A Story of New Orleans
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans — Louis
I had never been to New Orleans, until recently. Don’t go there, friends told me, you’ll never come back.
It was some years after “the storm;” Katrina, 2005. New Orleans was still in an expansion, clean-up mode, and until the proud Times-Picayune retreated to three days a week, I think most New Orleanians were feeling good about their revival. The Times-Picayune downsize was a step back, I could feel that. I was all eyes and ears on my first trip.
Almost all the musicians I met on the street had a similar story: I left after the storm, went to ________ for a few years. I came back.
I was first attracted by the street music. I heard wonderful music on the street, not at all the kind of music I was accustomed to hearing on the streets of our city. I spent three, four hours every day listening to music on the streets of the French Quarter.
All the instruments were suited for such performing, which meant light on the amplification heavy on the brass and simple percussion contraptions. Bass generally covered in brass, intersecting lines woven through other reed and brass configurations. A singer singing in higher registers, generally a woman, over the top. The acoustic guitars were mostly of the gypsy, swing jazz variety or simple electric with battery powered amplifiers, that chordal chunk chunk swing style I first heard articulated by Charlie Christian on records of Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s bands.
One afternoon, I took the advice of a friend who visited New Orleans frequently and suggested, I think somewhat fancifully, that I make a pilgrimage to the park named in honor of Louis Armstrong to a place colloquially called Congo Square, once called Place de Negres, so called because it was the site of a slave trading and a certain celebrational dance and music style that was practiced and continued there after it became a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
I walked to the park one morning to make my pilgrimage. It is on the edge of the Treme, just on the other side of Rampart Street from the French Quarter. I spent some time in the Square, sang a few tunes there, paid my respects to the statue of Louis Armstrong who hailed from the area and to whom I traced the impact of New Orleans music as it traveled up the rivers of the heart-line, United States of America, and into my hands in the river towns where I was born and have lived.
After making my pilgrimage, I continued to walk around the Treme, blissfully unaware of where I was or how far I was wandering away from where I was staying near Bourbon Street, an environment unsuitable for me that I tried to avoid at all costs.
On the edge of the Treme I spied a True Value hardware store that was outfitted as cleanly as well appointed as any hardware store I have ever visited. I am an aficionado of hardware stores. On the second floor of the hardware store a display of utensils and coffee makers bean grinders espresso makers everything outfitted for the tastefully appointed kitchen.
I know everything about coffee making and we discussed that. I also sought an eight-dollar water infuser so I could make coffee in my hotel room. They did not have the coil infuser but we began a conversation over coffee and other subjects I know about of no consequence.
Would you like to sample our local brew? They asked me. They had some of the recently ground bean ready and made me an espresso then a cup of regular Joe from the local bean. Both were excellent and I explained to them why I thought so. We were not talking wine; we were talking coffee, though we could have been talking wine. It was a tender meeting over sophisticated irrelevant standards of noblesse oblige, the stuff we love when nothing more pressing is heavy on us.
I continued into the Treme and walked, looking everywhere for the spirits of the iconic stories I knew that were birthed from that place. There was some day activity, some repair, much construction in the entire city and I felt the past speaking to me out of the modest streets I clopped clopped on through my wandering.
I wandered a little too far and began to lose my bearings; back towards the French Quarter, nearer again to Rampart Street, out came a group of four, five men dressed as women just as I was passing their house. They were dressed in the most dramatic fashion, several of them were six inches taller than me, they wore decorated hose and boutique skirts, several with bustier type contraptions around their chest, a couple with long blonde wigs (I think) and very tasty cowboy hats.
I looked at them as they came down the walk from what I imagined was their lodging on a street at the edge of the Treme. I’m sure I looked a little surprised and maybe ambushed. They opened with, “What are you doing here?” as if I was some sort of stranger.
What the heck — I told them. I told them about my pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong site, that I had never been to New Orleans before, that I was a musician who takes his roots seriously and I made this holy pilgrimage to the Source on that day and now I was exploring semi-lost in the neighborhood of an old dream. That seemed to open everything to them. They got serious with me and expressed their understanding and complete appreciation of my pilgrimage, once they realized I was for real.
I walked with them down the street. Where are you going? I asked them. Honey, we’re going to work. As we walked into the French Quarter chattering away, tourists (I assume) stopped, got out of the their cars or interrupted their strolls, to take their pictures. Does that bother you? I asked them.
Not in the least. It’s part of our job, another added: life, job. We were strolling like old friends. They got a tremendous kick when I told them my profession. For everyone who stopped and snapped their picture, they posed and feigned some silliness but by this time we had developed a seriousness between us. On the corner where they directed me one way and they were off another, one of them asked, will you bless me? Yes, they all chimed in, will you bless me, me too?
I’ve never been blessed by a rabbi.
Sure I said, and they all moved closer together into the circle we had made on the corner at the edge of the French Quarter and I sang-chanted slow and mellow the three-fold priestly blessing, pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):
Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine for you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.
First I sang it in Hebrew, then in English, then in Hebrew again. I did not hurry it. The first time I chanted it with my eyes closed, then I opened them and everyone’s eyes in the circle were closed, then they all opened and I chanted the last verse again with all eyes open boring into our interiors.
That was real, somebody said. Thank you thank you went all around and we stood for a moment kind of hushed on the corner of those streets, they then went their way and I went mine, and I’m thinking maybe none of us will forget those moments.
Later that night, I hopped on a streetcar on Canal Street. Most of the streetcars were not operating that day, so it was crowded crowded on the one I caught. I sat down. There was an older woman across from me holding onto a strap and I offered her my seat. She declined.
Next to me was sitting a man in disarray. First he spoke loudly to his girlfriend on his cell phone, to whom he pledged he would go to jail for her just as he had gone to jail for his last woman. He ended his phone conversation and by this time the car was packed.
The man sitting next to me started hollering at (I thought) the driver. “RT! What you letting so many people on this car. Too crowded. I can’t see where I’m going. RT! You paying attention?” He kept hollering and there was real tension in the car.
The woman standing in front of me watched him and when there was a pause in the noise she said quietly and forcefully: “You need to keep quiet.” He made his way up to the front to get off the car.
When he passed the driver he said to him, “how come you didn’t answer me?”
“You didn’t say my name,” said the driver.
“I don’t know your name!” and he got down out of the car.
The tension had evaporated and everyone within earshot exploded into laughter. I think RT stood for Rapid Transit. It was that moment that the mask that covers New Orleans came off and I saw the every day underneath, the real face, of this beautiful city.
Until that day, New Orleans presented to me as a confused, loud, forbidding place. Many people lingering in doorways, a lot of scams, scammers, hustlers, fraternity boy drunkenness and occasionally a truly sinister seediness. The curtain parted for me that day on New Orleans and I saw the same things I see every day: you don’t know my name, talk to me, I respect your pilgrimage, the desire to know and be known, etc.
That was a moment, the parting of the curtain.
Just before my visit I had begun a food regimen that kept me from enjoying the fabled New Orleans cuisine. My brother said you’re the only person I know who went to New Orleans and couldn’t find a decent meal.
The best meal I had was a pizza from a place my daughter’s friend owned in a Bywater neighborhood that was spectacular. It had kale on it.
Everything seemed to be in motion in this city, swinging, expanding. A stranger myself, I felt welcomed by strangers. No one outside the camp, I thought, who cannot be brought within. No one a stranger, or we are all strangers.
Some of the people in these tales were black some of them white. Some of them old some young. Some were men some were women; some a combination of the two (there are so many more than two possibilities).
It was the turn of a new year. I spent it in a hotel room, I couldn’t bear to navigate the streets in the area I was staying. I can abide sinister but public drunkenness is difficult for me, and when they carried a guy out of the restaurant where I was having a civilized dinner, I opted for a quieter welcome of the New Year.
Then I moved to New Orleans.