Birthday Weekend in New Orleans: Fragments

I am woefully behind on the 52 Essays in 2017 challenge, but there's no better time than the present to catch up,'s Essay #5.

I am standing on a darkened corner in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. All around me, dozens of crammed, candy-colored shotgun homes hug the street. Cool pinks, violets, blues, deep greens, all gone pale in the darkness. I breathe in the air: rain slick, a tinge of BBQ, a hint of trash. Faint piano chords trickle down from a golden-lit upstairs apartment. A man stares at me from underneath his wide-brimmed hat as he steers his bicycle around the dips and cracks in the sidewalk. Underneath the muggy moonlight, standing on this quietly foreign street, I think about how much I like arriving in a new place at night. How strange it is, to drive through the dark for hours and then end up in a city you've never seen before. It reminds me of something I felt in childhood, though I'm not sure what. 

My husband and I are staying in an Airstream trailer in the front yard of one of these homes. The woman who owns the trailer and the home is, coincidentally, from our neighborhood in South Austin. The woman says that this neighborhood, the Bywater, is like our Austin neighborhood was 15 years ago -- gentrification hasn't swept the streets yet. There are no bakeries that solely subsist on the profits of high-end cupcakes. I sort of hate it when people talk like this.

We found the trailer on Airbnb, and we try to ignore all the signs plastered everywhere that have the Airbnb logo with a giant red X slashed across it. We tell ourselves that, because we're renting a trailer, we aren't contributing to pricing people out of their homes. This is sort of true but mostly not. 

We're here for the weekend, just a short trip. It took us ten hours to make the drive from Austin, when it was supposed to take seven, so we're crabby and hungry and in need of wine. But we brought our bikes, and our Airbnb host gives us a dinner recommendation for a place that's just a few blocks away, and it isn't long before we feel cheered at the thought of being in this city, at night. 

A word on food: We end up spending more money on meals (and booze) than on the gas it took to get here. Here are some of the things we eat, over the course of two days: potato gnocchi with pesto and kale, tuna carpaccio with arugula and shaved Parmesan, and cauliflower and olive oil bruschetta at Mariza, on our first night; crawfish poutine at St. Roch Market for breakfast; the most perfectly seared scallops and fried Gulf oysters at La Petite Grocery; giant shrimp po'boys at Parkway; crab cake Benedict and a salmon-Brie grilled cheese at Elizabeth's. We drink whiskey at a dive bar called Vaughn's, multiple bottles of red at Bacchanal, craft cocktails at Horn's. We even drink two Hurricanes along Bourbon Street before ducking away from the frat boy fray into Three Muses, a jazz bar on Frenchman Street. It's okay because if one can't be indulgent in New Orleans, when can one be? 

I read the New Orleans essay from Joan Didion's "South and West" while we're lazing in City Park, and it has a profound effect on me for the rest of the trip. In the essay, Didion describes the city as such: "In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence...In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead." I read this while sitting under a grove of live oaks. Silver tendrils of Spanish moss lace their bark and drip from their branches. I write the following notes of my own: "A genteel veneer. Sagging ground. Towers of above-ground graves keeping watch over the city. Underworld murkiness. People breathing heavily on porches."

In New Orleans I am reminded of a sensation I felt in Mexico City. A distinct feeling that there is something in my periphery; something that, if I just turned quickly enough, I might be able to catch. A soft flicking at the cobwebby edges of my vision. But I can never turn quickly enough. There is never anything there.