Friday, August 28, 2015

Living in New Orleans makes you unfit to live elsewhere

I went into the French Quarter today - my experiment with public transportation. Parking in the French Quarter is ridiculously expensive, and aggravating, to boot (yes, I used that word on purpose).

But the RTA Number 5 bus, Marigny/Bywater runs down Royal Street, and there's a stop right at my corner. So this afternoon, I checked the schedule and walked to the corner. Damn if it didn't come right on time!

It was comfortable, not too crowded, and it got me to the Quarter in about ten minutes. The only quibble I might have with it is that a city bus bounces and lurches on pitted, potholed Royal Street even more than my little car does. But I can get used to that. It's $1.25 a ride, or you can get a monthly pass.

Napoleon House
I didn't really have anything in mind, I'd just wanted to try the bus. But I wandered up and down Royal, looking into art galleries and antique stores. I went to Hove Perfumes, and bought a cologne sampler of three scents - Verveine, Tea Olive, and Spanish Moss. I checked the bus schedule on my phone and headed in the direction of Decatur Street.

I had a half hour before the bus came (the only drawback about the bus is its infrequency - every 45 minutes), so I stopped at Napoleon House, one of my favorite places, for a Pimm's cup. And after I'd been sitting there for a while, listening to the classical music they always play there, and sipping my cool drink, a man sat down two barstools over.

I forget what started us talking. Perhaps I started it - I might have told him that I spent my morning trying to write an abstract about British 18th Century poet William Blake while my next door neighbor played second-line music in the street outside my house. But when he mentioned he was a writer, he said that this coming 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was hard for him. I asked his name, and he introduced himself  as Chris Rose.

Chris Rose is a writer and former journalist for the Times-Picayune. His book about post-Katrina New Orleans, "One Dead in Attic" was a best-seller that I have on my shelf, and I read it again before moving here. In 2006, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary for the columns that became the book; his contributions also won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times-Picayune.

We talked, and I told him why I'd moved to the city. He spoke of his mixed feelings about this anniversary - a funny thing to celebrate, the drowning of your city. Most people who were here in 2005, he said, would rather forget what happened.

Another coincidence - while we spoke, he was approached by another person. This was Maurice Ruffin, a writer and an alumnus of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Program I'm enrolled in. I remembered him, because he hosted our incoming class's welcome celebration at the restaurant he owns with his family on Elysian Fields.

Before I left to catch my bus home, Chris invited me to check out a reading he was doing later in the evening, at a performance venue in the Ninth Ward. So... I bought a ticket and went, parking in a grassy field by the railroad tracks, and entered what looks like a warehouse.

Port Event venue
Chris Rose is not the person he was in 2006. Life's travails have changed him. Even his appearance is different from the photos and publicity shots from those years.

On stage, he's always in motion, turning and feinting, his long feet at the end of his skinny legs pointing one way or swiveling the other. Sometimes he balances on one foot, pointing the other toe in the air like an unsteady dancer, almost staggering across the stage. His voice is a rasp - often hard to hear, or going quiet with emotion. But that suits the material he's reading perfectly.

He didn't read from the book this evening; he read new material. Some painful, some hopeful. It is the anniversary of the drowning of his city. At one point, he said, he planned to leave, abandon the city. But, he realized, living in New Orleans makes you unfit to live anywhere else.

The word "resilience" is batted around these days, and he says most New Orleanians don't want to hear it. I'm with them - that was the word used by the HR counselors during my long year of losing my job. It's a word that means "suck it up."

Chris Rose says that The Big Easy is neither big nor easy, and he's right on at least one account. It's a small town, where encounters seem to happen almost magically. The fact that I ran into him - and at the same time, re-encountered another accomplished New Orleans writer - is just one of the odd miracles that seems to happen to you in this town.

Hope I'll see you around Napoleon House sometime.


David Duff said...

I worry about you, Auntie! I mean, smothered in not one but *three* perfumes you end up chatting to some strange man in a bar. Where will it all end, I wonder?

Still, I'm glad you are supporting your local bus company because as it happens, I was once a bus driver. Not one of those super sophisticated American buses with automatic this, that and the other. No, no, mine was a good old-fashioned double-decker with a steering wheel the size of a dustbin lid and a three-foot high gear stick requiring double-declutching. (Am I giving away my age here?) Anyway, if you were thrown around a bit then I am delighted that bus-driving, er, techniques have not changed. I used to hurtle down the straight road to my final stop at high speed as the old-age pensioners got up clinging to the backs of their seats ready to exit. Then, at the bus-stop, I would hit the brakes hard which would throw them all down the front for a fast exit. Well, it was my tea break and I couldn't hang around waiting for them to shuffle off!

Well, I have gone from being rude and boring to just being boring - so some improvement then!

Sean Colgin said...

I did a whole semester seminar on William Blake when I was a graduate writing student! He's the perfect inspiration for a life in New Orleans, I would think...