Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sketches: New Orleans

Of all the cities I visited last summer, two in particular stood out as the most magical, mystical cities in the country. I am moving to one (San Francisco) but not before waylaying in the other: New Orleans.

This was my first experience of New Orleans if anyone is interested. A few months ago I got a drunken friendster message from an old high school acquaintance who has been living down there for the last 7 years. She graciously offered me her home as a crash pad so my brother and I drove down here from Mississippi on Saturday night, arriving just in time for the Krieux du Vieux parade, the first parade of the Mardi Gras season.

In the past few days there has been much to digest. What follows then, let’s agree to treat as sketches. These vignettes are perhaps as much a celebration of subculture as they are snapshots of New Orleans as it was, as it is and as it will be.

The Bywater District and how to Bucket Flush

I’m staying in the bywater district, an area I think is sort of northeast but I’m not exactly sure. I’ve been warned that in this city a grasp of cardinal directions is hopelessly elusive. The narrow streets are lined with low, peeling little bungalows. The area has been slowly gentrifying for a few years now. It was not hit particularly hard by the storm but was not exactly glamorous to begin with. My friend moved into her current place on Dauphine a few months ago after her home had been flooded. This place used to belong to a mother and her grown daughter who had lived there for many years who evacuated and never returned. They left some antique furniture the landlord has talked about reclaiming. My friend was able to move in on condition that she does a lot of the cleaning and restoration work herself. The people I’m meeting here are not the kind of rich people who are paying to have work done for them. They do it themselves. They scrub and strike and saw and hack and haul.

I’ve always considered myself an interloper between punk and hipster subcultures. Ultimately too prim for the former and too scrappy for the latter I have a chameleon ability to adapt cultural surroundings. If it’s obnoxious retro-clothing and ipods and video artists then so I will be. If it’s dirty fingernails and bike grease and dumpstered amenities so be it too. Right now I’m nice and dirty. To some friends I’m on the prima donna end of the spectrum, others might be dismayed by the habits I can lapse into: sleeping in clothes and then wearing them again and again, bathing only now and then, in a dirty crooked, claw foot tub, no shower, no door, but hot water yessssss. I’m reminded how silly and stupid it is to put some much worry into the hyper-hygienic ritualistic concern over appearance. In an odd way I’m much prettier like this. If you think about it, that sort of thing is much more of a hassle than having to flush a broken toilet by dumping a bucket of used sink water into the bowl. Much.

Notes on the Bywater:

-Desire and Piety streets are parallel to one another
-I come to café Flora on Royal and Franklin every day and drink coffee
-The streets, even and especially the remote ones, are littered with mardi gras beads. It’s eerie.
-At Markey’s bar on Royal you can play free pool, free darts and free shuffleboard. Shuffleboard I’ve discovered is a game of delicacy, control and restraint. Weighted chromed pucks hovering atop a suspension of wax sand, coasting along a 20-foot expanse of shiny, shellacked wood is one of the most pleasing things I can think of in this world.
-A Few blocks south of Luisa, the train tracks run. They are busy tracks used, I think, for switching. The freight trains therefore lumber through very slowly and often stop to back up and shift. You could get stuck at the crossing for 15 minutes sometimes listening to the clanging chimes, but two feet from the train. What a beautiful place to get stuck.
-The huge gutted lot to the east by the river used to be warehouses full of propane. After the storm the warehouses exploded. People who were here said it sounded like artillery shelling.


Everyone here has a dog. I’m staying with two dogs. Dinah is a white pitbull, fierce looking but quite affectionate with people. Not so much with other dogs, except, luckily, her new roommate, the puppy. Someone found the puppy in the neighborhood and gave it to Casey (who lives around the corner) at a party. Casey couldn’t take it home because one of his houseguests has a pitbull named Fiona who was a rescued fighting dog who cannot be around other dogs as, quite plainly, she will kill them. Thus the puppy stays with us. We don’t know what he is or how old he is or even what his name will be once Casey and Ben can adopt him. All we know if that he’s intoxicatingly cute, a little black thing with floppy ears and outsized paws, and that he has a mysterious growth on his stomach we think might be a hernia. We’re trying to get him an appointment at the vet. I spend a fair amount of time cleaning up his messes (this morning, on my sleeping bag case) and attempting to discipline him, a failure of course. I love the puppy and he’s taken to sleeping with me at night. I have a new alarm clock. It’s a bite on the face.

Jeff and George

I’m sitting outside café Flora writing. I’m in the company of a handsome, (very) young man who just yesterday hopped freight trains in from Memphis. He’s one of the many houseguests piling into Ben and Casey’s dilapidated house and last night, after the Kriex du Poux festivities in the street, elected to spend the night on a futon in the garbage outside some house on desire. He emerges from the café with a coffee and a hardboiled egg and a great grin on his face. “Someone bought this for me>” he beamed, palming the egg with joy. That someone was sitting behind me smoking a cigarette and drinking an amazingly carnelian colored beverage. “Fresh juice with a little bit of everything in it.” He says to me. He also bought a coffee for a slight, middle-aged guy in a beret who sits down next to him. They begin talking to each other and also sort of to me about the FEMA evictions currently raging here. The man in the Beret, a native New Orleanian, had spent 6 days in dome, and used to work as a house painter but is currently homeless and out of work. This is how the conversation evolves:

“What you need to get by painting?”
“I don’t know, ten an hour I’d be alright.”
“Can you be here tomorrow, nine am?”
“Yeah, yeah I can.”
“Alright meet me here and I’ll give you some painting work. I’m trying to build up some more jobs.”
“You got any painters whites I could wear?”
“No but I got some coveralls you can use.”
“Thanks that would be great man. What’s your name man? I’m George.”
“I’m Jeff”
“Nice to meet you. 9 am tomorrow. I’ll put you to work.”

And they part.

More sketches to follow.
I’m totally and completely overwhelmed. Drifting.
I think that this is the craziest place I could be.


Blogger Saerah said...

I keep reading your posts, wishing I had something meaningful to add in the comments. Your writing is seriously fantastic; there aren't enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it :)

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Cyndi said...

Im an Architecture student in new york and i am wondering if you will be posting any other notes on Bywater. This year our project takes place on this site. The block located at chartres between montegut and clouet. You have helped me out already. Thank You

7:31 AM  

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