Thursday, September 01, 2005

City Of New Orleans

The year I turned thirty, one of my best friends and I decided to commemorate the occasion (she had turned thirty six months prior) by reverting to our childhood tomboy selves and buying skateboards. My friend, also named Lisa (she is one of the reasons that I am "Other Lisa") had skated as a kid. I had not. But neither of us had experienced this new generation of skateboards, with their shock-absorbing wheels and maneuverable trucks. We both bought lovely Lance Mountain boards, customized them with stickers and proceeded to spend our lunch hours cruising around grotty Hollywood streets, trying to master jumping off curbs.

The climax of this summer of experimentation came when we booked train tickets on Amtrak that would take us across the country on a three-week vacation. Our ultimate destinations were New York City and Washington DC, with a stop for me in Princeton NJ. Our itinerary was in part dictated by the presence of former relationships in several of these stops, guys who had played far too important a role in our lives (unresolved, ambiguous roles at that). So we called our adventure, "The Old Boyfriends Tour," and set out with our skateboards and dufflebags.

It was an amazing trip in so many ways. But the part I'm remembering now is the 24 hour layover we had in New Orleans. Both of us had come from traumatic encounters with the aforementioned old boyfriends. Licking our psychic, and in my case, literal wounds (I'd had a truly spectacular, nasty crash on my board in Princeton, trying to keep up with the Blast from My Past, who was on Rollerblades), we pulled into New Orleans on an ageing Amtrak and plotted what we'd do for the next day and night.

We had that whole, starving students mentality back then. We weren't going to spend money on anything so bourgeoise as a hotel room, not when we'd be in the place less than a day. Besides, wasn't New Orleans a party town? Why not stay up all night instead, we reasoned?

You know how there's that theory about how teenagers' brains aren't mature in the judgment centers? Maybe we were reliving that part of our pasts as well.

We spent the day wandering around the French Quarter, the river promenade, Jackson Square. We visited Marie Leveux's Voodoo Emporium, the Absinthe Bar, drank Hurricanes from plastic cups, ate beignets and sipped chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde. The French Quarter had a funky scent, mossy river mixed with stale water and just a hint of sewage. The wrought iron balconies, the flowers, the sense of tradition and secrets and decadence - all the tacky souvenirs on Bourbon Street didn't take away from my impression that here, at last, was a place that lived up to my every romantic expectation of it. I took note of the "For Rent" signs in the Quarter - "check it out, Leese - this place is cheap! I could move here."

I knew the reality of New Orleans wasn't all that romantic, for many of her citizens. I knew that a huge percentage of them were desperately poor, that there were no jobs, that the crime rate was brutally high. But still. I knew also that this was a singular city, a special place. A treasure, really.

Some time after midnight, both of us crashed, big-time. The combination of sleep-deprivation, emotional stress and Hurricanes, I guess. All the chicory coffee at Cafe Du Mond couldn't keep us awake any longer.

We parked ourselves and our skateboards on a bench in front of the Cathedral. It was about 3 AM. Our plan was, one of us would stay awake while the other slept.

Lisa fell asleep immediately. It fell to me to keep the first watch.

I tried. I really did. But my eyes kept closing of their own volition. My head would suddenly loll to one side, and I'd jerk awake. This happened several times.

Then, as my eyes drifted shut once more, I heard a soft voice next to me.

"Don't you worry," he said.

I turned to look. Standing there was a security guard, a young Black man.

"Don't y'all worry," he repeated. "You go ahead and get some sleep. I'll make sure nobody mess with you."

"Thank you," I said. We smiled at each other, and then I closed my eyes. I knew I was safe.

No comments: