Photo by Mick Bradley, “New Orleans Before the Flood, Decatur Street”
As the ten year anniversary of Katrina approaches, New Orleans has been on my mind.
I was in New Orleans in 1999. That was the first, and so far, only time I stepped foot in the Crescent City. I worked at Sesame Street, and was in town for a television conference. It was January, and the weather was mild, sticky. I remember the smell of truffle oil and Cajun spice sitting in the still air of the French Quarter. I went for early morning runs in vacant streets that reeked of the previous night’s revelry.
Nola was a blur. Being there on business, I was stressed out, preoccupied, nerves shaking at the weight of responsibility. I look back now and find that stupid. It was just a television market. I thought I had so much to prove in this job, but really never proved anything at all.
And I wasted it. I wasted my time in New Orleans, running to restaurants, greeting clients, having meals with staff, only seeing the beauty, the spirit, the air thick with ghosts in my peripheral vision.
In Nola, I saw folk impoverished in ways I never knew existed in this country. Not urban poor. Dirt poor. We were marching through in our smart cosmopolitan clothes while locals looked at us like we were mad. And they were right. We were stark raving bonkers because we were blind. Blind to the world past our upper west side apartments and offices overlooking the glorious Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic fountains.
There was one night in town when Kerry, my boss at the time, and I some down time. We hit Bourbon street looking for New Orleans’ musical home cooking. R&B. Zydeco, plain old bayou blues – anything on this spectrum. We wanted to hear it badly.
A doorman from one of clubs saw us wandering the street on our musical quest. Without even a thought, came over to me, grabbed me by the hand and lead me into his cool, dark and loud club. Kerry followed. Within moments, jello shots in test tubes were handed out in laboratory trays, which we happily accepted and downed. We noticed a band on a stage in the back getting ready to perform.
It was thrilling. What would they play? Would it be a Cajun frolic, or a country twangy tune? I was ready to shed the blinders of my urban life and start feeling the voodoo and blues of Nola. I wanted to go past the tourist parties and absorb R&B pulsating through floor boards. I wanted songs sung in French patois – the kind of French my Alsatian born dad wouldn’t even understand. Voodoo and ghouls. I wanted the backwater blues, the darkness and the pain. I wanted to feel the flames of the devil nipping at my heels. Let’s hear it band. I’d repent tomorrow. Hail Mary’s for all, and holy water on the sink. Amen. I swear.
But in New Orleans, I didn’t want to hear The Eagles’ “Hotel California”. I just didn’t. And that’s what the cover band played.
“On a dark desert highway….cool wind in my hair…”
She was a young chick with a cut off t-shirt with a mic in her hand. I bet she was amazing, and her band rocked the house when they made the music they loved. But on this night, they did a top forty song from my childhood that bored the living hell out of me.
“I didn’t come all this way to Nola to hear a cover band sing “Hotel California”, I said to Kerry.
She agreed. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no Nola. This ain’t no fooling around.
We stepped back out to the ruckus of Bourbon Street, and within moments found our destination. It was a dark club – it’s name totally unknown to me to this day – where the blues flowed like bourbon – easy, powerful, sweaty. The sound styles of Muddy Waters, Big Momma Thornton, and the sweet, heavy delicious longing music of the mouth organ – like Butterfield at the microphone – wailed in our ears like a soulful locomotive train in the night.
I can’t remember what they played. I don’t remember the name of the band – hard working sons of bitches they were. I only recall the feeling, the vibe and the emotion, the thrust and the pull, the pain and the god damn ever loving fun we had, downing shots of scotch while swinging our bodies to the New Orleans dance.
It may not have been Cajun or zydeco. There may not have been local french patois coming from the lips of these bluesy singers, but this club at this moment – it was a mighty find. It gave us a taste of a little voodoo. We harnessed the demon flames, and shed the corporate life that brought us to this amazing city to begin with.
I long to go back. I haven’t been there since, and during that absence Katrina hurled through. Watching the wreckage on television, I remember seeing the places Katrina devoured – places we walked through several years before. The convention center where I ran around in my smartass New York high octane goals, were now filled with displaced people, lost, longing for answers – grieving.
And I was on dry land, by now working within the brand new Time Warner Center with Central Park beyond my window, remembering how this wrecked, soulful city, now submerged in death, flood and unimaginable devastation, gave me such life and profound happiness that night.
Yet, through the rubble and death – I saw so much strength and resilience. The power of the human spirit was and is still – alive and fearless.
Yes. I want to go back and feel the voodoo, the beauty and the flavors. I also want to bask in the strength, the morning light, the resolve of human determination. I also want to hear a hardcore, mouth organ wail soulfully in the night – like the moaning horn of a lone train.