Post written by Nick Skilton
It’s a weird thing to fall in love with a place, but that is what has happened. I have fallen in love with New Orleans. What does that mean exactly? Is it the way that a place makes you feel? Is it the people you connect with that give life to the place? Is it the opportunity that a place represents? Is this a ‘gut feeling’? There is obviously no one answer to that question. It is likely a combination of those things, and many more included. Trying to articulate the connections, opportunities, and gut feelings associated with loving a place in any meaningful kind of way, especially a place as chaotic as New Orleans, is part of the same impossible tragedy as describing any other kind of love (and better writers than me have failed at describing love). I’m not even the first writer from AUSCCER this month to make an attempt to uncover the words that will describe the ‘rawness’ and the ‘mesmerising’ engagement with this place. What this is then is an oratory, an attempt to tell New Orleans what made it so impressive, so beautiful, and so compelling.
We have just met. It is late in April. American springtime. You greet me on my first evening with an intense downpour that completely blankets the city, sending water surging through the streets. Enough water to flood the local rivers. Enough water that my friends camping 100km away on a river beach woke up in their tent in the middle of the night, thinking they were on a waterbed, but were actually out in the middle of a river about to be swept away. It was as if you had to announce your presence. Just to let me know that you could, if you wanted, make my trip difficult and unmanageable. But then, as if to say, “you’ve seen my fury, now witness my benevolence”, you rained sunshine down upon me and showed me your colours.
For you are a place of colour and sound. Beads, the glittering reminder (remainder?) of the anarchy of Mardi Gras, litter your roads, crushed and broken but still colourful. Often they adorn your houses, fence palings, sculptures, road signs. In fact, they enliven almost anything that has hanging potential. Individually they seem tacky, but en masse they seem frolicsome, industriously so, as if your whole inhabiting population is willing to rally behind the cause of creating the popular image of you as a carnival town. Flags can be seen everywhere, the emblematic pelican and fleur de lis prominent, but all manner of other strange and nonsensically descriptive standards catch the breeze and my curious eye. Your decayed suburban streets, more pothole than bitumen, add to a sense of lawlessness and chaos. Lining your decayed streets are further decaying houses, remnants of a hurricane that tore through Louisiana in 2005, breaking your levy’s and gutting your houses. Residents left, never to be seen again. Opportunistic squatters moved in, paying the back taxes, renovating, repairing, living. Possession is nine tenths ownership as they say.
You are a town that loves a good hustle, and it seems everyone has got one. Oogles huddle with their dogs on the streets of the French Quarter, panhandling for change, yelling at passersby. Street performers, small businesses, the latino guy in the toilet at the club opening the stall door for me, trying to give me handwash for a small tip. Musicians of all types, busking for dollars and dimes, fill your streets with sound, so much so that it almost seems naturally invested in the landscape. Whether it be the lone tuba player making his way through the French Quarter on the way to a Wednesday afternoon busking gig, some jazz emptying out into the street from any (every) bar, or a good ol’ fashioned NOLA neighbourhood BBQ with pounding bounce music, music is part of the inescapable essence of you.
You demand hospitality, and people are happy to oblige. A sweet and simple well-meant “hello” or “how y’all doin?” are the standing convention for everyone you pass on suburban streets. Southern hospitality is real. I already miss it. It felt like community. It was part of my reaction to you as a place. You made me feel welcome. You invited intimacy in a place where I should have felt awkward and potentially dangerously out of place. There’s some places where you don’t want to wear western wear and cowboy hats, and the backstreets of St Roch might be one of those places. But after learning your conventions, I didn’t feel threatened at all.
The strangest part is that I have spent so much time recently thinking about intimacy and love between people that I almost forgot that you can fall in love with a place, with you, New Orleans. You gave me a Sunday dawn parade for Easter that we stayed up all night for, readying ourselves with glitter and kimonos to ‘second line’ ourselves through the streets of the French Quarter to calypso and accordion music, drinking and smoking and dancing and carousing and weaving and meandering through backstreets seemingly at random.
You gave me a rap cypher on top of a rockpile in an empty lot next to the train line, the local late night hangout for punx of all kinds. You gave me a punk gig in a giant house with expansive outside scaffolding (including spiral staircase) and overhead gangways, ever growing, on the same night as a punx playing country and western covers in a truckstop bar on the outskirts of town.
You gave me a queer country club filled with naked people drinking, eating and smoking in a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, that I was loathe to leave but forced to do so due to impending flight home. But I think the best experiences you gave me, the ones I will cherish the most, and the ones connected to feeling intimate with a place, were situated in my friend’s backyard. Meeting other friends and dogs and bikes and bottles as they all dropped in and out, waiting to see what would happen next. A cake party for a dog? Sure. Crawfish boil? Sure. Plans for a bike mission to elsewhere? Sure. I’m not sure what this says about you exactly, except that it didn’t take much to fall in love with you.
You are a magical place, but also a community of people. And I think even when people saw how strange and awkward and uncomfortable I was, despite all the shit they were dealing with in their own lives, they made we welcome. When you get together and share the love you have for community, place and each other (and I’m deliberately ignoring your negative impacts, such as racial problems, poverty, etc.), you get something that is supportive, creative, a true melting pot of ideas, a bed to be hungover in, a dog to cuddle, a friend to commiserate with, a neighbourhood to say hi to, and a city that felt to me like it would keep me whole if only I could learn not to get carried away with it. But that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Never mind, I <3 New Orleans.
Nick Skilton is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. You can follow him on Twitter @NickSkilton. His last post was Looking for the Heart in America.