A World Turned Upside Down
And the search for what was
What if everything you wished for came true?
I wish I had more time. I wish I didn’t have to go to school. I wish I didn’t have to go to work. I wish I could sleep in. I wish I could spend more time with my kids. But I wish I didn’t have to waste three hours a day driving them back and forth to practice.
I wish I could plant a garden. I wish I had time to read. I wish there wasn’t so much traffic on the Twin Span. I wish I could find a parking spot at Lakeside Mall. I wish Port ‘O Call wasn’t always so crowded. I wish I didn’t have to wear a jacket to Galatoire’s.
I wish it was 2019.
Can you imagine you would ever think that?
And then there’s Bourbon Street. How many times have you heard someone say – or said it yourself: I wish Bourbon Street would just shut down. Go away. Disappear. What a nuisance. What an embarrassment. New Orleans’ lowest common denominator attraction for social intercourse; a place where – even if it hasn’t rained for two weeks – there are still puddles along the curbside.
Bourbon Street Gravy. A mixture of spilled beer, cigarette ash, crushed oyster shells and involuntary human emissions. Wouldn’t you almost fever dream of taking a deep breath of that fetid aroma now? To inhale all of that iniquity, incivility and filth. To fight and jostle among the Philistines and drag queens, covering your eyes and ears to save your soul, cursing the very existence of karaoke, Jimmy Buffett cover bands, mechanical bulls and Huge Ass Beers.
Just to feel alive again?
After Katrina, remember how all the righteous holy folks said the storm was God’s wrath upon a wicked city? How they opposed the notion of trying to save this place. How it was better left to wash into the sea. The great irony, of course, being that basically everywhere except the French Quarter got whacked in that one.
It’s like the Garden of Eden, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Calvary, Galilee and the Mount of fishes and loaves all got smote, but Sodom and Gomorrah remained.
But what’s all that got to do with the price of tea in China?
I was being ironic with that statement. In times of pandemic, sometimes you need to make that clear.
The Chinese curse, right? Be careful what you wish for.
Comparisons between Corona and Katrina are inevitable. But also impossible. Other than preying upon our faith in Government, they are no two-headed beast. They are worlds apart. They are the physical versus the existential.
After Katrina, people stayed away from their homes, lost their homes. For Corona, we were confined to them. Katrina made for horrifying TV images of pandemonium and terror, running wild in the streets.
Now, just empty streets. No shock and awe. Not so good for ratings. Not like choppers and flood waters and looting and the howling mewls of the dead and dying. They go silently now into the not-so-good night.
And we can’t blame State Farm for any of this. Although it seems tempting to do so. Somehow, there must be a link, right? Unfortunately – like Katrina — we had a heads up to prepare. And – like Katrina — we didn’t do so well with that.
What is not dissimilar are the doomsday phrases within reach. The hidden enemy. The enemy within. The enemy is us. Inimicus intus, for you folks out there with Jesuit educations. Whatever. Here’s some new Latin for you: Nos omnes interfectionis meae.
Translation: We’re all screwed.
But after Katrina we were able to reach out to each other. That’s what kept us alive, gave us hope, kept us in touch. Now, no touching. Evita: I kept my promise. You keep your distance.
Back then, we commandeered plasma screen TVs in a city with no electricity and looted choice athletic wear in a city with no gyms. Nobody ever said panic brings out the best in us. Now it’s baby wipes and hot dog buns.
A world gone mad, yes. A city gone madder. As of press time, New Orleans was not only the fastest growing COVID-19 incubator in America, it was the fastest growing in the world. I hope that term “was” stands the test of time.
Was it Mardi Gras that did this to us? Or just our constitutional incapability of not socializing, of not bear hugging, bro-bumping, of crawfish shakes and second lines. But you can’t have a second line without a first line.
For Katrina, we had our stoops, our porches, our sidewalks and our (blown apart) pulpits from which to commingle, commiserate, commend, command and condemn. Now we just have our premium cable and our pets to scream at.
And our partners and kids and parents but…don’t.
Weird that one of those itinerant preachers who throng to New Orleans for Mardi Gras to tell us all that we’re going to burn in hell caught the virus here this year and has since died. I admit, that was investing your all into your faith.
I guess there’s something noble in that. But what?
I reckon they’re happy now, the self-righteous and the self-damning. Watching all those TV images of deserted streets here in the Big (un)Easy this spring. The difference between now (C) and then (K) being that this one could come to their hometown also, unbeknownst.
This ain’t no Bourbon Street flesh/flash dance, absorbed and admired from a distance. It’s time to show your own wits. The clock ticks. Droplets in the air, traversing our once-safe havens, poisoning our complacency, encroaching upon our man caves.
“Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a whole little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it,” said Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” What to do with it, indeed.
Strange how, even in a worldwide pandemic, New Orleans somehow finds/found its way to the center of the story. As is her way. Even when she can’t dress out and paint her face and sashay down Bourbon Street, she still finds a way to say to the world: Look at me. I am gorgeous. I am legend. I am still here.
God, I love this place. An epidemiological hotbed of intrigue. An impossibility of possibilities. Staying six feet away from everyone else – in New Orleans? You’ve got to be kidding, right?
Katrina’s got nothing on this. You either stayed away or floated away.
At least this time, we are grateful for our grocery stores – walking through the front door rather than going through smashed windows. Gratefully ponying up money for our (hoarded) goods. But I guess hoarding is better than looting.
Or maybe it’s just another word for white-collar looting.
People have been trying their best to adapt, adjust, amuse. Musicians playing laptop concerts from their bedrooms. Blowing horns on their balconies. Writers reading new stories on YouTube. Art markets online. Carry-out and drive-through for the brave. And the hungry.
Oh, how we try in times of danger and despair. But we’ve done this before. Sort of. We’ve got this, right? But, face it: There’s no such thing as a virtual Lucky Dog.
(Funny side note: Lucky dog guys always wear/wore food service protective gloves and nets over their beards. Way ahead of their time. My partner calls them the Lucky Dog Prophets. They knew way before the rest of us how the End of Times would arrive. With mustard or onions? Was Ignatius Reilly the true Messiah?)
Lucky Dog Prophets. Great name for a band. My partner, she has a gift with words.
And what fun is eating crawfish alone? Hell, I have friends who don’t even like – or are allergic to – crawfish, but they treasure the tradition. The process. The ceremony. The steam. The smell. The Abita.
The oohs and ahhs of the first ceremonious bug dump onto laid out newspapers, corn and sausage and onions spilling down the sides, even rolling off the table.
Do you remember a time when we would pick that up off the sidewalk and eat it? Now we bleach it first. This is/was the fellowship that is New Orleans’ most treasured form of performance art. Now the crawfish shake is the art of the deal across America.
I kept my promise. You keep your distance.
We’ve been living in a movie all this time. Several movies. Actually, a whole bunch of movies. Oddly, most of them are quite good, if not chillingly prescient. “Contagion.” “Outbreak.” “I Am Legend.” “12 Monkeys.” “And the Band Played On.” “Blade Runner.” “The Andromeda Strain.” Lots more. All the way back to “Nosferatu,” the 1922 silent classic. And, of course, the New Orleans classic, “Panic in the Streets.”
I imagine they all had a good run on Netflix last month.
But imagine an alternate universe. What was reality as the New Year began, as a new season approached, the time for rebirth, for the birds and bees — not the Silent Spring we have inherited.
Inherit the wind. But wear a mask.
Imagine. Tiger Woods won the Masters again. Gonzaga won the NCAA. LSU is barnstorming the SEC baseball season. Zion Williamson leads the Pelicans into the 8th seed of the Western Conference and then steamrolls all the way through to the finals. He wins Rookie of the Year, MVP and a really cool trophy.
In reality, with the season canceled, he volunteered to pay the salaries of laid off workers at the Smoothie Kind Center. The vendors. The folks who wear protective gloves and face masks for a living. Doling out our dogs and Dippin’ Dots.
Zion is still a teenager. Larger than life with a heart as big as the moon and a smile even bigger. Do they make people like this anymore? Where and how did he become this person he is, this behemoth of laughter and generosity.
This is his world now. Will you remember Zion?
In that alternate universe, Pre-C, you started reading this article but realized you don’t have time to finish this article because Amanda Shaw is playing an early set at Jazz Fest and it’s time to vamoose. Because her set at the French Quarter Festival (which didn’t happen) was smoking hot and you want to catch her again (but you won’t).
The good news: All of your Fest Freak friends and family who were going to descend upon the city, six of them coming to stay in your two-bedroom apartment, aren’t/didn’t. Which prevents another run on toilet paper at the grocery, so that’s good.
The downside: What would it be like to go an entire Spring without a Vaucresson sausage po-boy?
Oh, the horror.
It’s makes you realize that – despite all the condescending side-eye – first world problems are legit.
New Orleans is and always has been a petri dish. For disease, epidemic, fire, flood, violence, sex and obesity. It’s our thing. It’s what we do. Too much of everything against the advice of everyone.
America says no, we say yes. America says HELL NO, we say HELL YES! And so it goes. To our reverie and detriment, to our revelry and demise.
But still standing.
Like Katrina, our community is thinned out by disaster, some folks never coming home again, the rest of us trudging on. We have to. It’s a time to show our wits, not our tits. A time for everything. Turn, turn, turn.
Remember that song? Well, remember this: If you’re going to sneeze, turn away from me.
The lyrics to that classic Byrds hit from 1965, a defining song for the moment, were actually written by Pete Seeger, adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. To every season. Prophecy tell us that the meek shall inherit the earth. But who else is there? Keith Richards?
Actually, that would be a place to start. An intractable, indefatiguable, indestructable immuno-system – blessed with the gift of rock and roll and the blues. A start for the Brave New World. Too bad he doesn’t live in New Orleans. It seems like he should.
Where keeping on just to keep on is a way of life. The thing we do, the dance we dance. The song we sing.
We are the world. We are the children.