New Orleans is a strange city, always has been. It’s historically charged, aesthetically specific, traditional/anarchistic, secretive/emotive, fundamentally complex—one craves to know it and yet it remains fluid, unknowable. Given this dichotomy, how can I report on New Orleans in a way that’s alive and authentic? I can only write what I know: that my relationship with this city is the defining relationship of my life and it’s changing all the time.
(On Esplanade Avenue for the first time, photo Fork Burke)
I came here because of a Tom Waits song, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans,” that I obsessively listened to in my cold Detroit shack. It was on vinyl, my turntable was held together with duct tape. I wrote letters on a typewriter, had a rotary phone with no answering machine, didn’t own a car, I rode trains. It was Carnival when I arrived and I didn’t know anything about any of it; hell, I didn’t even know Mardi Gras Day was Tuesday. I was just a wild pony on the hunt, who knew for what. And New Orleans rewarded me for my blind search with flat-out magic, there’s no other way to describe it. I fell madly in love with its analog velocity and crooked seams, the shadows and synchronicities that revealed promises inside secrets inside delicious buttery food inside drums. I fell hard for the people, sing-songy and proud, everyone a star, life-rich, half-cocked slang, anyone with a vision could make their way, no grid to speak of, anyone who wanted could hide. Here was a place of smoke and cats, fat flowers and coffee and bitters, all wet and abject. I moved here as soon as I could; it’s been over 20 years and I’ll never regret it.
Maundering (photo ©EUnderwood)
For folks wanting to understand the psychology here, I suggest beginning with our ecology. In Native American traditions, the South is symbolic of the “eternal Spring” and it’s eternally Spring in the sub-tropic deep South. We’re situated in a web of powerfully colliding waters, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with their wetlands and swamps, big storms and industry. The physical nature of this place is always regenerating—the earth is constantly turning into its waters and producing new earth, which in turn gets turned—there’s no solid ground in a swamp. The growing season’s year-round; there’s always something dying and blooming at once. Have you smelled rot up close? Has that smell ever turned you on? There you go, welcome to New Orleans.
Wade In The Water (photo ©EUnderwood)
And there’s Miss Marie sweeping her stoop after her grandbabies, Slim loping to Jimmy’s for a cold drink, Edwin on the hunt for odd jobs, Laurie the mail-lady who always has a biscuit for my dog, frail Miss Jenny who used to walk day and night with her husband but he passed so now she walks alone, Marty the self-appointed sheriff on his personal neighborhood watch, which entails lying to everyone about everything while reminding us about the 22 in his belt, Tommy the retired fireman gently coaching his skittish pitbull Gert that he rescued out of the big flood, and my beautiful pal Jeffrey telling me all about the Frozen Cup Lady while the first Mardi Gras parade of the season, Krewe de Vieux, tears up the street with their crazy floats and brass bands and mules behind us, “Eli, Eli! You have to know the Frozen Cup lady! They would make the frozen cups, each neighborhood had their own. Yeah, yours might make pineapple, another would make bubble gum, my favorite was pineapple. 25 cents or something, everyone had a Frozen Cup lady! Now they’re just gone.” Jeffrey smokes clove cigarettes; everyone’s in love with Jeffrey.
One And Only/Jeffrey (photo ©EUnderwood)
I find myself lying down in a weedy space pulsing with romance and river sounds, to watch satellites sparking as the moon hitches up to somebody grilling down the block who will give me a plate when I pass back by. If you really live here, you never say no to a plate, and you say hello, how you doin’, alright and you my baby, baby doll, baby girl? Mystery still lives here. The unknowable still winks from the high boughs of the old oaks, teasing, calling, flashing a grand prize. And climbing for it still gives me the real story of my life. It’s tattooed on my heart’s fingertips and I will try to spell it out before it vanishes, just another trail of blood in the mud a wisp, disappearing as we kiss —
Royal Rain (photo ©EUnderwood)
originally published Les Chroniques Purple, permission required/all rights reserved
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