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WHAT THE DEL?!? (UNEXPECTED INSPIRATION)
I never intended to fall silent for so long. After sharing my second ride with Morpheus and my adventures the following weekend, I didn’t even document Fat Tuesday itself when I once again dressed in my purple, gold, & green pirate outfit and caught Zulu for the first time since my first Mardi Gras in 2000. (The costume worked: I scored 5 Zulu coconuts!) As I ground to this unexpected halt, I simply felt like Forrest Gump: That’s all I gotta say about that.
Despite my blogging break, I have begun writing again, returning to a pre-teen mystery set in New Orleans that I began in the months before moving back. I’d contracted a major case of writer’s block upon moving back to Florida, but recently a few kind strangers who stumbled upon the blog and downloaded Jeremiah’s Scrapbook reached out and inspired me to keep plugging along. As I returned to my novel, I happily discovered that the plot that eluded began congealing in my subconscious during my hiatus; thus I’ve been stealing moments here and there (after declaring myself unable to write in such bursts) between working full-time again and attending every music festival in the southeast. Despite my return to fiction, however, I wondered if I’d ever return to the blog. I felt I had nothing left to say.
And then I found inspiration in the most unexpected place. It took a bluegrass, folk, and string festival in the mountains of western Maryland hosted by bluegrass legend Del McCoury to make me wax nostalgic for my first visit to New Orleans. What the Del?!?
AN ANCIENT CRY REKINDLES YOUTHFUL WONDER
My love affair with New Orleans began in 1998. I was living in Tallahassee when my then girlfriend, in grad school at Florida State, suggested we attend Jazz Fest. I’d never been to New Orleans but I love music and visiting new places, so of course I agreed. Still, I thought it was silly that she had friends who attended every year. What a waste of vacation!
Like many, I arrived not fully understand the diversity of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I loved jazz, but was surprised to discover 11 stages spread across the New Orleans Fairgrounds pulsating with classic and alternative rock, folk, jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, funk, and styles I didn’t even know how to categorize. Although there were countless famous national acts, I gravitated to New Orleans jazz, brass, funk, and Cajun rock, lapping it up like a greedy toddler. How had no one ever told me about this joyous, vibrant and soulful music?!? If I weren’t so elated I would have felt robbed. Where have you been all my life?!?
I left town with a fistful of CDs from the now-defunct Virgin Megastore by Jackson Square, returning in 1999 to discover bands that remain amongst my all-time favorites: Better Than Ezra, Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic, Kermit Ruffins, and Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
I’ve since attended countless times and become somewhat of a festival junkie. Yet, these days I attend more for acts I know and, often, have already seen. To an extent (R.I.P. B.B.) The Thrill Is Gone. It’s not that I think any less of Jazz Fest. I’m just so well steeped in music that I stumble on few surprised. Even when I’ve tried to connect with the next generation of local bands such as Royal Teeth and Sweet Crude or national acts like My Morning Jacket or Arcade Fire I’ve been left cold. I was starting to feel a bit old.
And then a 76-year-old bluegrass picker sporting a dated snow-white pompadour with a voice as ancient high lonesome as the Appalachians that birthed these hillbilly blues helped me reconnect with such youthful wonder.
A PERFECT HILLBILLY DUST DEVIL
I stumbled on DelFest quite by accident. In 1999 I’d dragged my oldest brother to Jazz Fest over his protests that, “Horns make me nervous.” Jerry’s an engineer who calls me the ‘artsy fartsy’ one of the family, and though I had emulated his musical tastes growing up, I’ve since been the one exposing him to new sounds. Yet he was on board this current string and bluegrass revival from the start and turned me on to Old Crow Medicine Show several years ago, though my interest was slow to build.
Although I’d still listen to old country or bluegrass from time to time out of nostalgia, I long ago quit viewing the music of my birth home as a major part of my personality. Gradually, though, as rock and modern country continued to stagnate I began to appreciate the synergy of this roots and string movement that Jerry had been nudging me towards. Then I got caught in a perfect storm that blew me back to my roots.
It started just before Christmas when my country music loving father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. As I stewed in apprehension awaiting further news I found myself listening to the old country music that he’d played when I was a child, slowly realizing how deeply it was woven into my DNA. About that time Aimee surprised me by buying Don Williams’s tickets. I thought she was kidding at first, but she was giddy with excitement, explaining he was the first concert she’d ever attended. In January, as my father’s procedure approached, this smooth country crooner’s satin voice and easy demeanor proved to be the sonic cup of tea and a blanket my tattered soul needed. All the while I was really digging Old Crow Medicine Show, who around this time announced they were coming to St. Augustine. Suddenly I found myself basking in the Appalachian hillbilly music of my West Virginia home.
I DOUBLE DOG DEL YOU
When I checked OCMS’s website I noticed that a week after St. Augustine they were playing a music festival in western Maryland. Jerry lives in the eastern MD, so I decided to look into this Memorial Day Weekend event. Although I hate to admit it, I knew little about the host, bluegrass legend Del McCoury, beyond his name, and Old Crow was the only band I really knew, but the pictures from past years looked fun, with its stages nestled snuggly between two mountains.
So I sent Jerry a link, doubting he’d give it a second look. I couldn’t recall the last time we’d attended a concert together and it’s been over a decade since his last Jazz Fest, so when he immediately responded: “Okay. Sounds good,” I called to see if he was joking. (And asked again about 5 times over the next three months just to make sure!) It turns out his stepdaughter lives twenty minutes from the Cumberland Fairgrounds where DelFest is held, and he and his wife camp in the area several times a year to visit the grandkids. So to my surprise plans moved forward and last week I few to D.C, arriving–just like my first Jazz Fest–having little idea what was in store.
DEL WILL BE THERE…AND THERE’LL BE BANJOS
Although we encountered a ticketing snafu the opening Thursday afternoon (they turned us around after waiting in traffic and sent us to a college 20 minutes away for wrist bands—something that would have been nice to have been included in on the website or emails) our troubles immediately melted upon walking onto the grounds. Del McCoury was opening the festivities with his band, and we were immediately struck by his infectious laugh and easy-going demeanor. This narrow hollow between two looming green ridges was his living room and everyone felt welcome. And everyone was instant family.
Unlike Jazz Fest or any other music festival I’ve attended, DelFest was a small, intimate affair with three stages that never got too crowded. Whereas at Wanee Fest you are forced to camp far from the stages and trek back and forth, here you camp right on the fairgrounds. Although the main stage was cordoned off, people camped right by the Potomac Stage, and you could hear the main stage from the Del-uxe camping area.
Each of the four days, Del took the stage and each day we came to love him more. Every musician he’d invited gushed about how honored they were and how welcoming Del had been. Many admitted they’d been coming long before being asked to play. The audience ranged from little kids to twenty-something hipsters to middle-aged fogies like us to vibrant and youthful retirees of Del’s generation.
Friday morning as we walked around checking out the various camping areas, already planning for next year, we talked to a guy pushing thirty who gushed about what a great event this was. “My friends and I go to a lot of festivals, but this is the only one where we buy tickets before the lineup is even released.” He grinned. “But we know Del will be here. And we know there’ll be banjos.” He shook his head as if there were nothing more to say.
ROCK STAR IN BLUEGRASS CLOTHING
Del McCoury may be an old school bluegrass picker and crooner, but he has rock star gravitas. Twenty-something hippies were walking around wearing pins that said: “I Dig Del” and the crowd was thick with ‘Del Yeah!’ t-shirts. In fact, this latter exclamation was the unofficial slogan of the festival. Between songs bands would implore the audience: “Can I get a ‘Del Yeah’!” and passers-by would grin and offer a high-five while crying the refrain. Normally such a cultivated cult of personality, with Del’s name punned in every way imaginable, may seem self-aggrandizing or creepy, but Del came across as everyone’s grandfather unifying with love and music.
Like that first Jazz Fest, I spent the weekend wandering around in awe soaking up new sounds. Although not as diverse, the lineup was much more varied than expected, mixing bluegrass and old-timey string bands with alt-country, folk, traditional outlaw and honky-tonk country, jam bands, and even a young soul quartet from Boston.
And at the center of it all was Del, returning every day, usually with his band that features his two sons and with grandchildren sitting in, picking his acoustic guitar and charming the audience with his infectious laugh and sly humor—joking, telling stories and just hanging out.
I can think of nothing that sounds more square and unrelatable than an aging bluegrass singer with a white pompadour and thick Appalachian twang, and yet Del was as hip as anyone I’ve ever seen take the stage, bringing together musicians and fans of all generations and genres in a delightful four days of love, respect, laughter, and music. Everyone seems to Dig Del!
LONG STORY LONG….
Next post I’ll discuss some of the bands I discovered, but I felt I needed to explain how a blog about New Orleans music and culture jumped from Mardi Gras to a hoedown in the hills!
THE CALM AFTER THE STORM
I awoke around 4 a.m. the morning after Morpheus with a throbbing headache and downed some aspirin and a quart of coconut water. A few hours later I stirred again feeling exponentially better, but still far from well. It was my first serious over-indulgence since last Mardi Gras, and though a pretty good stretch I still cursed at myself. It was Valentine’s Day and I was in New Orleans. I didn’t have time to nurse a hangover.
At the nearby Ruby Slipper we were warned of an hour wait at it neared 11:00. As noon approached, the hostess informed me there were still 22 parties ahead of us, so we wandered a few blocks to Canal for an overpriced but tasty and desperately needed lunch at Palace Café, a Brennan family restaurant.
Aimee was also feeling a bit drained after a full Friday, so with little vigor we perused the shops on Royal and Decatur before catching a bit of Iris (an all female krewe that handed me one of the best medallions of the season) and Tucks (an irreverent krewe throwing toilet paper, giant ‘Blow Me’ whistles, sunglasses with flaps, beer barrel beer koozies, and other silly novelties bearing their name). It was a lovely afternoon and I enjoyed reversing roles to spectator, but by late afternoon we retired to the hotel to nap and read in the tropical courtyard, venturing out only for a quiet Valentine’s dinner at Cochon Butcher and a handful of Endymion floats—the first Super Krewe of the weekend—before calling it an early night
FROM PERRY MASON TO PALMOLIVE & PANCAKES
Sunday morning I awoke reenergized, so we finally made our way Uptown to Slim Goodies. As I eagerly awaited my Creole Slammer (hash browns and eggs smothered in etouffee) and Aimee her pancakes (one pumpkin, one banana), I asked if Gideon was working. Soon a jolly, portly yet quietly dignified man appeared to exuberantly greet me.
A walking library who has read seemingly everything in print, Gideon is another book club friend, and his story is a fascinating one I would love to tell in detail someday. Basically, though, [Read more...]
Perhaps the biggest concern of first-time Mardi Gras riders is “How much stuff should I buy?” There is no set answer, however, because it depends on your personality. Heavy throwers—like Marco beside me with a stash bigger than one of the elephants he trains—constantly fire beads and novelties like a machine gun, often tossing the unopened cellophane packages of a dozen strands that fill 20-25lb vinyl bags, and occasionally throwing the whole dang bag. Conversely, light throwers take plenty of time to sip their drinks and soak it in, tantalizingly dangling favors before the crowd until spotting someone in a sufficient frenzy to warrant the reward. Then there are folks in the middle like me. One of the first bits of advice I’d gotten before my first ride was “See who you throw to,” and that seemed to fit my style.
At least theoretically
Between the haste of our drivers after being stranded behind Krewe d’Etat, the overwhelming newness of it all, and a few too many Jello shots, I’d done my best to spot my targets but that first ride had been a blur. This year, however, as we rounded the corner onto Magazine Street I immediately felt like more relaxed and in control, like a second year NFL quarterback admitting the game has slowed down.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR BIG DUDES & TOURISTS
As we crept down Magazine it was immediately apparent that this crowd was special. After last year’s delay we’d lost many spectators—especially downtown—but this year the crowd remained thick and enthusiastic throughout. Perhaps it was because our delay hadn’t been as long, or our Freaky Friday theme kept them enthralled. It certainly wasn’t [Read more...]
GETTING METER MADE
Arriving back in New Orleans for the first time since summer, I did what most returning pilgrims do: went to eat. Although my heart was set on Slim Goodies—my favorite breakfast dive—prudence advised otherwise. It was already late morning and I had to load the beads I’d brought from home, stop by the store, and check into the hotel, all before Morpheus Bash at 2:00. Besides, NOPD shuts streets down early on parade days and I didn’t want to get caught Uptown; thus I exited onto Poydras and headed to my oldest NOLA culinary love, Mother’s. (Yes, critics, it’s overpriced with declining portions, but I stand by her quality!)
Aimee was accompanying me for her second Mardi Gras (though sadly her nephew and his girlfriend couldn’t make it after their infectious exuberance in 2014) so I dropped her off to stand in line and found parking nearby. Digging in my pockets I realized I didn’t have change but fortunately had parked in front of Barcadia so ducked inside to use their change machine. Returning with $2, I pumped it all into the meter advertising $1.50 an hour and watched it register 56 minutes. Grinning, I shook my head. Welcome back to New Orleans, where even the parking meters are on the take!
PUTTING THE FAT IN TUESDAY
Although I recently wrote that I didn’t miss New Orleans food, I only meant as a full-time dietary staple. I fully intended to put the Fat in my Tuesday while in town and give myself a reason to [Read more...]
A BRIEF HISTORY OF (SIX MONTH’S) TIME….
As New Orleans receded in my rearview mirror last July I felt certain I’d soon return. I longed for a second peek at a NOLA Halloween and the enchantment of a third straight Crescent City Christmas. Yet the next six months would be dominated by a tougher-than-expected return to the working world. I was passed over for the University job that had fit prominently into my reasoning for returning; I had a home health job lined up as backup but it was late August before I could prod them into processing my paperwork and then, after initially loading me up with new patient evaluations, they handed my caseload to an Occupational Therapist Assistant who would work for half the salary; I signed on with another company with two therapists out on maternity leave, but it turned out to be a small operation with only part-time employees so referrals were infrequent; I signed on with a third agency that promised 15-20 visits a week—a good two or three days—but their referrals flat-lined my first week as though I were some sort of cursed talisman.
Throughout autumn I scrambled for work, feeling the pressure of my extended absence. When the holidays finally rolled around I was suddenly swamped as everyone everywhere took vacation but I knew it wouldn’t last. Still, I busted my hump, often working Saturday and Sunday, afraid to turn anything away.
During this temporary glut, however, I agreed to work for the Physical Therapist who had worked for me before I moved to New Orleans. She had slid into my supervisor’s position when I departed and since relocated—along with much of the building’s staff that I knew and loved—to a new memory care facility on the west side of town. I wasn’t exactly psyched to return to the stress and demand of memory/Alzheimer’s care and I dreaded the 30 mile/45 minute drive but it was steady work with folks who were thrilled to have me back (and sometimes it’s nice to feel needed!) Besides, it would be satisfying to reverse roles and simply see patients while Kim ran around in constant crisis management mode!!!
This new position was part-time but it kept me busy with the possibility of going full-time this summer when the company expands closer to home. Thus, after months of scrambling I entered 2015 with a bit of stability that allowed me to refocus.
LIKE A PHYSICIAN PERPETUALLY ON-CALL
It seems underemployment would allow time to write and travel, yet I was always hustling—searching and waiting like a physician perpetually on call, afraid to step out the door lest the phone finally ring. People often ask why I took a year off to write, and this is exactly why. Energy and focus are finite resources and some things they will forever remain on the back-burner unless you prioritize them. During my creative drought of the latter half of 2014 I did manage to work a little on a collection of short stories I’ve been conceptualizing for years, but for the most part was mired in creative limbo.
EMBRACING FISCAL IMPRUDENCE
The approach of Christmas, however, lifted my malaise and left me yearning for some NOLA magic. Although I was now too swamped to visit, I finally dusted off the blog to reflect upon the things I missed and, for the sake of balance and self-reflection, the challenges and obstacles I didn’t. The latter, however, had softened with distance while the former weighed on my heart. Mardi Gras was approaching and I had no intention of missing it.
Perhaps the most fun I had during my entire adventure was marching with Chewbacchus, so watching my friends post pictures of their preparations online left me wistful. I’d clung to a faint hope of attending and then returning the next weekend for Morpheus, but family issues rendered that impracticality an impossibility. The Krewe of Morpheus, however, had set their deadline for dues at the end of October so I had already paid—underemployment and fiscal prudence be damned—so in January I booked my room at the Hampton Inn Convention Center and ordered my throws from Plush Appeal. It seemed a lavish indulgence, but I had no regrets. It was almost Mardi Gras and I was going to once again help host the party!
A PEBBLE ON THE SHORES OF A MIGHTY RIVER
As January zipped past, so did emails between riders on my float; apparently I wasn’t the only one chomping at the bit. Crazy Don from Boston—who’d again ride beside me—ramped up the countdown he’d begun immediately after last year’s ride while puffing up his deflated Patriots as I antagonized him on Facebook. Doug from D.C. maintained his unfailing cheerfulness despite learning the power of an omitted accent mark, having caused a stir by describing our new nightcaps as lame instead of lame¢. (Yeah, I had to look it up.) The Karolina krewe reached out to see if I’d be back and blogging. It was clear no one’s mind was on work!
Although there are parades throughout Mardi Gras season, things truly kick off with Nyx the Wednesday evening before Ash Wednesday, with multiple parades following daily through Fat Tuesday. Last year Nyx had been my biggest booty bonanza of the season (maybe because I had two friends riding but more likely because I was dressed like a pirate!), and as I watched my K.R.A.P. friends post online about gathering again I sighed and finished packing, knowing I’d be on the road by the following afternoon.
At work the next morning I passed out beads to residents and staff (with other krewe’s logos since you can’t recycle another krewe’s beads), fleeing the fully-beaded Assisted Living in the early afternoon to plunge down the long, droning expanse of I-10 West. I’d booked a cheap room for the night in a Biloxi casino, so as midnight approached I settled into bed with visions of sugar plums…err flying decorated shoes…dancing in my head, for Muses was finishing its march down Tchoupitoulas less than 90 miles away. Just one more sleep until Carnival!
The next morning as the city skyline appeared in the distance my heart leapt. My first attempt to settle New Orleans may have failed, but the city had captured a piece of my heart when I first arrived in 1998 and after living there for a year and a half I felt—in the tiniest way—a part of it; perhaps just a pebble on the shores of a mighty river, but it was my pebble now.
5) DIETARY DISTRESS
I am utterly shocked no one noted the absence of food from my list of Things I Miss about New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, I love Cajun and Creole cuisine and some of the greatest restaurants I’ve ever visited are in New Orleans. But there’s a reason why Louisiana leads the nation in obesity and diabetes. It’s great vacation indulgence, but after a year I had put on forty pounds and was craving a more nourishing diet, spurring my low carb transition. And when I went low carb, I saved tons of money because I more or less gave up eating out. Yes, it is possible to exercise and eat healthy in NOLA, but neither is strongly socially supported so you’re swimming upstream. Certainly you can blame this on a lack of self-control (and when it comes to food, I admittedly struggle) but it’s also easy to overlook the subtle but overwhelming pull of social pressure. Although subtle in execution, it’s hard to resist a waxing tide; similarly, I find it easier to exercise and eat well in Florida. I just do.
4) PRIDE IN PREJUDICE
Wow. Race is a tough one, and in its typically paradoxical way New Orleans is both the least and most racist place I’ve ever lived. This stretch backs to its very founding. On one hand the city was known for having some of the most brutal slave markets in that nation serving the sugar plantations in the surrounding delta which were a death sentence for workers (2 years was a long life expectancy in the cane fields, thus getting ‘sold down the river’ is a threat and not promise of southern leisure). On the other hand, the city itself had the most permissive slave laws in the new world and was the only city where slaves could congregate freely on Sundays, thus Congo Square and the eventual birth of jazz. Plus, New Orleans always had a sizable free black population that experienced significant social and economic mobility.
In the 20th Century blues, and jazz, and R&B bars/bands became beacons of integration and New Orleans is so small and piecemeal that different ethnicities were forced to live and work side by side. Yet segregation in NOLA quietly maintains on a block-by-block basis and this proximity often spurs bitter undercurrents.
Southerners often fairly complain that the south gets criticized for being more racist when most northern cities actually display greater segregation–it’s just impolite to talk about these unspoken attitudes that quietly but effectively divide neighborhoods. Does this make the north less racist or just more disingenuous?! Recently the producer and star of NPR’s State of the Reunion, an African-American (coincidentally from Jacksonville), visited Portland, Oregon and was surprised by the amount of racism he encountered. Apparently crusty, progressive, hippy Portland is very, very white, and prefers to keep it that way. (Then again, the National Guard never had to protect little girls from a mob of violent white men in Portland, so it’s complicated!)
So where does that leave NOLA? A paradox for sure. On one hand I’ve never been anywhere with such a wonderful and free mix of cultures. So many people of different races and backgrounds working side by side combine to create that synergy that makes New Orleans unique. I’ve also lived nowhere where biting racial comments are so frequently and casually tossed out. And I don’t mean insensitive jokes but statements rife with malice and steeped in genuine loathing. This is certainly not majority behavior, but it’s not uncommon. Does that make the city more racist or more honest? I honestly don’t know, but it is certainly ugly to encounter.
3) THE HEIGHT OF FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Enough is written about crime in New Orleans and I’m not here to pile on. In truth, I felt safer than expected based on alarmist media coverage, though maybe I was just blissfully ignorant. In the end, though, you can’t write off New Orleans’s criminal reputation as a media construct. There is a lot of crime in the city and it often hits close to home: I exited book club at a friend’s home one night to find the street thick with police because a stalker had tried to strangle a neighbor; an armored truck guard was shot and killed at the bank around the corner from my Carrollton home; I had a home health patient who was paralyzed after being shot outside his upscale home; on and on.
I was seldom afraid, but I was always aware. When walking around New Orleans the worst case scenario is always in the back of your mind, and you find yourself constantly scanning for threats. It’s similar to the claustrophobia mentioned earlier. I was seldom conscious of this heightened state of flight or flight, but I could feel myself relax and let down my guard each time the city faded in the rearview.
2) ELATION IN STAGNATION
This is another difficult issue. The magic of New Orleans hinges on preservation and reverence of the past. Culturally, the city does a good of balancing tradition with innovation such as Rebirth and Dirty Dozen mixing traditional brass band spirituals with modern hip-hop rhythms or John Besh and Donald Link infusing modern trends into traditional Creole cuisine. When it comes to government, infrastructure, and services, however, the city is famously deficient. There is no need to document the political corruption and civil insufficiency that plagues the city, though it can be a shock to the system when you first move to town. And this is where it gets weird. My last roommate and I often discussed the odd propensity for locals to not only accept the dysfunction, but to perversely embrace it like fraternity hazing or high school football summer two-a-days. “This is how we do it, so are you tough enough to hang?!”
A trivial example of such poor planning and execution is the streetcar system, which should be a jewel. Instead, its lengthy, poorly executed renovation has rendered it practically unusable. Cars run a few block before forcing everyone to disembark to wait for a bus to carry them three or four blocks past construction only to disembark and wait for another streetcar. Once I tried to utilize this system to avoid driving back from an Abita pub crawl in the CBD and it took me 1:45 minutes to get downtown. I can walk five miles quicker than that—or stumble—so I walked home afterwards rather than running that gauntlet again!
A less humorous example is that attack on a friend’s neighbor. While being choked, the victim managed to kick her attacker and call 911…only to be told it sounded like a domestic dispute before they hung up?!?!? She called back and finally convinced them to dispatch a car, yet when police arrived a good twenty minutes later they went to the wrong house and she had to run on the porch and get their attention so they could come in and begin trampling evidence. I had an insider’s account, so this NOLA.com’s article —as shocking as it is—only tells the half of it.
I still recall an editorial from a large national paper after Katrina responding to outrage over corruption in distribution of relief funds by stating that we’ve always known New Orleans was a little shady: “If you want neat and orderly, go to Salt Lake City,” the author chided. “But you won’t, will you?” True. I don’t think anyone wants New Orleans to be that precocious child who primly recites Bible verses in his stuffy Easter sweater to the delight of the adults in the pews. Sometimes, though, it can be a little hard to swallow when locals act like proud parents as the city holds up the entire check-out line at Wal-Mart while crying on its belly and pounding the floor. The city has so much beauty and richness to be preserved and protected, yet it feels like none of its real and potentially lethal deficiencies will ever be addressed if everyone is worn down to the point of ironic acceptance. It is difficult to say where this line should be drawn, but it is certainly a frustrating conundrum.
1) A PROFUSION OF EXCLUSION
This was the most puzzling and disheartening roadblock of my journey. I can typically get along with just about anyone and have been blessed with a core of close friends everywhere I’ve ever lived. Nevertheless, I’m a bit of an odd-shaped puzzle piece so whereas some people can carve a niche in any crowd, it takes me time to discover where I fit in.
Moving to New Orleans, I (rather naively in hindsight) hoped that perhaps I’d naturally stumble upon a cadre of like-minded souls, though I didn’t always feel this way. When I first fell in love with NOLA in 1998 my father was convinced that I would eventually move there. I disagreed. New Orleans was my sacred escape and I feared that migrating with problems in tow would pollute the magic; however, in 2012 with my life was in a mini-tailspin I came back to life at Jazz Fest with a daiquiri in hand and second-line towel in the air. As I danced with abandon my Jacksonville friends who’d grown up in New Orleans suggested I move there. They were convinced I’d fit right in and, through their friends, inherit a ‘built in social network.’ Other locals I knew agreed, so I took the plunge. Instead of fast friends, though, I encountered more than a few people who were suspicious of my motives.
I’ve never encountered this elsewhere. It’s a free country. People come and go. In New Orleans, though, that protectionism I’ve spoke about above extends to migration, especially after Katrina. This was not universal, but those early kindnesses mentioned in the ‘things I miss’ post meant so much because they weren’t always readily encountered. Visit New Orleans to throw down cash and you will be greeted with unrivaled southern hospitality. Move there and many will question your motives and worthiness.
For example, when I told a NOLA born-and-bred friend about interviewing a very successful author from New York who’s lived locally at least twenty years, he spat out a tirade of obscenities, accusing the writer of “exploiting my @$%*ing city.” Twenty plus years and he still doesn’t have the right to participate?!? This was the first but not last time I’d encounter this puzzling sentiment. I understand suspicion of venture capitalists and real estate developers who want to plow under the French Quarter and erect Disney Lagniappe, but it is my belief that art only enhances, never exploits. Yet at one point some crazy stranger submitted a comment to my blog telling me to “take my @#$#@ing Jimmy Buffett ass back to Florida and quit exploiting my @#$#@ing city.” Again, that word ‘exploit.’ I can’t imagine moving to New York to write and anyone being shocked. I don’t imagine they’d be particularly accommodating, but rather shrug and say, “Of course you moved to New York. It’s New York. Now good luck, loser!”
New Orleans is harbors an undercurrent of insecurity—for good reason—that its culture contributions are often overlooked and undervalued. Yet, if you want to be a cultural center you have to embrace an influx of ideas. New York (and the U.S. for that matter) didn’t become great solely through home-grown talent but through attracting the best. But in this city not known for industriousness, some folks seem afraid that instead of spurring a rising tide competition will just make it harder to reach (not too strenuously) for that brass ring.
The most bizarre example of this came through my dealings with Offbeat magazine. Before I moved to town, the editor accepted my pitch to interview Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra about Krewe of Rocckus. I was surprised and thrilled at this early success, but later received a cryptic email stating she shouldn’t have offered me the closing Backtalk section and would have to move the piece to the inner fold (as if I cared where it appeared! Click here to read) After a couple of months of unreturned calls and emails, I stopped by and discovered that she had left under contentious circumstance. Even though the new editor lit up and commented that my interview was ‘a good piece,’ I left under the growing impression that my ‘intrusion’ into their pages hadn’t been welcome. Eventually he accepted my pitch to do a feature on up-and-comer Robin Barnes, but after I’d turned in the rough draft he too responded that he shouldn’t have promised me a feature and instructed me to cut it down to a 400 word blurb—no photo.
I was dejected and embarrassed having to renege on my promise to Robin and her publicist, but kept my chin up and quickly turned around the shorter piece. Through a twist of luck, a few weeks later the organizer of Satchmo Summer Fest dropped by the magazine hoping to coordinate a feature. Offbeat, though, didn’t want to repeat a story on someone recently profiled, so when Robin’s name popped up my 400 word blurb instantly morphed back into a 2000 word feature (click here to read!). Although it meant writing the piece a third time, all’s well that end’s well. Two weeks after Offbeat hit the streets this artist that hadn’t been on their radar landed the cover of New Orleans Living, and every major publication in town soon picked her up. Offbeat was so impressed they hired her to perform at their annual awards show. And I had helped them get her first.
So of course I hit a brick wall.
I get ‘paying your dues,’ but every time I whipped out my metaphysical credit card it kept getting unceremoniously declined. I even tried attending the awards ceremony, but when I approached the owner to politely and cheerily introduced myself, mentioning that I’d written a couple of pieces for her, she looked me over with a sneer. “Sarrett? I know who you are.” She spoke a few more words without ever making eye contact and I left feeling like a leper breaking quarantine.
In the end, I am grateful to have the two pieces on my resume and don’t want to sound like sour grapes. It was just puzzling. Maybe I misinterpreted the whole scenario. But I’ll never know because no one was talking—which is very New Orleans.
I also tried reaching out to other bloggers, including another former Offbeat editor, but no one seemed keen for collaboration. One blogger agreed to trade links so I wrote a post about her website only to have her decline to reciprocate. I was shot down cold by other traditional krewes until Morpheus so graciously invited me to join. (Though I knew cracking a krewe would be tough.) Even joining the open membership Chewbacchus was a challenge at first, though I eventually made some great friends and had perhaps the best experience of my adventure walking with their krewe. Still, I have been excluded many times throughout my life for being a nerd, but this was the first time I ever felt marginalized on occasion for not being nerd enough!
As I’ve mentioned, I met many kind and generous people too and it’s not realistic to expect people to easily open up to strangers. And, again, I’m admittedly not a skilled smoozer, so I bear my share of blame. But there is a surprising tendency amongst many locals to view newcomers as invaders. When approaching people I always try to ‘offer’ before I ‘ask for,’ but was surprised to often find this perceived as manipulative rather than generous. Things would surely have gotten easier if I’d stayed longer and ‘paid more dues,’ but as I get older I find myself less willing to waste years trying to win people over. In the end it doesn’t matter. Whether my own personal failing or a vexing cultural propensity, it was the major struggle along my journey.
In the end, any disappointments I had have softened over time, and MYOMG was an amazing experience I haven’t regretted for a second. In the words of that great poet laureate of Haire-de-Metalle, “Every rose has it’s thorn,” so enough dwelling on the negative. Mardi Gras 2015 is in full swing and I’m stoked about returning in two weeks to dive back in. Let the good times roll!
A TEMPERMENTAL TEMPTRESS
My last post explored the Top Ten Things I’ve Missed Since Leaving New Orleans, concluding with a promise to follow up with Ten Things I Don’t Miss At All. As I compiled this second list, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be best delivered in two parts. I know that sounds bad, but it’s not that I enjoy complaining but rather that it’s much simpler to gush about the good times; the complications involve nuance and caveat that require more thoughtful deliberation.
Just as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wouldn’t be Rolling Stones without their wild and reckless tendencies, New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without its untamed nature; however, NOLA doesn’t have so-called ‘white people’ problems (Starbucks messed up my double soy decaf sugar-free vanilla latte) or ‘First World’ problems (my boss flubbed the TPS reports and made me late for Taylor Swift) but deep-seeded struggles involving race, culture, decaying infrastructure, and environmental fragility. Therefore, I don’t want to be flippant and make it sound like everything would be fine if everyone would just stop drinking sazeracs at lunch and dancing in the streets.
I also decided to process this in chunks because it was emotionally taxing. I moved to New Orleans full of hope and optimism but found the transition tougher than expected. Initially I felt guilty writing about my struggles, but was surprised to find that people who lived or had lived in New Orleans responded most enthusiastically to these confessions. If you’ve spent significant time there you realize that the city is like a brash and beautiful woman who is as temperamental as she is tempting: she’ll make you fall head over heels only to immediately begin testing your love. Nevertheless, I don’t regret the move and want to recall my adventure in a mostly a positive light. That being said, New Orleans is inspiring and infuriating in equal measure, so here’s Part 1 of my glimpse at the other side:
10) POTHOLE FOXHOLES
Comparing NOLA potholes to foxholes is no exaggeration. Several streets in my Uptown/Carrollton neighborhood had craters that spanned both lanes, were longer than my truck, and a couple of feet deep. This is particularly dangerous when they’re obscured from view during frequent and sudden torrential downpours. NOLA is one of the few cities where it makes sense to own a 4WD truck (until it’s time to park.) Then there’s the post-Katrina Ninth Ward, which makes Uptown look like pristine open highway.
Complaining about road conditions is a favorite local pastime, and a few months before I moved an area media outlet even started a “Pimp My Pothole” contest to shame the city into action. It didn’t work. (Though it says something that you can fill the road with paraphernalia and drivers will drive around it while the city ignores it.)
I worked summers in college filling potholes for the WV State Road, so I dreamed up a fantasy for promoting the blog where (if I had the money) I’d buy a truck full of asphalt and travel around like some road repairing Johnny Appleseed. This fantasy always ended with me getting arrested for tampering with public property, for that is totally New Orleans: too inept to fix the problem but swift to thwart perceived intrusions on the malaise! (More on that later.)
9) THE UNSMART GRID
The layout of the roads in New Orleans is even more frustrating than their condition, though this largely can’t be helped. New Orleans is an old city that organically expanded by incorporating the plantations or ‘faubourgs’ that radiated from the French Quarter like spokes. Having been founded at an odd angle on a river bend (i.e. The Crescent City), NOLA has a unique and peculiar geographic orientation that is largely (though not always) triangular. To get a sense of the street grid, visualize a Salvador Dali rendition of a Trivial Pursuit piece after it’s been dissected and reassembled by Dr. Frankenstein. Even after a year I was often disoriented when two turns led me back from whence I came. This was particularly challenging when I was doing home health visits, for either Google Maps can’t even figure out this mess or my GPS was trying to murder me, for I was constantly told in a calm, robotic voice to turn right off the top of a bridge or drive straight into a concrete highway barrier that inexplicably cut off a main artery.
It is only five miles from Carrollton (the western edge of the city) to the French Quarter, and all the dense neighborhoods therein would fit into one sprawling Jacksonville gated community. Jax is the largest city in the nation by acreage, and the local joke is that no matter where you’re heading (even to the kitchen for a beer) it will be twenty miles and thirty minutes away. In New Orleans, I quickly realized every destination was two miles and yet still thirty minutes away.
Like I said, some of this in unavoidable and part of the city’s history and charm. But some of it is just typical local lack of planning. Through-ways are suddenly cut off by poorly placed barriers, the main arteries suddenly shift to another road several blocks away without warning or signage, and some one-way streets suddenly switch direction only to switch back to the original direction four or five blocks later. Seriously. WTF?!?
8) DIRT & DIN
Because it was built on a swamp, New Orleans has always struggled with dirt and disease. Fortunately, Yellow Jack no longer makes its annual summer visits but that veneer of dirt is still omnipresent. It’s weird, because it’s a beautiful city and I don’t know if I’d want a sanitized New Orleans, but there was more dirt and pollution in the air than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Even in the house, the furniture gets covered with a thick layer of gray every couple of days, like living in a West Virginia mining town where black dust rains down daily. I’m not enough of a clean freak for it to consciously bother me too much, but I could feel myself relax a little when I escaped to cleaner pastures. In fact, this is so prevalent that while I volunteering with a native during Jazz Fest last year, she admitted she was disgusted visiting her grandparents in ‘clean’ Tampa. “The roads are all clean, and orderly, and planted with flowers,” she said with wrinkled nose and no trace of irony.
The noise, though, was a very conscious irritant. Because summer heat was a concern and most buildings were constructed before the invention of A/C insulation wasn’t a concern. On the other hand, space was a premium so these non-insulated homes were built close together. In the first room I rented near Freret Street it sounded like I was sharing a bedroom with my neighbors. I could hear everything, and they weren’t the most attractive couple so those were mental images I could have lived without. Then I moved to the French Quarter, which was actually relatively quiet at night because the walls were thick and my room backed up to the Convent. But two or three times a night something loud enough to penetrate those walls roll through, scaring the crap out of me, and when outside my room the Quarter was, as you can guess, always rocking. I knew this going in, but had to regularly bike to City Park for some tranquility.
Even in my third home in a sleepy Uptown neighborhood, if the neighbors decided to have friends over late to hang on the patio it sounded like they were sipping drinks and laughing at the foot of my bed. New Orleans is a city of music and parties, and that’s awesome when you’re feeling spry and lively. Not so much when you need to recuperate.
7) ALL THIS WATER & NOTHING TO SEA
I may have a Creole soul, but my heart belongs to the ocean. New Orleans was built on a swamp so there’s water everywhere and its very existence hinges on its proximity to the sea, but it still felt a long way from open water. Even though there were beaches nearby in Biloxi or Pascagoula, I don’t ‘feel’ the coast until crossing into Florida at Pensacola.
New Orleans is the most visually alluring city in the U.S. and I never tire of gazing at its architectural brilliance. But, for my tastes, Mother Nature hardly did her best work deep in the delta. Yes, there is a certain beauty in the bayous, but it is a harsh and foreboding aesthetic. There is a reason the fugitive French Acadians who weren’t welcomed anywhere else south of Nova Scotia stopped when they reached this swampland (eventually becoming ‘Cajuns’): No one else wanted it.
I’m sure this will be greeted by some with incredulity, for I know people who believe that exploring these molasses streams on an airboat armed with rod or rifle is damn near paradise. It’s just not my version of it. When I drive back to the green rolling mountains of West Virginia and Virginia my demeanor changes and my soul cries, “I’m home.” Paradoxically, when I return to the saline shores and swaying sawgrass marshes of North Florida I sigh and again think, “I’m home.” But though I always feel a thrill at the sight of the New Orleans skyline, I never lose myself in the surrounding swamps.
6) CAJUN CLAUSTROPHOPIA
Again, this is a matter of preference and temperament. New Orleans is a very European city, which means it is close quartered and cramped. I grew up in rural West Virginia yet have gradually migrated to increasingly urban locales. I may have hit my ceiling in New Orleans.
New Orleans is small in both population and acreage, but it is densely settled and built to the smaller dimensions of days gone by. Granted, high ceilings were a must to trap the summer heat, but overall I always felt ‘enclosed.’ I loved basking in history and culture all so compactly presented, but felt the need to escape town at least once of month, experiencing a sense of relief like slipping off that Easter outfit you were so proud to squeeze into. I always felt a rush upon returning to the energy and proxmimity, but I always needed that break as well.
Well, that wasn’t too bad, but the biggies are yet to come!
To be continued…
When last I signed off I’d just finished following the Mississippi River from its Lake Itasca source to New Orleans. It was my grand farewell to both the city and my year (and a half) of living like a working writer. I’ve since moved back to Jacksonville where I’ve been scrambling to reenter the professional realm—a much rockier and time-consuming transition than expected. I never expected to fall silent for so long but I was carrying an overdue balance of delayed reality and the ‘real world’ always demands its due.
Successful writers seem to steal a minute here or there while the coffee brews or the washer runs that extra spin cycle, but I typically require blocks of unbroken time to focus and access my brain’s creative center. Perhaps this trait will sentence me to a life of stifled ambition, but I have not been able to write while restructuring and reestablishing my life as a Floridian and occupational therapist.
The Christmas season, however, left me wistfully dreaming of New Orleans. In December of 2012 (while preparing to move) I visited and was surprised by the beauty and festivity of a Crescent City Christmas. I have always associated holiday mystique with snowbound northern destinations, yet found a New Orleans holiday utterly enchanting. Thus, spending the season away spurred me back to the keyboard to reflect upon the Top Ten Things I’ve Missed Since Leaving New Orleans.
10) A CRESCENT CITY CHRISTMAS
I visited New York in 2011 expecting to rekindle my waning Christmas cheer yet was a victim of my own expectations. I came to New Orleans in 2012 sans expectation and stumbled upon what I’d missed in the Big Apple. If I miss Mardi Gras (which I won’t, barring tragedy) or Jazz Fest (50/50 chance) then these two favorites will surely crack my list; however, for now I’ll include my third favorite NOLA season, having blessed to experience the entire season last year.
When I arrived in 2013 I believed Halloween—my favorite holiday as an adult—would easily assume the #3 position in my NOLA hierarchy, yet what tugs at my heart and fires my imagination are memories of Christmas tree lights cutting through a French Quarter fog in Jackson Square; the elegantly twinkling tree in Antoine’s plush dining room; Kermit Ruffins standing before a tree topped with his signature red hat while playing a jazzy Peanuts style “O Tannenbaum; ordering the special Reveillon menu at The Gumbo Shop after a free Christmas concert at St. Louis Cathedral; and….sigh.
9) PROCESSIONS, BOTH PLANNED & SPONTANEOUS
Whether an organized second-line, a Happy Thursday bicycle group, or just a mix of tourists and locals falling in behind a brass band on Frenchmen Street, part of the magic of New Orleans is everyone’s willingness to drop everything to follow a Pied Piper to no particular destination—folks here realize it’s all about the journey. This phenomenon is so interwoven into local DNA that when our weekly bike parades blocked an intersection, drivers waited patiently and often honked in appreciation or offered a friendly wave. In any other city such an inconvenienced motorist would lay on the horn and a middle finger, furious at your impertinence.
I also miss, of course, the friends I made during such treks. Upon compiling this list I considered including the peeps I left behind, but quickly realized that all those folks were already imbedded throughout.
8) A WORLD OF WEIRD
Before moving to New Orleans I was collaborating with a photographer friend on articles for a Jacksonville publication. We’d eagerly scour other magazines and websites looking for weird or unusual happenings to cover. Upon moving to New Orleans, though, I joked: “In Jacksonville I had to work to find weirdness, but in New Orleans I just walk out my front door and watch the crazy parade pass by.”
It’s common to claim that there are ‘two types of people in the world,’ but on this point I’m thinking in triplets. One type of person (a majority) fears or reviles odd or unusual behavior. A smaller second type tends to tolerate or ignore it—live & let live. Then there are those—a minority for sure—that revel in weirdness. I definitely fall into this third category. I love the strange, novel, and unusual. Although I admittedly can get uncomfortable when someone pushes boundaries too far, I generally admire people who don’t mind going out on a limb and happy live outside the expectations of polite society. And many of those people find an accepting home in New Orleans.
7) DIVE BAR DISCOVERY
There are thousands of unique and interesting watering holes in New Orleans filled with unique and interesting people, covering the full spectrum from grime to grandeur; thus, a night out always held the thrill of possibility. Some of this is admittedly self-perpetrating myth, and my dive bar explorations were dampened by a lack of company (I made tons of friends, but few whom I could just call on a whim), but, still, every trip out the door felt like a trip of discovery (especially when close friends came to visit), and I miss that constant sense of possibility.
6) CREATING/VEGETATING IN COFFEE SHOPS
I was in New Orleans to write, so spent more time in the coffee shops than bars. Fortunately there is a funky and unique java joint nearby in every corner of the city. One thing about Jacksonville (and most cities) that drives me nuts is how quickly the local coffee shop fad was obliterated by Starbucks and Panera, so I even devoted a section of my Geaux Local guide to coffee shops.
And this warrants another shout out, for owner Eugene and the rest of the Krewe Du Brew staff became good friends and always made me feel at home. I felt like Norm in a caffeinated NOLA version of Cheers and wish I were typing these words in that stately columned St. Charles café while the streetcars rumble past….
5) MARINATING IN HISTORY
I was recently discussing my only trip to the U.K. with an Irish friend, noting that this thrilling trip held a constant melancholy undertone because I was deeply affected by the constant weight of ancient history that surrounded me. In America everything is new, creating the illusion that the world is still in a state of creation; in England there is a five hundred or thousand-year-old castle in every town to remind you of the brevity of human life. It was both exhilarating and daunting.
Regardless, I love immersing myself in history and New Orleans is the most European city in the U.S. Every nook and cranny of New Orleans is drenched in history, if not quite so ancient. Perhaps this is why so much of My Year of Mardi Gras was tinged in melancholy, but good or bad, every corner of New Orleans seems significant so simply being there made me feel relevant by default.
4) INTIMATE MUSICAL PERFORMANCES
When it comes to national touring acts, North Florida has come into its own in recent years. In 2014 alone I saw four all-time favorites (Paul McCartney, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and The Allman Brothers Band), and another, Wilco, is coming in May. I find myself with more options than expendable income these days.
Nevertheless, few if any cities can compare to New Orleans when it comes to a local organic music scene, and Jacksonville is particularly deficient in this area. It is no secret that music is woven into the very fabric of daily life there, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend so many intimate shows in small but iconic venues. Along the way, I befriended a few amazingly talented musicians such as Robin Barnes and her band and Vince Marini and they often visited for Red Beans on Monday. Even though I was burning through savings and barely earning a dime, it was a thrill to feed a few starving musicians and play the role of patron to the arts if even on the smallest scale. And it was a thrill to head out on any random night and support so many unheralded artists making exceptional music.
3) THE LITERARY LIFE
If the music scene in Jacksonville is on life support, the literary scene is DOA. I may have not achieved the foothold I desired in NOLA, but while living there I interviewed nationally known writers, became close friends with several other writers and professors, and could rest assured that even those friends who weren’t writers still read veraciously. (Most of my Florida friends don’t read at all—including this blog—so I can tease them freely!)
New Orleans is a literary city to its very core. Although it was hard to stand out in such a sea of talent, it was easy to join in, such as with the monthly book group at the sadly defunct McKeown’s Books & Difficult Music. Owner Maggie was one of the first people to show genuine kindness to this frazzled outsider when I stumbled into her shop looking for a way to connect with the local literary scene, and I still miss those meandering and sometimes unruly discussions with a lively cast of characters at the monthly non-fiction book club.
2) CONSCRIPTIVE COMMUNITY CONNECTION
Okay, perhaps no one is forcibly drafted into community life in New Orleans, but there is a strong affirmational social pressure to participate. If you’re a native, it’s bred into you. If you’re a transplant, you probably didn’t matriculate because you wanted to sit in your basement and play X-box (besides, there are no basements below sea level!) Whether it’s a Mardi Gras Krewe (and I miss my Morpheus and Chewbacchus peeps and those crafting sessions assembling bandoliers and Wookie merkin panties!) or a bike club or a an ironic dance troop or an amateur brass band or a social aide & pleasure society or whatever else floats your eccentric boat, there is something for everyone.
It doesn’t matter what the outlet, nearly everyone plugs in somewhere. People in NOLA are proud of their city and, more importantly, are part of their city. In a world of gated communities and Facebook friends and hyper individualism bordering on social disconnect, it was refreshing to experience a place where people still value connecting on a human level and working towards a common goal—no matter how absurd or frivolous.
1) HOPE & PURPOSE
This is the biggie. When I decided to get a second Master’s in Occupational Therapy rather than pursue my Ph.D. in literature I quietly admonished myself for giving up on my dream. And for half a decade I did. But over time I gradually sought out more and more writing outlets until I finally pushed all my chips onto the table and moved to New Orleans to devote my full attention to figure something out. Over a year and a half I experienced a ton but made little visible headway towards practical goals, so was faced with a difficult decision. I never realistically believed (we all dream) I could ‘make it’ in a year, but hoped for signs of progress or visible markers along the road. Instead I was financially floundering, having seen my early inroads (published in Offbeat, connecting with a couple of nationally known authors) quickly fade. My closest friends were far away and the sacrifices I would make in staying just didn’t seem warranted.
Still, as long as I was in town I felt like I was in the game, much like the NFL team belonging to the city I’d left. Although the Jaguars have been the laughing stock of the NFL for years, at least they can say they’re in the league, and that means there’s always a chance. Only 30 U.S. cities—and cities in the world—can say that. Similarly, as long as I was in New Orleans I was striving for something more—paying my dream due respect—no matter how futile the endeavor. I was losing but in the game. Since moving back I have been necessarily focusing on more immediate financial and personal goals, but I miss that grander if hyperbolic sense of hope and purpose.
Of course, everything wasn’t always rosy in New Orleans. ‘The Big Easy’ is a despised nicknamed coined by outsiders with no idea what daily life is truly like in the nation’s most quirky and challenging city. If everything had been Big & Easy I’d still be there. So my next post will surely be the one to irk the friends I left behind (for residents tend to take NOLA criticisms quite personally): Top Ten Things I Don’t Miss About New Orleans One Bit!
BIG MUDDY PEEK-A-BOO
As I headed south on Highway 61 out of Vicksburg the Mississippi River reappeared, glistening in the late afternoon sun through a frame of pink flowering shrubs. It was a stirring sight, but the road soon turned inland so I hopped on the Natchez-Trace Parkway hoping for even a faint echo of the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead, a monotonous sentry of towering pines dominated the flat landscape.
I arrived in Natchez at 4:00 and made an unplanned stop at a historic park on the outskirts of town. It too was not quite noteworthy—a plantation home of dubious beauty, preservation, or significance. I declined to pay for the final ranger’s tour of the day and instead briskly walked the overgrown ‘gardens’ before heading into town seeking a smaller version of Vicksburg.
Whereas Vicksburg rose from the river on a steep but sloping hill, Natchez was perched atop a plummeting bluff that provided dramatic views of the Mississippi. A small park along the cliff formed a lovely centerpiece to town, but there was little else to see in this tiny river community.
Natchez once was a thriving riverboat stop between Vicksburg and New Orleans segregated into two distinct sectors. Atop the bluff set ‘Natchez On The Hill’ where wealthy, God-fearing merchants and plantation owners stood removed (at least outwardly) from sin and vice. Along the narrow strip of land at the bottom of the cliff lay ‘Natchez Under The Hill,’ a bustling and rowdy wharf lined with bars, gambling dens, and whorehouses. Multiple attempts from on high to tame Natchez Under The Hill had failed during its frontier days, but now the entire town appears sleepy and reserved—tamed by the sands of time.
It was brutally hot, so after walking down to the river I spread my tent out (I’d left it out overnight to dry but it had rained again) and fled into the lone public establishment within sight for a drink and bite to eat. The food and atmosphere were pleasant if unremarkable. I relished the chance to jot down some thoughts and reflections but found little other reason to linger.
As I drove out of town, however, I passed a sign pointing to Natchez Under the Hill. Kicking myself for missing a chance to hang out there instead, I drove down the bluff only to find a couple of empty bars and cheesy t-shirt shops. My disappointment quickly waned, though I did feel a growing melancholy. This was the last stop of my epic journey.
FROM SHACKS & STRIP MALLS TO SILT & RECECDING SOIL
Dusk fell as I crossed into Louisiana and passed a steady line of strip malls and country shacks that lead into Baton Rouge. (While New Orleans is a cultural jewel, you’ll never hear many folks raving about the rural Louisiana landscape!) As for Baton Rouge, I’d visited friends who teach at LSU throughout My Year of Mardi Gras and felt little need to return–they were all out of town and beyond the university and a few government buildings deserted on evenings and weekends there was little to see.
I-10 between NOLA and Baton Rouge cuts through large, unpopulated stretches of river and marsh, and as I drove over the receding silt and soil on an endless succession of bridges I reflected on my journey. I had started thousands of miles away at the river’s meager trickle from Lake Itasca and traversed the heart of the country witnessing spectacular changes both geographically and culturally. Though my journey ended as the lights of the Crescent City rose to embrace me, the river itself meandered on another hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. (And I’d already documented this final stretch on a frigid February day.)
I had been invited to crash at the home of a writer friend, and it was past 9:00 when I arrived. She was in the throes of revision and I was exhausted, so after minimal obligatory small talk I crawled into bed and sunk into restless sleep, overwhelmed by a swirl of emotions. Over the past year and a half I’d seen and done so much, yet now it was all over. There were no more dreams of grandeur, no more tricks to try. Tomorrow I’d quietly pack up and head back to Florida without stirring a wrinkle on the surface of this deep cultural pond. I came. I saw. I hadn’t conquered. Not by a long shot.
The next morning I awoke early with little time to say goodbye (for now) to the city that had lured me and captivated my imagination yet never quite felt like home. After a farewell breakfast at Slim Goodies, I picked up a U-Haul trailer, hurriedly loaded my belongings in storage, and set out the nine-hour drive back to Jacksonville where I would recoup, regroup, and decide how to move on from My Year+ of Mardi Gras. I had hoped to launch at least a part-time writing career in New Orleans, but continued to struggle to grow an audience or figure out how to turn warm, fluffy sentiment into cold hard cash. Deep down I know I’ll type away until the day I day, yet part of my feared I was giving up. I was desperate for closure a sign of some sort, so was grateful when the universe offered a sly wink.
During my farewell trip along the Mississippi my favorite destination and fondest memory had been Hannibal, Missouri—home of literary hero Mark Twain. To my surprise and delight the U-Haul trailer I was assigned boasted a picture of a leaping frog illustrating Twain’s most famous short story: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Every U-Haul illustrates a different location, yet out of thousands of American destinations I’d drawn Mark Twain’s hometown.
Perhaps it was just coincidence, but maybe—just maybe—the universe was giving me a little nudge to keep on hauling….
MOTHER NATURE-1, GENERAL GRANT-0
By the mid 19th Century, Vicksburg was a flourishing antebellum cotton exchange with surprisingly cosmopolitan amenities. Located atop the highest bluff on the southern Mississippi, it was both an important river and railroad junction, so when the Civil War broke out it became arguably the most fiercely contested position of the conflict, its fortress-like perch a defensive blessing that lingered into a curse. Instead of falling quickly to the Union like other river communities, Vicksburg easily frustrated all attempts at capture for over a year, but this would only prolong its suffering.
Up-and-coming Union general Ulysses S. Grant (who inherited the failure of the previous command) was so frustrated by Vicksburg that he tried to dig a bypass canal through the horseshoe bend where the city lay at the apex—a colossal failure. Out of desperation, he finally sent his troops on a risky overland maneuver through swampy wilderness in enemy territory cut off from supply lines to lay siege from the city’s rear. The gamble paid off, and over the next few months he starved out the city’s genteel residents while forcing them to live underground like rodents to avoid the ceaseless shelling.
Aware of Vicksburg historically prominent perch, I rolled into town anticipating spectacular views of the mighty Mississippi, but instead discovered I could barely glimpse a narrow, stagnant channel through the trees below.
Vicksburg’s prosperity was fueled by its founding at the Mississippi’s confluence with the Yazoo River, but—in an ironic twist of fate—a dozen years after Grant’s failed detour [Read more...]