Do you ever talk about something so much, and you are so aware of it, that it even annoys you? I feel that way about New Orleans. It is to the point where I worry that I am going to annoy the people closest to me who hear about it the most, or else it will make them worry that I will leave them to return to that city.
I figured that one way to mentally move-on from my nine years in the Crescent City (yet simultaneously celebrate my cherished memories), is to pay tribute through writing everything out, getting it out of my head and into a story for whoever stumbles upon my writings. That should help, right?
One reason why I miss New Orleans since I left in 2011, is because of memories like this one:
Triggered every time I hear the old jazz standard, “All of Me”, I think about this young crazy chic who was rumored to be a prostitute, who used to sing this song once a week, alongside the jazz band that played nightly at my work. It was a restaurant called Angeli on Decatur- a late night joint in the French Quarter of New Orleans, two blocks from the banks of the Mississippi River.
For a few months after Hurricane Katrina, I had the privilege of working in a beautifully chaotic work environment. The kind of place where you needed a stiff drink when the shift was over, where you commiserate with co-workers over the hell you went through for the fat bankroll in your pocket. It was a unique time for a restaurant in this day and age: cash only, disposable dishes and utensils, a packed house nightly, sympathy and hyper-gratitude in the tips flowing into our hands left and right.
We were one of the only restaurants open in the entire city after Hurricane Katrina and in addition to that, we had jazz bands play every night of the week. It was full of community spirit and joy- to be back and see the familiar faces of those who waited out the storm, or had the fortune to come back (not to mention something to come back to).
Things were all nice and dandy until a neighbor reported the restaurant for noise disturbances, even though we cut the music at 10pm, and she lived in the FUCKING FRENCH QUARTER, on a busy street. We even knew who she was- she was one of our customers! A friendly one that we liked! This street had been traditionally festive with a casual neighborly style of nightlife for awhile now. Its not like it was Bourbon Street, full of thumping bass, and screaming frat boys celebrating their spring break.
We felt like she just betrayed the whole neighborhood. Personally, I feel like even if you have never been to New Orleans, there is a universal understanding of what kind of neighborhood the French Quarter is: a location in the heart of the city, full of people. This is where people “do things” (wink-wink)…
The live music that we hosted was one of the few sources of music shortly after Hurricane Katrina- people flocked to the restaurant, not only because it was one of the only ones open, but because it was so joyous to hear the music while the rest of the city was so quiet and dead, that I can’t even say that you could hear the crickets chirping. There were none. They got washed away.
So I am fond of my memories of the this chic singing alongside the band, without being invited, but she asked, and they let her. And we hated her, because although she was a customer, she was obnoxious as fuck. She eventually ended up throwing a glass bottle of mustard at a manager, so we finally got to 86* her.
But you know what? We could have cared less that she was a prostitute. We didn’t care who you were and what you did, as long as you were down. As long as you were here to hang out. As long as you just came to enjoy yourself, kick it, and let everyone just be.
And it is quirky situations like this that make me miss New Orleans. Fundamentally, I believe that it is one of the only places in the U.S. where you can be free to be anything you want to be, and no one makes a fuss. It is a “live and let live” kind of environment (for the most part). They just care that you BE yourself and that you BE here. It doesn’t matter if you know anyone- everyone is invited to the party. The more the merrier. The weirder the merrier.
So from afar, I remember these feelings of acceptance, tolerance, and the enabling of weirdness, quirks, and being yourself; and I use those memories to help me when I feel like the rest of mainstream American society and culture is trying to train or punish me for being me. It is hard sometimes, because nowhere else in America have I felt that there is a spiritual energy in the air that gives you the freedom to “just be”. And this is why I always refer back to New Orleans.
But I am not “from” New Orleans. The measure of being from there, is often outlined by a few determining factors. It is the location of ones: birthplace, high school, or you have lived there for at least a decade. I only made it to nine years…
Consequently, the longer I am gone, the more I hear that it is changing, and the people I left behind don’t think that its a good thing. I hear that the demographic is shifting, with an influx of people who don’t represent what New Orleans has come to be known for. Similar stories have been spreading in regards to other small but socially buzzing towns, such as Austin, Texas where I happened to move to immediately after New Orleans.
Its almost a typical gentrification story, except it is city-wise instead of a neighborhood/side of town kind of issue.
On one hand, I am not worried for New Orleans. Many of my friends and I agree that she has been the same all along, and no outsiders are going to change her wild and easy ways (or stubborness).
Part of me thinks that the newcomers will either fall in love and adapt/assimilate (and quit stickin out like a sore thumb with the crap that they wear- whatever the latest 1970’s/80’s middle school-nerd-throwback trendy crap they got at American Apparel); OR she will push them out just like she has done to so many other fools in the past.
But…then again there was the fall of Roman Empire too, so I guess anything is possible.
Selfishly speaking- I need New Orleans to stay the same. Of course, I wish for the violence to calm down, and for poverty to decrease, but I need a place to go back to where I feel like I am hidden from the rest of the shit in world. I need a place that I know like the back of my hand. I need a place that holds onto its bad habits and annual rituals. I need a place where I don’t have to wear that many clothes. I need a place where I can walk down the street and return smiles and hellos to people. I need a place that feels spiritual and alive! I need the feel the humid air soothe my skin. I need the smell of the night-blooming jasmine, and the sound of a trumpet in the distance.
I have looked all over the U.S., and I just don’t get that feeling from anywhere else!
My New Orleans-brother and I always bring this up; how is it possible- this amazing feeling that a place can deliver to us that nowhere else can? Is this for real?
I guess now I can understand how some people save up all their money and move out to the coast of Northern California, or to the solitary upper reaches of coastal Maine, or the middle of the Arizona desert. Is there a city that you feel this way about, somewhere in the world?
So until the day where I can return for a visit, or to be buried, I accept that I will always yearn to be transported back, all while knowing that the universe has a different path for me at the moment. I know, because last April, I was on a journey to both New Orleans and Portland to see which one won the battle for my current residency. Portland won, and the universe made sure that my finances kept me stuck in Portland just long enough to listen to my intuition to know that I should stay. So I listened.
It is so hard to be such a nostalgic person sometimes. So day by day, I try to let Portland have “all of me”.
(*86- A restaurant/bar industry term for kicking someone out, permanently banning them from returning to the establishment).