We skipped the Ozarks to spend an extra day in New Orleans. Coming through on I-10 west, we were smacked with the humidity of The Big Easy. The hum of life streaming out of the swamplands was at full force as we drove up to the shotgun home we had rented out for the week. Our host, Michael, was quick to point us in the direction of the best bars, ones that would allow us to capture the spirit of New Orleans in the short amount of time we would spend there. We offered what little excitement we could muster and quickly ushered him out of the home, collapsing onto beds the moment he had been whisked out. We did not see Michael again for the rest of the stay.
I awoke the next morning eager to walk around the fabled French Quarter. The old buildings and rampant life I had only seen in movies and read about in stories were sure to give me fodder for the poetry I wanted to write. Throughout the trip I had been buried in O’Hara, captivated at how he was able to capture ironic twists and relay them with such beautiful simplicity. How he was able to capture the whole realism of life and wrangle it into a few short sentences was an art I had not yet mastered. But New Orleans would give me the life I needed to wrangle, I was certain. Baltimore had been hot; the fever grip of the heat wave had left me ravished and too exhausted to think. But in New Orleans, the humidity was inviting, embracing. Perhaps it was because we were close to Interstate 10, the highway that would take us all the way home after an arduous 8,000 miles, that I had finally felt comfortable enough to sit and write. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, in Montana and Wyoming I only had the attention to write fleeting thoughts, the excitement of the trip had left little time for sitting and writing. In New Orleans, I would sit and write.
After talking to the property owner, Todd, who lived next door, we set out ready to find what kind of life permeated the jazzy streets. We had breakfast at a quaint French café and later at night, on Frenchmen, a high school Jazz band played on a corner riddled with people dancing in the awkward way people dance when they are overcome with the music of the moment. Along one of the historic mansions that had been painted over a bright blue and repurposed as a bar, a few poets with typewriters sat outside writing poems on the fly for money. It was a talent I wish I had and after receiving the poem I had paid for, it was apparently a talent I was certain I had. The buildings, which had mostly been painted in all sorts of colors, were the perfect backdrop to the frenzy that surrounded us. Most days were like that, we ate great food and at night found ourselves on one of the balconies drinking cold sweaty beers in the still humid night watching the carnivalesque party played out below in a cacophony of color and sound.
It was after we had taken in a few nights in the historic streets that I found myself again on the porch of the shotgun home exasperated with the audacity of a city that had effectively met every expectation. I was relishing the early evening drinking coffee when Todd walked out and asked me for a cup. I obliged and he sat next to me. Todd was a transplant; someone who, I had come to learn through various conversations and perfectly placed stickers, wasn’t too happily accepted in New Orleans. Certain natives felt that transplants diluted the nature of the city. But he had a certain way of talking that completely encapsulated the jazzy nature of The Big Easy. Todd had a laid-back tone of voice and punctuated his sentences with “Baby” or things like “That’s an odd little number”. He had a grow-house out back, a few bikes to ride around the city and was replete with stories. He spoke in syncopation, as if keeping time to a metronome only he could hear. He would start a story, stop and just when you began yours, he would jump in and end his. He had a funny way of not letting anyone talk, but I did not mind.
When I did get a chance to talk, I told him about our trip; about Fourth of July in D.C., about the Baltimore humidity and the heat in Philly. I told him about Mount Rainier’s majesty and the reflection of the Tetons across Jackson lake. When he listened, he listened intensely. I finished the recapitulation with my lifelong excitement to come to New Orleans. I told him I was a writer and that New Orleans had captivated me: the energy of it, the utter happiness of its residents, the musical nature of it all. He had assented to all of those, claiming it was what had brought him there 18 years prior. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to live here, it’s all so beautiful.” I finished.
For the first time, Todd grew silent, as if his metronome had stopped. He stared at a two-story brown house across the street from us and then looked earnestly at me. After some time, and without the musicality, he said, “You have to remember one thing. Nothing this beautiful comes without its price. For every one of those beautiful moments you’ve seen, there have been bad ones, worse than you can even imagine.”
I let out a slight and uncomfortable laugh, not wanting to be brought down from the cloud of illusion I had built for myself since leaving San Francisco a month prior. I was not prepared to abandon the stories of grandeur and restlessness; the old American Dream to drive across the country was a romantic tale I had always wanted to write about. I naively assented to Todd’s caution, mumbling something about Katrina and the travesty it had been. I said something about it being more a political disaster than a natural one.
“The hurricane was only the beginning. We never got it together after that. If you want a story to tell, I can tell you about the man who threw his wife into the oven out of sheer desperation. Out of starvation. He cooked her and then threw himself out the window. Couldn’t even bring himself to eat her.” Here he paused and I paused too. The hum of the city surrounded us and we sat silent, bathed in humidity and the call of the cicada. He stared at the two-story brown house in front of us, “Say baby, why don’t you bring me another cup, I think we can both use it.”
© Pilar Aurelio Munoz
About the Author: Pilar Munoz is a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso. He
is currently a writer for The City Magazine in El Paso, Texas.