The first time I drove to New Orleans, it was on a whim. My soon-to-be best friend approached me and my then-boyfriend after class on a Wednesday afternoon and asked if we were interested in heading to New Orleans the next day for this thing called Jazz Fest; she didn't have a car and I did and I said sure, why the hell not? The next day we headed out after class, the 3 of us piled into my Dodge Omni for the 10-hour drive, chugging up I-75 to I-10, across the dead miles of the Panhandle, through the midnight fog along Mobile Bay. We reached a friend of a friend's house sometime after 2 a.m., and one of us--I don't remember who--had the gall to actually ring the doorbell. We crashed there for 2 days, ate some crazy brownies, wandered brazenly through streets we knew not at all, where the drinking age was 18 and we were one year older. I remember Joshua Redman in the Jazz tent, as The Boyfriend worked his way through a pile of tiny lobsters, the likes of which I'd never seen. I remember BB King in the rain, slipping in mud towards the port-o-lets, tracking down friends in the French Quarter--no easy feat in the days before cell phones. It was 1994. I was enthralled.
The next time I drove to New Orleans, 2 years later, it was a planned affair. The Boyfriend and I had spent the year--my second year of college, his last--planning and saving for a spectacular road trip that would take us from South Florida to the Pacific Northwest and back, with an extended stay in the Big Easy. We found a tiny international hostel just off Canal Street, definitely the coolest place I have ever stayed, and spent a week or so wandering the city. My memories of that week are spotty, mixed in with others from that summer of crazy mis-adventure, but what I remember most are sounds and smells, the way the magnolias cast shadows on the cracked sidewalks, the ever-changing smell of the Mississippi river, the steamboats singing, the powdered-sugar smiles we wore when the Japanese tourists snapped our picture at Cafe du Monde. There was a tiny alligator in the pond at the back of the hostel; every morning I'd sit on the back steps, roll a cigarette, and listen to the streetcar clanging a few blocks away. There was music in the streets and the people were rude as hell and I loved them for that--for not pretending to give a shit about me.
It's funny: the night I met Cade, I knew he was the person I would spend the rest of my life with. I felt no urgency, nor did I worry or fret when I didn't see or hear from him for 2 months after. I knew he would be back; I felt connected to him and that connection led to certainty. In the same way, when I left New Orleans for New Mexico in the summer of 1996, it was with the certainty that I would be back some day, and not just for a vacation. I had met my future home.
5 years later, I drove to New Orleans with everything I owned stuffed into my Toyota Tercel. My friend--the one who talked me into coming for Jazz Fest the first time--had landed a job at a yacht company in the East and another friend of ours from college was moving down from the Northeast and I had been looking for a reason to get the hell out of Florida. The house was one half of a shotgun double on State Street Drive. We went to Venezia that night and the next morning I got up and ran a few miles, trying to find Audubon Park and failing miserably. Somewhere around the 3rd mile I knew I was home. I can't explain it, though I've tried so many times in the 9 years since. The best explanation I can come up with is that I didn't get lost that morning; I didn't find my way to the park but I knew exactly where I was the entire time, and I am not one blessed with a keen sense of direction. And when I got home and got dressed and we headed to the Quarter for breakfast and HOT DAMN, it was Southern Decadence, well, that just sealed the deal: I was never leaving. I was home.
Last week we took a trip to Orlando to visit my family. As we drove across Mobile Bay I remembered, as I always do on that bridge, the first night I drove to New Orleans, when we crossed through the midnight fog, my friends dozing in their seats while I hunched over the steering wheel to get a better view. I had no way to know it then, but on the other side of that fog was a tranformative experience, and I'm not talking about a one-time thing.
Living in New Orleans is a tranformative experience. In many ways I feel like my life really started when I moved here. I was happy before, and I had accomplished much, but what I experienced that first morning on State Street Drive was a sense of being fully alive. And that's what keeps me here, that's probably what keeps a lot of people here, that feeling. Sometimes, when I spend a period of time in a place like Orlando, where the grocery stores are amazing and everything works and is clean and the kindergarten teachers come for home visits before school starts and you can drive 15 minutes and get out of your car and walk directly onto a beautiful, unblemished beach--sometimes I start to think about how hard things are here in New Orleans, I start to think about what life might be like if we lived in a place like Orlando. But that is utter nonsense, it's a moot point, because here's the thing: I would get lost a lot. I would feel homesick, and cut off from my real life. Fridays would be insufferable, as everyone around me would actually be working. One Tuesday out of every year I would have a severe existential crisis. I would have to stuff this exuberance away, this belief--no, conviction--that life should be lived every single goddamned day.
It's both wonderful, and terrible, to live in a place you love with every fiber of your being. It's wonderful for obvious reasons; it's terrible because, damn, what happens if someday you have to live somewhere else?