Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My New Orleans

I've been at a loss for words lately. I'd been meaning to do the usual posts on the beginning of the semester, how my graduate class has turned out much better than I'd feared, how I rearranged my office, some thoughts about an upcoming conference opportunity.

But with the death of Mr. Badger and the devastation of Katrina, it seemed impossibly trite to write about my office. Others have been far more eloquent than I about the Badger family's loss; I just don't know how to express my sadness at having lost someone I never met.

But Phantom's comment thread about sharing New Orleans memories inspired me. I never knew Mr. Badger, but I did know the Crescent City, and I don't know of a better way to honor her than to post some of my favorite memories. I don't mean this as a requiem: New Orleanians are tough people, and I imagine the city will survive in some form. But I don't think it will ever be the same.

Just a few of the images that are running through my head:

Walking past Café du Monde when a sudden gust of wind stirred up a miniature tornado of powdered sugar from the beignets.

Joining spontaneous parades that would erupt out of nowhere in the French Quarter.

The week when my musician brother and one of his musician friends came to visit me over Thanksgiving; both were so inspired by the city that they could hardly contain themselves, and we sang and played and wrote songs for five days straight.

That same Thanksgiving, I invited over several friends who had no family nearby, and we had a huge potluck dinner. It was the first time I’d made my own turkey, and it turned out to be one of the most delicious we’d ever had. Only problem was that no one knew how to carve it! We hacked it to pieces, ate every last bit, and remembered it fondly as the Turkey Chainsaw Massacre.

Food. Every time I’ve returned to New Orleans, I’ve had to plan the whole trip around touching base with all my favorite places. Muffalettas, red beans, chicory coffee, beignets of course, crawfish, jambalaya, Cuban food, Caribbean food, every possible combination of ethnic background and creative preparation. There is nothing like food in New Orleans.

Several of my friends, including the Poet, lived in a neighborhood where people still sat out on their front porches in the evenings; none of those houses had central air. Everybody knew everybody; everybody had a story. They were from all parts of the world, many different religious and ethnic backgrounds; they all looked out for each other. When I started dating the Poet, within a week the whole neighborhood knew me better than most of my family does.

My first Mardi Gras, I went to several of the parades with one of my best friends, a Franciscan priest. He is one of the kindest, most gentle people in the world, and it gave me no end of delight to watch him caught up in the glee of bagging more Carnival loot than anyone else. (He’s over six feet tall, so his strategy was to stand behind the families who had little kids. The krewes tend to toss more beads at the kids; he’d just tower behind them and gather up all the stuff that went wide.)

Later that same Mardi Gras (the full New Orleans version lasts about three weeks), I was following the Krewe of Comus down St. Charles. There was a guy on one of the floats who struck me as remarkably attractive, so instead of watching the parade go by, I ambled alongside it for a while, a little ways back from the crowd. Cute Guy ducked into the float and reemerged with the prize of all prizes… a frisbee! (Usually the krewes throw beads and doubloons; other tosses, such as flowers or plastic cups or stuffed animals, are more rare and thus far more valuable. A frisbee was a treasure beyond compare.) The crowd surged around him, hundreds of arms in the air, begging for the frisbee. But no! Cute Guy paused, surveyed the crowd, and pointed at… me, a good thirty or forty feet back. Heads turned; the crowd parted. Cute Guy spun the frisbee in a perfect floating path straight to my hand; I made a flawless catch. I blew him a kiss; the crowd cheered; the parade resumed. I wore an irrepressible grin for three days straight.

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