Monday, September 12, 2005

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?


A note this morning from my daughter Ashley, a photojournalist:

The man puts his weary lips to the cold, metal mouthpiece.

At his feet there is an occasional clink of spare change into an old coffee can. The low sound of a trombone stops for a brief moment as he bows his head and breathes, "Thank ya, ma’am."

But the couple staggers on down Bourbon Street, a street where all inhibitions are lost and souls freed.

***

The night was almost over. The sun’s rays would be cutting through the musky Gulf air in a matter of hours. New Orleans really was a city that never slept. There was too much to miss if eyes were closed.

We made our way through the street lined with strands of beads, empty cups and vagabonds.

All of a sudden the three of us recognize the distant melody. As if it were scripted we sing "Ain’t to proud to beg, sweet darlin’, Please don't leave me girl" in to our fists. We wiggle, jiggle and laugh to the music and nearly trip over the coffee can.

I step across the street for a picture. The trombone player under a single street lamp laced with beads. Chris moves in and out of the frame, dancing. My laughter keeps me from steadying the camera in the dim light. It takes three frames before Chris lands in one of them.

"I can feel it, man." It’s soul. It’s a spirit. A Big Easy spirit that Chris feels. The sensation is an infatuation with a mysterious city. A city so mysterious that not even the inhabitants can solve its secrets. It keeps them there long after they thought about leaving.

The music ends but not the laughter, nor the dancing. He plays another Motown hit that at age 21 I really shouldn’t know but I do. I sing along or try to. Laughter comes much easier to my inebriated mind than love lyrics from the 1960s.

Just like our night, the music winds down and we slow down. We’re exhausted, our minds and our legs numb from the alcohol and walking.

We search our pockets for any remaining money from the evening of indulgence. Collectively we have a couple wadded up bills and nearly two dollars in change. We drop them into the can one by one to hear each clink.

And, just as before, he tips his hat and says, "Thank ya." Except this time he asks our name. Shakes our hand. And says, "You’ve got soul, man." Chris wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and smiles modestly. He lowers his head, embarrassed.

***

Hurricane Katrina hit five months later: August 28, 2005.

***

After our trip to the Crescent City in March I couldn’t get the city and it’s charisma out of my head. The mystery. The memories. The escape. The freedom.

Someone told me then that she’d never understood New Orleans and its appeal. She’d obviously never been. "But," she said, "I’ve never wanted to go."

Now New Orleans has been stripped of its power, its secrets floating away never to be told. It will never be the same. The streets have washed away its wrongdoings. Its soul, its food, its music has all left. Just got up and walked away.

"Someday I want to visit," she said lately. "I don’t care if I’m 70 years old, I will see New Orleans." What she doesn’t know, is that there is no New Orleans. The Big Easy is no longer The Big Easy. She will never know the infatuation the way I have. She will never have the sensation that I’ve had then and now. She will never feel the freedom the way I have.

***

Days later, Chris and I were driving. In silence we each looked out of our windows. He turned to me and asked, "What do you think happened to the trombone guy?" In all honesty I’ve thought about him a lot, especially lately. In mere minutes, he gave a persona to New Orleans. Soulful. Liberated. Gracious.

The possibilities ran rampant through my mind. I hoped he was safe. I hoped he made it out of the chaos. I didn’t even know his name if I wanted to check. Maybe he made it to the safe camp in Salt Lake City. Maybe I’ll dance by him on a street corner someday.

I turned back to the window. That was all we spoke for the rest of the ride.

4 comments:

don said...

This hits the core.

The heart of New Orleans will remain amidst the rubble of destruction.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Fantastic writing!

Memphis Steve said...

Well, you can always come visit Beale Street in Memphis. It's not the same, but if you're missing New Orleans while they're rebuilding it's pretty darned close.

BR said...

Wow - felt thrills up my spine while reading this. Very powerful writing.