So I went to New Orleans last weekend and did a little research for the new book.
What can I tell you about my trip? Well, first of all, New Orleans is a completely different town when you are not 21 and drunk. (I spent my 21st birthday puking in a parking lot there, so I know of whence I speak.) On the plus side, I did not smell of vomit or wrap my arm around a friend and say things like, “You’re the besht person in the whole worrrrrld. I LOVE YOU, MAN!!!” I did not announce to strangers that after eating Chinese food, I could fart half the alphabet. I did not have to sit in a smoky bar squinting and sucking in the sides of my terminally Girl Scout-looking cheeks in an attempt to look exotic and mysterious when really, I only ended up looking constipated and nearsighted. I did not put on a faux accent and tell guys I was British/Polish/Yugoslavian/French/Polynesian(a real stretch for anyone who has ever seen me) and that I had come to New Orleans for flight school/to be reunited with my deported family/to have a rare and best-not-discussed surgery/to make a movie/to join the CIA. I did not introduce myself to anyone as Johnny Cat or Savannah Georgia. I did not drink beer and try to throw darts like last time. But I’m sure that bartender has recovered by now.
No, being no longer 21 and drunk is a good thing but makes N.O. a strange city to visit. For one thing, you notice everything: the severe poverty. The seediness, which I found fascinating once but this time mostly depressed me. The busloads of people in polyester going to the casinos. The tiny, dilapidated shacks sandwiched between refurbished law offices. The endless parade of people with name tags who were there for one convention or another. The echoes of the younger me–19 and wandering the French Quarter, trying chicory coffee for the first time before starting a new life in Austin. The 21-year-old me having a birthday and leading a jazz band out onto Bourbon Street while waving an umbrella. The 23-year-old me driving with my friend Laurie from Austin to New Orleans while listening to the Jim Carroll Band’s “All My Friends Who Died” and singing at the top of our lungs; the two of us visiting our friend Mary at Tulane and going dancing. I’m not that girl anymore and that’s okay. I just would have liked to have had coffee with her. I think I was aware of what falls away on the path to making a life. That’s all.
There were things I loved. I loved taking the Canal Street cable car all the way out to the cemetaries and walking around in them. I found a gravestone that read: Mary E. Bray, same initials as my name. Well, my full Southern name. It was fascinating and a little sad, these decaying gravestones bearing the names of the dead and the sentiments of the living–our beloved son; our darling babies–on one side and the buzzing, whizzing cars zooming down the interstate on the other. I loved going shopping on Magazine Street and trying on expensive, 1940’s-style dresses in a shop called Trashy Diva. I loved hanging out with my friend Cheryl and ordering room service and putting on makeup and cute shoes. I loved the food, of course, though I was hampered by my recent allergy to shellfish. (Man, did I want a shrimp Po Boy.) I loved going to hear an amazing jazz-funk band at The Funky Butt, even if the saxophonist brought his mom and I realized with great alarm that I was only a few years younger than she was. Wow. When did THAT happen? And there was this cool Walgreens on Canal that looked like it had been lifted from an Edward Hopper painting. I also loved going for a burger at a total greasy spoon dive with a counter and three tables. There was a college girl puking out front and a schizophrenic with a Tom Waits voice and four teeth who came over to “talk” to me. But I guess I wasn’t his type after all because he went to sit with a friend at the counter and drink coffee.
I think my favorite part may have been coming back from the cemetary. I was sitting on the cable car, watching the people get on and off–the tourists, the college kid with the bike, the working people heading home, the young family, the military dad with his four-year-old daughter, the drunk lady who tried to flirt with the driver–and wondering about their lives. I was watching the scenery roll past: a high school advertising a “decency and order” dance, a McDonalds, the law offices, the shacks, the gas stations and used car lots, the shabbiness and decay that reminded me of a Tennessee Williams play, the attempts at gentrification that weren’t really taking and for that I kind of had to admire that defiant old lady of a city. Anyway, I was listening to my iPod to Simon & Garfunkel singing “America” which is my favorite song to listen to when I feel I am “other.” That I don’t quite belong anywhere and I’m sort of exquisitely sad about it–exquisite because, truth be told, there is something I like about that feeling. It’s like pushing on a loose tooth with your tongue till it pulls, till you feel pain. So you let it alone but eventually you go right back to pushing it because you need to feel it. It was just me and all these people and this city and Paul Simon singing, “Cathy I’m lost I said/Though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…”
So that was New Orleans.
The flight home went through Chicago and was turbulent the whole way, and since I’m one of those people who believes there should be a complimentary valium drip on all flights over forty-five minutes long, I was seriously white-knuckling it. Getting away is always good for the writing, though, I find. It’s like you come home with new eyes. I got the research stuff I needed and all in all, it felt like I’d turned over a blank page in my mind. Now all I have to do is fill it.