Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Saints and Sinners Eve

The first question everyone asks about New Orleans is, "What’s it like?" And I suppose what they truly want is lurid details about massive destruction. They want to hear about block after city block were there are no people. Where it's quiet. Where boats on sidewalks are a political issue, not public art.

Here is what they should know: Government at every level is still FAILING. A huge hidden underclass was spread around the US in a Diaspora that we're supposed to ignore, because those people were invisible to begin with, and voiceless, and now they don't even have political mass behind them. They are ghosts now, even though they're still alive. They left behind ghost neighborhoods. I can't think of a more brutally efficient way to get around that pesky One Person, One Vote issue. If you don't have a home, you can't vote, and you've been silenced.

But this blog, and this entry, isn't about that.

So let me tell you what it's like to be in the French Quarter in May. A cool breeze just picked up from the river and changed the temperature from a little too warm to absolute perfection, it's twilight, and I'm too busy not doing anything to bother checking my watch. Someone is locking the wrought iron gates around Jackson Square.

City cats slink in through the gaps in the fence and plop down on sidewalks still warm from the sun. They stare back out as us, insolent as only cats can be. They laze, confident that we and other predators can not get to them until the gates are unlocked in the morning.

Tarot readers and street performers pack it in for the night. The Cathedral bells rang earlier but are silent now. Past pirate's alley, the guy supposedly dealing art, but actually passing small blue packages for folded twenties, is quietly assessing his business opportunities. He decides that we're of no interest. We decide the same about him. We nod good evening to each other and pass on.

On the other side of Jackson Square, we catch a mule drawn carriage for a tour of the quarter. We huddle together and snicker into hands cupped over our mouths at the rather dubious history lesson. It doesn't matter, in the end, even if it is a big lie. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

It is Thursday and the streets are empty. The quarter should be shaking off the day and getting down to serious business, but it feels as if it's gone to sleep.

Even though we're way underdressed, we go to Irene's. Last year we waited well over two hours for a table, and I knew waiter who bumped us up the list. This year we only have to wait forty minutes even though the waiter I knew is still in exile in Houston. I want to order the duck. If you've ever watched Steve Martin's LA Story, you know why ordering duck in a white linen tablecloth kind of restaurant is fraught with hazard, but I ask for it anyway. Hilarity does not ensue, thank goodness. The food isn't as good as last year, nor is the service, but it's still pretty damn nice. I recognize men at the next table as being Saints and Sinners participants, but I can't remember their names, so I don't chat with them. Time for that when I’m working. For now, I’m on vacation.

We take our time strolling back towards our hotel. There are no go-go boys dancing at Oz, the sidewalks are passable, and even though it's well after eleven by now, the quarter still seems as if it's holding it's breath for something before it starts. Bourbon Street always reeks of beer and piss and puke - the stink of tourists- but the smell is almost subdued tonight. We go to the Preservation Hall for a set of jazz. I slump down a bit in my seat and close my eyes and nod to a bluesy progression from a saxophone. I exhale cigarette smoke towards the ceiling fan. I sip a vodka martini, icy and perfect against the lingering heat of the day. I let the music and the alcohol and the night work their way into my blood until the cadence of life around me makes prefect sense. It no longer feels as if anything is waiting. Everything is go, go, go. This is a nighttime kind of city, and the night is just getting under way. And now I'm smiling, content like a Jackson Square cat.

That's what it's like to be in NO right now.

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