New Orleans, Part 1

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I was looking for New Orleans. After two days in the city, I was itching to find it. It being an undefinable something I hadn’t yet discovered, but that I would soon recognize as being quantifiably New Orleans. Maybe I was looking for the heart of the city. Or its soul.

But that it can’t be forced. Truth be told, I don’t think it really exists.

The problem is that I was looking for my idea of the city: a fictional amalgamation of various incarnations of the Big Easy pulled from books and movies, music and stories, even visits to Disneyland. I was looking now for a New Orleans that no longer existed and would never exist, a romantic vision that mingled the most haunting and historic aspects of its past with the most poetic and glimmering hopes of what it could be.

As a visitor, I nonetheless didn’t want to be a tourist. As a stranger, I nonetheless wanted this city to be familiar.

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Whatever I was looking for wasn’t in the drunken bustle and hooting on Bourbon Street. It wasn’t in the hemmed-in stretch of water that I belatedly realized was The River. It wasn’t in the unshaven beggars and tipsy street artists, the bands competing for ambient dominance on every block in the French Quarter, the slick nods to voodoo and ghosts and vampires in every corner shop selling suggestive T-shirts and factory-produced Mardi Gras masks.

I didn’t want the New Orleans everyone else got. I wanted my own, private New Orleans—one that met my lofty expectations and revealed to me the secrets it knew I was looking for, even if I didn’t know what they were.

I wanted, I suppose, to be welcomed into a family that had been waiting for me to return to a home I’d never lived in, to feed me with authentic, generation-spanning crawfish-and-catfish recipes, to speak to me with a Creole patois and pull back a beaded curtain to reveal—aha, yes—the New Orleans I’d built in my mind.

My search was, of course, both naively selfish and obviously fruitless. I think we all do this when we travel—if we travel—though we do it to varying degrees. We search for the Hollywood sign in the redwood forests of Northern California. We look for smoky, starlit French cafés in the middle of a Parisian traffic jam.

I do, anyway.

I imagine wandering alone or with my wife along otherwise deserted stretches of parks, museum corridors and galleries, famous and photogenic thoroughfares, architectural marvels and monuments—and then bristle at everyone else doing the same. As author Bill Buford wrote, “The crowd is not us. It never is.”

When I arrive, I complain that I can’t see the city for the tour buses and tacky merchandise and people. Really, I can’t see the city for my own expectations.

And when I realized that—remembered it, really—I was able to find the New Orleans that was there: the solid, welcoming, real New Orleans with wet sidewalks and commercialized mystique. It.

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All history is manufactured, and it’s still being churned out today. Marie Laveau’s tomb. The graffiti on Marie Laveau’s tomb. The historical society member/tour guide lamenting the graffiti, the attempts to remove the graffiti, the attempts to repair the damage made by the attempts to remove the graffiti.

One night, my wife and I ate at an obviously modern restaurant set up in a building erected in the 1780s. We bought locally made pecan praelines that were individually wrapped in plastic and packaged for shipment anywhere in the United States. At another restaurant, we asked about the property’s history, only to learn that our apologetic New York waitress had only been in town for a couple of months and had no idea as to its past. “I think a princess lived here?” she ventured. We sipped absinthe in a pirate-themed bar, where we pushed two chairs next to a gas fireplace and ignored the ATM against my wife’s back. Next door was a bookstore set up in the space where William Faulkner worked on his first published novel. Election-day paraphernalia for a local office littered the streets. Emergency-vehicle sirens split the night in numbers the likes of which I’ve never previously heard.

I had expected a city preserved like a dragonfly in amber. But despite all my looking down for what was crystallized and unchanging, I was fortunate to catch a quick glimpse of iridescent blue-green wings lifting into the muggy Southern air. To catch a quick glimpse of New Orleans.

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Memory Week: Snow Day

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We found a snowman.

Most of one, anyway.

I took a whole week off of work this season to celebrate Christmas (and the days before and after) with family who live five hours away. On the Friday after Christmas, all five members of my family—plus my parents and my wife’s mom—met up about an hour north of where we were staying. We were in search of snow. My parents had driven the route a couple of days before and had spotted some of the white stuff on the side of the road.

My kids had never seen real snow. Not really. There were a few patches of it, like a beard trying to grow on a 14-year-old’s face, on the ground at a cabin we went to one Thanksgiving when my firstborn was 2 years old, but that didn’t really count. It was more like samples of snow someone set out to see how the whole place would look covered in the stuff before they committed.

Snow has fallen only in books and on TV for my children. It has been captured not on tongues, but in photos and illustrations. My 6-year-old’s dream destination is Chicago because she saw a postcard of it once, and there was snow in the picture. The city has since become this mythical, icy wonderland in her imagination. It’s literally at the top of her list of places to visit, beating out Hawaii and Paris.

I’ve been to Paris, and I had an extended layover in Chicago once. Paris is prettier, but Chicago is certainly cheaper when it comes to surprising her with a trip some day. Maybe for a graduation present.

Anyway, when we arrived at this little gas station/diner blip on the map, we found my parents waiting at a small field of what technically was snow. It wasn’t really white, as so many muddy boots had tromped it over the last several days, and the melting/refreezing cycle had made it pretty gray and hard.

“This isn’t what I was expecting,” my firstborn said.

But my parents soon produced a plastic saucer they’d bought on the way in, and we found a hill that seemed like it would offer a fair run. All it took was one successful slide, and the 6-year-old was hooked.

We took turns rushing down the hill one at a time, two at a time, and even three at a time. And after a while, we walked a little ways to find a swath of untrammeled, powdery snow, perfect for scooping into snowballs and crunching around in. That’s where we also found two-thirds of a snowman, with the topmost third—its head—a lump some distance away.

We took pictures of the kids clambering around on its torso, and we joked that the photos would make it look like we’d been building the snowman. Only later did I realize that, years from now, perhaps my kids wouldn’t be able to recall that they’d just found this snowman. Perhaps, like my daughter’s initial disappointment forgotten as soon as she felt the wind on her face on a downhill run, or like Chicago growing from a generic postcard to a frosty wonderland on par with Santa’s North Pole, the rest of the snow trip would change to become something new in my kids’ minds.

The moment was so magical—the sort you hope for when you set out on an excursion like we did—it has the makings of one of those early childhood memories that flickers at the margins of solid recollections later in life. At least I hope it does. I don’t know what my children will ultimately remember about their first years in our household. I don’t know if they’ll look back and treasure the same moments I do: the bedtime stories read on our patio, breath streaming into the chill night air, everything but our faces tucked under layers of blankets, the book visible only by the light of the electric Christmas tree standing above us; the impromptu family-room-floor picnics; the trip to the aquarium to see sharks and otters through a transparent wall, a whole alien world just a few feet away; staying up far later than any of our bedtimes to watch the summer Olympics each night; the made-up stories; the wrestling matches; the sing-alongs.

Maybe all of these things are registering. Or maybe I’ll be surprised to learn that their prized memories are things I don’t recall: drawings I forgot I scribbled, but that meant something to them; casual, unthinking gestures of everyday activity with greater impact than I realize; a particular time of getting tucked in or visiting the pool or cooking a breakfast.

I hope they remember all of it. And I hope Chicago is everything my girl believes it is.