Tuesday, September 13, 2005

To Miss New Orleans


I debated what to write about this week in the wake of Katrina, the burst levees and flooding, and the seemingly interminable delays before aid was provided to the needy. I'm not an overly political guy, because in general, I'm too wishy-washy to have an opinion. My perception is that all politicians are liars and opportunists, and it's strictly a matter of luck if we get one who won't screw us over. Or the opposite.

So, I'll leave the discussions of the FEMA debacle to those who have an opinion and the drive to actually research it. Which, by the way, if you're not going to be informed, please shut up. Just as a general rule.

I'd probably be better off leaving the reminiscences to people better qualified as well; I've read so much that moved me in the last several days from people who, you know, actually live there, that whatever I might add will be silly, superfluous, and pointless.

So you've been warned. Again. But really, what else do I have to talk about except what I know?

I went to New Orleans once. In so many ways it was the perfect time to go. I was 24. I was still in my first entry-level job after leaving college, working for the VA hospital as a psychometrist/research assistant. They hired me out of college for a paltry salary that I'm actually too embarrassed now to admit I accepted, but the upside is that they felt guilty enough about it to send me to a 4-day research meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society in New Orleans, held at the Fairmont, mere blocks outside the French Quarter.

My relationship with David was winding down after four years - though we'd manage to keep it together for several more months yet, we were sadly becoming aware that being at the right place at the right time doesn't mean you'll be able to stay there. It was ending, we both could see it, we just weren't ready to say so yet. It was our first relationship of note. In gay years, it was basically the end of going steady in high school. However, since gay boys in the 80's didn't go steady in high school (they went underground), everything got pushed back a few years. You had your first dates in college, if you were lucky; I know several boys who waited to come out until their late 20's, and being all high school crushy and boy crazy when you're almost 30, well, it ain't pretty. Like most high school juniors, you got serious with someone around junior year in college, and, after college you'd move in together. Just as most high school romances end in either freshman or sophomore year at college, most of these initial relationships run out of gas about two years out. Our clock was on the rundown. Timing wise, it was a good time to be going somewhere. It was January, and two people with seasonal depression whose commitment to each other is reaching an end really don't belong in the same state, much less the same household.

It was late January, and honestly, I didn't really care where I was going as long as it wasn't 13-below. I boarded the plane in 13-below temperatures. Fahrenheit. You can't even go somewhere warm and leave your jacket at home when it's like that. It's got to go with you, even if you won't wear it the entire time you're gone. It's required just to keep you from dying on the way to and from the airport. Hell is cold, people. Trust me on this.

So, I had every reason to need a trip south. I didn't know much about New Orleans. I think I'd probably read both Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat (you don't really need links, do you?) and I think I read a guide book (probably this one) so I'd know where the gay bars were (in the French Quarter primarily, as it turns out). Sounded like it would be nice.

A lot of things surprised me. It was colder than I expected, about 38 Fahrenheit. Still, that's 51 degrees warmer than what I left behind; I did not need a jacket. There was very little southern drawl. In fact, the predominant accent sounded much more like New York, but a little slower and more relaxed. My flight was a hassle; I'd been booked on Northwest, but when I showed up at the counter, the flight had been cancelled. I got sniffy as though on the verge of throwing a hissy (those of you who do throw hissies at the drop of a hat do make it easier for those of us who are really too shy, but can pretend for a few seconds), and they got me booked pronto onto a Delta flight. I got into the Fairmont about 4:30 pm, dropped my stuff, and hit the pool. Nothing wakes me up like a good brisk swim. At 6, I went to the desk and asked them to point me at the French Quarter. They chuckled, nodded, and sent me on my way.

The Fairmont is on Baronne, which once you cross Canal becomes Dauphine, which at this point I was still pronouncing Dofan, but once you cross Canal you're in the French Quarter, and I could feel the most amazing lightness rising up inside my chest. Because it's magic. There's no other word. The colors, the ironwork, the narrow streets - I couldn't believe where I was. I actually laughed out loud, startling myself (and probably helping to frighten away the sort of people who frequent that end of Dauphine...) I turned right and sauntered to Bourbon, where a pretty much non-stop party seems to be going on. I accepted the advice of a street-hawker claiming to have the best food on the street (maybe so, maybe not, but it was damn fine shrimp etouffee to be sure). Finished up, wandered through the party some more, found a club.

A mostly empty club. Minneapolis bars close at 1 am. New Orleans bars, um, don't close? Something like that. So night life gets going a bit later. No matter. I chatted up the bartender ("Cold out, hon?" "Depends what you're coming from.") I lost a few quarters to Ms. Pacman (I suck at video games) ordered a couple of beers. Herman made his move. Grabbed the seat next to mine, started up a non-stop stream of conversation. As early as it was, I was ready to cold-shoulder him, but this guy was smooth. I guess if you're named Herman, it's probably good to be smooth. He had a few years on me; I thought he was probably about 32, I later found out I was off by 10 years. He was charming, knew how to sustain a conversation, and was in no hurry.

These three things alone marked him out as exotic; the native Minnesotan is reputed to be "nice," but as far as I can tell that just means they won't tell you to fuck off. I've had the most deadly conversations with native Minnesotans. They won't ask you what they want to know, because that would be rude or forward. They won't tell you about themselves because that would be forward and, possibly, bragging. So basically, they say very little. But they do it in a "nice" way. And they won't leave. Because that. Would not. Be. Nice. So, eventually, you must either chew your way out of this trap, or turn on your heel and don't look back. Either way, they win. It's the most passive aggressive conversational style I've ever seen. Have I mentioned that most of my friends in Minneapolis grew up elsewhere?

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Herman found me absolutely fascinating. Probably not. But he made me feel that he did, and that listening to me was the greatest pleasure he had discovered. It was one of the most pleasant conversations I'd had in years. Possibly a decade. He had a very honest way of communicating, and a wonderful directness. He corrected my pronunciation of "Dauphine" (dawfeen) and proactively headed off any problems I would encounter with "Ursulines". Warm brown eyes. I don't think that I was that sexually attracted to him physically. But he was witty, intelligent, warm, and oh, so friendly. And he lived very nearby. Right on Dauphine, in fact.

The next morning, I went back to the Fairmont. Swam 15 laps. Dressed. Went to the first presentations. Thank you, God, for coffee. Hey, what's this? This coffee tastes different...Chicory you say? Hmmm...how about another cup. Or 4. Plaque formation, Alzheimer's, Pick bodies, frontal lobe damage...blah blah blah. You know, the most relevant sessions look like they'll be tomorrow...maybe I'll just hit the poster session, and....

Back to the Quarter by noon. "Hey, Herman, it's me. What're you doing?" "Taking you on a tour, young man! In a little bit...give us a little sugar..."

Loved the tour. French Quarter. Oldest building. St Louis Cathedral. Jackson Square. Beignets. DAMN! BEIGNETS! St Charles Streetcar. Tulane. Herman's life. Herman's love for his city. Herman loving seeing me loving it.

He had some work to do, so I got some done too. Went to a poster session, a meet-and-greet after, some laps in the pool. Dinner was lovely - a recommendation from Herman. The maid stopped by to turn down the blanket. She's sweet, and talkative, and we have a nice chat. Wonder what's happening at Lafitte's?

Timed it better, and actually got above the first floor this time. And who's that? And just like that I'm meeting Bill. No eye dancing. No following from room to room trying to casually bump into each other. Just, wow, I see your wow and raise you two: "Hi, I'm Bill Davidson." "Nice. to. meet. you." Talk talk talk. New Orleans boys are good for conversation. And flirting. I know what you're thinking, Bill, and you are absolutely right I would. And dancing. Dance we did. Still thinking, Bill? Yeah, me too. Where you've got your hand helps with those kind of thoughts. And the poppers don't hurt, neither. Still do those down here, I see.

Dance some more when Bill's new beau arrives. (DAMN! What?!?) But that's not my cue to get the hell out apparently; I start to excuse myself but no, that will not be permitted. "You've only seen Lafitte's, we got a lot more than that, sugar! Now pour your beer in this plastic cup, and let's go walking!"

I could go on again about the conversation. Walking and talking, with beer. Best time I had since, well, the night before. We went hither, we went yon. We saw a Mardi Gras parade, one of the year's first. Bill pointed out the timber bracing being installed under all the balconies to support the coming crowds next week. We saw Bill's roommate Calvin lipsync in drag. We had burgers at the Clover Grill. At 3 am, I thought about where I needed to be at 7:30, and decided an hour or two of sleep would not go amiss. Kisses goodnight.

Beep beep! Swim swim! Coffee coffee! Acetylcholine! Dopamine! Dementia! Frontal Lobe Syndrome! Parkinson's Disease! Lunch! (must nap, no time, SWIM! SWIM!) Beck Depression Inventory! Short term Memory Loss! Coffee! Coffee! Ringing! What's that ringing! It's the phone! Answer the phone! You just dozed off!! Now answer the phone!!

"Hey, it's Bill! Calvin wants you to come to dinner!" "Really? Why?" "Okay, I want you to come to dinner, but Calvin's a better cook."

He is too. A better cook that is. Great place. Through the gate that locks behind you, up to a sweet little 300-year-old French Quarter flat. Never mind the roaches in the toilet; you can't get away from them in the Quarter. Just keep the candle lit, and they'll stay out of your way. Calvin wants to open a restaurant, and dinner was fine. Pork with peppers. Calvin's much better looking without the drag; chocolate brown skin, pretty smile, cute little leather cap over his tight curls. The conversation never stops. Bill's still flirting with me over the new beau's shoulder. The beau's a sweet boy - just out, just 20, a bit naïve. I know Bill'd be fine with the beau and me too, and he knows that I know, and that I'm fine too. But we both know - not the beau. Not now, not yet. So. Calvin's handsome. Getting better looking by the minute.

The next morning, I went back the Fairmont. Swam 15 laps. Dressed. Went to the 7:30 presentations. Thank you, God, for coffee. After, more laps, a poster session. Three hours of sleep. The maid turns down the blanket and we chat some more. I really should sleep here some nights. Almost over...

Out to Lafitte's. It's Herman! Hey Herman. And Herman's friends. Oy.

The next morning, I sent Herman's friend out of the Fairmont. Ill-advised. Never score anyone in parachute pants. I think he was actually from Virginia. yhhh.

Hey, Calvin! Yes, leaving today. Yes, I'd love a ride to the airport, that's sweet. My flight's at 3:00.

All day, there was chance the flight would be cancelled, due to weather in Minneapolis. We called before we left, and sure enough it was delayed. I saw the new apartment that Bill was moving into - 12 foot ceilings at least, with amazing plasterwork curliquing around the light fixture and entwining every corner and doorway, and we played what-if about if my flight actually were to be cancelled. Because, you know, next week, Mardi Gras, and well, we could try to find you a tux for the ball tonight - won't be easy, but we could try the malls in Metairie. I bet one more day, and you won't ever want to go home....

Didn't happen, my flight wasn't cancelled, and for some insane reason (probably lack of sleep) I decided not to run away from home just then.

And that was it. For a week I was John Darling, running to and from pirates, swinging with the Lost Boys, and roaming Neverland like a savage. Nobody much cares what becomes of boring old John at the end of the book; it's all Wendy, Wendy, Wendy. Well, John went back to his old life at the end too. Probably slept awhile. Tried to send some letters to his new friends, but how do you connect to Neverland from the outside? Not well. Bill dumped the beau, but too late, Calvin opened the restaurant, but too late. I stayed away just long enough to not want to go back. Because after a certain point it can never be the same, and you'd rather keep it as it was.

When Katrina started heading north across the gulf, I got a lump in my throat, and it's been there ever since. I almost swallowed it when Katrina moved on, petering out, but then the levees broke and it all fell apart. I have no idea what's become of Herman, Bill, Calvin, the maid at the Fairmont, and the rest. For all I know, time and tide swept them away years ago. I hope not. I hope wherever they are, they're okay. Wherever you are guys, take care. New Orleans was about the buildings for about 15 minutes of my visit; the rest was all about you, and everyone else. You are New Orleans. You're why I know she'll survive.

1 comment:

Phyl said...

Randy, this entry was so beautiful. Thanks for letting the rest of us get a glimpse of your own New Orleans experience. I hope, with you, that all those people are okay and that they'll be a major factor in keeping New Orleans going in whatever form it now takes.