Deep-Fried Transience in New Orleans
Like most young people who suddenly find themselves caught in New Orleans, you never expect to stay in the melting pot of tasty neo-culture longer than a few days—but the city has delicious plans for you. The preliminary stage of anticipatory sightseeing calls for following the traditional recipe: heat the surface and toast the seeds of necessary money-blowing 2-for-1 Bourbon St. parties with its rock & blues cover bands. Add oil and sprinkle in a healthy measure of the French Quarter’s worldly historic tourism, blended with its bouncing street bands that absorb the musical energy bleeding from the city’s cracked third-world roads, and simmer on low heat. When the base smells appropriate, what follows is a few spots of musician-artist culture in Frenchman Street’s legendary live jazz clubs and a crumble of the Marigny-Bywater’s slowly-gentrifying arts neighborhood, boasting hip coffeeshops open until midnight, post-modern sculpture galleries that sell beer, and down-to-earth bars whose jukebox selections seem to have come out of some bizarre 90s-noise pop hipster’s closet. Nearby appetites should be healthy at this point, so add in a week’s dash of salty familiarity-through-repetition to bring out the flavor, and taste the abundance of obliterating-intoxication casually attributed to the obscenely high alcohol-to-dollar ratio, exemplified in dollar beer & taco nights, two-dollar tallboy cans of cheap beer that one can legally bring out into the street, and an overall culture of alcoholism. Stir in fifty-cent pieces of freshly fried chicken, and the city becomes a traveling artist’s mecca. For everyone.
When all that’s boiling and the air is alive with something delicious, an often overlooked secret ingredient will complement the dish’s main volume: the Bywater-Lower 9th Ward, a.k.a. the ghetto. Take a stroll through the area most ravaged (and most unrepaired) by Hurricane Katrina and experience the friendliest, shabbiest, and most stereotypically-Southern neighborhood any outsider could imagine, complete with parties in the street filled with thumping bass and shouting angry lovers yelling “nigga” so effortlessly. Foreign to your own origins, everyone greets everyone here with mutual friendly acknowledgement. Unless they’re from out of town, even those obviously having a bad day put the energy forth for a quick hello.
“How y’all doin’?” You smile at the naturally-developing southern twang in your greetings.
“Alriiiigh!” seems to be the average response; though soon you hear it in place of any greeting.
“Alriiiigh, man!” when you nod your head with a smile.
“Alriiiigh!” when you say the same.
Some people will talk about the day & its lack of rain, your musical instrument & where you’re going to play, or praise the Lord that they just got out of jail & their baby boy’s safe with their ex-girlfriend’s brother-in-law. Sometimes the poverty-stricken obese will flirt with you, pointing to your accordion and saying they “ain’t neva’ seen a thing like dat!” Thankful for the genuine friendliness that you’re shamefully alien to, you soon grow more friendly with the overall community and learn to relate naturally with everyone on some level. So after a quick conversation of well-being ends and “say, brotha, you got a dolla’?” inevitably follows, you just as inevitably indulge without a second thought.
Keep exploring this hood and you’ll pass other white bohemians on their one-speed cruisers, carrying some type of stringed instrument on their back or towing an upright bass, making sure to avoid the right streets at the wrong hours of day, on account of either gangs or pothole construction. Little coffeeshops filled with traveling artists are interspersed throughout, always a little more expensive than the delis and liquor stores toting cheap coffee and fried catfish Po Boy sandwiches. The local Laundromat offers daiquiris and free detergent, and as awkward as it initially feels, it’s not too out-of-place to pull out a laptop and utilize the free Wi-Fi.
Your forecasted few-day trip has blown right by in a blur, but you’re not done with the meal so it’s an easy decision to keep exploring this remarkably enchanting city. Through brief existential flashes of ups & downs you feel that that maybe it’s not quite you actually cooking, but it’s you being cooked. The eerie shiver running down your spine when you suspect that New Orleans may be discovering you—your ins & outs, your backstreet alleys & friendly dive bars. The city has embraced you in its questionably-loving arms of mystical diversity and hurls you, the meat, into the sizzling flavors of everything you’ve grown to love: its history.
New Orleans tells a story unlike any other city in this country. To this day, it’s always been a haven for every breed of transient, misfit, and outcast. Due to its location as a main Caribbean port and the endpoint of the Mississippi River for native American tribes & early European colonial traders, New Orleans has never truly been able to remain a steady taste of anything but maturely refined chaos. Mid-18th century French Louisiane’s governor Louis Belcourt, or Kerlerec as the French Quarter’s street would remember him by, was known to have complained back to mother France of all the escaped slaves, treasure hunters, and overall undesired outcasts plaguing his city. Look at the state of New Orlean’s cheap-party tourist destination today, and within the desperate prostitution, rampant inebriation, and casual gambling among the Central Business District’s professional atmosphere and the country’s largest-by-cargo-volume port, and we can start to see that there can be no other way for a hub so historically wild.
After a long war in the Old World, France ceded the region over to Spanish control in the mid-18th century. Spain’s presence would be remembered for most of the city being burned to the ground in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788, which may very well be an important reason the Spanish handed it back over to France a scant few years later... Only to be swapped over again to the newborn United States in 1803, when Napoleon sold Thomas Jefferson over 800,000 square miles of land for the modern day equivalent of about forty cents per acre. For this outcast-populated land afflicted by passing hurricanes and a frequently changing governing body to boot, would the colony-tossing round of hot potato ever end?
However the United States ended up managing it, you sure love being a part of it. You feel right at home in this creatively energetic dock of blacks & whites, hispanics & hicks, artists & musicians, writers & travelers, homeless bicyclists & everyday hustlers. A new couch to crash on magically comes your way each time you’ve worn out your welcome, and “this is how everyone moves to this city” is the common phrase among the young folk. You all hail from different backgrounds but share the same goals of living off creative passion, day by day. Soaking in the spirit of this city are the real people we still see filling its crudely-managed streets, half-house shotgun apartments, and lack of corporate shopping malls at every corner.
You marvel at where you find yourself staying for the next week: a house that was at one time undoubtedly a manor but at present nothing more than a work of art acting as a functional residence. Full of dozens of transient artists, the place doesn’t have a square foot of untouched, unpainted, unattended floor or wall space—including the shower tiles. No walk around the huge house leaves you lacking the sight of a painter, sculptor, musician, robotic designer, artisan baker, dancer, or someone uniquely imaginative hard at work.
Walk to the backyard and enter recent history: between the two three-story trees, above what was once a rudimentary makeshift pool hangs a rope bridge connecting two giant tree houses fifty-feet up in the air. Both are crudely constructed from arbitrary debris that wafted around the city after a devastating Katrina: roller coaster carts & carousel carriages, slides & ladders, dog houses & wagons, planks of wood & poles of steel; the list goes on. This house was one of the coolest party spots in town for most of 2009, the proceeds of the artistic festivities having gone to the restoration of the residence itself. Signed waivers were required of each party-goer to release the house from any safety liabilities, yet after four big bashes it was still condemned by the city.
You walk up the tree house stairs as a breeze rushes by, sit on a plank acting as a chair and stare off at the flowing I-10 across the way into the jubilee of skyscraping hotels and banks. You’re sitting in the ghost of an epic party, fueled on pure creative energy. You feel the tree shaking from the DJ’s music. You see groups of people working together on various projects of all sorts, beers in hand, cigarettes hanging loosely from mouths. You can smell the joints, feel the splashes of water from the pool. It was years ago, yet you feel the life. You’re a part of it, just like everything else in this city.
Days pass. You spend amicable hungover time with steadfastly-erratic company in your favorite coffeehouse as you work on your fiction, your memoirs, your thoughts on computer screen. You make friends and drink cheap beer with jam-buddies in the streets, learning traditional jazz standards and ragtime tunes, buying fried food and Old Granddad bourbon with the dollars people throw into your instrument case, giving back to other street musicians when your pocket allows it. You connect and converse with every and any person around you: tourists, backpackers, bums, thugs, baristas, pedicab drivers—and many of these people become cherished friends in their own temporal way. You meet attractive members of the opposite sex, you meet musical soulmates in spontaneous jam sessions at house parties. There’s no question that something crazy always awaits you around the corner, because New Orleans loves to tease you with its waves of energy, each crest higher than the last.
And then, as if it were possible for the city to become any more relatively out-of-hand, party season begins.
“Now’s when it gets fun,” says one friend, who’s been here a few years. “You know how Mardi Gras started? The day after is Ash Wednesday, so back in the day when people still cared about that stuff, they all just got as decadent and debaucherous as possible because they’d be absolved from their sins the next day. So now we still do it: wear masks, drink and fuck like sin don’t matter. For a month.”
“Great time to make money,” is another opinion, that of a street musician. “Tourists pouring in everywhere, just like musicians. Just a problem finding a spot, lots of competition out there.”
But that’s only one side of it. Meanwhile, others hold an entirely different view:
“Get the fuck out while you can,” warns a jaded journalist at a bar after the premiere Fat Tuesday parade, Krewe du Vieux. “Mardi Gras may seem fun now, but it helps the city reel you in. Get the fuck out before you’re hooked like a catfish on its way to the deep fryer.” She lights a cigarette and takes a long drag, washing down the spite with rum & Coke. “I’ve been here eight years, I’ve been trying to leave the entire time. You won’t find love, you won’t find commitment. You’ll find waves ushering in floating treasures, only to whip the fortune back out to sea…” In her eyes is the lost love of a hundred past souls, the jaded iris’ of lifetimes built on despair.
“And me, I was just passin’ through!” says one of your closest friends and favorite bums, an off-season carnival booth worker who could guess your weight and snake you peacefully out of a dollar before you realize he’s charmed the hell out of you. He’d made his way here from Mississippi the month before, after he blew up his meth lab in an alchemist’s blunder. “Found me a cute little black girl first week I got here, and she cast a spell on me when we were all through. Whore said I wouldn’ leave town ‘til the river dried up. Need me some dried white sage and another witch to cure me of the curse, else I’m a goner!” The theme of the spiritual hook, line & sinker for the traveler’s soul is a frequent metaphor for the people of this place. Just like the parties and transient wild nature of the city, perhaps history can explain this one, too: Louisiana Voodoo.
When the United States acquired Louisiana, it was just in time for an influx of immigrants from Haiti after a successful revolution in 1804 (the second of the New World colonies, following the United States). As freedmen and slaveholders alike poured into New Orleans from the Caribbean, not only did a larger French-speaking population plant themselves in the region, contributing to the Cajun Francophone family, but a new blend of religion & superstition was formed.
Voodoo traditions stem from the Atlantic slave trade triggering a global spread of the African diaspora (traditions descended from the peoples of Africa). Differing frameworks of African spiritual beliefs allowed for customary ceremonies to adopt such culturally-local symbols & ideas such as the Christian God, the crucifix, and holy water; so when a large percentage of Voodoo practitioners emigrated to New Orleans from Haiti, the Christian symbols were incorporated into their own customary rites & sacraments of healing. Exotic, new, and very powerful to Westerners, traditional African amulets & charms, roots & herbs, bones & nails, ceremonies & rituals all associated with casting off certain spirits & evil were soon charismatically applied to the predominantly Catholic culture of New Orleans, to everything from exorcisms to medicines. To modern tourists, it’s just another spectacle; but to anyone staying here for a large chunk of time, the energy of Voodoo is something to respect.
Believing yourself happily caught in the lingering magic of New Orleans, you’ve managed to start a band. Your group is from different walks of life, with different goals as far as musicianship goes but you play well together and people quite enjoy it so there’s nothing to think twice about. You play music all day, each day, and drink off the pain growing in your lower back from holding up the awkwardly-weighted instrument you support for so many hours per afternoon. Each day enough money piles up for an indulgent night of cheap booze and mayonnaise-filled deli sandwiches.
Aside from the spontaneous parades, parties and associated fun popping up all over town with your name on it, you’re also becoming a much better musician. You’ve become great at talking with people, you feel that you’ve got some good friends, and you’re not as broke as usual. Things can’t really be going any better, as far as you’re concerned. You start looking for a place to rent, while you’ve still got some money in your bank account.
“Man,” says another good friend, the tenor sax player Jimi Hendrix incarnate with his smooth voice and headband-jewelry style, “just gotta learn to go with it, man. Go with it, and it goes with you. I haven’t had a home in years, and I get by just fine—I play music all day, and people give me money! I stay with women that enjoy my company, and I don’t eat too badly.” He takes a puffs of his Natural American Spirit, the expensive brand of cigarette that’s the only one he’ll buy. “I mean, shit. What else do you need in life?”
You may well be on your way to living like him, you think, but you’re still going to look for a home. You could use some privacy, it’s been a while and you do enjoy personal solitude, away from the city that swallows you whole each day—but the problem is Mardi Gras season. Everyone comes from around the globe to experience this celebration of decadence, and homeowners would rather rent their extra bedrooms out for an expensive weekend instead of a cheap month.
You’re a mediocre musician but you’re a great computer nerd, so you decide to take your jam band to the next level. You grab a portable microphone and record a very unpolished demo of your little band. It’ll be nothing too special but it’s far more than most street musicians have: a sample offering enough sound to perhaps win some paid gigs at a bar or club, as so to not have to fight for a spot on the tourist-ridden streets during the day. It’s difficult to get everyone together—some have compared working with musicians to herding cats—because no one can make solid plans. No one knows which wild shenanigans will drop in for an evening or what grisly hangover awaits each morning, and thus you learn that when plans fall through, it’s no one’s fault—flaky nature is an important part of the spirit of New Orleans. Just look at the first few governing nations of the region signing it over to the next, the transitory people that have always inhabited it, and even the speedy growth of revolutionary music genres.
Ragtime’s origins came in the late 19th century, as slaves freed after the American Civil War were granted new working rights, which lead many to musicianship in various low-class entertainment venues. In New Orleans, the burgeoning style thrived primarily in the red-light district: vaudeville theaters, bars, brothels, and undoubtedly countless other types of fine establishments. The term ragtime comes loosely from “ragged rhythm,” and is of generally upbeat tunes symbolic of the attitude of the black folk of the day: free to live, free to dance! Its melodies were largely influenced by the Cuban habanera and early tango (which was but a ferry ride away to hear in Cuba at the time). Afro-Cubano rhythms of the period were joined with syncopation (the sudden off-beat counts in a rhythm) and the polyrhythmic drumming techniques of tribal Africa (two conflicting rhythms playing together) and snap—the basis of ragtime: an eclectic infusion of culture completely dissimilar to its geographical ancestry. Just like New Orleans.
By the 1910s, ragtime would be overpowered by the popularity of jazz, birthed in New Orleans itself as Dixieland, one of the early styles of jazz with which would later be identified by artists such as Louis Armstrong, Kenny Ball and Al Hirt. As our modern pop culture proves, it wasn’t long before blues, swing, bebop, and countless other styles of jazz took the world by storm, opening the Pandora’s Box of 20th century musical fashion. Each sub-genre tells its own story of how it branched out from the trunk of traditional jazz—an odd label, as the only stable tradition in such a style is the creative fluctuations found in exploration & change.
Just like New Orleans. But what is so liberated cannot be so trusted, either.
As jazz has proven, never could the advancement of musical intuition be harnessed once unleashed as you, the traveler, start to sense more locally one day when your banjo player doesn’t want to go play in the streets anymore. He’d always said he came here to be a better musician, and now you, the mediocre performer, wonder if you were holding him back. Your upright bass player disappears, and through the window you see your trumpet player playing in one of the fanciest jazz clubs in town. Your group never acquired a gig, and suddenly you see that you probably won’t ever acquire a gig. Were you the only one who believed to begin with? Were you the only one who felt any sort of solidarity?
And all of the sudden you realize that you could never work a real job in this city, and now it’s already been several days with not a dime coming in on the streets. Your friend bails last minute on the apartment you’ve agreed to rent together. To commute to and from said promised apartment, you’ve just spent the last of your savings on a rusty old bicycle. You notice that on wheels it’s unexpectedly not so easy to greet and connect with friendly passerbys. And then your first & best friend in the city, graciously sharing her room with you in your nomadic days of comfortable vagrancy, hits the road. Someone else is taking her room, so you’re forced to head Uptown, broke and miles from any tipping tourists. It’s the last remaining couch you can crash on, in the suburban-bourgeois neighborhood where liquor stores close early and life dies by ten… It’s just like the home of your childhood you’re trying to escape with its corporate coffeeshops, yoga health food stores, and clean modern SUVs. It’s your last safe haven from the rain, which has started again after weeks of sunshine.
It’s the abrupt, symbolic end of an abrupt, symbolic era, one no doubt characteristic of the exact same nature of countless other souls having passed here before you. You take a deep breath walking through the slow streets in the cloudy dusk, wondering what to do with your bike when you leave, when you suddenly hear the reverberating echoes of a lonely saxophone. There he is, Jimi Hendrix incarnate, leaning against the wall playing Für Elise in a dimly lit, reverberating hallway.
So it’s just you and the coolest guy on earth in homeless street musician form, drinking beer paid for on credit and listening to the finished product of a lost dream’s musical demo through a depressed cloud of smoke—but to your surprise, you’ve never seen anyone so excited. His voice is a blend of astonishment, love, and thrill:
“Man, I sound this good? Hot damn! I’ve never heard myself recorded before! My God! I can send this to my dad, he can show my baby brother! Aww, yeah!” His brother had been hit by a car, making him a quadriplegic last year. “This will make him so happy! Oh, man! You don’t know what this means to me, man! This is incredible!”
And he gives you a hug. A big hug. A bear hug. This tall black man with his stylish chains and necklaces, headbands, vests, face tattoos, and amazing musical capability hugs you with everything he’s got, tears streaming down his cheeks and onto your forehead. “Thank you, my brother. This means so much. You will always be my brother.”
As a tear forms in your own eye, you suddenly know that New Orleans is through with you. It’s taking you out of the oven. You’re a finished dish and you taste mighty fine, ready to be savored elsewhere.