I sat by a small man all the way to New Orleans from Meridian, MS. This small man, no taller than 3 feet proceeded to get drunk and call me sweet-pea and baby. Across the row from me was a young man of 24 riding down from Charlotte, NC to Picayune, LA to get his immunizations for the US Army. He listened to his iPod while working on the computer — stir crazy from being on the train for 16 hours. He told me that he was a master marksman, that he engineered explosives, that he worked for Hospice at one point, and that he is soon to depart for Afghanistan to guard a 4-star Sargent. Next to him, a young boy talked to his friend on the cell phone about the ‘coon he had caught. He prompted his friend over and over to keep it trapped so that he could ‘get a good look at it.’
So begins my journey to New Orleans this past weekend.
As we bumped along the tracks, I thought back to the times my family visited my grandmother’s house in Arabi, LA which is a suburb of New Orleans. My sister and I would buy a snow cone across the street and head down to the old train tracks a few blocks over to play. We would spend hours jumping onto tattered train carts and then jumping off onto the course stones along the tracks. I would spend hours slowly turning the stones, thinking I would find fools gold or a rare fossil.
Soon, the train arrived in New Orleans and I hopped into a cab. Unfortunately, I did not put together that New Orleans was going to be writhing that weekend; the Superbowl party was happening in New Orleans, folks AND Mardi Gras was one week away. …AND, my friend I was on my way to visit lived in the French Quarter — where y’at?
The cab was stuffed with one more person and we were on our way. After the cab driver cleared where I wanted to go, he asked the other man where he wanted to go. The man said that he needed a hotel and that he’d like to go ‘where there are lots of girls.’
This man started to ask me questions in what seemed like a German accent that had been schooled in British English…he asked how long I’d be in New Orleans, where I’m going, and such. I answered what I wanted to and stayed blunt. I looked at him for a second, and realized that he looked white and pasty — like a ghost…his skin hanging a bit around his face like it wanted to melt, drop onto the cab floor.
Luckily, it took us no time to reach the Quarter. I gladly stepped out and started soaking in the charming streets that make up this neighborhood. The cobbled streets, French architecture, flames flickering by doorways, and the rumble of brass music coaxed me into my arrival.
I walked a short distance to my friend’s house. She’s an old friend of mine from San Francisco — Hillary. She and I met through the Permaculture community. We had some fun times. We created an herb spiral garden at a low-income housing development, we inoculated logs with reishi mushrooms at a public hospital, and we attempted to begin our own design business. Hillary, a native of Los Angeles moved to New Orleans right after Katrina. She went down for relief work and then relocated there to start up a non-profit that focused on bioremediation in the Ninth Ward. Although, her non-profit is currently not operating any longer, she is tinkering with some new ideas on how to channel the momentum that was created with her first non-profit. I can’t say much about it right now, but it has to do with the Mississippi River watershed which covers almost 3/4 of the US. Hillary is interested in fly-ways, bird conservation, and watershed restoration (as bird migration and the flow of water have a relationship).
Looking at the map, you can see how much territory the watershed covers. It seems as though the last feeder to the Mississippi River is right under Natchez, MS. And, standing by the river in New Orleans, it is easy to see (and feel!) the enormous volume of water moving through and the intensity of the current. I wonder if all the states along this watershed realize that what they do with their land and their waste ends up passing through New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico. Due to all the pollutants and chemicals being used in our American lifestyle, there is now a significant Dead Zone around Louisiana and neighboring states:
I’m starting off this blog a bit tart, but lots of stuff has been coming up for me around New Orleans. There are so many metaphors around this city — Conservative Southerners blowing it out in the Big Easy (don’t ask, don’t tell); lack of responsibility and foresight upriver leading to gulf devastation downriver; the more you show your boobs, the more worthless, giant, plastic beads you get; and so on and so forth. I suppose this sour taste in my mouth is arising because I was raised for about four years in New Orleans and have visited it off and on as I have gotten older. However, I’ve never really looked at the city critically. I enjoyed lots of the stereotypical things there over the years — partying on Bourbon, yelling for beads, and such… However, I’ve never had the opportunity to really question the place — I’ve always just accepted it because when I lived there as a kid or visited my grandmother there — the place seemed larger than life. This trip allowed me the chance to take some steps back from my habituated response to it and see the place for what it is, not what I wanted it to be (or, what it was convincing me it was).
Anyway, back to the story…
I knocked on her door and was greeted by Hillary’s adorable, pit bull puppy. She actually found him abandoned on the streets in the Quarter. And, considering the bad rap that pit bulls get, it doesn’t surprise me that someone would want to get him off their hands. However, I must say — I have never wanted a dog (ok, maybe once) — but, this sweet pit bull (named ‘Cornbread’) was the gentlest, most responsive, adorable, and playful dog I’ve ever been around. I’m converted — I love pit bulls. There — I said it.
Me, Hillary, Cornbread, and Hillary’s fiancee, Wylie hung out and caught up. I brought some Scuppernong wine that my cousin’s father had made in Louisville, MS. It was a hit. No — really… The cork flew off the bottle and made a dent in their kitchen ceiling (and folks, you know ceilings in New Orleans are way up there). It was hilarious! I started laughing and said that they’d never forget my visit!
That night we went to the Dragon’s Den off of Frenchmen Street. We went to hear a good brass band. Unfortunately, I forgot that not all states have banned indoor smoking like California has (although Mississippi did recently!). So, the place was a bit smokey and I had to dodge cigarettes and cigars a bit. But, it was good to hear good ole dixieland funky jazz and get my groove on.
The next morning, we caught breakfast at Surry’s. I’ll have to say it was the first time I combined french toast with a shot of wheatgrass. The place was packed and the wait was a bit long, but it was worth it. After Surry’s, I asked them if they would mind helping me find my great grandmother’s house. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had this book of poetry that was my great grandmother’s — Christine Emmunds. I think she was born about 1911 in New Orleans. Her address was 438 Saroparu. I asked some folks at the cafe if they had ever heard of it — the first guy squinted and said that he thought he had seen it off of Tchopatoulis Street. So, we got in the car and headed down Tchopatoulis and soon enough we found it.
Tchopatoulis runs right down the river. And, considering that Christine’s father was a stevedore, it made sense that they lived by the water. We pulled up and found the numbers on either side of 438, but not 438 itself. It seemed to be a low-income neighborhood. Here are the houses that were on either side (the one on the left and then the right). Her house must of been destroyed by a storm, demolished at some point, or maybe burned down.
My great grandmother’s poetry must have been written when she was a teenager. They are all love poems and sing of puberty. Most of them are short short with quick and witty rhyming schemes. One of her longer poems called ‘Lover’s Lane St. Jo’, I have turned into a song. It’s actually one of my favorite songs to sing. And, off of Tchopatoulis, there is a St. Joseph’s Street (more toward the Quarter) — however, I don’t know if this is the lover’s lane she is talking about.
My father’s family actually goes back pretty far in New Orleans. The list of occupations in my family range from Seltzer Truck Driver to Cotton Textile Worker to bar tender — and my favorite (my grandfather), trombone player on Bourbon Street. My father recently told me that my grandfather played for a well-known cabaret dancer named Stormy. In the hot link I just provided for Stormy, she is quoted saying, “Anything you do–no matter what it is–if you do it well enough, can be lifted to an art.” And, that is what my father said when he told me about my grandfather’s work. He said, “cabaret dancing is not like today’s stripper. Cabaret dancing was an art.” My father got his trombone skills from my grandfather and carried on that talent. For a short while dad played with a group called ‘Teddy and the Foot-warmers”. He also played for the New Orleans Saints’ football team and played at their first game. However, most of his life, he played for the US Presidential Marine Band (until he retired).
Next on the itinerary was to go see the old growth oaks. I was inspired again by the old growth oaks of the South while living at my old place in San Francisco. My roommate, Anna, had a book that her father left her as he had passed away. The book was put together by a photographer that was in love with the last of the old growth oak’s in the South. They are all mainly located around the Gulf. The photographs are paired with Rumi poems bringing out the resonance and wisdom of beauty that evolves slowly over time — the only way an oak will grow.
While reading the book, I was taken back to my childhood in New Orleans. My mom would put me and my sister on our bikes every once in awhile so that we could make our way to Audobon Park where many of these trees still stand. They have heavy, thick, draping branches that provided hours of entertainment for us. We crawled along their curvy branches and sometimes took naps.
So, we set out to find New Orleans’ Tree of Life. Supposedly, this tree was planted 200 years ago for the wedding of Mayor Jean Etienne de Bore. Here it stands, huge, gnarly and hauntingly persistent in its growth, Spanish moss like Summer ice cycles…
It is clear that groves of trees have served as sacred places for centuries. It is said that my European ancestors would sit in a grove of oaks, for example, to make decisions. It was believed that the group of people gathered there would make the right decision because the wisdom of the old growth oaks was there to guide the consciousness of the group. I am sure the groups that gathered in the company of oaks understood the importance and relevance of a slowly evolving environment and its ability to support life’s diversity. Also, Native Americans in the U.S. had an elaborate system of caring for oak trees as they subsisted on them heavily. Most of Yosemite National Park, for example, was a highly managed and interacted with area, booming with large oak stands — very different from the preserved park that you see today.
And, as Michael Pollen writes in Botany of Desire about the oak tree, this highly productive, fruiting tree has never been able to be domesticated. It can only be managed in the wild. There is a lovely tenacity about this tree — it’s ability to maintain its wildness at all times.
After our visit with the oak trees, my friends dropped me off at Wild Lotus, a yoga studio. I hadn’t been able to participate in a yoga class since the holidays (that’s when I arrived in the South) and I was hungry for a community to practice yoga with. And, the hunch that I would get away from the Superbowl hype by ducking into the yoga studio turned out to be way off. The yoga instructor requested that we have a restorative practice to recover from the stress of Superbowl. Really!? At least it turned out to be a good class. Thankfully, she didn’t bark ‘who dat’ at us when we were in downward facing dog. I think I would have had to draw the line there.
It was getting close to dinner-time after the yoga class. We decided on a place to eat and started making our way. First, I spotted a very important advertisement sign as we were turning around:
Ok, it’s hard to see the sign. But, I tried! The sign shows a paintbrush painting a rainbow trail across it. Ring any bells? The sign read ‘Zeitoun Painting and Construction’. Ok, any bells yet? I was SO excited to see this sign! This is the very Zeitoun character that Dave Eggers wrote about in his book Zeitoun. I shouted for them to stop the car so that I could take this picture. And, my friends looked at me like I had lost it. Wylie said, ‘yeah, I see these signs all over the city’ to relay that he did not get the significance of this simple, sign. As I popped my low-tech camera phone out and snapped away, I told them about the Zeitoun character, Eggers’ work, and my relationship to this whole sha-bang.
I worked at the Arab Cultural and Community Center as a Fund Developer my last year in San Francisco (while teaching yoga and such). While working there, my friend Marwa put together an Arab writer’s round-table. She had invited a cartoonist and a fiction writer and was looking for a moderator. I suggested Eggers because he was a local writer and creator of a youth writer’s organization. I didn’t realize that he had just written a book about an Arab-American (Zeitoun) in post-Katrina New Orleans. Eggers agrees to come the center (go Marwa!) and the round-table was a great success. Not only did we get our ‘regulars’ at the Arab Center, but we drew in a entirely new crowd to the space — an important thing to do in this day and age when the Arab culture is constantly under attack. And, I was seriously impressed with Eggers as he stayed later than any of the authors and continued to talk in the most sincere way to each person that approached him.
To carry on the Arab theme, we ate at a Mediterranean spot off of Frenchmen later that evening. It was super yummy and the waiter was impressed that I could pronounce zaatar correctly. I told him that my old roommate was from Palestine and that she gave me zaatar once and I was hooked! She taught me how to pronounce important words like zaatar, falafel, and hummus. I didn’t realize how off I was in pronunciation until I was schooled by my friend Danna. And, even though it wasn’t on the menu, the waiter thankfully told us that some fresh Kanafe was being prepared. Yum!
We headed in early that night. However, looking back, it would have been smarter to do something. The streets in the Quarter were raging until about 3 or 4 am. And, I heard some of the dumbest conversations all night, interlaced with ‘who dat’ shouting matches every now and then.
The next morning, I walked the Quarter with Hillary and then took off for a solo walk. I chewed on the bits of history that Hillary dropped every now and then in our conversations: Congo Square, the Mardi Gras Indians, and New Orleans’ patron Saint, Joan of Arc. I pondered on the aftermath of Katrina, the development of the first US suburb due to white-flight (Metarie, LA), and the rich natural heritage of the wetlands.
My walk-slash-contemplation came to a screeching halt when I figured out that the Quarter was contained by two parades (one of them being the dog parade, Barkus); that it would take forever to navigate my way out of the labyrinth to the train station. I literally started running to my friend’s house, hugged her goodbye (bye Cornbread!), grabbed my bags, and hauled boody to the nearest street with actual, moving traffic. Luckily, a taxi driver saw me and told me to get in. He pulled across 4-lanes of traffic to make a left (he called this Mardi Gras driving) and got me to the train station on time.
Soon, I was back on the train. I passed through the swamps — flocks of brilliant, white egrets literally everywhere. Goodbye, New Orleans. My wish is that one day you won’t have to make your money by letting binge-drinkers come in to piss and vomit all over your lovely, haunting streets.
Look, I know that people have to work out stuff by socializing and such — I am no foreigner to this — we just need a more sacred way of being with our booze. The book that has impacted me most with my reeducation of alcohol is Stephen Buhner’s book Sacred Healing and Herbal Beers. This book highlights that we (meaning everyone across every continent) have always gathered around fermented drinks — it is an old practice. However, many of our drinks (read: hard liquor) are pasteurized and distilled, removing the good enzymes and live yeasts, and removing the liquid too far from it’s plant matrix. And, we have lost the healthy cultural context of drinking (especially places in the South where prohibition still has left its mark). This has impacted our health and impacted our ability to REMEMBER the sacred relationship we once had with ales and wines.
But, that is another topic for another blog…