The City of Lost Souls
Because when you are handed one of the hidden keys to the city’s immortal soul, when you perform the little New Orleanian rituals correctly and with all good faith and respect, you are rewarded like so: you get to be a child again. You are a child again. For when such a key is placed in your trust and you turn it with love, you are granted a temporary reprieve from the endlessly mundane frustrations of the world from which you have come and then you may exchange the inescapable condition described by Melville as “the intolerableness of all earthly effort” for a one-way ticket to wide-eyed whirly wonder…
Anti-Requiem: New Orleans Stories.
I sometimes wonder whether I’m still alive – or do I exist in some kind of limbo between heaven and earth where the marching brass band and overgrown streets and gin tonic and rain are all products of my imagination, or my memory from another world. We must have all lived here in our previous lives – the lost souls who have come to the city and found no power to leave. A university professor drinking with two homeless guys, a policeman and a stripper – none of whom would trade this world for any other. “Be careful,” a woman in the yoga studio whispers to me, “the longer you stay here, the less you will want to leave”. The yoga studio is actually a huge temple, with a proper altar, incense burned and prayers said before each class. You’ll have to bear with me if it offends your sensitivities – there’ll be many altars and many temples to discuss in New Orleans.
“I’ve dreamt of Mardi Gras since I was in kindergarten,” I share with a local. He exchanges glances with another guy at the bar. “This is no good, honey. You’ll probably never leave”. Many have come and hated New Orleans instantly, and swore to never set their foot here again. And some have come for just a day – and spent the rest of their lives here. I know only too well what not resonating with a place means – I can only look back with horror at the depressing boredom and fake pretentiousness of Tel Aviv where I spent the past year. But this – this is somehow different. This is beyond like and dislike.
As I walk through and out of the Garden District and marvel at the greenery and the giant trees covering over the whole width of the street with their branches, I suddenly have a vivid recollection of a time I spent in Ireland some 15 years ago. The images start flowing back at me, the streets, the smell of the air there, the rain, the beach, the street that I lived on. It bears no semblance to the street I walk on now – the houses in Ireland were made of stone, and these are wooden, Ireland was cool and windy, while I am now walking in the tropical heat, and yet I almost feel as if I am back on that street, in that time and space, the moments of absolute happiness, where even the leaves on the trees seemed to whisper magical blessings. As I check my map, it does turn out that I am in the neighbourhood called the Irish Channel, originally set up by settlers from Ireland…
This is approximately the same way I discovered the Congo Square for the first time – some energy just hit me in the middle of the day in the middle of the street, and I followed it until I stopped. Congo Square, the sign in front of me said. The former place of Sunday voodoo ceremonies – and what used to be a slave market.
When I first came here, the airport bus let me off on a street corner in what looked like a fringy neighborhood, and I had to ask for directions to the house number. I remember walking down the street in horrible cold, wind and drizzle, thinking, oh God, this is New Orleans, I can’t believe I’m in New Orleans, this is a dream of 30 years, but I really hope I don’t get shot. Some blocks down the street, a few houses caught my eye, I stopped, and decided to take a picture. It was after I took it that I realized I am standing right in front of the house I need.
The people are… Different. Especially those who have come from all over the world and have chosen to stay. It is as if they came with something that could never be healed anywhere else, not healed, not accepted, nor appreciated – and the burden was lifted the moment they set their foot here. Here, it was ok. And we write our poems, and we sing our songs, and we paint our walls in the weird colours of the rainbow, and we trade stories over cocktails – and we are happy to have found home.
The travellers passing through are an eccentric bunch, or maybe it’s just me who is lucky. Musicians, ex-military, eccentrics. One guy left his phone in a strip bar, where he was a regular. He went to ask at the bar, but nobody turned it in, and he came back to the hostel broke and without a phone. “Ugh, that’s a crappy champagne,” he flinched, drinking something rosé and sparkling from a styrofoam cup. “What’re you drinking?” I inquire, sorry for his distress. The guy has already run out of money, lost his phone, and a crappy champagne on top of it is not helping things at all. “Oh, something… I forgot… Got it for free”. He comes back a few minutes later with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. “This”.
Turns out, the strip bar gave him three bottles as a compensation for the phone misfortune. Stunned as I am, I ask if I could take a sip of it. Drink as much as you like, the guy sighs. And so I drink Veuve Clicquot from a bottle… You can’t let your luck pass you by.
I make friends with farmers from Texas, who hug me warmly and appreciate my adventurous nature. The guys from Alabama share their jambalaya with me. An Israeli American shares his army stories and we are the only ones who can understand each other’s stupid traumatized jokes. Chickens outside a house. Daiquiri to go at 10 am. The sheriff dancing with strippers. A jamming session and then a jazz band at my hostel. Just another day in New Orleans…