Friday, November 5, 2010

Oh Katrina, why you gotta be mean?

I spent another restless night of attempted sleep in the back of my car -- this time in Lafayette, Louisiana --  rolling around in the back of my car like a hot dog on a 7-11 rotary grill.  My sleep debt was mounting and I naively thought I might have the chance to score some recovery sleep after arriving in New Orleans.  The next day was Halloween, and as a gorgeous old port city in the superstitious south with reputations for dark voodoo wizardry and parties that never stop, I was counting on New Orleans to be the ideal place to spend the holiday.

While instantly smitten with the many Creole cottages and the colors and wrought iron balconies of the old homes in the French quarter, I have to say my heart was a little broken when I fell upon famous Bourbon Street.  Overrun with overzealous bouncers, bad cover bands, obese tourists buying t-shirts in kitschy fluorescent gift shops sipping $9 novelty "hurricanes" and "hand grenades," Bourbon Street was an out-of-hand middle-aged frat party and everything I hate about Las Vegas.

My disillusionment couldn't last.  I met up with Shareen, an old coworker who moved to the crescent city only a month prior, who led me around the river side of the quarter.  We wandered Jackson Square, the heart of the city full of folk and jazz performers built around the oldest Cathedral in the states; and sipped on sweet tea in the French Market admiring the cheap jewelry and gator bites.  A second-line parade took off down Decatur street -- an tradition from old jazz funerals in which brass bands would play somber dirges as a body was being escorted to the graveyard and then celebratory tunes on the way out, the brighter exit performance being the second-line.

The city was also hosting a Saints game that evening -- a local holiday in its own right and even a cause of controversy (city planners were apparently considering rescheduling Halloween so that people home watching the game wouldn't have to be bothered by trick-or-treaters).  All the day, pedestrians were either in the black and gold of the Saints' uniform or decked in Halloween costume; all disciples of sports or pop culture.  The zeal for the game was intense, and under the interrogation of strangers, I felt I had to feign enthusiasm for the Saints just for my own safety.

Upon sunset we took Shareen's three year old nephews trick-or-treating.  They were twins and completely obsessed with Marvel Comics.  They dressed as Iron Man and War Machine and I was introduced to them as Peter Parker.  Adorably, they wouldn't leave me alone and we entered epic comic book battles with imaginary laser guns and lots of web slinging.  Though it was terribly fun, I don't have a lot of experience playing with kids and I had a tough time fighting the urge to pat them on the head and shake them by their scruff as if I were playing with dogs.

When the kids were put to sleep, I was led to Frenchman Street in the Marigny, a neighborhood immediately downriver from the French Quarter and the hip place for locals and musicians to get down.  I felt bad for anyone parked on those streets, as they were completely mobbed with costumed partiers, many hopping onto car hoods and truck beds for lack of room.  We were poured some cheap beer in a liquor store and joined the fray, thousands of ninja turtles, avatar aliens, pirates, and luchadores in a Brownian dance of drinking, dancing, and singing.  The ultimate highlight for me was grooving to a forty minute brass band jam on a cottage porch.  The crowd surged around the session and the love of the music was palpable.  It was too much fun and everything I wanted from my first night in New Orleans.

New Orleans seems to be a city much less concerned with distinctions.  Streets and sidewalks seem a free-for-all for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians; androgyny and drag queens and kings are common; and the lines between even business people and the homeless can be difficult to determine.  It was even tricky to discern whether someone was in costume for Halloween or if that's merely how they were -- something that become increasingly clear in the days following (as many of the costumes never came off).  The young bohemians adhere to a dress code: dark brown and tan tones, thick boots, facial tattoos, brightly colored hair, and costume hats.  Known as "grunge kids" or "gutter punks," they play music and panhandle, but I'd heard other locals complain that some of these kids live in nicer apartments than they do and even make sizable withdrawals at the ATM.  I guess being homeless is a lot easier when mommy and daddy are bankrolling the endeavor.

I wasn't going to leave Louisiana without exploring the swampland.  I learned of a series of trails a 40 minute drive south of New Orleans and made time to get there.  I don't think I got to sleep until 4 a.m. that morning, but I didn't want to waste the little time I had.  I walked maybe five or six miles of muddy paths and wooden platforms over bubbly swamplands, and it was surely the slowest walked hike I've ever been on.  This slowness wasn't for the difficulty of navigation, but merely for the dumbstruck awe I was continually suspended in.  I had never seen such a diversity and propensity of life outside of a zoo in such a short amount of time and space.  And what's more unnerving is all the evident life you don't see.  With each step taken, something splashes at you unseen from the bottom of the water, or creeps on the backside of trees never letting you see more than a flash of its silhouette, or bounds into a patch of grass or water too quickly to be seen.  Were it not for the clearly marked paths, I almost certainly would have stepped on an alligator, each holding so still phosphorescent plant life grow on the cracks of their backsides.  I would have sworn they were dead or even props were it not for that each time I looked away they would be subtly rearranged or even gone when my gaze returned.

Like wandering New Orleans at night, it was hard not to experience a profound appreciation for the beauty abound, as well as a sensation that you really aren't quite safe.  Before leaving (and in no time at all), I saw my full share of gators, dragonflies, frogs, green anoles and other lizards, deer, squirrels, water snakes, owls, Germans, hawks, egrets, and even a god damn armadillo.  The day's hiking was completely surreal and really sealed the deal on my impression that New Orleans and its environs felt more foreign to me than any foreign country I've been to.

New Orleans was completely wonderful and I can't wait to go back.  I left the city with a a piña colada from a drive-thru Daquiri store and a fella from Atlanta who was going to trade me a ride home for a place to stay.


Terri L said...

Proof that you're not ready for parenthood: You put dogs to sleep, not children.

Emily said...

I always dream about swamps and Southern voodoo, but the best part by far was when you talked about not wanting to treat the kids like dogs and then having them put to sleep! hahaha Louisiana sounds magical! I'm so jealous!

Matteo Feo said...

Well I almost just laughed myself to tears. I guess I didn't catch that in my quick proof-read - and I guess I'm glad I didn't.