THE WAYS AND MEANS TO NEW ORLEANS... My first trip to New Orleans was in 1992. It was the beginning of August, hot as hell here in Atlanta, and certain to be a near-death experience in the Big Easy. But I didn't care. It was a spur of the moment trip with my friend Malory. I had just finished starring in a play with my boyfriend, and during the run of the show, we had a nasty break-up. I threw him out of my apartment after he shoved me against the stove, because nobody gets violent with me in my own house, especially when I'd been paying all the bills. Mal was also just fresh off a relationship that had gone sour. We decided to get out of town, and since we'd both been reading Anne Rice novels, we decided New Orleans was the perfect spot. It was a haul, but with a few good mix tapes and my lead foot, we'd be there in no time.

People don't do mix-tapes anymore do they? I guess it's mix-cds. I cooked up a couple and Mal did the same. The first song on my tape: Bloodletting by one of my favorite bands, Concrete Blonde.

I've got the ways and means
to New Orleans
I'm doing down by the river
where it's warm and green
I'm gonna have a drink
and walk around
I've got a lot to think about...

We did have the ways and means and off we went into the unknown. A road trip to a destination always seems to fly by (it does for me, anyway) and we arrived in N.O. in the early afternoon and checked into the first hotel we found...a Days Inn on the outskirts of the city. It was cheap, we had a car, we'd find a place to park and hoof it through the city. I think we were both surprised by the skyscrapers and the shimmering white bubble that was the Superdome that rose on the horizon. We were so caught up in Anne's vampire stories, that we expected the highest point to possibly be belltower of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square.

I'll never forget when we took the Vieux-Carre exit off I-10 and dipped down into another world. It was verdant and green and the humidity so thick your skin instantly became slick with sweat. We made our way down Canal Street and found a place to park and walked down Bourbon into the heart of the French Quarter. Even in early afternoon, the historic street was packed with tourists and regulars filling their favorite bars. It was sensory overload. We wandered the streets of the Quarter, and we finally stopped in the Clover Grill (which had a sign when you came in the door that read "Be Nice or Leave"). I had seen the Clover Grill in that old movie This Property Is Condemned, where Natalie Wood runs screaming past it into the night after her spiteful mother exposes her as a prostitute to hubby Robert Redford. The Grill was a dive, but very cool and there was a waiter so damn cute I almost asked for his phone number. We had big sloppy hamburgers, and when we asked for "sweet tea," the cute waiter had no idea what we were talking about. He must have been from the north.

Mal and I caught the streetcar at Canal and went into the Garden District until the end of the line and came back. Saint Charles Avenue is lined on both sides with some of the most gorgeous homes you could imagine, big antebellum mansions that had survived for a century or more. We ended the day on the Riverwalk, walking along the Mississippi River and then back down into the chaos of Bourbon Street for a Hurricane and to soak up that Mardi Gras atmosphere that goes on 24 hours a days, seven days a week.

The next day, we went back to the Garden District and found Anne Rice's house on First Street, the one she used as home for the Mayfair family in The Witching Hour. There was even a plaque on the gate saying Rice lived there. We debated ringing the buzzer just to see if she would answer. I was a great admirer of her stories and I was in awe of husband Stan Rice's brilliant poetry. His beautiful words had already influenced my own work and I was dying to ring that bell. But we didn't. We walked on down to Magazine Street and wandered through the shops and bookstores. I found Stan's newly published anthology Singing Yet and it felt like a sign. It remains one of my most cherished volumes of poetry.

After walking around the beautiful grounds of Tulane and crossing over to Audubon Park, where we sat in the gazebo and I started getting ideas to expand my one-act play Porcelain into a screenplay. Then we jumped back on the streetcar and made our way to the Aquarium of the Americas, which was dazzling. I clearly remember walking through that long tunnel that bisected the main tank, so that the water and marine life was above, below and all sides, as if you were suspended in an air bubble. Then we went into a rain forrest full of critters, the blazing sun beating down through skylights. It was fascinating to Mal and I, who had spent far too much time in land-locked Atlanta. I've been to a couple of other aquariums, but the New Orleans one was so cool and exotic.

We went to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on the north side of the quarter and wandered through the high graves, built above ground to escape the water that is just underneath the surface. We found the tomb of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau and used a pen to make a red cross and left a dime on the ledge for good luck, as thousands of others had done throughout the years. Mal and I had a funny moment leaving the cemetery. The sun was hot and high and we had no water and we were both suddenly dehydrated. We drove aimlessly, unable to find a convenience store or fast food restaurant until suddenly a Wendy's came into view. I can remember Malory screaming. We ordered five waters and two Cokes and sat in the parking lot gulping them down. That's how hot it is in New Orleans in the dog days of summer.

We decided to jump on the ferry at the base of Canal Street and ride it across the Mississippi to the Algiers side. It was free to walk on and we sat on the top deck. The view of the city from the river was breathtaking. We rode it back and forth a couple of times just for the hell of it as the sun started to set and all the lights from downtown started to come on. We went back down into the quarter to walk around Jackson Square and listen to the jazz players and watch the black boys with bottle caps on their tennis shoes dancing on street corners. We had forgotten about the heat. We were becoming acclimated. Somehow, I managed to find a witchcraft store. It was innocuous looking storefront on Rue St. Philip, but we soon discovered that we were in the shop run by the New Orlean's coven. The helpful witch at the counter explained that witchcraft is a recognized religion in Louisiana, and then she helped me pick the right candle and oil for the spell I wanted to cast. Did it work...yes and no, but that's another story for another time. I've always had a healthy respect for the practice of witchcraft and have known quite a few witches in my time. All very good people, and part of the heart and soul of New Orleans.

The last thing Mal and I did before we left the Crescent City was take a tour of the massive Superdome. I wasn't too hip on the idea, but Mal really wanted to see it, so off we went. The tour started in the lobby and various rooms outside the actual field, which you caught glimpses of as you walked on the various levels. Then you went to the top of the structure and the tourguide brought you out into the seating area at the very top of the dome. Only from this height could you get the true scope of how massive this building really was. We wound our way down through the stands and out onto the field. I still don't give a damn about sports, but the Superdome was a marvel of architecture.

And then we came home. The trip back seemed to take an extra five hours and we had played out the mix tapes, but we sung along anyway. I'd be back in the Big Easy in less than five months with my new boyfriend, partying on Bourbon Street, getting way too drunk and writing pages of poetry. But that, too, is another post. As Mal and I drove home, we played Siouxsie & the Banshee's song Kiss Them For Me over and over. I'm playing it right now:

On the road to New Orleans
a spray of stars hit the screen
as the 10th impact shimmered
the forbidden candles beamed
Kiss them for me - I may be delayed...

I just got off the phone with Mal, and we're planning the next road trip. As soon as they'll let us in, we're going back to New Orleans. We may be delayed, but we're ready to be kissed by this place we both love.


Anonymous said…
Lisa Allender here, saying Woo-Hoo, Collin, what a lovely homage to New Orleans...
Hearing about your trip, takes me back....
I had a beautiful visit myself, way back in May 1990, with an exlove, Olivier, and his parents (from France) joining us...
The convent we took photos of, the restaurants in the French Quarter, the beignets at Cafe' du Monde--aaah...
and music--there were always flowers everywhere, and DELIGHTFUL jazz music, floating out of doorways, through open windows.... I floated in New Orleans...Floated on air and music...

God Bless the good people of New Orleans, and SHAME to the people who allowed what could have been only a "bad" hurricane, to become a catasrophic event.Shame on you, FEMA.......
Anonymous said…
Excellent memory piece!

Anonymous said…
Angry poetry please! I know you have some.

Collin said…
Yes, as a matter of fact I do, Gavin. See my note above...and wait for it! :)

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