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America Up the Road

I have just returned from a summer road trip which established a new personal record: l was gone from New Orleans for the longest period of time since l first moved here in 1984 — way more than a quarter century ago.

It was 31 days. Thirty one days of no politics, no potholes, no humidity, no crime cameras and no random late night reverberating pops that sound suspiciously like gunshots.

Thirty one days of no grilled oysters, no slow walks through cemeteries, no gallery browsing, no art markets, no street musicians, no strolling City Park, no Magazine Street window shopping, no Royal Street wishful thinking, no picking over scraps at the Green Project, no Greenway, no Clover Grill, no John Boutte and no encounters with random strangers who call you babe.

As cliched as that list appears, those are things l actually do, places l actually go and people l truly cherish.

Best of all, it was 31 days of no Facebook, no cable news and, for long and glorious stretches of time, no internet or cell phone access. That alone was almost as refreshing and renewing as the music festivals we attended, the rivers we swam, the lakes and waterfalls we saw, the small towns we visited and the great stretches of old Midwestern two-lane highways we traveled, unhurried and unbothered.

That’s not to say that l did not follow the news, not entirely at least. While bunked down for nearly two weeks in the quaint and nearly oppressively hospitable town of Staples, Minnesota (population 2,898; location, middle America), l became an avid and loyal reader of the Staples World, the small town weekly that covers the cities of Staples and Motley, Minnesota, with an eye and ear for detail that is not just admirable, but almost tenacious.

l like to know what’s going on wherever l am, being locally grounded, so to speak. I listen to local AM radio stations when driving through small towns — nothing like the local farm bureau reports and high school sports results to let you know where you are — and reading local papers to get a lay of the land.

And nothing — nothing — could give you a better sense of how far you are from New Orleans than by reading the local police reports. To wit: l went into the Times-Picayune archives to compare crime news with that of the Staples World on the same day.

Here are some examples:

June 9, the New Orleans Times-Picayune: Eighteen people were robbed in a 24-hour period, one was shot dead, and a man in the Treme was knocked unconscious by a perpetrator wielding a beer bottle.

June 9, from the Staples World: “Staples Police were dispatched to a report of an older female subject walking in an alley with no pants. Police made contact with the subject, who said she walks every night/early morning and had forgotten to put her pants on. The subject refused any medical care. The subject was advised.”

Advised of what, they did not say. I’m guessing to put her pants on?

June 16, from the Times-Picayune: There was a carjacking and three hold-ups in a 12-hour period in Central City.

June 16, from the Staples World: “Staples Police located an intoxicated female and gave her a ride to her parents’ residence.” There was a near-accident to the on-ramp of State Highway 10. A “near-accident.” It made the paper.

During the week of June 4th, a whole bunch of people got murdered in New Orleans. A trash compactor was stolen from a construction site in Staples.

I love New Orleans. After all, I’ve never had a trash compactor stolen from me here. Then again, I’ve never owned a trash compactor.

Sometimes New Orleans really pisses me off. But it’s good to be home after 31 days without. All this damn heat and these damn weeds and always wondering what might go down next. Great mysteries. Great discoveries. Enormous fears. My city.

Sometimes in moments of doubt, I look for reasons to love this place more than, say, Staples, where a river runs through it. A river you can swim in.

It’s not as humid in the upper Midwest, but if you can believe this, the mosquitoes are worse. They are more like bats then mosquitoes. They swarm you like velociraptors and you would swear they are going to carry away.

The only saving grace is that they are so damn big that you get a pretty good chance at smacking them on your skin before they bleed you dry. So there’s that. And everything else. Everything else America.

Not great again.

It never wasn’t.


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