I find it impossible to talk about New Orleans without resorting to dualisms. I went there too early, or I arrived too late. It is equal parts darkness and light. There is the city above and the city below; New Orleans before Katrina, New Orleans after. It’s my favorite place in the world – a soggy stamp of soil in which I am both my best self and my worst. I’ve written more about the city than any place other than Indiana, which is very meaningful. Consider this: I’ve lived in North Carolina fourteen years and never written about it once. I’ve never felt I fully understood it. But New Orleans? I look at that ruin and the ruin looks right back at me.
My friend Leslie (whose Emerson paintings you’ve seen) had a new show going up at the Le Mieux gallery, and the reception was on Saturday. I flew in Friday night to surprise her. In this case, I went too soon. I was still weak; I was recovering from injuries. In general I was extremely wobbly but trust me – it was a patented Haven Kimmel move, making that kind of trip just to surprise a friend at a reception. The move is also known as ‘idiotic.’ But let me start at the beginning:
I tend to make friends on every airline flight I take. This happens even though I consider myself a misanthrope who only wants to be left alone. On the flight from Raleigh to Atlanta I made friends with a lovely woman named Kathy, who probably found herself surprised to be chatting so freely with me (given that she, too, might be a person who just wants to be left alone). Then in the Atlanta airport I had one of the loveliest experiences of my life. I arrived at my gate early – I was the first person there. I had just put my bags down when a woman in her early 70s came up to me, flustered, asking a question I couldn’t quite understand. It turned out she wanted to know if she was at the right gate to go to Rome, and then on to Tehran. It looked to me as if her gate had been changed at some point (she was right to be confused), so I told her to wait with our things and I’d find out. I finally tracked down an agent who confirmed the flight to Rome would be leaving from my gate a few hours after I left for New Orleans, so I went back and joined the woman.
Her name was Noshin, and I won’t repeat the whole of our conversation, which lasted two hours, but it was nothing short of miraculous. For some reason we understood one another perfectly, even about very nuanced subjects, like the estrangement of a family member, or the way Americans have what Europeans consider to be a deeply sick relationship with pets. I waited a long time to ask her about religion, but since I knew she was from a city just outside of Tehran (Shiraz) I asked if she was a Shiite. Her eyes got wide and she said, “You know some of Muslims?” I couldn’t help but laugh – if she only knew how much studying of Islam I had to do in seminary. I said, “One of my favorite poets is Hafiz.” Now, Blog Babies, if you’ll look up at the top of page, under my name, you’ll see that my quotation is from Hafiz, and has been since I took down the Twain quotation about billiards destroying my naturally sweet disposition. My mother gave me I Heard God Laughing, Poems of Hope and Joy about a year ago. Hafiz’s poems are called ‘renderings,’ and these were translated by Daniel Ladinsky. I can think of only three or four other books of poems I have read so often, or so obsessively. I’ve been carrying this particular volume around for a year, starting at the beginning and reading the whole of it again and again. Hafiz wrote in the 14th century, and in addition to being a poet he was also a mystic; legend has it that he memorized the whole of the Koran. If I understand what I’ve read correctly, the word ‘Hafez’ now refers to The One Who Has Memorized The Whole Of The Koran. But my Persian is sketchy. Here is the rendering from which the line above appears:
Your Beautiful Parched, Holy Mouth
A poet is someone
Who can pour Light into a spoon,
Then raise it
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.
Here I must be careful or I’ll quote the entire book. At any rate, Noshin’s eyes widened and she said, “Sitting here, you are say Hafiz to me! You are knowing Hafiz, is miracle you!” I told her that yes, it was a miracle, but Hafiz would say it’s the laughter of God, nothing to do with me. We talked about some of our favorite verses, and when it was time for me to board the plane we were both in tears. She took my hands and said, “We are family. You are family in me, and because . . . you, you heart is open.” I said, “Your heart is open; you are the generous one. I could have been sitting here alone with my exact same heart, but if you hadn’t come along, I would have stayed silent.” I will remember her forever.
On the flight to New Orleans I sat next to a man named Al. I won’t tell you the problem Al was having but it was serious, and he was a worried man. We talked and talked and finally I said to him, “Al, as a Quaker my dearest wish in this world is that I might be given the right words at the right time, so if you’d just give me a couple minutes to think and listen, maybe I’ll get lucky.” So we sat there in silence and I listened and listened, and then I turned to him, and said, “Everything is going to change.” Now that doesn’t mean anything – it’s almost entirely meaningless, but his eyes got wide and he said, “God above, yes it is. I know exactly what you mean.” Which was good, because I didn’t. I said, “You are treating this situation as if you aren’t radically free, but you are. I wonder if you’re afraid of the price of that freedom? That’s okay, as long as you remember that you may hate the chains, but they’re still yours.” What a brave person Al was. He was a 25-year veteran of the Marine Corps, a deeply devoted husband and father to four children. But there was no ego in our conversation. He was as manly as it’s possible to be, and we talked not as equals but as comrades. I won’t say more about the decision he made, but it was a good one, and it freed him.
I stayed with two of my dearest friends, Bryan and Jeff (whose full name is Jefferson, and he is precisely that elegant) at their MOST GORGEOUS B&B ON THE PLANET, The Block-Keller House.
If you’re going to New Orleans and have plans other than sleeping in your own vomit, this is the most perfect B&B in the city. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, there are two sweet dogs, and Bryan and Jeff are the kindest, funniest, most perfect hosts who ever lived. They are also never in your face or your business. Look just at the parlor:
As I said earlier, I went too early. But at least I was with two people who didn’t care, and were happy to accommodate my wreckage. On the first night we went out to dinner and we were full of joy – here is a photograph.
Shortly after, we returned to Bryan’s car to find one of the rear windows smashed in and his mp3 player stolen. Now in most cities that would be a shocking moment, but in New Orleans we cursed, brushed aside enough glass for Bryan to sit down, and drove home.
The next day I slept like a damaged person. Then I got up like a damaged person and got dressed to go to Leslie’s show. All the galleries in the Art District have openings on the same night (and this year there were also openings on Magazine Street). The streets are closed to traffic and bars are set up where one would ordinarily drive: this is the height of civility. We wove in and out of hordes of people, all of whom knew Bryan and Jeff, and finally made it to the gallery. Leslie’s new show, Patterns of Dreaming, is shocking and grand – Bryan said that what were being called paintings are really installation pieces – and I won’t describe them yet because the photographs aren’t up on the gallery’s website. They must be seen to be understood. I was overwhelmed with covetousness. At first I thought covetousness was making me woogy, but then I thought maybe I was hungry, so we left there and went to one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans, Muriel’s. (You should look Muriel’s up online, www.muriels.com, and take the virtual tour. Make sure you see the séance room.) The menu was superlative, and as we waited for our entrees I turned a paler and paler green, and then our meals were delivered, and I said to Bryan, “I’m going to throw up now,” and I walked to the bathroom and did so. That was nice. That was a first for me. But did my friends act as if I’d ruined their lovely dinner? No. We simply boxed everything up, sat on broken glass, and went home.
I have nearly 25 years of history with New Orleans, all of it interesting. I’ve met some of the great loves of my life there, and I can’t think of any place on earth that feels as much like home. Bizarre, unimaginable things happen to me every time I step foot in the city. We are so much alike that I don’t dare move there. That’s as much as I’ll say; I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Oh, but I will say this: look up the great singer/songwriter Dayna Kurtz, who has a flawless song about New Orleans on her album Another Black Feather. But really you should buy all of her records, for the sake of your happiness. And Bryan and Jeff, if you read this, my cabdriver was the son of Myrl D’Arcy, whom you surely knew from her gallery on Royal. He told me to ask you if you knew Ruthie the Duck Girl died. And also Bill, the multi-millionaire cokehead in the Quarter, has been banned by all but two cabs because he’s so deranged he eats roast beef and lets it dribble all down his front, and he constantly allows his pants to fall down.
Here are are a couple photos from Mardi Gras. The first is with my friend Tim:
Finally, one last New Orleans poem. The first time my mother visited Amsterdam she came home and declared it ‘a sinister city.’ She had her own reasons for doing so. I know many, many people who feel the same way about New Orleans. This is another post-Katrina poem, written after I went back for the first time after the storm.
The change is subtle
in those cemetery breezes,
or sitting across the table
from the old woman
you thought loved you
who suddenly staggers
you with her vicious
appraisal of your failures.
The change is barely noted
when the storefront goes empty,
the subversive weekly paper
tumbles down the street,
the car radio finds only one station
and it is broadcasting Hell.
The night is dark
darker, the streetlights fade,
you are lost and losing, age
pressing hard against your spine,
and you think this is the only way
to dance. And then
one night in a hotel in a burnt-
out city you sit on the sofa with a woman
you have waited for half-a-decade,
and she slips her foot into your hand,
she says stay one more hour, she pulls
the sheets from the corners of the bed, you
wrap your body around hers and she is
a stem, you are the wind, you bend
her, lift her, but looking back the
night was so subtle you never saw
it coming; she will die, the golden
light of Amsterdam is no less macabre
than of New Orleans, but if one had to choose.
If one could choose.