Friday, September 2, 2011

Gimme Shelter

10 years ago this weekend, I moved to New Orleans. I was a 25-year-old music school dropout, having spent the previous couple of years working in restaurant kitchens, watching my college friends defend their dissertations and move into real jobs, flirting with a running addiction. A year or so working inpatient psych in Sarasota, the suicidal kids and the overdose graveyard shift in the locked room on the ER floor, had burned me out and I had moved back to Orlando, defeated and hopeless and seriously considering moving out to the beach, where I could work on my melanoma, pick at my guitar, and brand myself an "outsider artist."

Luckily, in the summer of 2001, my brilliant and beautiful New College friends put together a grand trip to Northern California--Gualala, to be specific--and we spent a week lounging in hammocks, playing endless rounds of Spite and Malice, dipping our toes in the Pacific and floating in the more welcoming streams, acting stupidly and trading bits of our souls. There wasn't much reminiscing, as I recall; but then, there wasn't much distance between our graduation and our real lives.

On the hammock one afternoon, a third of the way through a bottle of gin with the endless blue sky stretched out above our heads, my friend H. and I talked about my shitty life and the various ways in which I had surprised and disappointed myself. Relentlessly pragmatic, my friend suggested that a change of scenery and the company of fellow travelers would help get me back on track. She had moved to New Orleans a few months before; why didn't I join her there?

And so I did. It wasn't a tough call, given my long history of visits to New Orleans, my deep dissatisfaction with life in Central Florida, and my generally impulsive approach to major life decisions. I gave notice at work, sold my old Wurlitzer (sniff sniff, sob), packed the Tercel to the gills and headed off in the darkness up I-75. It was Labor Day weekend and pouring rain in the Panhandle; in my rearview mirror I watched a car fishtail and swerve off the road and I gripped the wheel and sang The Mississippi Squirrel Revival song when I spied the Pascagoula exit. Near Mobile the rain cleared and for the first time my drive across the Bay was not obscured by fog. I drove on, through the tunnel and across the pitted roads in the East and past downtown until I found the blue arches marking my new neighborhood. My friend was out of town for the weekend and so I found a pretty good pizza place on Carrollton (Venezia), had a couple of beers on the porch of the house on State Street Drive, and slept fitfully on the floor. The next morning I stumbled around in my running shoes until I found Tulane University, went for breakfast in the Quarter, and found Southern Decadence.

I wrote in an earlier post about that first morning, leaving out the most salient memory which--as is true of most memories--is steeped in emotion and devoid of much detail. I remember the way I felt back then, the hopelessness and despair, the disgust and disappointment and fear. I was in the proverbial desert, crawling hands and knees towards the promise of some Other life, some adventure, some nourishment; I came to New Orleans dying of thirst. I had a tattoo on my forearm and a music degree. Not a great formula for success.

I wasn't used to being a loser, but I got over it pretty quickly and even learned to embrace it. I spent a lot of time at Tipitina's and one night, as I was hanging on the bar watching my friends dance, a man sidled over to me and told me I looked sad. I shrugged and drank my beer, wishing he would go away, but he persisted. "You're empty, I think. I can see it in our eyes," he said and I thought that's the stupidest pickup line I've ever heard and he said "But that's okay, this town gonna fill you up." He walked away and I took the shot my bartender friend handed me and thought well it can hurry the hell up, then.

It took a few years, a few jobs, a Master's degree, a massive levee failure, and several Mardi Gras seasons, but here I am ten years later, full to bursting, ruined on any other kind of life. New Orleans is like a member of our family, the wild and unpredictable one everyone likes to complain about but desperately hopes shows up at Thanksgiving dinner. The city has a life force--you've felt it if you've been here--it pulses with every emotion you can think of, it forces you to stay awake. And ten years later I will venture to say that perhaps, just maybe, New Orleans is for losers--for misfits and malcontents, for the ones who lost their way in the wide world and came looking for a richer life, who came crawling, hands and knees, to a place where the store clerks call you "baby" and the ladies in the grocery pinch your infant's fat thighs and there is a certain comfort in the rites and rituals and idiosynchrasies. A New Orleans existence is not something you can sleep your way through, and that's what saved me a decade ago from a life of complacent surrender.

New Orleans, I love you. Here's to another 10 years together.

1 comment:

ALM said...

This was wonderful. My pet name for our adopted city has always been the Island of Misfit Toys. And I mean that as a compliment, as a place that made me feel completely whole when the rest of the world made me feel lacking. Great post!