Midnight in the Light of Morning: Remembering New Orleans
“For Rent” or “For Sale” signs come with an attached disclaimer “Haunted” or “Not Haunted.” From what they tell us Yankees from the north, the sign is deadly serious. Something to be considered and not to be taken light. Some don’t mind the restless souls. Some commune with them or feel comforted by their presence. There is a tangible attachment to life after flesh made immediate by living with a ghost, I suppose. I was never sure if rent was cheaper or more expensive if a place was “Haunted.” But for us pilgrims, the haunting lingers long after the visit to the city and isn’t exclusive to any house on the Esplanade or any apartment off Frenchmen Street. The haunting seeps into the flesh and bones like a residue from a pungent incense and you don’t want it to go away. You find yourself remembering the tiniest moments with a chuckle and tapping your feet to a rhythm dancing in your head. The haunting attaches itself to your soul and when you arrive back home you feel as if a spirit came back with you, a stowaway hidden in your lonely luggage. In the busiest street in Manhattan you will feel cold and all alone. Then you may remember your visit to this place and you are right there.
An early morning where you wake up just as the sun is rising. Music is still ringing in your ear from the night before. You can’t coax yourself back to bed. You leave your hotel or wherever you are staying and are drawn back into the old parts of the city. You wander in the dusk chasing the shadows disappearing with the rise of the morning sun. Then, just as you turn a corner you hear music that stops you in your tracks. You can’t tell exactly where it's coming from but you have an idea. You go through a door that leads you to a dark, smoke filled room. Damn, you think to yourself, it looks like midnight in the middle of the morning. A band plays hard and hot. The crowd’s frenzy grabs you and you’re devoured. You become lost and found, all at once. A new person vibing to old, timeless sounds. The sounds which worked itself up out of the swamps and spread up Highway 61, into the steel, gray of the north; adding fire to the Chicago winters, electricity to tenements of Harlem, music that changed names and time zones like a spy and crossed oceans. Jazz. Blues. Rock ‘n’ Roll. The music heats up all in you that was locked away and frozen, melting away the jagged edges, melding them in between the notes and the dirt floor. You start to flow again, lucid, liquid, and you look at the room of strangers and you know they are you friends. Not friends for life. Just friends for the time the smoke hangs in the air. N’awlins. New Orleans. While the weather in New York is now cold for good (well, you never know) and a long holiday weekend nears its end (stomachs full and rested), my mind returns to New Orleans. And that’s it. That’s all it takes. By simple inspiration I turn on a song on the record player. An old jazz number from my Smithsonian Collection I picked up at Housing Works for a song. A trumpet chirping, playing off a droning trombone intertwining with a whining clarinet. I dream of New Orleans while I cook a turkey soup in Brooklyn. This is why when the record ends I flip it over and begin again.
We went, Boni and I, nearly three years ago. No baby yet, and we barely knew each other, though we thought we did. We rented a room in a small house, I can’t remember the neighborhood, and arrived by taxi in the late morning. It was April but already warm. We had to walk down the side through long spears of green grass to reach our entrance in the back of the house. Waiting for us on the top of the porch was a black cat, our spirit animal for the trip. We never knew who the cat belonged to or if she belonged to anybody but her constant presence was refreshing. Her demeanor was playful yet elusive. She would twist on her back upon the porch, opening her belly up for a petting session but upon invitation, our little black cat declined entrance to our room on more than one occasion. Whatever guiding feline principles she lived by was a mystery but the answer was always the same. She would demurely purr away, slinking around the corner of the old house, disappearing into the tall grass only to be waiting once again on the porch, lying around licking her paws or pawing at the screen door to our room. For the five days we called this room home, she was our friend. But the greatest friend we had on the trip was waiting for us when we entered our room.
Music. The radio was already on as we stood in the doorway with our bags still in hand. Our room was red all over. Satin and cool, shaded by trees and lace curtains. Beads, shiny and small, of many colors adorned the bed. Inside the dresser was a peace pipe for those who manage to find something to smoke.We kept the back door open and let the wind carry itself into the room while Ornette Coleman played on WWOZ. Blues. Jazz. Never did the radio turn off nor did the dial bend to another frequency. This music, the pulse and heartbeat of our little red room, we would soon learn, is the spirit moving the whole city to a thousand simultaneous songs, a thousand swiveled steps, a thousand faces embraced in exaltation. Welcome to New Orleans.
We left our room, the music forever playing, and walked down the Esplanade in late afternoon to the French Quarter. Now, as I write this article, I wonder what compelled me to take up this subject when the past has already wore these memories down. But they aren’t wore down, are they? No, they are fertile, prone to take on the form of daydreams. So as I sat, today, this hazy Sunday, a day for dreams, I kept thinking of trips and things, and my mind went back to New Orleans. That first walk down the Esplanade. We walked down the middle of the grand boulevard, a sanctuary of grass and trees in the midst of a thoroughfare of automobiles. The houses loomed like buried memories as we passed along each street heading to the French Quarter. Oh, the houses, garish with colonnades and gates suffocated by ivy. Who can live in a place so seemingly of another time, another America? More and more people spilled from tributaries, from small streets leading to and from unknown parts of the city, mysterious corners of unique song and speech, all heading toward a uniform destination. There was something ritualized in the procession. First it began as something casual, a stroll that began to pick up intensity with the addition of more and more revelers, all of us joined together as if led by the piper toward the road which takes us to the banks of the Mississippi River and into the mouth of the Quarter.
We quickly embraced the spirit. There is no other way to put it. Made of part flesh and part music, the spirit cannot help but become more powerful while unifying more and more people. It is a spirit not made for the timid, yet it is easy to see the timid transcend the chains of their inhibitions. The spirit is not a merciful spirit to the unwise. But to those initiated and strong enough to withstand the current of the river, to those who know when the current is too strong, the spirit can be tender and loving. The spirit is music. American music. Pure and undiluted. It is not new, has always been there, isn’t going anywhere but is always fresh. They say you can never step in the same river twice, well in New Orleans you can never hear the same song twice. The music is live, a one time performance. Even the performer doesn’t know everything she or he is going to do. There is a surprise around every corner. And can it get carried away? Absolutely. The gamut is run in this cascade of life throbbing through the streets and alleyways. False grins from hucksters. Strip joints. Bad drinks cheap. Schlocky souvenirs. Tourists here to catch the show and go home and feel safe. They waved their hand near the fire but not close enough to get burned. We drank and danced and stood on a balcony looking out onto the French Quarter. Waves of people below had the sloppy rhythm of a jazz rehearsal on a roller coaster.
The following morning we were up before the light. We showered and dressed, basking in “The Stampede” by Fletcher Henderson, our smiles draped in a burgundy glow. We stood on the porch, our kindred cat rubbing our ankles with her sleek, black fur, and let the blues and greens of the back yard turn a shade gold as the sun moved above the horizon.
We took the empty Esplanade to the French Quarter and had brunch. Boni had biscuits and gravy, I had corn beef and hash. The bartenders were mixing cocktails and we took some off their hands. A quartet was in full swing. Time was a distant star, dim and insignificant. After brunch, we meandered around allowing the randomness of Fate to serve as our guide. We entered a cavernous den off Royal. A band was playing blue-grassy rock. The crowd was jumping and the band was vicious. The lead singer jumped like Mick Jagger and played a washboard hanging from around his shoulders. People looked depleted and ecstatic, fuelled by booze and tunes. Boni and I ordered a few beers and took a seat in the back. In no time we were dancing and we passed the morning in this collective state.
When we left the den the sky was dark as if night had come early. Electric scars in the sky sliced then faded, horns bellowed deep in the humid friction of the thickening clouds. We ran down to Canal Street and jumped on a trolley. The rain unleashed as we ambled through the historical neighborhoods with majestic houses built by slaves, the downpour unable to wash away the history. We made it to a neighborhood and jumped off the trolley. We stopped at a bar where old men sat and talked in hushed drawls. They looked at us with mild curiosity, perhaps a little surprised an interracial couple would be there, then faced back to their drink, nodding to a song playing in their head while the man next to them seemed to be singing in their ear. Or maybe the booze was getting to me. We sat outside on the porch as the harsh pour continued like countless brush sticks on a snare drum and with all the water pouring down the street in streams, one couldn’t help but remember Katrina.
“Nah, it rain like this all the time.”
We were in a taxi and the rain didn’t stop. He was driving slow, methodical, the city now a series of wipes and bleeding blurs through the windshield.
“Tourist always think Katrina when it rain,” he said to himself laughing. His name was Sammy from China and said, giving us his business card, we could call him anytime. Then we jumped out of the car and ran through the rain along the side of the house. On the porch we stood as the rain continued. Our hair, clothes, shoes, wet. A baptism from the sky. Our friend appeared, slithering up the steps. She seemed to regard our wet condition with indifference.
Inside our room the music was taking on a physical form. It felt like a womb in the pearly reds, the rosy wavering waves of light. The day was over and the sky was a bluish gray. We kept the door open, the steady beat of rain, persistent, unwilling to compromise. Something else came over me in that moment. Something primordial. A dormant impulse suppressed by not acknowledging it's existence, not giving it a definition, as if by ignoring something we could then believe it isn’t there. Art Tatum was on the radio. I took my clothes off and ran out of the room into the backyard. I laid down naked in the grass, now oozing mud and water, and the rain fell on me. I closed my eyes and heard rain for what seemed like the first time.
Later in the night we called Sammy. He took us to Frenchman Street. A place found us and we obliged. The Spotted Cat Music Club. The trumpet player rose for his solo, a young man with an afro and bell bottoms, the cheeks of Dizzy. I looked at Boni, her face intent on the rhythms, an ageless depth emanating from her bones. The music I now understood. It was pure release. Letting go. Laying down in the rain with no clothes. It was love.
We walked to the river. It was late. We talked about the music and about our dinner (I had shrimp and grits). Then we looked at the Mississippi River. In the distance a river boat was seen coming or going. This river, an ancient talisman for change, how it must look the same while everything else looks different. It still is hard to imagine on these shores, these docks, slaves from an unknown world were brought, bought, and sold to this continent. The whole system, the whole context outside our realm of understanding. Spanish, French, British, American. The river spilled them onto the shore, too, in the guise of different players in this strange stage of influence. This city of spirits, different gods and devils, lost forever amongst the wilderness of America. The people of New Orleans, harnessing these beasts through a pick and guitar strings, or a horn, or just a voice. Before it all, the peoples of America, the first Nations, supplied the drum beat. Just as the rain and thunder supplied it to them. Music, a testament to the patience of mythology and scriptures of the wise. Music, defying all plans and deeds. While the wind blows, music whistles through the reeds.
The following day, after visiting Louis Armstrong Park, we walked further still, away from the beaten path. There was a famous cemetery we were told to go see if we had the time to make the trek because when you go to New Orleans “you have to see the cemeteries” says everyone. But we walked and walked without a map, further away from any landmark we knew. The neighborhoods became marked by poverty, the faces etched in experiences I haven’t faced. Was it pain? Desperation? I couldn’t say. It would be naive to put a label on it. This wasn’t the New Orleans we saw before. It wasn’t the one they talk about in the tour guide books. But there was a history, deep and moving, with it’s own sound and song. It just wasn’t sold in the street or powdered up for the spotlight. This song would elude us as we decided to skip the cemetery. Why see the resting places of the dead when we are in a city with so much life?
The final night we stayed home, pretending the little red room was ours. We listened to the music on the radio with the back door open. Not a cloud was in the sky and our little friend would walk by the door every so often while she was on her way to whatever it was she had going on. The secret life of cats, I thought. I wonder what sacred deeds they keep hidden? What is their Mississippi? Early the next morning we didn’t see our cat as we walked to Sammy’s taxi. He drove us down the block and we passed a house for sale. On the “For Sale” sign there was a disclaimer which read “Haunted.” Boni and I smiled at each other and a thought passed between us, and we both silently imagined to ourselves.