Under a moose head, over two dozen empty beer bottles and in the midst of a dwindling carton of cigarettes I proposed to him, “Will you go to New Orleans with me?” Escaping from the holiday tantrum, the garage had become our solace during this fraught week of family-imposed celebration. The timing of our respective ages had put us in a blessedly awkward stage where we understood each other for the first time in our adult lives. The withdrawals to the garage became more and more frequent as Christmas ham became New Years’ ham sandwiches, and our corroborated nicotine addiction followed suit. This jolted affair with booze and cigarettes was our sloppy reconfiguration of lost memories; our grown-up cackles making the garage a symphony of bad behavior all holiday season.
Will you go to New Orleans with me? was hanging in the air.
“I’ve never been,” Ben says, looking off into something, his gaze hardening, his seriousness rising to the top, followed by contemplation, sinking squarely on his jaw. “Damn, I never been.” There’s a beat, a mutual recognition of what this could mean for us, for the institutional roles we had ignored up to this point. We had known each other my entire life and in the sum difference of five years the rules were defined, certain roles that were supposed to be played, the expectations in the narrative of brotherhood vested in the sum difference of these five defining years.
And so on that December-something day before the New Year charm and untested resolutions were officially made, we booked ourselves a weekend in February in New Orleans.
I gonna build me a mansion
Dauphine and Napoleon Way
Gonna build me a mansion
Dauphine and Napoleon Way
If that damn water
I just gonna sit & stay.
“The city is not a city, it is some other thing and it can be recognized that I am saying this as ‘one-who-has-never-been-here-before.’ But it is impossible to discover it any other way. There are those who travel here, and other places too, with the expectation that they are owed something for their arrival. A place owes you nothing. There is the school of hard knocks that you must pay in every city before you are welcome. Some cities take longer than others. I have seen some spend their entire life in New York and still pay their debt to the school after they’ve vacated the city. It’s a different story for everyone – but a place owes you nothing.” This is the What that I am spouting to my brother as we ride from the Louis Armstrong Airport, past cemeteries and cemeteries, into downtown New Orleans. He swoops his neck back into the car, his brows furrow seriously. He thinks I’m nuts, he doesn’t follow my What.
“Sure. I can see that, but what the fuck are you talking about?”
These are the signs of doubt – oh no, are we really brothers? Without the jolt of booze can we really speak the same language? The cab driver is tolerant of our tobacco crutch; we hang our heads out the windows puffing down our cigarettes to the filter. Smoke another cigarette, smoke another cigarette. I open my pack and make an offering, as if this will quickly solve our miscommunications.
“I’m just space-talking, anyway,” I say.
He looks concerned, as if perhaps I took a hit of acid during the flight. So I cackle and mention how much I look forward to the booze. His face relaxes again and he dips his head, “I could use a brewsky rights about now too.” Here we are – we’re speaking together again – what a miracle! We can speak the same language!
Driving into the French Quarter I immediately feel the warmth of the narrow, hugging streets and the invitation to arrive in this city feels honest. I keep space-talking my What all the way into the Quarter, as if possessed by my alter ego The Pontificating Empathizer. He has to squeeze my leg until it aches to shut me up. He gives me his Aggression Eyes, meaning he’s fearful that if we talk too freely and openly the cab driver may take advantage of us. These facial discussions are the brilliance of knowing someone as well as a brother. Drawn on his mug is the Mid-Western Fear and it reveals itself in the physical: the locked screen doors of Capital City, Kansas, the hesitation of leaving a wife at home alone, and the great white way of suburbia. And this is the fear that simmers when I mention to my brother I’d like to check out the Lower Ninth Ward while we’re here. He shakes his head vehemently and throws the remaining quarter of his cigarette out the window. “We’re not going to the Ninth Ward,” he says.
“We’ll rent bikes. We can zip through,” I plead.
“Why the hell do you want to go to the Ninth Ward?”
“I don’t think we can say we were in New Orleans unless we see that.”
“I think I can say I that. We’ll get shot.”
“We won’t get shot. Jesus! I live in Harlem and I don’t get shot.”
“You can’t compare the two. That’s not fair. And you’ve gotten mugged! I know you have!”
“And there’s a big fucking difference. I’m alive!”
And then silence. The void between two brothers in a petty argument that feels vaguely familiar, the playing of ordained roles, the distancing separation of those five years and the mystical ordering of genes, miscommunicating in the malady of points of view: The I Know Better Than You And Nothing You Say or Do Will Ever Change My Mind. When this standstill is breached the alcohol becomes the savior and the only token of goodwill able to patch, for a time, the forever widening gap.
“Fuck it, let’s get a drink,” he pronounces as a surrender.
“Good,” I say, “First round is on me.
“Go fuck yourself. You’re not paying a dime.”
We stumble into the streets in a hungry stupor. The first place that serves Po-Boy’s was where we would eat, we’d decided. And with the Po-Boy’s, our obligatory White Russian, which prior to trip had been agreed upon as an accompaniment to our meals, in honor of our dead grandfather; his lifelong prop in alcohol and cigarettes as an assistant to commune with the world had long given us a point of reference and something to celebrate. His children turned to the cold variation, the other detrimental disabling worldview, banishing alcohol from their homes and raising their children in Roman Catholic iciness. And from their point of view, sure, the devil might be in us and we might die quicker, but this is what had brought us to New Orleans and while we were here drinks after the meals became ceremony for Grandfather Firefly, our ghostly enabler.
In our first hours we suck through a pack of cigarettes and begin our love affair with Abita Brewing Company, whose Andy Gator may be the greatest beer created for those heavy boozies whose compromise for beer over hard liquor is arrived at in lieu of a thin wallet. At the Harrah’s Casino we drink more, we smoke much more, we win money, we lose money, so we drink, we drink much more.
This continues for the rest of the day, indulging in the ugliness necessary to adequately approach each other as friends, not brothers, with years of residue, grudges and arguments, and awkward interactions to silence, to cover, to stuff. We feed the silence with whiskey and crude remarks, terrifying laughter, sputtering hackneyed lungs, and the overwhelming sensation that this will not last very long. That is where the indulgence arrives, at that very thought. And this is how we get away with living. All of us sit with another, alone together, and we fill the silence between the momentary actions and phrases. We fill it with whiskey and beer, others with religion or the absence of; and then we can praise the booze and what it made us do and the thing greater than the booze: a woman, a father, a god, a perennial flower in bloom; and we fall on each other in laughter, the movements, the shaking hips of drunken vulgarity, the passionate blubbers of spirited tongues numbed by whiskey and salt, a thick cardboard-uselessness. We grasp for each other in New Orleans through these nightly turns. The city invited us, welcoming the room for this relationship, ancient in its overtones, to ignite.
And there was Big Fat Al Carlson n Dr. John
in the devilish trees,
waiting for you,
waiting for me.
There was Big Fat Al Carlson n Dr, John in the bayou,
in the bayou, way down way down,
in the lowland, in the swamp and toil land,
mosquita bay, mosquita bay,
all undone and teather free.
Big Fat Al Carlson n Dr. John be waiting
for you, be waiting for me.
Big Fat Al Carlson n Dr. John,
Fats Domino makes three –
be waiting for you, be waiting for me.
Unknowingly we arrive in New Orleans for the first Mardi Gras parades of the season. At every bar we are welcomed with, “So, you’re here for Mardi Gras?” We look at each other stupidly, saying plainly and in unison, with our gawkish brotherly mugs, “Absolutely not.” Unified in our defiance that Mardi Gras would have brought us to this dreamland, we deflect its presence, certain our terms are different, that our purpose in the city is tied to something in our blood, our heritage, to our understanding of our history as brothers, that divinity coaxed us to New Orleans; like fundamental Christians enclosed by the brilliance of their own inanity we are charting mythological territories, carrying only a collective memory from a past life guiding our way down Decatur, through the graveyards, and to the drunken streets of a city, willing our participation to occur.
On our second day we ride the St. Charles Street trolley to the end of the line and back, an endeavor that feels as uniquely American as apple pie and yet, simultaneously foreign in this French-fried colony that grew its history at a slant to the development of the rest of the country. The foreignness of New Orleans persists in its architecture, like the shape of any truly great city it flaunts its form, especially in the Quarter, but more importantly it is in the air, a thickness brought in from the Gulf. The air is heavier, dirty milk rides the wind in New Orleans and you rinse in it, amidst the sweat and haze, feeling caloric sustenance with every breath.
On the way back downtown the car stops in front of Audubon Park, idling for a good five minutes as the engineer solves a complication with a drunken passenger, who might as well have been at Molly’s Bar with us last night (one of the few bars that stayed open through Hurricane Katrina, we’d been told) and decided to continue drinking through the morning. I don’t hear the quarrel; it all passes over, muffled by a romance of my own. From the trolley my eyes are arrested on the weeping willows, where the hefty sun has parked itself in the mid-day sky above the good-natured bodies on the lawn of Audubon Park. I don’t move a muscle, my body still in aching pain from the previous night, making stillness the only available posture, a hangover migraine pulsing its journey from spotted vision to excruciating pain. I want to be lifted from the crowded trolley and taken to the lawn of Audubon Park, to walk mildly among the people and the trees, to drift, to sit for a while.
The ground is moist from the previous evenings rain and at this moment Audubon Park becomes the Mississippi River: there is the river below the park, and below the river is the ocean, and below the ocean there are fish and gills, wrappers and shoes, oil spills and hurricanes, all of it heavy and moist, all wet in Audubon Park. The Mississippi must spread itself across this park; it must have been here many times before, yes, the water, the water, the water: New Orleans is all about water. You walk uptown and you imagine the height and length of water, like Venice you imagine drowning here, staying put and letting the water take you – to stand in Audubon Park and let the Mississippi take you, take your body out to the Gulf and deposit you in the oil currents, rocketing you to the Florida Keys and beyond to the shores of Africa, where New Orleans’ umbilical cord has strangled itself in a history of sins. The moist park, wet ground, always wet ground, New Orleans is the wettest place I’ve known next to Amsterdam, and the comparisons do not halt there. But Amsterdam doesn’t compete. Because in Amsterdam there is the recognition that you might fulfill a desire, a dark wish, even though the restraint it still constant, but at least there is the availability, you know that the city has been conditioned to service you, or others, in this way.
New Orleans carries the American behavior, even if it is drowning in over-indulgence, pomp and circumstance, and buffoonery, puritanism keeps it in check. In New Orleans you will not arrive at some final release that will paint itself over you, but this is its nationality – it is “American.” But unlike the other cities in this bombastic country, too large for its own good, there is a placid respect underneath the performance of Mardi Gras, this nightly song and dance that performs itself out over six weeks of the year, in this act there is the recognition by all who move the city, who move in and out, that this is a space worth saving and without it life would not be as colorful. We would all not be so alive if there were not a New Orleans. And as much as the performance would have you believe otherwise, it is not an easy city, the tortures it has endured mark persistence in the laughter, charging it with more purpose. This is what advances it as a greater city than Amsterdam, because it is supremely more difficult to get off, you’ve got to work it, baby – because that is the American way. And this working at it, working at it like a jazz musician works at it every night, through the sweaty turmoil and the raving mad love you carry like a tourniquet, make it the greatest American city there ever will be.
The bars in New Orleans, largely, do not concern their patrons with paying a cover, a consideration that is insanely humane. In any other American city the artist never gets paid. New Orleans is a last train home for a dying breed and I am eager to join this breed, the brew of hopeless optimism, constant hunger, a sensual anger, a passion for living in the chaos, in the shitstorm, in the furious fire, laughing and screaming the entire way down. It is a ship that is sinking and we are bailing, at times we stop for a drink and a smoke and a dance, until we realize we are under water again, but we get back at it because we have no choice. And the horns blast even underwater: and this is the sound of the city, this bellow is a mark on time. Sound always marks itself in our passing. The sound of a trumpet on Frenchman’s, a tap dancer on Decatur, the heavy lapping midnight Mississippi on St. Peters street, the filthy change slapping on counters, the horns the horns the horns, the engines in the first line, the voice of a lover that got away, yes, the sound of her voice too marks on time. These marks on time force us to return again, to always return, to the once-pressed indention in our passing time.
And more than any city, your heart swells at prospects in New Orleans. Like any romance you return to the city you thought She was in, or you return to a city that She could never be in because there is a logic in that too. You think you will pass Her this time and that She will appear in the crowd. It is futile, the journey, the travel, but the city, any city, will offer you more humanity than any drama you could have in your sleeping room. New Orleans is a city that carries every mark in time, however, it does not feel permanent; you can imagine what the city was, what it is, and what it could be. You look up at the balconies in the Quarter, the Garden District, at the beautiful red-faced people, flushed with drink and you know this must remain, this grasping for eternity in all we can ingest, whether through drink or breath. Other cities feel hopeless because they are ashamed in their drunkenness. New York City, for instance, there is nothing to be done, there’s no saving what’s already dead, it is a shameful limping creature, with its greasy flea infested fur pricking at you every time you attempt a loving approach; but New Orleans welcomes you with such buoyancy that you are lifted, you levitate, you walk on water with the city. The potential for humanity, the potential for decency are paramount and if the city ever needs me, I will be there by its side. The only other city I feel this way about, for better or worse, is called Home.
Taking the ferry across the Mississippi from the Quarter to Algiers we share our last cigarette and cough at each other, “No more smoking. We’re going to change our lives. Let’s be better.” Our conversation peters away to silences and grunts and with our big black sunglasses guarding us from the hazy afternoon we look a dubious pair, families staying clear of us, redirecting their children as they near the end of the deck. Landing in Algiers we have no idea where to go or what to do. My first instinct is to get us lost but Ben gives me his terror eyes, like he’s going to smash my head into a wall. I give us a mission, “We’ll find a nice hole in the wall restaurant.” He says he’s okay with this, as long as he gets to choose which streets we walk down. So we walk and we walk, deep into Algiers.
The neighborhoods are quiet on this Saturday afternoon. We pass by homes on Delaronde Street where residents are taking their time to start the day, it is nearly one in the afternoon and the tempo is clocking in at nine in the morning for any other neighborhood in America, but Algiers is yawning, stretching, shaking out the first piss of the day. Even here, across the river from the Quarter, music feels constant, in every window music pitters out, radios, speakers, a wafting drum solo from some basement, a horn clearing its throat in an attic, a guitar strumming chords on a porch – where is all this music coming from? It is a constant cacophony this music and the buzzing of bees and flies, and this is February, when all is dead elsewhere, but here, the milk air of Louisiana keeps the beetles and wings and furry legs scurrying all year. As with everything here, I suspect this is related to the music too.
We stop at a neighborhood bar, literally squeezed between two homes in the middle of a block. Staring inertly at the TV screen we wait two hours for our sloppy Po’Boys that arrive at our table having been slopped on the floor, ten minutes on each side, with a lobster sized cockroach seasoned and garnished on the side of the plate. Ben is getting more leery of New Orleans as the minutes pass. He wants I should return my plate. I could shake him furiously to remind him that it makes no difference but this would mean prompting the tidal wave of unspoken unfamiliarity’s, divergences we took in the midst of our differing childhoods that formed two very different men.
He scowls at me and I curl my lip back, readying for an attack. I used to fear this big, hairy man, but not anymore. He’s going bald.
Our final hours in New Orleans we grow tired and spent, dehydrated, our haggard legs rambling through the French Quarter. We check into the top floor of the Marriot Hotel because this is a family tradition, there may not be money for anything else in the world, but a hotel bed is the best kind of bed. It is the ultimate rest.
The first line of Mardi Gras passes by 40 floors below.
Still hung over and exhausted from our assaults on the city we stand in our underwear looking down upon the city that welcomed us so hospitably. I follow a cruise ship with my eyes down the Mississippi River to a point where I believe I can see the Gulf of Mexico, the big oily ocean, swallowing the massive ship up. We order shrimp cocktail from room service and watch local news where we confront another city, a city where crime and murder remains rampant, shockingly so. Ben makes the comment, “See. This is why we didn’t go to the Lower Ninth.” I want to sock him in the mouth for the comment, but I understand. This is also what makes New Orleans unapproachable for most of America: the fear. In Capital City, Kansas every Firefly locks his or her door twice and quakes at any sound beyond their lawn. How did this fear arrive? Do we get scared as we get older? In Harlem I leave all doors unlocked. No one intrudes and all are welcome, even though I would rather see no one at all, which is easier to do in New York than in the desert.
New Orleans is a social city; it is a city for seeing others, for loving others, for being with humanity – and it is the only place left in America. What comprises the Big Easy is still possible. Perhaps this is what warrants the torture the city has gone through. Despite its continued presence in culture it tells us it shouldn’t exist. A place that never, or rarely, tears down its crumbling facades and traditions faces the unfathomably large face of inevitability and indifference, which are the cruel traits of nature.
In our final moments in New Orleans, in our separate beds at the Marriott, we digest our shrimp cocktails, and in our privileged vantage point 40 stories up neither of us can get a wink of sleep.
On the plane home the next morning we are both exhausted. Ben keeps his eyes open the entire flight because he knows I’ll be sleeping. He does this because someone needs to be on look out. I guess this is what older brothers do, but I’ll never know, for I will always be the younger one.
My head bobs back and forth, jerking in and out of sleep in the raucous altitude. I pat his arm, “Hey. Can I put my head on your shoulder?”
He looks at me with those eyes, eyes of bewilderment and offense, his neck turns into jowled skin flaps as he pulls back, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“My neck, it hurts. I keep nodding off. Can I rest my head on your shoulder to sleep?”
“No? What do you mean, no?”
“I mean, no.”
“You can’t say no to that. Why would you? Come here.” I rest my head on his shoulder.
“No, you are not putting your head on my fucking shoulder.” He pushes me off.
“Don’t. I swear to God, don’t rest your head on my shoulder.”
“I am resting my head on your shoulder.”
We struggle as he continues to pry my head off his shoulder.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll just get a stiff neck instead.”
We finish our trip in our separate, petulant corners, steaming at each other, wishing that the other could see it as clearly as the other does; negating any differences we might have.
Just as New Orleans is struggling against the inevitable, the wave, the storm that will finally sink it, we struggle the same terrain, that at some point our distance, our roles, will again keep us from understanding each other, as it has most of our lives. There will be grudges and cancers in the skin that are only visible through our respective judgmental eyes. But at this time, we are hundreds of miles away from New Orleans and from home, 30,000 feet in the air, conjoined in this in-between.
This is the magic of cities, of the bustle of humanity that both edges us to jump off to our death and pushes us back to the living. This is the only reasonable place to live. And New Orleans, more than others, will always know this.