“But during all these years I had a vague but persistent desire to return to New Orleans. I never forgot New Orleans. And when we were in tropical places and places of those flowers and trees that grow in Louisiana, I would think of it acutely and I would feel for my home the only glimmer of desire I felt for anything outside my endless pursuit of art.”
― Anne Rice, Interview With The Vampire
I came back from New Orleans about three weeks ago – and yet every time I try to put my impressions into words, I only face my own inadequacy, and the fact that no words or pictures will ever do justice to the city, to the magic, to the impressions, feelings, energy, all the rain and the sun and the freedom and the random conversations – but above all to my own expectations of it, and how it met and eclipsed them all…
New Orleans. Free home of lost souls. The city of vagabonds, eccentrics, ghosts, the city of magic, Mardi Gras, the Mississippi river, Interview with the Vampire, from Desire to Cemeteries to Elysian Fields, voodoo, Angel Heart, alligator meat, southern opulence, the jazz age…
I first learned about it from a comic book my mother got for me when visiting a conference in Prague in early 1980s. It was a Czech comic book. Called “Carnival in New Orleans”. I saw drawings of steamboats and the mighty Mississippi, and wild crowds on ornate balconies, all the revelry and food and beautiful costumes – and I would say “Ah! I want to go to New Orleans for the carnival!” Yeah, right. It was 1983, Soviet Union, and my mother had to wait 6 months just to be allowed to go to Japan for a scientific conference – after some 3 interviews with the KGB.
Then there was Mark Twain. All the stories of the Mississippi again, and you haven’t seen the United States until you have seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans, he wrote – but that was not all that had captured my heart. I was 8, and stumbled upon Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Twain considered it to be his best and most important work. He wrote: “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well”. And while this sentiment may be lost on most of his readers (like, seriously, have you read the book??), it was certainly not lost on me. I was… enthralled. I read and re-read it. I started praying. I knew I had to be a Catholic one day. I would sneak into a church whenever I could, and that was not often in my atheist and very controlling upbringing. But Joan of Arc stayed with me. The Maid of Orleans. When I did become Catholic, I chose her to be my patron saint.
The jazz age, art deco and cabaret was another thing that fascinated me all my life. Many a time did I have to write an essay or a presentation on the era where I would most have liked to live – and of course I would speak of the 1920s. Jazz and dance and all the Great Gatsby-like parties.
I watched Angel Heart at the age of 11, and that was probably my first – and quite a scary one – impression of New Orleans in film, but definitely not the last. It seems that whenever someone wanted to make a film about unusual, weird, supernatural or otherwise abnormal events the setting had to be in Louisiana. And every now and then, I would exclaim – oh, how I wish I could go to New Orleans!
Eventually, my own life had become a cabaret. By choice, I would say, rather than necessity. I wanted to taste and to touch, and to feel as much as a man can – before he repents. I played with the fire, and in the end – the fire played with me.
And I was sitting in Jerusalem, on Christmas eve, paradoxically, with a Jewish group, listening to a Dixieland band – and couldn’t contain it any longer. “All my life I have wanted to go to New Orleans! Three years ago I cancelled a trip to New York and chose to go to Israel instead – but even then, the only place I could think about was New Orleans. Why, I have to go!” Go, they told me, go, you’ll love it! And I got home, and checked the tickets, and booked everything within a week. Jerusalem – always brings out the real you…
My trip began not as a trip of a lifetime was meant to begin, however. I hadn’t packed properly and meant to do it in the morning. But oh the unforgettable fire that finally burned me. My crazy love story that came into being because of that cancelled trip to New York, had come to an end the night before I finally left for – New York, and, ultimately, New Orleans. “If I die and never see you again I want you to remember me as the woman who had feelings for you,” I said. But oh the irony.
I came to New Orleans trying to focus and take my life at 30 minute intervals. Haphazardly packed. Never checked for events and places to see, forgot my notes on the city and the assignment I was supposed to finish. Mostly indifferent to life. Oddly enough, not jet-lagged at all. Hey, focus, I would say to myself. This is the moment you have been waiting for for 30 years. America. New Orleans. And then I would slip again into teary-eyed indifference, trying to breathe and failing. It was cold and gloomy, but it was New Orleans all right. I asked the information desk about a bus downtown – they asked me in return if I had small change and sent me to a bank upstairs. I said I needed to get off at South Lopez. Oh, you’re going to India House. Aha, I said, amazed. So you know everything, huh. You need to change to a streetcar, they said. A man came to a bus stop and advised me on a better route, without changing, while having explained to me the peculiarities of the local weather and the best of local food, as well as pretty much telling me the story of his whole life. I began thinking I might actually live through this.
And then I got off in the middle of nowhere and walked into a local store to ask for directions, and someone from across the street waved at me and said, “cold, huh?”, “f*** freezing!”. As I scurried past one-storey wooden houses in all the faded colours of the rainbow and dragged my suitcase on the cracked pavement in this infernal chill that pierced through the bones (it was cold – and hey, I’m from Tel Aviv now) – I paused suddenly, stopped, looked around, remembering Angel Heart, and that nameless film I had just watched on the plane, and all the countless filmatized memories. Heck, I’m in New Orleans. I am here. And it is just as I had imagined it to be. And – oh, at that very moment, right in front of me – was my hostel.
New Orleans. I am in New Orleans. I woke up at 3 am and went downstairs, thinking if I maybe smoke it would put me to sleep. But downstairs nobody slept. Downstairs was party. A new-found friend I just met a few hours ago went out and bought gin. A guy said he came to the city for a few hours. Ended up staying in a bar for three days, then packed up his stuff in the north and moved here. Now I had tonic and we drank until 6:30. And I woke up again at 11:30. Realised I had my ghost/cemeteries/paranormal tour booked for that night. Went to the French Quarter. Drank absinthe. Met the tour guide – one of the ten most famous voodoo priestesses in town. Drank again and ate beignets. Sang in a cemetery. Ate and drank in a casino and heard the endless stories. Trees and swamps had memory and stories to tell. When we came to the priestess’s house, I entered the room with the voodoo altar and stood there, stunned, with all the energy flowing at me, and the voices competing for attention – ah, so this is not a joke! Voodoo. No, she smiled. It is definitely not.
With time, the days merged into one. The energy would lift me up, and carry me, then knock me over and lead me to places unknown. People talked in pubs, on streetcars, on bus stops, in the supermarkets… Everyone I met had a story to tell. A girl with a typewriter from 1926. It’s authentic and real, she said. And you have to make an effort to change from one line to another. You can only make a maximum of 3 copies (with the blue copying paper, if anyone remembers…) – which makes everything you type unique. So she travels with a typewriter and a saxophone. A Bosnian Muslim girl who studied in the North of Louisiana.
Jazz on the streets, and coming out from every bar on Frenchman street, and streetcars from the 1920s, and the unbeatable sense for party in style – that was my bit of the 1920s applied to modern age. I adored the jazz scene.
I met another voodoo priestess a couple of days later, and ran into a few of her followers, as well. Just across the street from Congo Square, a place which I could have found blindfolded in the dark, so thick was the energy that suddenly jumped at me out of nowhere, she had her store, side by side some hotels, and pretty posh ones at that. How could anyone live here, I mused in horror? I am having this ultimate charismatic experience every time I approach within a block – but to be just across the street from this thing? Day in and day out? It’s like living in Jerusalem Old City – only there your mind tells you what to seek. Here, the raw energy just flows at you. But most don’t feel it in this way, it seems…
Two people missed their buses and had to stay another night. One guy was supposed to leave, but then his laundry got stuck in the washing machine that broke down mid-cycle, and he couldn’t get it out until the next day, and had to stay, too (he was the one who bought gin that first night, actually). One guy went downtown with me and played saxophone on Royal street, and was supposed to leave for the beaches of Florida the next day. I saw him three days later – but you left, man! Yeah… I left… And then I came back… So how long are you here for now? Eh… I was thinking, like – forever? A French couple who said they travelled for three months and this was the only place where they actually wanted to stay. A gay guy who was communicating online with a girl for 13 years and finally decided to meet with her – in New Orleans.
The drag strip burlesque show that looked like a scene from The Fight Club – was the best night out in my entire life. And in the lives of everyone else who went, it seems – a professional musician, university graduates, travellers, polyglots. As I stood there watching the plump stripper making a parody of the tired genre, I realised the city is giving me the greatest gift imaginable – then and there, for the first time, I fully appreciated my life, my past, my body – all that I am and was and all that I strived to be. Myself. My future.
The city finds you, and sucks you in and never lets you go. Or have we just been looking for it all our lives? And what am I left with, after having lived and breathed it for 10 days, but a few empty words and pictures that don’t do the place any justice?
“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place. Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short. It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of south Louisiana in words and to try is to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.
It is home.”
― Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic