I am a Northern Californian. Berkeley is in my bones. I like fecund, overgrown gardens and fog slinking under the Golden Gate. I like funky cafes, musty bookstores, and trails under redwood trees. I like people who care enough to recycle, who vote to pay more taxes to help public schools and cover their cars with pithy bumper stickers, people who might put their feelings on placards and chant them until their faces turn red. I like that guy wearing a yarmulke waving a rainbow flag and that veiled woman of Rwandan-Maori-Norwegian descent. If I found myself at the grocery wearing paint-splattered jeans and no make-up–hell, if stopped brushing my hair or tattooed my face or dressed like a man, even– I’d probably feel right at home, so I’ll probably always live here in our neighborhood of eclectic characters and friends. I wouldn’t feel right anywhere else.
Except, perhaps, New Orleans.
I say “perhaps” because I can’t quite believe it. How could I be drawn to such a depressed and classically segregated American city, where some non-rapping white people still use the n-word in casual conversation? What sane person would move to the a place that still hasn’t recovered from or done much to avoid a Katrina redux? All I can say is that the attraction is not logical. The appeal is visceral, paradoxical, and completely irrational. In his novel Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins expressed it well when he wrote,
The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week–yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.
I just returned from my fifth trip to the Big Easy. Somehow I didn’t gain any weight–perhaps because I let that something, that wild, humping je ne sais quoi, have its way. Laissez les bon temps roulez, as they say: Let the good times roll. In Berkeley, it’s your consciousness knocking but in New Orleans, the shape lurking on the other side of the door is a big wet swampy thing, something dredged from the subconscious, a dream that wants to have its way with you tonight.
Of course, it did: and when that thing about New Orleans came to get me, I went along willingly. At first, we took it slow with visits to a few art galleries because sometimes looking at pictures gets you in the mood, if you know what I mean. At a vampire store, I saw a row of mason jars sealed with wax; inside were the bones of fairies (made of real bones and real wings).
At Antieau Gallery (at 927 Royal Street) I loved Chris Roberts Antieau’s delightfully clever quilted comics, especially this one:
and this one, here:
That thing about New Orleans was not exactly humping my leg yet, but it was shooting come-hither looks, so we wandered (that’s the best thing to do in NOLA) and stumbled across Dawn DeDeaux’s perverted (in all senses of the word), artistic interpretation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, an installation that occupies an entire courtyard and several rooms so that when I stumbled in, it was as if I was physically inhabiting the mind of the novel’s protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, where his fantasies and projections were animated and literally projected with sculpture and digital media. There, in the center of the courtyard, was Ignatius’s bed on wagon wheels and the reflection of a digital goddess grinding and bumping at its foot. A fountain gushed up from the center of the twisted sheets.
By then, that thing about New Orleans, that swamp creature and Ignatius’s wet dream had cast their spell on me. We decided to have a drink, found a gaslit bar, and ordered a round, then another, then moved on to the gothic red velvet in One Eyed Jack’s but it was too quiet and we wanted to dance and so (although I didn’t plan on it, had planned to avoid it) we somehow end up on Bourbon Street, against all better judgment (like I said, rationality becomes immaterial), where jewel-toned lights pulses a heartbeat and the black pavement glistens wet and the crowd is always hooting and I found myself bouncing up and down on a dance floor in front of a stage where a young punk screamed Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (hello, hello, hello, how low) and a girl pulled a test tube full of neon red liquid from her cleavage hello and so on, hello, hello, but it was all completely consensual. Con-sensual, you know? Oh, do it with a southern accent. Can-sense-you-all. Don’t you love that word? I love that word! Hahahahahah!
Ahem. Not that I didn’t eat; I overindulged that way too, like everybody else. Food is always a safe topic. In NOLA, the first thing you say about a meal was the size of its portion (size does matter). You make plans for lunch at breakfast and at lunch, you make dinner reservations. It’s all about the flesh: Carnal pleasures. They’re big on creatures in buttery sauce, so it’s no place to go if you’re vegetarian. Yes, I had alligator (it’s better than chicken). I had jalepeno grits and shrimp. I had Antoine’s oysters rockefeller, eggs sardou, escargot, and café brûlot diabolique, brussel sprout salad at Sylvain, Galatoire’s crabmeat sardou and banana bread pudding, Pierre Maspero’s hash and poached eggs. We went to the Po’Boy festival (where else do they hold a festival for a sandwich?) for deep fried oysters and shrimp remoulade and while we ate, everyone talked about what they had for Thanksgiving–deep-fried turkeys, turducken (chicken stuffed in a duck in a turkey), angels on horseback (a shrimp stuffed in an oyster wrapped in bacon and deep fried) and something my daughter called a “buttacookiecake,” an oreo and a Reese’s peanut butter cup baked inside a chocolate cupcake. It was wanton and gross but good: it was wantogrossgoo. I don’t know which is worse, the hangover from the drinks or from the sweet ‘n salty grease. I feel like a pregnant teenager stuffed inside an old lady fried in lard.
But in New Orleans, you’re only allowed to lose yourself while you’re chewing, when it’s dark, during Mardi Gras, or when nobody’s looking. It’s supposed to be temporary; you’re expected to get up, tighten your belt, put on a pressed shirt, and carry on like nothing happened. You’re not supposed to shack up with that hungry humping thing forever. It’s just a one-night stand, a wild fling, hazy as a dream, and you’re left, if not with psychological scars, with something like a psychic tattoo, but tomorrow they’ll hose off the sidewalks and paint it all over with a fresh coat of white.
Wait! I didn’t include anything about music! Click here to hear the real thing, a spectacular radio station I found when I was up in New Roads. KPCP plays mostly from the 40′s and 50′s because, according to music man Corey Meyer, “anything older is going to be a scratchy 78–OK once in a while but hard on the ears when we are all accustomed to CD quality.” They don’t play music on Sunday (church?) or Tuesday nights (they air the local school board meetings) and on December 26 they’ll stop playing xmas tunes and go “back to the blues… and a little Zydeco to make it interesting…until Mardi Gras.”)
Annie Had a Baby (Hank Ballard & The Midnights): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psASD3tTCgo&feature=related