The residents, the relief workers, the politicians... everybody -- the constant pull between exhaustion and adoration. The bitter-sweet, love/hate crazed relationship you develop with New Orleans.
Here's a great article that sums up the general pulse running through everyone in the city right now. Thank you, Chris Rose, for giving it a voice.
Finding his way home: A city, a people and twisted love
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
I have been off work for a long time. For a month, I was out of town and blissfully unplugged from the New Orleans news cycle, and while I was gone, I had the same recurring notion, every day, over and over, unwavering and intractable.
It was this: I need to get out of New Orleans. I need to leave. For my health, my sanity, my family, my sobriety, my chakra, my feng shui and everything else, real and imagined, nostalgic and unpronounceable.
You don't need me to list the reasons. They're the same ones everyone has in a town where people steal from public schools, no one uses trash cans and federal flood protection is a Big Lie.
I had an appointment at my eye doctor shortly after I returned to New Orleans and while he was shining that little blue torch into my retinas he told me he lives in St. Charles Parish and his homeowners insurance before the Thing was $2,700 a year and now it's $9,000 and he said: "I swear it's like they want to make it impossible to live here, like they want us all to leave. It's like they want to clear all the people out of south Louisiana and minimize the risk."
In a less civil society, the masses would rise up and parade the scalawags from Allstate and their fellow profiteers through the town square in shackles and let their aggrieved victims -- er, clients -- have their way with them, but this is America, the wellspring of democracy and due process, so instead we gripe about it at work to no end and somebody somewhere sets up a committee to look into it and in five years they'll tell us mistakes were made.
But here's the thing: We're not leaving. Not my eye doctor. Not me. Not because of a corrupt insurance industry or incompetent federal engineers or murderous children. And if you read that sentence, it makes absolutely no sense to stay here, especially as experts forewarn of a particularly turbulent storm season in the offing.
But I had a conversation the other night with a woman who likened living in New Orleans to an abusive relationship where you bear the obvious scars of a love all wrong and everyone knows it but you.
You leave once and you leave again -- if not physically, then emotionally -- but for reasons not entirely clear to you (nor your friends, family or psychiatrist), you keep coming back even though your mental condition could best be described as marathon episodes of "Cops," "Cheaters" and "Punk'd" playing on an endless loop on the giant cognitive plasma screen in your head.
And you tell them -- those who do not understand: You don't know her other side. You've never experienced her soft bedroom manner or seen her when she's not all wound up in a blue rage and throwing dishes around the trailer. She's so creative and empathetic; all artists are temperamental. She's so romantic. And she doesn't smell like anyone else.
New Orleans, she smells like summer rain, sweet olive and coffee.
For the past two weeks, I have been back here in town living the life. I went on two field trips with my kids, one to Café du Monde and one to Gelato, a new Italian deli and glacerie on Oak Street, and I was thinking: In most towns, they take the kids to museums on field trips. Here, they take them to eat.
The final day of classes began just like every other day at Lusher Elementary, my kids' school: The music teachers plugged in their guitar and violin and led the entire student body in a song at the morning assembly.
Every morning at my kids' school begins with a history lesson in rock 'n' roll. They make movies out of ideas like this.
And as often as not, the composition is drawn from the New Orleans musical pantheon -- Fats or the Nevilles or all that Iko Iko, Hey Pocky Way stuff -- and on the last day this year they sang "Don't You Just Know It" by Huey Piano Smith and all the kids went crazy on the chorus and its "ooba dooba dooba dooba" refrain and I realized that our kids speak a different musical language than children in other places and we have cultural icons named after keyboards, obesity, amphibians and witch doctors.
I was in the Quarter last Tuesday night, trying to get to a movie at Canal Place, but it never happened. I was 40 minutes early, so I crawled around the neighborhood looking for a cup of coffee, and I came upon a guy who was singing while he cleaned the streets.
He works for the new garbage contractor downtown and his name is Melvin Holmes. "As in Sherlock?" I asked him and he responded: "Holmes -- just like Inspector Clouseau," and I don't think he was trying to be ironic, postmodern or even funny. He was just being so classically New Orleans, getting it all wrong in just the right way.
He was singing a Luther Vandross torch song, the kind that makes women love you for a lifetime. And he was nailing the song, just killing it, just calling out the doves and stars and blooming jasmine of the night.
And he was cleaning the street. Because that's his job. And as he did, a local talent agent drove by once, then twice, then made the block again and pulled over and gave Melvin Holmes his business card and told him to give him a call some time and he would make him a star.
Is the next American Idol sweeping cigarette butts and go-cups off our streets tonight? Stranger things have happened.
Holmes said to me: "People see me sweeping up trash in the street and they hear me sing and I know what they're thinking: Another man with talent who doesn't want to put it to use. But that's just what I'm doing. I'm putting it to use out here on the street. I just love to make people smile. The people holding hands, they walk by and then turn and look at me and they understand what it is I am saying."
What Mr. Holmes is saying, of course, springs from the vocabulary of music and of love. The language of the streets of New Orleans -- even if it is Luther Vandross and not Frogman Henry he's singing.
I was trying to get to Canal Place, but when I left Melvin Holmes to his singing and sweeping, I was caught by the sound of an acoustic guitar springing out of a fairly new supper and music club called 300 Decatur.
Inside, on a big and beautiful stage, a guy named Chip Wilson was picking at his guitar and this guy, he plays crazy good. He's got the look of the Woodstock Generation, long gray hair and a slight paunch of a life well-lived and his music matches the look; he introduced a song by Steve Winwood as his personal anthem during the year he was in exile from New Orleans, the song he held onto to keep him alive back in that winter of our discontent.
The song is called "Can't Find My Way Home" and it just kills me, reduces me to jelly even when you don't put it in the context of Katrina, but when you do I'm on the bus to Teardrop City.
Like I said, I never made it to the movie last Tuesday night. I spent the evening listening to Melvin Holmes and Chip Wilson, two undiscovered planets here in this remarkable musical constellation.
So I tried to get to the movie again Thursday night -- I really want to see this Julie Christie film -- but I got to walking around again before going to Canal Place and one thing led to another and pretty soon I was sitting in the back courtyard at Napoleon House, eating a muffeletta and Zapp's potato chips and listening to the laughter of all the strangers around me, and I sat there and wondered how it was I had come to the conclusion just a few weeks ago that I needed to leave New Orleans.
Something simple like a pile of heated Italian meats and cheeses and classical music playing in a tiled, ancient and decadent courtyard can reduce me to tears and that's something that a good barbecue in Memphis or peach cobbler in Atlanta will never do to me.
Never. Not unless I'm eating them there and wishing I were here, back in New Orleans, where I can't find my way anywhere but home.
But it's not for everyone, this living in New Orleans thing. Just this week, three more friends of mine are leaving town for greener pastures, brighter lights or whatever it is out there in the Great Elsewhere.
It's been another rash of goodbyes -- always goodbye, every day goodbye. I don't blame them and I wish them well and their reasons are all legit; they leave for jobs, safety, security and love, though I wonder what love is like in another place and it cannot be as good as it is here. Can it?
Hurricane season starts Friday and maybe you've heard: The experts tell us it's going to be a banner year, maybe like the time we ran through all the names in the alphabet and had to start naming storms after Greek letters, and if Allstate and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aren't making it clear that they don't want us living here, maybe God will.
But here's the thing: We're not leaving. Not my eye doctor. Not Melvin Holmes (unless he goes Hollywood). Not me. And not so many others.
I was looking at all the other parents around me at that final morning assembly last week at Lusher and they're staying -- most of them, at least -- and investing their time, energy and children in a New Orleans public school, and if that isn't insanity, I don't know what is.
But we love our school -- it is a reason we still live here -- and it runs all the way through 12th grade now, so I'll be standing next to these people for a long, long time.
I look at them as my involuntary friends now, my brothers and sisters of circumstance, we Parents of the Children of the Storm. Whether we're fighting hurricanes, crime or head lice, we are soldiers in the same army now, bearing the physical and emotional scars of this abusive relationship with a lover named New Orleans.
But we remain true to her. It is in the words to every love song ever written. We have found our way home.