Let me begin by saying that I grew up in North Texas, which is Southern in many respects, though people of the deep South would argue otherwise, as would any good Texan for reasons all their own. For my particular argument’s sake, let’s agree that I grew up in the South. But for the past five years now I’ve been living in the Northwest, and have been home to see my family for only the briefest of visits.
Visiting New Orleans was an immediate culture clash that, while foreign in the sense that I know nothing of Louisiana, suddenly brought back all the defenses learned growing up in the South. T and I were making our way through a mostly deserted airport towards baggage claim when a pack of girls looked me up and down in passing and uttered something derogatory. Moments later, waiting for our bags at the carousel, T was approached by another woman who complimented him very genuinely on his hair.
The South is a land of speaking one’s mind, whether that be good or bad, kind or unkind. If there is an opinion, it must be voiced. Conversely, the patented passive-aggressive Northwestern freeze has left us soft and thrown off-kilter by the direct attention. T and I drew a good bit of looks and comments from passersby in our wanderings through New Orleans. For the most part it was benign, but the streets seemed to demand a certain level of awareness that had long ago gone to sleep from disuse in Seattle. As we walked, especially after dark, I found myself keeping my hand in my pocket, self-defense kitty on my knuckles, a part of me ready to spring into slashing action if something should go wrong.
The touristy streets were relatively safe, T said, though I noted the areas our cab took us through on the way to the hotel. Poverty and sirens. Racial tension is still a heavy creature in the South. I remember slurs and slights growing up. I’m ashamed to have forgotten it, immersed as I have been in a liberal and yet uninformed life away from the ugliness I left behind.
T and I did a little bit of the obligatory bar crawl along Bourbon street our first night in the city. Beads were being thrown into the road to be walked upon by a watered-down mix of party-goers came in waves and disjointed throngs, evangelicals trying to save souls through megaphones. It was the first time I’ve experienced being able to drink in the street. T took me to a funny little goth bar called the Dungeon where we had our drinks behind bars looking up at a wall of skulls. Cute.
I enjoyed New Orleans for the sense of history surrounding us. Granted we never left the French Quarter, during our visit. I was struck by a sense of richness and texture, a Southern spirit that was almost always lacking in the dry, husking religiosity of North Texas. Hints of Louisiana culture: the cuisine, the music, the art.
The art! That was the part of New Orleans that inspired me the most. We walked all the little art galleries along the French Quarter, witnessing names we knew and names we did not, amazing works of surrealism and impressionism, modernism and even Americana. I’ve never had a taste for Americana, and here I found an artist that really moved me, evoking images of eagles and bison and pioneer presidents. I saw Takashi Murakami, Salvatore Dali, and Erte. Inspiration.
I saw a painting by an artist I can’t remember the name. It was quite large, maybe five feet tall and a little less wide, oil paints, an immense, evocative turbulent green sky, thick with mystery and malevolence. Along the bottom of the frame was a stark landscape, vague, only hints at shapes, jagged lines, maybe figures, maybe slim trees stripped bare, the sky lightening slightly just along the horizon, threatening to be crushed beneath the abstract despair of the sky overhead. This was my favorite painting of all the art we saw. It cost somewhere near $10,000. If ever there was an incentive to become wealthy, it would be to collect amazing works of art. Not for the sake of collecting for value, but just to be able to surround oneself with such amazing energy. Ah. It’s enough to have been able to see it.
The few days we were there passed quickly. T and I shopped for a poison ring for me, because I told him how I used to envy my cousin’s such ring. The idea of finding a poison ring in a New Orleans voodoo shop was both cheesy and romantic. We found a few, including one that was locally-crafted, but none of them really spoke to me. Instead, we fell in love instead with a frampy crow figurine we met in a New Age shop window. We investigated antique knives and opera glasses, pointed out old wealth furniture in shop windows. We strolled by the water and by the market, enjoying the mild weather, hard to believe only a few days remained until Christmas.