It’s a dang shame we can’t photograph music.
Although if we could, Arabic writing might be close as I can imagine.
Fortunately for me, a day that promised rain held off long enough for me to wander the streets all afternoon.
But not before I made that excursion on the trolley, oops sorry, that’s Texas talk, I mean street car, out to Whole Food Paycheck for my Texas salsa to eat with my corn chips tomorrow on the train.
That street car was a timeless wooden thang clattering so loud my ear drums were vibrating, rattling so wild my teeth were chattering, ding ding dingin’ all the way up St Charles Avenue, along a parade of grand old houses that bespoke a different time and a different tune. And I’m not talkin’ ’bout the music.
The wind blew through those wide open windows on the street car; occasionally the bruised purple clouds above broke, throwing down water like a sheet. The wheels and the tracks of those street cars must be all steel to make a noise like that.
I had my eyes peeled for Jefferson, because down Jeffereson I’d find Magazine and on Magazine I’d find my food barn heaven.
Wandering along past those beautiful homes reminded me of Rathgar, the stately old mansion in Grafton where my grandparents ran a home for girls whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t take good care of them, many years ago.
The houses were gorgeous, of course. The trees lining the streets, sprinkled in ancient moss, of course. Jasmine wafted my way, of course. The gardens, unsurprisingly I guess, and disappointingly, were of a genre we might term ‘modern maintenance free’.
Now and then I sheltered in dry spots beneath the old trees, moving on when the rain backed off.
I turned the corner onto Magazine and a pretty little street lined with small boutiques brightened my already raised spirits. Designer shops, coffee shops, a beauty parlour that specialised in shoes . . . of course, any southern belle worth her salt wants new shoes with her facial.
In food barn heaven I stocked up on everything but that fresh tomato sugar free Texas salsa and sat on a bench with my pocket knife crafting little smoked salmon rolls crammed with fresh mozzarella, snapping off salted dark roasted almond chocolate for dessert.
I licked my fingers clean, picked up my paper shopping bags and headed back the way I came to the street car, past the grand old houses . . . it wouldn’t take much . . . perhaps evening to fall, creating shadows on the trees and houses, mist from speckled evening rain, and the New Orleans of my imagination springs to life . . . but in reality I’m praying those purple clouds would not make good on their promise of rain. At least till I got those paper bags onto the street car!
I started singin’ a new song . . . jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo . . . apparently, I had to try the gumbo, it was just a small matter of where.
The street car turned up before the rain, its cyclops eye lit bright to let me know it was coming round the bend on those grassy tracks, and my paper bags made it home in time to put my cheese and fish in the fridge. I eat a second lunch of pilgrim food – hard cheese and apple – and head out again lookin’ for bookshops.
A beggar man stopped me near Canal Street, showin’ me his limousine driver licence to prove, I guess, he wasn’t really a beggar. He wanted money to get a shower at the Salvation Army.
‘You gotta pay to shower at the Salvation Army?’ I asked, incredulous actually. What are we all donating to ‘em for if they charge for a shower?
He assured me he did.
‘How much they charge?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Eight dollars,’ he said. Eight dollars for a shower at the Salvation Army?
I reached into my jeans pockets, figuring he could have what was in there.
Fortunately for him, there was a ten. I glanced at it, knowing it was more than I intended. Anyone who’s read My Pilgrim’s Heart knows that a while back I suspended my alms policy. It’s been reinstated on new terms, one of which is that . . . well, my reasoning’s irrelevant really.
I gave him the ten, figuring at least if he got clean he’d have a better chance of gettin’ a job. He wanted a hug. I declined. He said he understood, he was dirty. I said it wasn’t cos he was dirty. I was gonna say it’s because I can’t be bothered being hugged by men who want anything at all from women (and I’m not talkin’ about the money), but decided to keep my attitude to myself.
I walked on in air blown warm by the wind. I have a friend who says Los Angeles is the USA’s gaudy face, New York is the masculine meeting the world, and New Orleans is the moist softness of a woman.
I turn into Royal Street, one down from Bourbon. It is mid afternoon and men of varying backgrounds and cultures, tourists and locals with a problem with sobriety, swagger along the street with a beer in hand. Most would not do this in their home town . . . I wonder what is so heroic in their own minds they need to do it here.
I wander along Royal, past galleries with gorgeous paintings of the city, my favourite an oil with a turquoise background with four skinny lampposts swaying to music of their own making. I turn down Pirate Alley – how could I not? Check out this sign. I figure it must be for the pirates.
I follow the music to the end of Pirate Alley, and there in an open square I find the New Orleans I might have imagined in a modern world, for like Woody Allen I am prone to romancing the past and tangling it with the present, thus disappointing the future.
I sat on the steps among the elderly and disabled, the young and the sober, tapping my toes to a feast of sound. Gypsy fortune tellers touted for customers on the fringes. An old man with a golf club for a walking stick, not so sober, danced with a young woman, a little more sure footed but just as inebriated. I watched those musicians belt out music they pulled outa thin air, they were wonderful. I wondered why it is women don’t take up public space like this. I gave them a fiver.
I circle Chartes, still looking for bookshops. In the end I give up on them – they’re all antique shops parading books like ornaments, though one gives me a list of modern bookshops on the other side of Canal – and so I turn my attentions to the best seafood gumbo I can find.
I turn on my heel and head back up Royal. There is a French gallery owner who engaged me in conversation in his shop. He has lived in Noo ORlins for 30 years, he’d have to know where to find good gumbo.
He does. There’s the Gumbo Shop on St Peter and there’s Acme back toward Canal. He says try Acme. I take his advice.
On my way back up the street I found her, a woman playing music on the street of New Orleans. It was the melody that called me, stopped me, enfolded me and, when I sought to ignore it and move on, caused me to weep.
I turned to the music. She was playing a violin. If I am an angel without wings, as those fridge magnets like to say, then those are my notes. I try to move on, the music calls me back. I make a point of stopping properly – where on Earth could I be going that’s more important than this?
She finishes her tune. I walk up to Acme. I’m not particularly hungry, but I figure I’ll see if they take bookings – from the line outside I doubt it. Must be good gumbo.
I stand in line. I am one person. She lets me in, along with the woman behind me. We sit together at the bar, ordering our food and drinks, separate, each in our own world.
I order the gumbo. I order a beer. I raise the bottle to the mirror behind the bar and say ‘cheers, me!’
Okay, I forgot I was in public.
The woman beside me laughs and raises her glass. We toast each other. She’s a television presenter from New York.
Did you get that?
She’s a TV presenter from New York.
Serendipity is a blast, isn’t it?
We laugh. We chat. We go our own way.
But not before exchanging cards.
The gumbo is awful. It’s like dead food. Like tasteless beef stew with prawns in it. I’m sorry I didn’t order the po’boy the woman next to me ordered. Po’boy, I now know, is fried fish in white bread.
The beer wasn’t great either. Shiner Bluk Bock. I added the bluk.
But whenever I spend a single moment disappointed about my gumbo, I remember Marta, the television presenter from New York.
That gumbo and that beer were worth Marta – not for the contacts she generously shared, but for the hope of what’s possible in this world.
I just hope that hope spreads to restoring liquidity tomorrow when the banks open. For some $%^&* reason not a single ATM between the restaurant and my hotel will accept my card and I’ve given away all my paper money. At the very least I need a taxi fare to the train.
But that’s tomorrow’s problem.
Today, I’m a woman who’s spent two days in New Orleans.
And tomorrow, I’m going to Jackson!
The link is Johnny Cash and June Carter at San Quentin – were they singin’ about my Jackson? Dunno, but check it out.