I’m going to write this one sober. That is not to suggest that I mostly write while intoxicated. Still, the subject does bring to mind a good stiff drink, does it not? New Orleans is a town notorious for its Mardi Gras celebrations, and we all know what happens at Mardi Gras.
Well, I don’t know what happens exactly since I’ve never been, but I imagine that it involves alcohol. Among other things.
Old Absinthe House exterior
(Unless otherwise noted, the photos & videos in this post are ones I took in New Orleans.)
I should clarify. I moved to Baton Rouge a few months ago, so I’ve visited New Orleans a few times, just not during Mardi Gras.
Instead of being in New Orleans for the festivities, I’m in Virginia trying to collect my thoughts. Once again, I’m trying to act on something I don’t entirely understand because it feels like I should. Blame Kenneth Terry for that if you want, but it’s not really his fault.
He’s the talented trumpeter in the Treme Brass Band, and he gave me his card and told me to email him when I finished writing this story. I wasn’t even planning to start it back then. How did he know it would happen? I don’t think he was from the future, although that wouldn’t surprise me considering the way things seem to happen in my world.
Louis Armstrong statue
Let me explain. He saw me writing in my notebook and assumed that I was writing an article about the music. Not a bad assumption; I’ve done that before, but at the time I was just reflecting on life in general.
That’s one way I try to process the sad and complicated things in my life. Alcohol is another way, but from past experience I’ve discovered that alcohol can be the considerably more expensive choice. I’m on a budget, so I opted for the notepad that night.
When Kenneth approached me, it was the first clue that I should do a story on New Orleans, but one clue alone does not a murder solve. Before you get your hopes up, I should mention that this post does not actually involve murder. I’m just trying out a new phrase. You can always take it back to the store if you don’t like it.
The New Orleans guide book features the tagline, “It’s New Orleans: You’re different here.” Someone got paid a lot of money to write that, and for a tagline it is not bad. It’s a concise way of suggesting that the city can have an intoxicating effect on you if you let it. It is also a reminder that New Orleans offers you the chance to be someone else, to escape.
Like so many others, I have gone into the city looking to escape. There’s so much to take in. Food, music, and culture: It’s all top notch and very interesting in New Orleans.
Escape does come at a price though. The more you try to escape, the more expensive it becomes. The underlying problems remain no matter how many layers of dirt you try to bury them under.
From Disney’s official Princess and the Frog channel on YouTube.
It’s a basic law of economics: if the demand is high enough, the supply will emerge. No surprise then that there are a number of escape merchants in New Orleans. Walk down Bourbon St. for a few minutes, and you’ll see what I mean. There are fortune-telling gypsies, peddlers of cheap trinkets, and eager proprietors competing on how fast they can get you drunk and aroused.
Yeah, the con men are everywhere, looking for an excuse to get their hands into your pockets. I bought a blank CD from one of them who set up shop near a few musicians. I should have known better.
Sketches for Mardi Gras costumes
One night, a girl on Bourbon St. was standing in a doorway talking to me. That’s not so strange, except she was wearing just a thong, and she was trying to have a conversation with her back turned. She wanted eye contact but not with her eyes. I guess some people like those kinds of conversations, but it is not how I prefer to say to hello.
I’ve got to admit though, the level to which people will stoop for escape does fascinate me. It’s one reason why I’m drawn to the city.
Escape was part of the equation even back in the city’s formative days. Its famous Mardi Gras culture developed as a reaction to high mortality rates in the mid 1800s. The citizens of the Crescent City saw many of their young neighbors dying from yellow fever and other diseases, and they needed to divert their attention away from death’s ever-present nature.
It’s an all too-human impulse. Just think about how much effort we put into sterilizing death out of our modern world. We don’t kill our food. That happens somewhere far away. We ask our citizens to go to a hospital or a nursing home, when they’re about to die. It can be anywhere really, as long as it is not in our neighborhood.
While New Orleans is often defined by its avenues of escape, it is not a city that brushes death to the outskirts. Here’s the intriguing part: death is on prominent display, as if the whole town is one big memento mori. For one thing, the graveyards aren’t hidden out of sight. They are showcased on daily tours.
This is a photo I took on one such tour. Note the symbolism of the Alabama T-shirt in the cemetery. It represents the untimely death of LSU’s championship aspirations.
On top of that, no self-respecting souvenir shop worth its beads will lack assorted skeleton merchandise. It’s the city’s way of saying, “hey buddy, you’re going to die. Now buy a t-shirt.” That’s kind of refreshing actually, but I still haven’t purchased a skull t-shirt. Not yet.
Icons of death are scattered throughout the city, but there’s a heavier concentration of them in the French Quarter, and at the heart of the French Quarter sits St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in our nation. It is the solemn anchor to the pulsating commotion of Jackson Square, and that doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.
Sure, there’s decadence in New Orleans, but there’s also an underlying sense of faith, of soul. After all, it is the Saints, not the Sinners, who play at the Superdome.
As it happens, the city’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, was also the first one to build a church on the site where St. Louis Cahedral now stands, so it is no stretch to say that religion was built into the foundation from which the city grew.
Without that sense of purpose that comes with faith, I doubt that the people of New Orleans could confront death with their trademarked panache. When Katrina came and decimated the city, it was that very death-defying panache that revitalized the city, so don’t underestimate its power.
I mentioned earlier that I came to New Orleans looking to escape. I didn’t mention from what. It’s complicated, so to keep things simple, let’s just say that it involves football.
(This part is for those of you who are involved and have found it necessary to insult me in passive-aggressive ways. Well I can’t be sure about that, but it sure seems that way from my perspective. You are welcome to clear things up, just in case I got it wrong.
If you have an issue with me, then why not be direct about it? I’ve been direct with you, but you won’t treat me with the same consideration. To be less than direct at this point is cowardly and hypocritical.
Or are you vain enough to think that I would spend months trying to contort my life into some form that would be pleasing to your sensibilities? There are an uncanny number of coincidences, yes I know, but those coincidences have been outside of my control or are consistent with who I’ve claimed to be from the beginning.
There are also polarizing differences, and I would have to be the most incompetent or insane con man to use something as divisive as contrarian politics to entrap you.
For your sake and for mine, I really wish I had never seen your show, because I would be so much happier, and things wouldn’t be what they are. By the way, did you notice how easily these parenthetical comments can apply to more than one person? Yeah, so did I.
The only reason I’m still here, the only reason, is because something tells me I should be. Maybe it is crazy, but I can assure you that it is not wishful thinking. I would not wish this on anyone.
Walk away right now, and I will never bother you again, but if there is something you need to say to me, then let’s hear it. Right now. Otherwise just go away and let me be. It will all fade eventually. It is not like I’m important enough for you to care about what I think.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I’m sorry for the digression, but it needed to be said. I would do it differently if I could.)
Are you still reading? I can’t imagine why, but if you are, then let’s move on.
Old Absinthe House interior
I saw the sights, heard the sounds, ate the food. I can’t complain. It was an enjoyable escape, until I visited the World War II museum. It was a museum that came highly recommended. Plus, I’m a history enthusiast, and I do think about death more than most people my age, so it seemed like an obvious destination.
I was not prepared for what I encountered there.
That’s one of the photos in the museum. It was taken right before D-Day, when General Eisenhower visited with the 101st Airborne Division. The museum placard quotes the soldier wearing number 23, Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel, as saying “While I think the General thought his visit would boost the morale of our men, I honestly think it was his morale that was improved by being with such a remarkably ‘high’ group of troops.”
That’s the effect that the museum had on me. I saw courageous men preparing for battle, knowing that they might die the next day, and I wanted to live more courageously. I read of men sacrificing their lives because they had a sense of purpose, and I wanted to live a more purposeful life.
I know that all wars aren’t fought for just reasons, but I believe World War II was. Having spent so much time pursuing a career in the entertainment business, I had forgotten what real heroes looked like. I needed the museum to remind me.
I can’t run into something like that, and stay committed to my plans for escape. Not for long. I’m not built that way.
The museum sealed the deal; I had to return to the purpose I was trying to avoid, and I knew then that I had to write this. I didn’t say that I would enjoy writing this, just that it had to be done.
Admittedly, there are a lot of notable coincidences in the things I write, but they’re all true. I’m not trying to con anyone, and I don’t usually seek out those coincidences.
They come to me even when I try to avoid them. I hope you can believe me on that point, but if you don’t trust me by now, I don’t think you ever will. So it goes, you know. So it goes.
My best way to explain it is to quote the Disney clip I shared earlier. “I’ve got friends on the other side,” but unlike Dr. Facilier, I don’t think mine are the bad sort.
There’s something to be said for making an important point by quoting a Disney cartoon. If I were in a position to do so, I’d give myself a prestigious award for that, just because it would never happen elsewhere.
Anyway, Dr. Facilier’s name is derived from the Latin word ‘facilis’ meaning easy to do. If you think I am somehow taking the easy way out, you are so very misguided. Escape is the easy way, and I’m trying to avoid it.
With a sense of purpose at hand, I can experience all the grand things that New Orleans has to offer, not as ways to escape, but as life-affirming wonders. Speaking of which, lets get back to Kenneth Terry.
I was hesitant about going to the Candlelight Lounge. It was late Wednesday night, and I was alone, but I had this sense that I should go, and that it would be OK to bring my camera. So I did.
The decor inside consisted of unadorned structural supports, shiny red stars borrowed from someone’s 4th-of-July celebration, and a Satchmo bobble head, but no one came for the decor.
They came for the music, and what a musical experience it was. Sometimes the trombones would take the lead. Sometime Kenneth would charge ahead as the drums and the tamborines held up the rear.
Sorry for the grainy video, folks. I had just my compact, but trusty, Canon PowerShot G12 with me that night. The video doesn’t do the experience justice, but it hints at the atmosphere.
On occasion, the musicians would get up from their seats and accost the patrons with their music, standing just inches away from their targets. Some of the patrons would dance out their responses. Others would nod along.
The band played with a vitality unlike anything I had ever seen. It was as if the musicians had made an agreement with us: They would play their hearts out for us, and in exchange we would go forth and embrace life with renewed vigor. It was an offer too good to refuse. The ephemeral unity of purpose from the mixed crowd in attendance suggested that they felt the same way.
I did what I could to honor my part, Kenneth. Thank you for the inspiration.
If you plan to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I hope you’ll have fun. Ask, and I’ll be glad to give you recommendations for what to visit, but I haven’t been in town that long myself, so what do I know, right? Just try to remember that there is more to it all than just escape.
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As always, thanks for reading and God bless.