The whole time I was in New Orleans, the word “grace” came to mind. The part of the city that I saw, the French Quarter and the Garden District are admittedly the tourist areas, though I did briefly tour the areas hit hard by Katrina with author Lynn Lorenz, who grew up there. There isn’t a doubt that the devastation will take decades to overcome, yet I was struck so many times by the people who live and work there now. They had such grace.
I guess I’m not talking about the clothes or the cars or the houses, but the fact that the people of New Orleans undertake things with a kind of pride of place, acknowledging the history of the city, acknowledging her faults and her shortcomings and celebrating her anyway.
I saw new Orleans as an aging femme fatale, whose careful use of light and make up and subtle spandex formed the structure of a magnificent, decaying beautiful dream. I dunno. Better folks than I have talked about New Orleans. But as a fellow aging femme fatale I felt a kinship to her, and a desire to help shore her up a little, I wanted to pass her my mirror and comb when the wind blew so she could make little adjustments. I wanted to buy her a cup of tea and make her sit with me outdoors under those vast wrought iron galleries just to listen to her speak. I wanted to hear all the stories of her life, the people she’d loved, the people who’d abused her trust. I loved her and wanted her to love me back.
So… speak she did, to me, personally. I am all agog. It was a reminder that it’s possible to be poised under all kinds of duress, poverty, naturally, because it’s a city of haves and have-nots, but also disaster and illness. It reminded me many, many times that there are people in the world who can take a rather humble job and make it into an undertaking of such caring it becomes high art, nearly theater. It was a bit of a reminder that youth and vigor hasn’t got the concession on beauty any more than we allow it to. (A nice reminder as I approach my fiftieth birthday.)
And thinking back, what made the least sense of all at the time because I had three days to squeeze in the love affair of a lifetime with a multi-layered city like New Orleans, I was once again reminded that sometimes, you have to slow down and notice and appreciate tiny details that escape you otherwise. That the city is like the river, and it has its own course and its own pace which is slower than an Angeleno’s normal tempo. Slowing to that pace enabled me to notice things I ordinarily take for granted.
As an example, I will say that the French Quarter was a feast for all the senses, but my nose particularly went on high alert constantly. The entire Quarter was redolent with the richness of restaurants and creole cooking, onions, garlic, bread baking, spices like caiyenne and herbs like thyme… all underscored with the oddly enticing scent of Worcestershire sauce and the occasional rich perfume of cigar smoke, maybe pipe tobacco…
Oh, my goodness… If I don’t get a book out of that it will only be because I’m too busy lying on my bed imagining it to write…