“Grab somebody, come on down/ Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town/ Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ ’round/ Catch it down in New Orleans…You wanna do some livin’ before you die/ Do it down in New Orleans…” —The Princess and the Frog, “Down In New Orleans”
My final morning in the Big Easy started slowly. I packed in a quiet apartment, before my hosts were awake, and thought about how quickly it all had passed. I was so nervous about the trip, about everything involved, and now I wanted it to last indefinitely. I straightened up the living room and tip-toed over the creaky wood floors, savoring each minute left in the city.
R and I drove back to the French Quarter for breakfast. Early on a Sunday, it was just coming to life. Families strolled the streets and vendors unloaded their wares. It was just beginning to stretch out of sleep as we wandered in. We walked down to the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River. It was surreal, something out of books and history, something huge and untamable. We stood on its banks in the warming sun, staring out at the rippling water. I may as well have been visiting the rings of Saturn. It was all so mythic. It was smaller than I thought, quieter, but still magical.
We walked the banks back to the historic Cafe du Monde. Standing in the winding line, we watched people pass and eat. We inched into the shade of the cafe, thankful for a little relief from the ever-hotter sun. We picked our way to a table in the back, ready for the heavenly beignets to arrive. We swooned over the cute children, covered in powdered sugar, being wheeled in in strollers. Realizing that there is no dignified way to eat a beignet, I dove in. R laughed as a fine, white dust settled on her black dress and I fought to find a way to bite without sugar coating my entire face. Eating more than we should have, I finished my plate, reminding myself of Robert Frost’s insight: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”
After breakfast, we walked back to the car, taking a detour through the French Market. Looking through used books, shot glasses, produce and drinks, I picked up a small souvenir to send home and we hopped back in the car and headed to church. I was a bit nervous about going to church, but R wanted me to see it and I wanted to enjoy all of her New Orleans. We pulled up under a tree and she pointed out that we were parked next to a few of the remaining Projects. Even they were beautiful. Red brick houses with old trees lining the streets made even the neediest part of the city enchanting. We walked into the building and I immediately felt out of place. After growing up Protestant in a Catholic school, I still feel unwelcome when I attend mass. I sat alone in the pew as R ran to the bathroom, and looked around the sanctuary. Transported back to my theology classes in college, I noticed a lot about the church without speaking to anyone. It was bright, open. The colors were light and welcoming. The Stations of the Cross were closer to folk art than anything else and beautiful. R pointed out that there is only one crucifix in the building, and it is off to the side of the altar, out of sight. People walked around, some praying, others chatting. The choir warmed up, piano music floating through the room.
The choir leader emerged from behind the piano, which was adorned with a Saints pennant. She walked to the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a Saints jersey, black leather pants, and a gold chain belt. She talked to those of us who were seated, explaining the new language that has been added to the mass and how to follow along. She was lively and funny, engaging as she readied the congregation for mass. Then the service began. The music was enlivening. The piano played, a horn and saxophone joined in, a drum kept time and a tambourine made appearances. People sang with joy, the priests swaying at the altar as they did. Everything that could be sung was, and it was sung with zest. The mass was familiar but new, welcoming in ways it never was before. We sang the Lord’s Prayer. We sang “Peace Like a River” after the sign of peace, which was mashed up with Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling.” It was a party, relevant and accessible in ways that I had never felt before. The mass, which was the same one we crashed at the cathedral, was tailored to its congregation, meeting their passions and needs beautifully.
The priest’s homily hit me deeply. Tears flooded my eyes as I realized why exactly I loved this city. He talked about giving to Caesar what is his and God what is His. He talked about life, how it is fleeting and the important things are what belong to God. “Amens” filled the air as he continued, a far cry from the silent, formal masses I knew from childhood. He talked about money belonging to Caesar, because it is stamped in his image, and us belonging to God, because we are created in His. He instructed that we are to give everything to God, because our lives are His: money, time, burdens, joys. As the mass concluded, the recessional hymn was a game day tradition: “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And then a “Who dat?” chant started. R grinned widely, at home in room of people in love with life and their city.
We got back in the car and I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling. We drove through New Orleans and down to the 9th Ward. She explained the Ward system, described different neighborhoods, and prepared me for what I was about to see. As we rolled through the streets, I caught glimpses of gutted houses, rotten porches. Spray paint still marks homes, though I didn’t even want to ask what it all meant. As we arrived in the Lower 9th, I was fascinated by it all. I had expected something frightening, a graveyard of houses. I imagined dark, decaying messes, frames falling apart, destruction everywhere. In fact, there were cute little homes, brightly colored, all over. They were smaller than the ones on St. Charles, but I couldn’t help but love them too. She explained that every empty lot I saw was once a home. I saw quite a few, filled with dirt or looking like a lawn with no home to claim it. We crept over the jagged streets and asked if I truly understood what I was seeing. I apparently wasn’t. There were plenty of clear lots, but there were also countless homes in fields of grass, reaching at least shoulder-height. These were once homes too. What looked like a house built on a lot with meadows surrounding it was a neighbor to an un-kept lot. Then it hit me just how much was missing, what was lost. It was weird, driving past places where people died and entire lives were lost. We talked about whether we would come back, if we lost everything, or if we would just rather not see it all. She showed me the homes Brad Pitt was helping rebuild. They were cool, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of the aged New Orleans.
We got back on the Interstate, driving toward my trip home. We passed through a massive cemetery, lining both sides of the freeway. White tombs litter the graveyard, housing generations of families together. They keep the dead away from the mud and rain, keep them buried in the storm. As I hugged R goodbye, I was sad to leave it all.
I tried to explain to her what I had fallen in love with. New Orleans is a city at ease with tragedy. It is violent. Cemeteries litter neighborhoods. Brass bands lead funeral processions. Katrina still lurks, a scar that they cannot shake. In the middle of all of this is Bourbon Street, children dancing in church, artists lining the street. There are festivals and music, drinks for everyone and hospitality freely shown. It is a city with every reason to mourn and fear, but it chooses life. There is a choice to live the little time we have, to accept that it will end, and the determination to taste all that we can of this world. The passion and zeal of the city are inspiring, it bursts with energy and celebration. They dance for marriages and deaths, communion and touch downs. It is the opposite of my life–vivid and electric. It refuses to give up or grow up, greeting each day like a child: twirling through life with wonder and radiance.
“Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.” Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic