So I’m driving to work today and 88.5 WXPN in Philadelphia is doing a ‘Day of Hope’, celebrating the music and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I’ve never been driven to tears by Arlo Guthrie but every song seems to remind me of what has been lost.
In the spirit of the ‘Day of Hope’ I offer my own experience of the area.
April, 1988. I was a high school senior. The school year had started with the death of my de facto stepfather and a subsequent spiral of financial difficulty too tiresome to recount. We were invited to New Orleans by friends/de facto relatives of the aforementioned stepfather and I made a very un-teenage decision to forego my senior class trip to Orlando and spend a week on the West Bank with my mom.
We flew into New Orleans International Airport on a weekday morning and my first impression of Louisiana was a wall of humidity; a force field that seemed to hang in the small space between the airplane and the jetway like a curtain one was obligated to shoulder to get into the terminal. The terminal itself was decorated in Early Warehouse, they were in the process of remodeling and it was a litter of sawhorses, plastic sheeting, and fluorescent lights hanging askew over a gray concrete floor.
Our friends were eager to show us the best of the city, and I remember feeling as though I’d been suddenly ushered into an adult world previously closed to me. Here I was, seventeen years old, listening to Bo Diddley live at Storyville and drinking my first whiskey sour. I walked St Peter and gaped at the wrought iron balconies and shutters and although I’d not yet traveled internationally I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a city in another country. The city just had a distinct ‘otherness’ to it, a flavor of exotic mystery that made me dizzy and fueled my imagination. Everything seemed to move at a sultry pace there. My sadness at the devastation is wound up in a sense memory that is just as clear as it was then; careening through the streets five in one cab, crushed up against the Haitian cab driver who cheerfully drove like Jeff Gordon, a passel of talismans hanging from his rearview mirror. Standing on the back porch watching tiny green lizards skitter across the screen door. Sitting cross-legged on the floor at Preservation Hall like a child at story time, eavesdropping on the bewildering intricacy of Creole, which I had never heard before. Hanging in the back of the tour group at Oak Alley Plantation after the heat combined with two mint juleps gave my mother an intractable fit of giggles. Wondering at the large crowd at the Café du Monde at 1:30am (which to me was very, very late), then taking a stroll down the side alley to watch them make the beignets. And the people, the beautiful array of people, with their deliberate way of talking and that slow, broad smile when I explained I’d given up Sea World and Disney and Epcot Center with my friends to come to their city, and why wouldn’t you, cher, it’s the best city in the world.
Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.