"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wild New Orleans

All I have ever seen on TV or in movies about New Orleans is hurricanes.  Like all of us, I have seen endless images of destruction and devastation.  And I have wondered, why do people choose to continue living here?  Is it not obvious that the sea is trying to reclaim this city?  Perhaps people don't belong here at all, unless they are traveling through on a swamp boat or catching shrimp to take back to some more stable land.

And then I finally visited the place myself.

It was a 75 degree, sunny day when Oldman and I decided to venture into New Orleans.  We took his mom's car just as far as St. Charles Street, where we parked and took the trolley.  The sunbeams reached into our open windows and the breeze felt more like May than December.

Before hopping onto the trolley, we couldn't help but stop at a little, psychedelic creperie/hippie shop near Loyola University.  We ate fresh crepes stuffed with mozzarella cheese, spinach, bacon, and tomatoes, then bought way too much incense at the hippie shop next door.  Before leaving, Oldman noticed that the stucco wall had a few grips, and the climber part of his brain went a little wild.  That boy will try to climb anything.

The trolley ride took us down St. Charles Street, past telephone wires and trees draped with endless, faded beads from years of Mardi Gras, past elaborate houses with two and three stories of wrought iron porches, past little shacks selling po-boys, gumbo, and jambalaya.

We hopped off the trolley in the French Quarter, and found ourselves on Bourbon Street.  In short, it was gross.  Block after block of sleazy sex shops and people drunk in the middle of the day kind of made us want to turn around and go home.  Luckily, Bourbon Street was not indicative of New Orleans as a whole, and we soon found some more appealing neighborhoods.

We wandered into what must have been the art district, and marveled at colorful local art and sculptures.  We stopped to hear a tune from a street musician with a kazoo and steel string guitar.  On the next block, more street performers - a five piece string band caked with dirt and facial hair, playing their hearts out with their trusty hound dog by their side.

We wandered into a very high brow antique store and gaped at the intricately carved pool tables, carousel horses, and a library with dark, oak shelves filled to the brim with tattered tomes inches thick.  We took silly pictures and stuck out from the stuffy, rich folks who strutted from case to case.

We visited Cafe Du Monde for the obligatory coffee and beignets.  It was crowded and touristy, and the beignets were really just funnel cake in a different shape.  But while there, we met Nadine - a waitress whom we found crying out back.  Upon further inquiry, we discovered that she is here from South Africa, working on her summer break.  She was crying because she had $220 stolen from her, which is the equivalent of three months rent back home.  We reminded her of what a blessing it is to be reminded that all is temporary, and monetary possessions can slip through our fingers at any moment.  We talked for awhile, until she was laughing and wiping away her tears.  We left her with a reminder of her beauty, strength, and wholeness - with or without $220.

To take a breather from the city, we walked up the levee to the bank of the Mississippi.  We sat watching the shrimp boats and steamboats glide lazily down the wide river, and shivered at the cool breeze coming off the water.

Upon recommendation from two men in a vintage shop, we trekked several blocks for dinner at a place called Adolfo's.  The bottom floor was a dark dive bar that already had live music playing at 5pm.  Since the upstairs dining room didn't open for half an hour, we ordered a locally brewed IPA and sat down to listen to the jazz singer/songwriter and his drummer drawl out some tunes.  An old woman sat up front, cigarette hanging from one hand, tambourine in the other, eyes closed.  She sipped her drink (whisky, I think) and hit that tambourine against the table as she bobbed her head to the music.  Was she in the band?  Is everybody?

When we finally took our growling bellies upstairs for dinner, we found a tiny Italian/Creole restaurant with checkered tablecloths and candlelight.  A brusque Italian waiter with a thick accent told us the specials and brought us some of the most delicious garlic bread I have ever tasted.  Even my Chinese, non-bread-eating boyfriend asked for seconds.  We started with a crab and corn cannelloni - a house creation recommended by our waiter.  Then Oldman had crusted tilapia topped with crawfish and shrimp in a cream sauce that he said was the best fish he had ever eaten.  I had alfredo pasta brimming over the bowl with plump, pink, fresh shrimp.

The day had been so perfect.  We only wanted one more thing.  Live music.  But where to find it?  We stepped outside of our restaurant and our ears were immediately filled with jazz from every direction.  We looked at each other and laughed.  Letting our ears be our guide, we followed the music into a place across the street, where we found a raised stage draping with Christmas lights.  A tall guitarist with a swath of dramatic hair across his forehead crooned out jazz tunes, while an adorable girl with too-short bangs sat singing harmony and playing the washboard, and a short fella with a fedora and a white buttoned shirt with rolled-up sleeves played the upright bass in the back.  We stayed for six songs and one beer, bought their record, and left for the next destination.

Letting our ears be our guide again, we glided down the street into a club with hopping brass music spilling exuberantly out the open door onto the street.  As we walked tentatively inside, a waiter was just placing an additional table for two right up front; he smiled and motioned for us to sit down - best seat in the crowded house!  This band was bouncing with energy and included a clarinet, trumpet, bass sax, guitar, drums, and sousaphone.  We ordered two rum punches and drank until we were hopping in our seats to the music and our faces were warm and red.

Exhausted and completely blissed out, we tore ourselves away and began the long trek back to the trolley stop.  On our way, we ran into two, voluntarily homeless bohemians sitting in folding chairs with typewriters on their laps and signs that read "POETRY ON DEMAND."  I stopped and inquired.  The man, who had a red turtleneck, brown corduroy jacket, and a thick French accent said, "You give me a topic, and I write a poem for you.  If you like it, you pay whatever you like."

We asked our new friend, Antoine, to write us a poem about wild travel.  Here is what we got:

Wild Travel
we want our roots
to spread across borders
         into their minds
we will be friends
for a second
          for a week
if you care
we'll travel you
with our hopes and questions
we'll enter your home
and call it ours
and you won't mind
cause you know 
we love you

Falling asleep on Oldman's shoulder on the trolley ride home, I thought back to my question about why anyone would want to live in this city, and I smiled a knowing, sleepy smile.  This place is bursting at the seams with music and don't-give-a-damn life, and gorgeous days like this could make anyone forget about hurricanes.

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