The Big Bad It

I arrived in New Orleans on the tails of Jack Kerouac. Promised shotgun houses and back street jazz I wanted to hear that brass. To grow roots on street corners drinking up stories and anticipations, I wanted to live like my grandparents.

So I, the Native American Animist, joined a Christian outreach program exchanging a week with Habitat for the free ride down. I remember falling asleep in Connecticut. I remember staying up an extra hour to watch the sunrise in Virginia, and buying cheap cigarettes in Tennessee so I could smoke with the truckers in Alabama.

The first thing I saw were sky scrapers pushed into casinos and casinos pushed into Dollar Generals and it was all the backdrop for middle class tourists wandering the French Quarter. There are homeless cats with brochure salesmen outside the little kitsch shops selling voodoo dolls and I ran into more than one joint selling “I love New Orleans” t-shirts. They sell birth control and chocolate milk, Tylenol and hot sauce, all laced with the strip clubs serving those 21 and up beside the bars which open before lunch.

Mr. Kerouac, my friend, the times they are a-changing. New Orleans is no longer the same story. It is a harmonic metropolis.

***

Outside the concrete and steel-plastered walls of the city, there’s a story being told by patches of grass and rotten wooden houses. By boats sitting on street corners with their engines smashed in and swimming pools filled with mosquitos. It is told by the black-eyed kids slouching into their bicycles next to concrete gas stations and little boys who play in small church courtyards while their dads tell us about the kid they lost last month. Outside the money-making districts, people had to either harden or leave.

I met a man named Kendrick. While I was on break he offered to smoke a bowl with me. I declined and instead accepted the raisins in his pocket. He sat down on the porch next to me and I asked, “Were you here during Katrina?”

A lanky teen appeared. “Yeah, did you see me? I was on TV. I was that guy who jumped off the roof into the water. The news stations kept replaying it over and over again.”

Kendrick looked at me. “I didn’t eat or drink for days; eventually I had to jump into the water to save myself. There were bodies everywhere and all the old men sitting on the roofs kept yelling out for me to save them, there was nothing I could do.”

Across the street a house is sinking. The first responders sprayed a red X on the front, three weeks after Katrina. Sentence fragments dangle besides the marking. The first says, “two dogs in house, barking”; the second, “barking has stopped, dogs can’t be found.”

The dogs, can’t be found. The houses, can’t be found. The scrapbooks, the family photos, Grandma’s wedding day gift of china doll cabinets cannot, and will never, be found.

But empty space is the birth place of creation, right?

And maybe New Orleans isn’t Kerouac or the fifties but this, this is a redemption story. This is being alive when so many people aren’t, this is sitting on street corners listening to high school cats play the brass like nobody you ever heard and this, is it. And this New Orleans has it, the it factor, the big bad it. He, she, they have it like no one else. It comes from the crawdads and pours out into the purple beads until the House of the Rising Sun is playing blue notes and pentatonic scales and it, is New Orleans.

It is diving off roof tops days after the storm, it is swimming past bodies when the water’s still warm, it is seeing the sights a soldier couldn’t stand and then standing up right afterwards, it is something beautiful. And yes, I’m just a tourist who can only see so much but it doesn’t take an artist to see something beautiful. It is broken, it is battered, it is lovely, lively, New Orleans.

 

David Rico is pretty much one gigantic scratch-n-sniff banana sticker: he is slightly tacky and a little bit off his rocker but ultimately smells rather good and makes people happy. He has lived in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and California but has spent most of his life in the Appalachian Mountain Range carving wood and making rock sculptures. He can read proficiently. Send him an email at david.rico@yale.edu.

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