New Orleans. Just hearing those two words in passing stop time and place. The tug of a first soulmate transports me to an afternoon, sitting with the windows open on a nearly empty streetcar opening and closing my fingers to grasp the textured air. It’s possible to experience your first true connection to a place – I am living proof of that. Wherever I am when I hear the words, I close my eyes and sniff the air looking for magnolias, heat, and lingering dampness to soak the tiny hairs inside my nose. No other city, not even the great Gotham itself, holds the wonder and mystery of the Crescent City for me. Perhaps it is because I went there when I was twenty-three, partly formed and still ready to become whoever I would be. It wouldn’t be until three states and four cities later that I would learn all life is is a constant opening and becoming, closing and ending, growing and learning, shrinking and forgetting. Hegel haunts me with his dialectic, in New Orleans, he sings to me.
When you walk down the corridor at Louis Armstrong International airport, you hear zydeco music flooding out of the trinket shops, you see gas lamps lit indoors indicating some airport version of red beans and rice ready for savoring. Only your nose tingling from cleaning fluid wafting from the restrooms jars you back to the reality of an airport.
My first weekend in New Orleans was as an admitted student to the Tulane MBA program. My then fiancé came along with me even though he spent the better part of the day indoors watching Duke basketball on the tv in our hotel room. For me, the humid air was full of the expectation growing and ripening within me. As I hung my one dress in the hotel closet, I heard screaming and a band on St. Charles Avenue below. What could this be? We were well past Mardi Gras. I leaned out the open window to see floats of every shade of green from olive to moss to vermillion to anti-freeze sliding up the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground, disrupting both car and streetcar traffic for the remainder of the afternoon. There was nothing to do but join them.
On the sidewalk, outside my hotel, a drunk girl eating greasy fries from Iggy’s – the twenty-four hour bar and laundromat screamed, “Throw me something Mistah!” In response, she looked up only to wail when a flying cabbage bonked her forehead. St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans.
Later that night, current students took the prospectives to a cigar bar on Tchopitoulas Street, Dos Jefes. Outside full sized white light bulbs on a wire lit the patio - a space easily twice the size of inside where a small band was playing brass-funk to a moderately appreciative crowd. Mice scurried across the wires, oblivious to electrocution and gravity.
Sitting outside, drinking a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, in March, with my skin slurping the thick humid air into its deepest layers, I first felt my soul. It lifted out of my chest and opened its mouth to greet her lover in the night.
The two omnipresent features of New Orleans are the music everywhere and the soft gelatinous air. The latter walks with you, hugging you, pushing you, smothering you and feeding you. The music floats within it, mixing and forming its own strange chemical reaction which is entirely impossible to explain unless you’ve felt humid music sit on your shoulders and soak through your shirt.
As a child, I was always described as “odd.” When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I learned to say, “eccentric.” Here, in this city that care forgot, eccentricity lifts from the pavement much like electricity does in New York and London. How could I feel at home anywhere but a city that embraces death and life, poor and rich, rancid and sweet? Here thesis, antithesis and synthesis happily coexist in every single moment that lives. For me, the city permitted me to be all parts of myself and loved all parts of me back in its own ghostly way lives on inside me.
When I die, I will ask to be buried in a New Orleans city of the dead, three feet above the ground. I think Daddy would have loved it here.