Lemme tell y’all something about New Orleans – Nuːˈɔrlənz. The place is old, old by American standards and it’s still standing. Still stands somewhere in the gap between the new and old worlds.
Was only a week ago I was there but already, I can only think about it and recall that place, as a dislocation in time. A city in its own orbit. A jumble of fractured urban snapshots and spaces; rendering, breaking up and uniting a whole number of different stories. Makes you question just how civilised you think you are… The Missippi like a thin fissure running thru the French then Spanish, English, Confederacy and finally American histories, wars, occupations and grandiose colonial plans laid out over the people and streets of New Orleans.
New Orleans stands in for America, for all that’s beautiful and grotesque about that country. Southern gothick, plenty of that. Jump on a streetcar, rattle down past cemetries. They call it The Big Easy: and it’s true, you can feel that. And that’s why the rest of America visits. That’s why you see the fresh ingredients of American malaise and contradiction all hanging out on the sidewalk together, getting grouchy about the heat and healthcare reforms.
We left early from Whitechapel. I packed up my ghost style, folded it neatly in a beat-up suitcase from India and took off. We got there late that night. Again a total fuckin’ rupture in space-time – you crawl out of the airport, tired and jet-lagged into something immediately hot, sticky and humid. Took a cab: Superdrome, the towers of downtown, The French Quarter – a fellow passenger points out Bourbon Street. I look up to see sexy women, clutching big drinks and flashing titty from the second storey of a French lace balcony. “This is a party-town,” that’s for sure.
Death is much closer in New Orleans, and that’s no lie. Haunts the neighbourhoods, stalks the sidewalks. Figure: death reminding, the poor boy who got 3 shots fired into him just two blocks away from our hostel, the night before we got there – that didn’t make the news. Death hanging sluggishly from the shoulders of every morbidly obese tourist, clogging the streets of the Vieux Carré, oversize-me-quick drink in hand. Death on the altars, death sold in the plastic made-in-China bones of the Voodoo Mart. Death in the laquer and black eyes of thousands of alligator heads, necks severed quick execution.
How many cities of the West do you need to visit?? The factories have died everywhere. We grew comfortable with it, settled in; the kind of place where men come to meetup with Lucifer, drink some whiskey, do a little business and finish with some live strip shows on Bourbon. There’s a lot of fun to be had in New Orleans. It seems to me that it’s been like that for some. Street philosophy everywhere, everyone weighing in with their piece. Some old boy, beer in one hand, bottle of some spirit clutched tight in the other, lookin’ at me with rheumy eyes ’cause I wouldn’t give him a dollar for some trick he couldn’t show me on the calculator. Scared the devil right out of me…
Later, I’d found myself alone on a Sunday, uptown, on Elysian Fields, sweating furiously and suppin’ on a 24oz tin of Arizona Sweet Tea. Waiting to get to the Divine Israelite Spiritualist Church at 3000 Frenchman Street. Oh my days. My God… My God I learned a lot on that day. They taught me about the Archangel Michael – “That’s Right!” – that if you let the devil ride with you, pretty soon he’s going to want to drive. That the spiritual mountains we face and must climb, are equally as important as the physical, corporeal forms in which they are manifest. I cried, dear readers, as the congregation sang hymns in harmony. They called me a brother and I thank them folks deeply for that.
828 North Rampart Street, that’s also right. Dreamt of Marie Laveaux, or did I? Maybe it was her (my companion)? That first night laying awake ’cause of jetlag got me wondering, are there more spirits, more ghosts lurking round the Lousiana swamps, than you can find in Whitechapel? Does the voudun bring the spirit or does it only find it there, in New Orleans, just like it found it back home? ‘Cause there are so many folks in New Orleans, so far away from home. To be honest, I found more of that old time religion at the spiritualist service. In just the chiming of Bishop Stricklan’s organ, big deep Southern Baptist deliveries, booming sermons and intonations of prayer. When he left the Baptist fold to enter into that Spiritualist Church, his Grandma told him, ‘don’t you go bringing that filth into my house, and he couldn’t, ’cause it was her house.’
Capital. At least, the spectre of capital. Now stands as an even greater foe than any of them negro spooks ever were. It has divided the city into plots and grids. And a car park is where the absence of capital has meant that someone can’t build something. Then the greenery starts to take over. This is a lush town – they got a suburb called the Garden District. Spanish moss hanging from big ol’ trees. Colonial-style mansions. Big palms. Northernmost Caribbean city somebody muttered. You can see what Katrina did. The abandoned buildings and empty plots, hundreds of ’em: all say Katrina. Black kids running screaming from the tumbledown haunted house on the block, all overgrown with snapped electric cables hanging down. One of them shouting they seen a snake. I believe that. Do you believe in Li Grand Zombi?? Now that’s an important question that everyone should be askin themselves in this day and age. And the answer hinges upon New Orleans.
It’s a beautiful place, and I’m missing it. The thing with London, is that everyone’s trying so hard to be cool. In New Orleans, everything is cool. What do you do then? Folks just get on with it. New Orleans, floats on a trumpet note. That, in some way, slaves breathed freely on American soil for the first times down on Congo Square or something like that. Birthplace of jazz, all that tourist gumbo. But some of it’s true. A room full of a cigarettes, dollars, bottle-tops, rosary beads, nails, beads, incense ash; a thousand prayers to some spirit world that Priestess Miriam Chamani clearly lives alongside, her icons and idols. The cultcha of migrations and people and music and food all mixed up, dem Creoles at it again. But New Orleans is comfortable in modernity. Shit, they even pushing it past that now. Just ’cause it’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the real world, don’t mean it can’t speak to us all with a strong and proud voice.
America, like you already know it. America, I’m sorry I don’t speak with a drawl.