Friday, September 09, 2005

Memories of The Big Easy

All of my memories of New Orleans are good ones. Seeing the city now is painful; sad. Like watching the final, awful days of a close friend. If, as it seems likely to be, the old New Orleans is gone I'd rather remember her as she was. I'd rather remember the good times.

I traveled all around the South on business for several years and I was always glad when I could schedule a trip to New Orleans. Despite growing up in Florida and doing a fair bit of traveling as a child and young adult I had never made my way there until around 1993. I'd read the history of the place, seen pictures and knew the names of the famous streets and areas of the city. I'd heard the jazz and the blues. But as I found out on my first visit, I didn't know New Orleans; it's not a place you can learn about from a distance. You have to experience it, you have to breathe it in.

There is no heat like the damp, sweltering heat of the delta in July. It weighs down the air so that it's hard to breath, it slows everything down as though the atmosphere were more water than air. Even early in the morning when the city and all of its revellers are mostly still asleep, the heat can be oppressive. But somehow, even in that heat, the smell of hot coffee and deep fried beignets always drew me to the green and white awnings of Cafe du Monde. With my tie loosened and my coat left in the car, I'd make my way down towards the river, rolling up my sleeves as I walked, for the coffee, dark as bayou mud and earthy with the taste of roasted chicory and the donuts, hot out of the oil, piled on a too small plate and dusted with powdered sugar. As I sat down with my treasures and unfolded my paper - the now famous, but then unknown, Times-Picayune - New Orleans would slowly come to life around me.

It may seem cliche, but it's true that there is always music in New Orleans. No matter how early I managed to sit down by the black, wrought iron railing surrounding the Cafe du Monde, I never managed to beat the first street musician. Usually it was some old, weather-beaten guy with a saxophone softly blowing the blues like the breeze off the Mississippi. But sometimes it was a young kid with a couple of old plastic painters buckets and a pair of drumsticks beating out a more modern tattoo. Other times it was a guitar or a trumpet. Sometimes they were near enough to watch the first beads of sweat trickle down their faces and sometimes I could only catch the faint strains of a song just out of reach like the memory of a dream from the night before.

I have been down Bourbon Street and through its bars and restaurants many times. I've been to some of the famous places and to some nobody's ever heard of. I never got the chance to be there for Mardi Gras and now I wonder if there will ever be another Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I've drunk Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and now I wonder if they'll ever serve another one. I've eaten several kinds of etouffee but the kind made with crawfish - mud bugs to the locals - will always be my favorite. I've watched the freighters moving slowly up the river channel while standing at the bottom of a levee, my mind boggling at the sight of giant ships seeming to fly overhead.

These memories are all part of my New Orleans. But my favorite memories, the ones I always tell to anyone who asks whether I've been there, are all about starting my day in that little bit of shade under a green and white awning between the Mississippi and Jackson Square. I remember best the Big Easy waking up with me as I drank my coffee and watched her people starting another day in their wonderful city.


I hope that when the city is dry again but before they start the rebuilding they let one of the old funeral bands march down the center of the French Quarter, moving in their slow, stilted gait. And I hope they blow one of the old, sad songs... once more for old New Orleans.

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