Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dolo toujou couri lariviere...

I don't know if it's the beignets, the swamps or the voodoo that first drew me to New Orleans. Probably the voodoo. I was at home with the wildness of the place--a place literally floating with the dark history of everything we try to forget; slavery, Santeria, mixed blood, gluttony. I understand these things well.

There is something so honest about New Orleans. Almost no one is native to the place. Somehow they've wandered in, maybe stumbled upon a big Mardi Gras and never left. Fell in love with a girl reading Tarot at night. Wanted to get away from the social stocks of small town gossip.

"This place is a fucking mess," says Chris. A big 20-something kid from Jacksonville. He works the front desk of Electric Ladyland Tattoos on Frenchman Street. He looks like a thug with his big black T-shirt and gauged ears and bronchial cough (he doesn't smoke). But really, Chris is a foodie. He has a seasoned chef's palate. He tells us where to go for the "real shit." He is excited about my tattoo.

"That's sick," he says. "Definitely not something a girl brings in here."

I tell him about our trip to the French Market that day. How it was depressing. How I was so desperate for fresh vegetables, I bought a bunch of unwashed carrots, wiped the dirt on my bare thigh, and started eating them, one by one, while my husband looked on in mild horror.

Chris laughs. He tells me where I can get Brussels sprouts that are better than sex. Seriously. Then warns against going to the market again.

"That place has bad fucking juju," he says.

"I could feel it. Crawling all over me."

"It was the slave auction."

"That explains it. Down the river."

"Last stop before Mississippi. People are fucking terrible."

He takes me in to meet Scott, the tattoo artist. Another transplant to this bright, chaotic place. He's excited about the design, too.

"Not very girly." He confesses that he is relieved.
"She's not a girly girl," my husband says. "She'll kill you with her bare hands."

I lay flat on my belly, lift up my skirt to just barely decent and the three-hour session begins. Gawkers begin to gather at the window. They are watching the process, taking pictures. I can't make a face, I can't wince. I have an audience now.

We wander through the streets a lot, at weird hours. My husband is faithful in his quest for finding me decent coffee, undiluted by chicory.

"Chicory reminds me of being poor," I say, after my first bad cup.

I get just drunk enough to heat my blood all day. Just drunk enough so that I don't notice when he leaves the hotel room in the morning, but do notice when he comes back with a rich espresso concoction injected with bitters--my request nearly every morning of the trip. The door creeks. He sneaks into the room, sees that I have one eye open and sets the coffee on my belly. I pick it up before my next breath topples it.

"I figured out what that smell is on Bourbon Street." He is almost gleeful with his recent discovery.
"The puke," I say.
"I was trying to figure out why the street was always wet. It hasn't rained since we've been here."
"I just saw a whole fleet of little pressure washer trucks."

The little battalion of green vehicles converges on the French Quarter--while the red eyes are sleeping in other people's beds and in the marble stoops of elegant shops. Washing away most of what happened the night before.

If only.

It's nasty, yet there's a certain allure to Bourbon Street to the good time mayhem. It's 1 a.m. The good times are still rolling. I yawn. A handsome, slicked-up college kid flicks my shoulder.

"No, no," he says, drunk on rye and youth. "You can't be tired yet."

"I'm old," I laugh. He sizes me up.

"Not a chance," he winks, points to my husband and is swallowed by the throng of bad decisions that eat him up.

"Every night is amateur night, here," my husband laughs. Yet, looking in the steamed up windows of blues clubs and strip joints and little gambling pockets, a tiny part of me wants to be lost in there.

We get into the habit of searching out the street bands we like. There are so many. But I like to stay and listen. I have no interest in shopping. I stay, baking in the heat of midday, balancing myself on the cobblestone, slapping my thigh, drunk on bourbon, smoking a cigarette and just letting this be life. The bands play old hymns on worn out tubas, high jazz on rusted trumpets. It's a miracle. To even be here. Along that horrible, wide mouthed the guts of where sin and redemption dance every day.

"I don't think I can leave," I say. It is our last few hours in the city. My husband decides to double check some of the streets and smoke his last cigar before we get on the plane. I sneak into the bookstore across the street from our haunted hotel. A true Cajun bookstore. Books stacked high above my head, some in French, some in English. The shopkeeper is hidden in the back.

"Bonjou. Komen to ye?" He is an older gentleman. Dressed formally, even for this warm day. He seems excited that I have wondered to the music section. None of it in English. I am strumming an imaginary banjo when I tell him I don't speak the dialect.

"Je suis desole, monsieur. Je ne parle pa creole." I say I am sorry once again, for my lack of the language, and continue to rifle through the music, picking up paper as thin as rice, old songs by old people, from some deep place in the bayou.

He can't resist following me around the shop, at a distance, commenting on the books I pick up. I like his French. A customer comes in, and they speak to each other in that same refined roughness. I pick up some of what they are saying, I'm not Parisian after all. The customer is obviously an old friend and the shopkeeper hushes him just before the conversation takes on a raunchy lilt. The visitor looks up mischievously at me and gives a little wave. Then he exclaims to the dust in the room.

"Mais elle a les zye gri!"

That part I understand. They are picking apart my heritage. I cough in the back of the store to make it known that I was still in the fucking room and the visitor leaves. I bring my purchases to the cluttered desk.

"So you like Cajun music?" He seems amused, even smug.
"Of course, why would I buy all this? For my mother?" I laugh. He pulls two CDs out of his desk and throws them on the pile. Rare recordings of women singing in the swamp.

"For you."
"Revenez bientot a la maison."

I wave. And blush a little. He thinks I'm leaving home 

We get one more coffee for the cab ride to the airport. This time, I ask them to put something stronger in it. Something that will swallow the  sadness in my chest. Leaving Treme...leaving the vastness of Lake Pontchartrain, leaving the wrecked neighborhoods by the cemetery, Katrina's signature, human failure.

The cab driver is from the Ukraine. He talks about the house he lost in Katrina. He talks with such bitterness about this crazy place. The heat, the partyers, the bums, the dirty-as-a-shoe-bottom mayor and the crooked construction bids.

"Why don't you go back to Ukraine, then," I ask. Maybe slightly defensive, I don't know.

"Nobody can leave this place. Not really."