Saturday, May 08, 2010

A New Orleans moment

I don't watch a lot of television (any, really) but I do know about HBO's Treme series.  It was advertised on little cards in every rinky dink motel I stayed in on my trip from Boston to the Crescent City.  The motels invariably crowed on their signs, "Air conditioning.  Free HBO."  Thinking about it after the fact, I should have seen if Treme was on those nights.  I could have turned on the air conditioning too.

One of the series' writers is on record as saying, "New Orleans manufactures moments."  I had read this awhile ago and it stuck with me because it struck me as true.  I had one of those moments today.

After six days on the road, cradling clutch and throttle, I indulged in some much needed sleep today and after reading the Times-Picayune front to back over coffee at Mojo on Magazine Street, I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring.  It was in the Bywater neighborhood, south of St. Claude Avenue that I thought, "Man, I love this city.  It's so beautiful and full of surprises.  It's a feast for my soul."  There were more surprises ahead.
I headed north and found a different world altogether.  At first I couldn't decide if I was seeing the effects of Hurricane Katrina or the effects of urban blight in a poor part of town.  It was Katrina.  Five years afterward, the damage is still there, the wounds not scarred over, just scabby and painful to witness.  Whole blocks offer sights that will break your heart.  The disaster extends farther than I realized and lingers longer than a nation with a short attention span knows.

I am not making these street names up.  New Orleans street names are things of pure poetry.  I was in an area where all the homes were abandoned, boarded up, collapsing, destitute, depressing, overgrown with weeds and fetid with mold.  On the corner of Humanity and Metropolitan Streets, one house has been refurbished to the point of not only being livable; it looks new.  On the front porch two boys, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, were playing trumpets.  All around was wreckage but these two boys were blaring out infectiously joyful jazz scales.  I stopped the motorcycle to listen and they became self-conscious and stopped.  I flashed a thumbs-up and continued on my way.  As soon I was down Humanity Street a bit, out of sight but not out of earshot, they started up again, really letting their horns wail.

Call me soft-hearted or soft-headed but I had a lump in my throat when they started playing again and I can't really explain to you why.  I don't know what this episode means but I imagine it is the first of many New Orleans moments that will unfold as I live here.  New Orleans casts a spell.  It inspires great love.  I am hardly familiar with the city or the culture yet but I've caught that same bug that infects so many other people upon contact with this place.

Boston is a city that inspires fierce loyalty, mostly when compared to New York.  It is plump with historical accomplishments and intellectuals to build off them.  Every Bostonian will be happy to point out what an enlightened and progressive city it is, a world leader in technology and learning and regulation.  New Orleans is content to be itself and flourish in its eccentricity, a world apart from anywhere else on earth.  I can't yet say what the defining characteristics of a New Orleans citizen are.  All I know so far is that they know how to enjoy twenty-four hours and then another twenty-four.  There are many worse things for idle hands to be doing.

Where Humanity and Metropolitan intersect, I got a taste of New Orleans, something indescribable and mysterious, the riddle of the city distilled into a poignant, enigmatic moment.  I am going to love it here.  I don't worry for my soul but I'm concerned about my sanity.  Too much New Orleans might score the flinty New England nature off my psyche.  I didn't decide to move here to be reborn, but I am falling under an enchantment.  May every day be as humbling, bittersweet, and enlightening.


Anita said...

Welcome to New Orleans! I hope you have a chance to watch Treme tonight. Check out the blog 'Back of Town' where many local bloggers comment on the show. Many people here came for a visit and later moved here because the city resonated so strongly with them. I'm one of those and I'll never leave. (If I did, I'd go to Boston.) I hope your stay with us is magical.

Whalehead King said...

Thanks, Anita. I certainly feel welcome and I feel like I belong already. I doubt I'll get a chance to catch Treme this evening but I'll check out the reviews. Thanks for the tip.

There's magic here, alright.
With a handshake,

ALM said...

Beautiful post. Welcome to New Orleans!

Whalehead King said...

Thanks ALM. It's nice to be here.


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