You have to be careful there,” Terry states.
“You're gonna get shot!" Paula shouted. They both laugh again.
“You need to move!” Terry was gleeful. “But seriously how long’s your lease?”
"Six months. And you aren't the first people to say that." Dahlia smiled, ”But I did my research. I walked around. I met all my neighbors. They’re mostly homeowners.“
Terry leaned even further across the space between our two tables, “You might think they’re your friends, but they’re not.” He said quietly. “They’re not your friends.”
“Oh, hush, Terry.” Paula widened her eyes at him. “They’re gonna think we’re prejudice.”
After dessert we are driving onto the freeway, on our way to meet some of Dahlia’s classmates at a bar by Tulane, when we encounter the Northern Lights, visible from New Orleans by an act of God. We witness part of the night sky alight with the most incredible absinthe green light, flashing and swelling between the stars. “What is that?” I say out loud. “It’s like a wall of light.” I was sure it was no less than a miracle. As we neared our exit, the Superdome came into view, green lights flashing onto the mammoth, endless, blank, rounded surface, achingly reflected into the heavens beyond.
This is where I felt it, the history of that place, of that storm. Here human beings waited for help that they knew would never come, drowning, living in filth, wondering who is alive, who is dead, tiptoeing their way between human waste and what remained of human treasure, to find their way to outside where they would keep on waiting, perpetually losing. Perhaps the city tried to put all their grief into the ground, tried to bury it in the leveled 9th ward underneath all of the growing green and Brad Pitt’s architectural jewels, but the collective mind of New Orleans is as saturated as the earth that makes it.
The day before, while Dahlia napped, I discovered every book on her night table was poetry by Robert Hass. Picking up the slim volume with the most appealing title (Human Wishes), I came across a question: “On the corner a blind man with one leg was selling pencils… Would the good Christ of Manhattan have restored his sight and two thirds of his left leg? Or would he have healed his heart and left him there in a mutilated body? And what would that peace feel like?”
We were sitting in the third row of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church’s small brick building in New Orleans’ Tremé. The organist, a robust black man dressed in white and brown oxford loafers and a white suit (starched collared shirt, vest, suspenders, loose legged perfectly hemmed pants, and a knee length suit jacket that cascaded over the back of the piano bench almost touching the floor like the train of a bridal gown) held the room. His fingers jumped quickly from keys to switches, his feet dancing across the bass pedals, the music building, in volume, in intensity. We were close enough to hear the clicking of the keys, to see the beaded sweat on his forehead, to feel the heat of joy. The women of the congregation all wore ornate colorful hats, complete with feathers, flowers, and other sparkled garnishes, boxy, shiny satin suit jackets with jeweled beading, matching calf length pencil skirts, pantyhose, and practical heels. When they would raise their hands in the air, the clean white beds of their fingernails seemed to shine against the wizened black skin, and they would shout, “Have mercy!” “Hallelujah!” “Yes, Lord!” The song climaxed on a long, held note, the organist’s finger quivering like a cellist’s vibrato, as though the organ, this organ, was equally under his spell and he could vibrate the sound with his touch (a fact I, and everyone else in the room, would never have argued). As he held the note, people shouted and clapped, wagging their hands in the air, standing up, sitting down, shaking their heads, visceral movements, subtle, and joyous, until the drummer joined in as the organist played the final notes, and a frenzy of appreciation, of worship, took over the entire congregation.