I didn’t hear live jazz playing in New Orleans on this trip until Tuesday morning. The playback in my mind is of jazz spilling out of every open doorway in the French Quarter, usually accompanied by a street corner barker trying to hustle the crowd into his joint for a girlie show. Times change.
That memory is indelibly etched, but it was a long time ago. Anything pre-Katrina is a long time ago now. But for me, those memories represent a different watershed.
I was 19, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s, my parents took me along on a trip to New Orleans. Another couple went along on that trip, I don’t know why. But having them along changed everything.
When we arrived at the hotel, I asked at the desk if I would be able to go into the bars to listen to the music. The desk clerk looked at me and said, “you’re old enough”. For the first time, I was treated as an adult. Suddenly, instead of being on a trip with my parents, I was one grown up on a trip with 4 others. The difference was incalculable.
I’m aware, looking back, that I never went out alone. But on the other hand, I was treated as someone whose preferences mattered as much as anyone else’s. I was, and am, a night owl. My mom is not. My dad tried to stay up 20 hours a day, I swear, but that was pretty normal for him. The other couple were both night owls like me. I spent more time out with them because my schedule matched theirs. In retrospect, my mom was the odd one out.
I went everywhere. I was never carded. And yes, I ordered drinks if I wanted them. Hurricanes of the alcoholic variety in NOLA are infamously watered down. The music was amazing. I recognized absolutely nothing, and I didn’t care. Every bar had a band, and if it sounded good from the street, we’d just wander in and sit for a while. It was the way the players would play together, then solo in the middle, and then pick up the piece as a group that astonished me again and again.
But in walking the streets of the Vieux Carré, window shopping and music sampling, the seamier side of Bourbon Street was also on display. I may have been 19, but I was well read. I could see, even then, that every sin that mankind had invented, or possibly would invent, was for sale somewhere in the alleys of the French Quarter. That darkness was part of the gumbo that made New Orleans what it was, even though the city fathers and mothers tried to pretty things up for the tourists.
That trip was the last vacation I ever took with my parents. That winter break during my sophomore year in college was also the last time I ever went home to my parents’ house. There is a saying that there are two things you need to give your children, that one is roots, and the other is wings. That trip was one of the times when I very much felt the wings more than the roots.
When ALA went to New Orleans right after Katrina, I did not expect to see much of the NOLA I remembered. The hurricane had been devastating, and the boarded up windows bore mute testimonials to that devastation. The anti-FEMA t-shirts were less mute but just as devastating in their own unique way.
I wondered what the city would be like this time. The Creole flavor that was New Orleans took multiple cultures a few centuries to simmer just right. Five years isn’t long enough to bring it back. But there was a jazz band at Jackson Square that had a good start.