the New Orleans Four One One
Janet Kuypers commentary
New Orleans was always a magical place for me, a place where there was a party any day of the week, a place that time forgot, when everyone is used to the workday grind wearing them down.
Only a twelve hour drive away from Chicago, we’d take the bridge to New Orleans — The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world, highlighting only marshes, sparse decaying trees and desolation. Occasionally you’d see a house there, with wood peeling away and a crumbling foundation. Along that bridge, you could imagine the crocodiles and snakes, witness the bugs along the water, or the occasional vulture perched along the treetops. The water would ripple as you drive by, and you’d realize that you’re witnessing a different kind of decay before you entered the French Quarter.
I had been to New Orleans countless times before, usually renting an apartment on Dumaine, right in the middle of the French Quarter, meeting other friends. I’d photograph the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square (the oldest active cathedral in the U.S.), giggle at the sex shops along Bourbon Street, get trinkets from Marie Laveau’s House of VooDoo, or photograph her upright tomb, marked with crosses in brick chalk from past rituals. New Orleans is the only city where I’d get a Cafe Du Monde beignet; it’s the only place I’d get Abita beer, and I was always particular about getting my hurricanes from the Court of Two Sisters street annex on Bourbon Street (they tasted the best there, and the plastic cups came with a handle so you wouldn’t get your hands cold). And yeah, it sucked becoming a vegetarian and visiting New Orleans, since most every creole and cajun dish contains any fish or meat product from Andouille or the multi-meat muffuletta sandwich or roast beef or shrimp po-boy sandwich, to crawfish in ever seafood dish. But I guess I have to deal with being a vegetarian in this culture, just as I’ve had to deal with the homeless in the streets asking for hand-outs.
Speaking of asking for money versus earning money reminds me of one visit to New orleans, when we were eating and drinking on a balcony on a weekend night. Beggars would know to ask drunk people for money, hoping their drunken inhibitions would make them easy targets for free money, but I never gave money to people just because they asked for something I earned. But this one night when we were at an intersection corner balcony seat, a man was in the street singing, and would ask for requests for songs. I turned to my friend and said I wondered if he’d know a song I’d love to hear, so I shouted out “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl,” and he immediately broke into soulful song. I was so thrilled, and knew that he earned his money, as I threw change to him from my Bourbon Street balcony seat.
I even bought a Blue Dog lithograph there, about a half hour after Harry Connick Jr. bought two paintings from the artist George Rodrigue. The lithograph I purchased is called “The Blues Can Hide a Bad Apple,” which seems a perfect way to think about New Orleans — you go there for the escapism, the drinking and the parting, like a Las Vegas without the gambling, and you can gloss over the imperfections of this neighborhood. This degenerated place has become like a shrine.
In the mid 90s, I was at Mardi Gras, going with friends to visit a friend who had an apartment there, going to Tulane University. I got a bunch of beads from the Krewe of Tucks parade during the day (no, I didn’t lift my shirt for them). Then I remembered that I had been to New Orleans a number of time through my work, designing trade show food magazines. The company ran trade shows, and I was the trade show photographer, meeting the likes of Emeril Lagasse (ate at his restaurant Nola’s, named for his wife) and Charlie Trotter (who also was an avid Ayn Rand reader), and chef Mike Parr (who lived in the New Orleans area, and even had a balcony apartment on Bourbon Street to party at, stocked with Mardi Gras plastic cups from past parades). It took us an hour and a half to get through the crowds in the French Quarter to Bourbon Street for the Mardi Gras weekend, because this town of only half a million people suddenly had around ten million people there, all congregated in the French Quarter. But since Mike Parr had a balcony on Bourbon Street, and it was Mardi Gras and I was in town, we saw him there and got on the balcony on the Friday night before Fat Tuesday.
From the balcony, you could see that the swarms of people stretched for over a mile. It was a mob, no one could walk and the crowd just kind of carried them along. And all the men expected women to get naked for them in public for beads, especially if the women were on a balcony. And from my balcony I would see every few minutes a series of flash pops from instamatic cameras, coupled with a roar from the crowd, and I knew a woman lifted her shirt for the screaming masses. I refused, however, to strip for drunk strangers, when I knew they all expected me to, being on a balcony and all. Besides, I had my own beads, I didn’t need to degrade myself for what they were offering.
So men would look up at me and stretch out their arms, looking up inquisitively, as if to ask either for me to give them my own beads or for me to strip. And since I wasn’t stripping and had plenty of my own beads, I decided to turn the tables and see if men would accept the same conditions they asked of these women.
When they looked up at me for something, I would yell down at them, “drop your pants.” That’s when the men would look up at me, confused, because the women are the ones that are supposed to be doing the stripping, but in general I got two responses from the men: either they would look at me like I was crazy and walk away, or they would shrug, as if to say, “okay,” and then they would start unzipping their pants. Then they would make a gesture to turn around, as if to ask, “do you want to see my butt?” and that’s when i’d yell, “the front,” and then they’d turn back around, with their pants and their underwear at their knees, and start moving their hips (which I never asked for, by the way).
Over the course of the evening I managed to get at least twenty men to strip like this for me, and I was amazed that there was this society, this microcosm of society, that allowed this kind of debauchery in the streets, a sort of prostitution-for-plastic-beads form of capitalism.
I was reveling in this bizarre annual ritual when this man, average to everyone else, wearing grey and minding his own business, decided to look up at me. So I asked him to drop his pants, and instead of disgustedly leaving or willingly obliging, he crossed both hands on his chest and looked up at me, as if to ask, “you want to me do what? You naughty, naughty girl.” And then he smiled and looked up at me, and it occurred to me that I finally found someone in this massive crowd that thinks they way I do.
Now, as I said before, New Orleans has a population, from what I hear, of less than one million people, but during Mardi Gras there are about nine or ten million people there, and all I could think was that of all these people here, I finally found someone who wouldn’t blindly do what I asked, but at the same time wouldn’t think I was crazy for asking. Of course as I looked at him I also happened to think that he was stunning, by far the best-looking man I had seen that entire night, he looked like he had style, like he was self-confident, but then again, I’m near-sighted and was on a balcony drunk at Mardi Gras.
We hit an impasse when he wouldn’t strip and neither would I, so his attention was eventually diverted to other balconies and camera flashes. But I noticed for that next half-hour that he never left from under my balcony (while everyone else moved), and every once in a while he would still turn around and look up at me. Oh, boy, I was thinking the entire time, I know this is no way to start a relationship, Hell, I’m sure this guy lives nowhere near me, and I haven’t even had a real conversation with him, but I had deduced by then that was was damn near perfect. And all that time, while we were screaming and partying at Mardi Gras, he would still occasionally turn around and make sure I was still there.
And finally he looked at me, signalling that he had to move on with his friends, and I held up my index finger to make him wait and then I threw a bunch of beads at him. Part of me threw them because he was a good sport, putting up with my taunting and still not giving in, but a part of me threw them because I saw in him the strong values and the sense of self-worth, the sheer love of life, the desire to be alive, that I possessed all along, and have always longed for in someone else.
We discussed going to New Orleans this fall, in October or November, because New Orleans is always a great retreat and escape, and always a great reminder to enjoy life. But then hurricane Katrina came along, after hitting Florida and then ducking back out into the water to gain more power before coming in for an attack again. Everyone in New Orleans was told to prep for a category 3 hurricane, so they figured that this would be like most other hurricanes and they could live through it with no problem.
They didn’t know hurricane Katrina would be a category 5 hurricane.
But still, although it was touch, people still in New Orleans weathered the storm and started to go back into their homes.
That’s when the levy broke.
And that’s when most of New Orleans flooded, about the same time that hurricane Katrina started to move north and weak havoc on Mississippi and Alabama before being downgraded to a tropical storm in Tennessee.
I won’t point the finger at the Federal government, or the state government, or the people of New Orleans for staying at their homes until they were trapped there, because everyone is probably in part to blame for the severity of the injuries and the lack of immediate aid to those in need. All I know is that I want to photograph the remains of New Orleans, a town primarily under sea level, in the perfect location for disaster.
The journalist in me wanted to be able to photograph New Orleans, to document the discordancy. But then my thoughts went to the condition of the French Quarter, as well as the Garden District and the St. Louis Cemetery, since those were the places I had frequented in New Orleans (I mean hey, if I always went to the French Quarter as a haven, even spending Mardi Gras there once, I’d want to know that the French Quarter wasn’t destroyed form the hurricane). It was a great relief to know that the French Quarter happened to be one of the only parts of New Orleans that rested above sea level, and was least damaged through the storms and flood.
I suppose that explains why there’s so much history that has survived in the French Quarter — that older buildings have survived, that St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square is the oldest active U.S. cathedral. It’s near water and has become a magnet for musicians, cajun food fanatics and the spiritual.
That, and I want to know a part of my life history isn’t gone forever. I still want to be abel to purchase a hurricane in the street from Court of Two Sisters.
I don’t want to lose all of my youth...
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