The train station was not placed in a salubrious part of town. On the way back to Louise’s home, we drove beneath the gaunt concrete arteries of the overpasses that directed the hurtling metal-cased passage of humanity over our heads. Beneath them, we passed straggles of mainly black homeless men whose numbers Louise said had been growing in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Tents were pitched incongruously beneath the great granite arches and between the roads used by people with homes to go to. The tent dwellers and their location were unlikely to feature in the promotional literature. Louise said the tents were an upgrade recently supplied by the authorities. Elsewhere in the city, large projects had been steam-rolled after Katrina. Many were now part of mixed housing areas that lay more easily on the eye – concrete blocks giving way to smaller wooden buildings that gave a greater sense of an individual home. The results of this policy were also mixed. Now the crime once concentrated within these no-go areas was dissipated more randomly about the city. New Orleans has always had a murder rate that is high in even this most murderous of nations. But without these favelas of the inner city, it now felt that a random walk about town at sundown was a less clear invitation to disaster.
Louise lived on the far side of the Mississippi in Algiers. I had once crossed it for half an hour on the ferry that whisks you across the river for a couple of dollars. I remember nothing of what I saw. My base for my stay, it gave me a view of the Nawlings skyline and some safe distance between us and those merely passing through. Although the Amtrak schedule has ruined the evening with Louise and Andrea, we had time for several late-night drinks at a local place. It was big, roomy and easy to order. The liquor measures were as generous and loosely poured as I recalled and a band of ten or so was building up to a messy finale as we caught up in the cool of a late night Southern spring. Unsurprisingly, the amiable middle-aged man that took a seat next to us was a musician who had contributed the trombone a few minutes earlier.
The next evening, some old friends, Michael and Elizabeth, were hosting a dinner party for the latter’s birthday. Although I only knew Louise and my hosts, the company and fine fare broke down the barriers. One former social worker asked me whether we were laughing about Donald Trump in England. I suggested we should have alternated him with Brexit to stretch out the international joke. In an evening of fantastic gastronomic excess, Michael served us around half a dozen luxurious courses that involved home-made pates, near liquefied cheeses; oyster tartlettes; lamb chops, caramelised vegetables; and lobster bisque along with a salad that went far beyond the decorational. I left a half a glass of fine bourbon and a brandy along with a half-smoked cigar. I wasn’t being rude; I could just take no more. They looked genuinely disappointed when we were the last to leave some time after 3am.
Louise is in a similar line of work to me though she also had a burgeoning practice as an equine therapist. I had once laughed at the idea, but its alleged effectiveness only highlights my past ignorance. She was also a specialist in EMDR – an equally successful, if hard to explain, treatment for victims of trauma. The veterans of the nation provide a steady flow of damaged humans to her waiting room. I took over her treatment room on a basement floor into which I could fit my over-priced London flat. Occupying another corner was Dan, her affable recent ex-boyfriend with whom she still got on very well. Likewise, her slightly less recent ex-husband, a world-class clarinetist with whom she now shares ebullient 10-year-old twins. Not all therapists hide their own personal dysfunction behind an impenetrable gaze.
After 28 years, my week in New Orleans was experienced with unusual clarity and energy. The 10 months I had once spent there was usually complicated by the heavy invisible blanket of humidity endemic to this once swampy outpost. March is apparently the ambivalent month for sunshine and temperature. For my stay, it sided conservatively with winter rather than the sweltering summer to come. The fug of a hangover was also generally lacking as I strode the old streets and many more beyond my old boundaries within the French Quarter.
Death Throes of the Confederacy
I was the tourist I had not previously been. In the city’s new and spectacular national war museum, I stumbled upon a corner that rivalled the central hall of the British Imperial War Museum with its collection of hanging warplanes. I wandered it for half a day without feeling the rest of the Allies had been written out of history. Nearby was the considerably more compact Confederate civil war museum. The use of the ‘C’ word is perhaps unusual. All around the US, Confederate statues had been removed over the last couple of years – General Lee had only recently been toppled from his pedestal in New Orleans.
This flurry of revisionism seemed to represent the final nail in the coffin of the South – washing away the remnants of the world romanticised in Gone with the Wind. It was odd to witness the last of a whole culture officially expunged from the records. Before coming, I had worked my way through the novel’s 900 pages over several months – the final assignment involved watching the equally epic film on the night before my departure. The book was well written and researched, but felt heavy by at least 300 pages with the author seemingly keen to make sure we got her points by making them repeatedly from every angle. I was initially attracted by the apparent amorality of its romantic leads who contrasted with the stuffy hypocrisy and naïve fervour demonstrated by the rest of the regular southern cast – if only because they saw the big picture seemingly invisible to those around them.
But the more I read, the more I realised how the indifference of Scarlett and Rhett to the cause may have been a convenient literary device to better illustrate the doings of the much-maligned Scalawags and Carpetbaggers who profited from the fall of the Confederacy. While sensitive to the naivety of applying contemporary hindsight harshly to the beliefs of times past, I was surprised how Google yielded little criticism of the views expressed in its pages. The book didn’t stint on the racist abuse and attitudes that no doubt exists when your economy relies on slave labour. For this, perhaps, it should be applauded for its historical honesty. But it was conspicuous for its wilful ignoring of the daily plight of the slaves beyond the patronising portraits of the eye-rolling mammas and simple giants who lived amongst the white folk. Of the field hands, there was nothing, bar the suggestion that freedom made such people ‘uppity’ and dangerous. Most of the ‘honourable gentleman’ who graced its pages joined the Ku Klux Klan.
On my flight home, I watched Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman in which one of the main antagonists was the Grand Wizard, holocaust denier, and white supremacist, David Duke. Duke was a prominent voice of hate when I lived in Louisiana and Google suggests he continues to spread his hateful message on his radio show like a latter-day Oswald Mosley. It was perhaps admirable that Dukes was portrayed as an urbane and smooth individual rather than a cartoon villain. As such, the true banality of evil is more honestly recorded and understood.
A visit to several plantations clarified the picture of the realities of the Old South somewhat. The first showcased the harsh lives of the slaves before the war, and after when its old wealthy economy collapsed during the painful process of reconstruction. Our admission ticket to Oak Avenue bought us a tour around the fine plantation house that concentrated mainly on the lives of its owners. Only in the mocked-up slave houses behind it was a fuller perspective given – particularly from the manacles used to hold the unruliest of the human stock. On one wall was a list valuing the slaves as company assets. As a potential breeder of up to 20 slave children, the price of a young woman was generally very high.
Sound of the City
As before, live music was performed from all corners of the bars and cafes of the quarter. And as before, much of it owed as much to roots in soul and blues as the traditional jazz for which New Orleans is really famous. Most of it, I heard in passing as I wandered past some half-empty establishments that stood alongside similar others with queues half way round the block. Thus, lies the power of a good review on Trip Advisor. On our one big night out, Andrea, Louise, and Sian and I went to see Joe and the Iguanas in the Circle Bar. After 28 years, their on-stage stage banter suggested they still liked each other. Apparently, the band had found success and earned Joe a fancy house and swimming pool before Katrina engulfed it. He said he remembered me, but with no evidence of surprise in his eyes. I think he may have confused me with someone else. Sian, whose family hail from Korea, said she now visited Asia several months a year for work. While keeping the company of Westerners, she was surprised how much she liked the region. We planned a nightcap at an unlikely British pub with an entrance disguised by an old blue policeman’s kiosk. It was already closed despite it being only one in the morning. Instead we barged in on Louise’s neighbours whom she invited home to dance. They were perhaps too polite, or stoned, to say no firmly. I suggested we left their evening to a more sedate denouement. In the morning, Louise agreed.
On my last night, I was treated to dinner at the Palm Court. It was on her mother’s tab, who was herself absent and in hospital after suffering a relatively severe dancing accident. It was another favour I couldn’t return from the eccentric matriarch who had once topped up my pay packet from below the minimum wage. I had worked for her husband George in the warehouse behind the restaurant where he ran his jazz label. George was convinced I was robbing him blind. I know this because I walked into his office several times, while he was whispering his latest suspicions about the grand theft I was probably committing on a daily basis. George was himself blind, which helped neither of our causes. It was ironic because as one friend told me ‘you’re the first person in the warehouse who hasn’t stolen from him.’ If I was going to add thievery to my armoury of acquisition tools, I would want it to be more of a challenge. ‘Like taking CDs from a blind man’ could be a more specialist version of ‘like taking candy from a child’. Still that’s all in the past, as is George, who passed away several years ago.
We ate a platter of spicy Cajun specialties involving shrimps and crawfish to supplement the crocodile po-boy I had bought from the market earlier. I used to largely exist on seafood gumbos and White Russians, but none passed my lips this week, let alone a jambalaya, margarita or jagabomb. How we change. This was perhaps the only time I sat down to music in the week. I was even dedicated a song but was ignorant of the fact so merely looked confused while the lead musician mumbled something while looking directly at me. Unbeknown to me, Andrea had put in a word. She also filmed it and put it on Facebook, before taking me down Frenchman Street while Louise returned home to being a mother.
Andrea was now resettled back in New Orleans where we had dated long ago. Homes in London and Florianopolis had followed before she had returned to her most established home in a life of international wandering. She seems to have shrugged off the serious sentence of Multiple Sclerosis with the alternative medicine of worm injections. The halting of the disease’s progress could not be better illustrated than in half hour she spent energetically dancing with a man in the street. Unlike, Tina Turner or her impromptu partner, she was not dancing for money. I ended up paying him off when she assured him it was what she did for fun. Andrea’s new beau, Troy, ran a nearby Vape shop, and nodded slowly and knowingly when we passed by and she explained her extensive plans for my last evening. ‘Looks like you’ve got a few more stop-offs’ he drawled knowing that my protestations in favour of a quiet drink would likely be ignored.
We visited around 15 bars for an average of two minutes each which perhaps reflects Andrea’s method of decision making. When I explained I was tired and hungover, she took me to a bigger bar with more musicians and bottles. Nonetheless, I experienced a new side to the city amongst the thronging crowds of tourists overflowing the pavements jostling alongside street bands, hustlers, ambulances, and optimistic commuters. It was one of those streets that locals either work in or avoid like the plague. To the holidaying newcomer, it was a hedonistic paradise.
The other band I memorably stumbled upon was in one of the uptown cemeteries that are built above ground to counter the threat of flooding. I arrived in time for a jazz funeral. I kept a reasonably discreet distance but was quite aware that I was just as conspicuous at 20m as I would be kneeling in front of the small cortege that followed the half dozen musicians. Towards the end, one of the mourners strode rather decisively towards me while I prepared to offer an apology for my rude intrusion on their grief. Instead, he beamed at me warmly and slapped me on the back. ‘Great timing, buddy!’ he whooped before leaping back amongst the other bereaved to dance a little more.