So Easy, So Big

Since 2007, I’ve wanted to spend my birthday in New Orleans.

First off, it’s today, February 11th, so it always falls near, though rarely on, Mardi Gras. I don’t especially want to go to Mardi Gras; it sounds too crazy and drunk and naked – though according to Queer Duck, it’s French for “Everyone’s gay,” which I like. But I love the idea of being here right before, when it’s in the air and people are getting out their party clothes.

Secondly, I live in the frozen north and, California-raised, have never adapted particularly well to winter. Flying south like an instinctively-wise bird is extremely appealing.

But third of all, I am absolutely crazy about this city, but have never really had time to explore it.

My first New Orleans trip was as a stopover on the train that I took cross-country on my way to Cornell’s graduate acting program. I had what amounted to a day layover, and a good friend had told me to read Interview with the Vampire on the way and to take the St. Charles streetcar once I got there. I was 22 and practically had a neon sign flashing “NAIVE” across my face, and I at least knew better than to tool around the French Quarter at night (this was the 80s, as well; the murder rate was pretty high at the time). So I got up at 7 in the morning and just started walking. It was August and the heat was already pretty intense. The only people I saw were confused souls who hadn’t been home yet. I peeked past wrought iron gates into shadowy courtyards, rode the streetcar, got drenched in a thunderstorm, ate crawfish, beheld the most clueless drivers I’d ever seen in my life, and knew one day I’d come back.

About 4 years ago, I mentioned the birthday thing to DP, but he balked. “Crime rate’s really high there,” he said. Well, fair enough; the city’s worked hard to get its tourist game back on since Katrina hit, but back then there was still a ways to go. But that summer, a dance exercise program I used to teach (which shall remain nameless at the moment, but someday, dear reader, I shall tell you all about it) had a convention in New Orleans, and I invited my mother-in-law down to hang out with me when I was un-conventioning at night. We had some excellent meals – one at the wonderful Elizabeth’s in the Bywater neighborhood – and when she left, I had a day to kill, which I once again spent traipsing around the Quarter, this time in July. I really, really wanted Dennis and the kids to see the place with me; I figured they’d love it.

The next year, I still wanted to go, and he still didn’t. Last year, I found a cheap package to Italy for me and the Eldest, so it didn’t come up.

This year, on the first birthday sans DP, I said, dammit, I’m doing it. I had enough points on a credit card to do it for very little, knew the Youngest would love getting out of school for a few days even for something as dorky as hanging with his mom, and figured since the half century mark only hits once, by damn, I’d mark it good. (I hoped the Eldest could join us, but her work schedule precludes it.)

Here we are.

HP (the Youngest) is a good traveling companion. He and I went last summer to a mini family reunion when my brother got married, and we hit the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Monterey Aquarium, and the gum wall in San Luis Obispo. On planes, we headphone up and watch movies together to take our mind off the fact that we’re in jackknife mode; the discomfort of being tall in a plane is exacerbated when the person next to you is even taller, but we manage. He loves simply gazing out the window, and watched intently yesterday for the change to no snow. Michigan looked like an etch-a-sketch, stark flat white broken by crisp black lines; green took over slowly but surely and completely by the time we got to our first stop, in Atlanta.

HP started flaring his nostrils as soon as we landed at Louis Armstrong Airport. “What’s that smell?”

“New Orleans.”


“Yeah. Also, gumbo. And the sweet part is beignets, I think.”

He nodded, then settled into our cab. It’s not a particularly pretty ride into town, but no snow out the window looked good.

We’re staying in the Faubourg Marigny, 3 blocks past the street named Elysian Fields, which gives any Tennessee Williams fan a chill (the good kind). We’re staying at an old creole house converted to an inn. Our room is small with a high board ceiling and very cool carved wood furniture, though the manager apologized profusely that two of the bed posts are busted. “I don’t know what it is about that room,” she murmured. No matter; in a New Orleans bed (as opposed to a New York one), character’s charming provided it’s immaculate, and this is.

The kid and I got settled and figured out how to negotiate his rollaway cot in the tiny space. Then, despite having devoured a burger, bag of chex mix, package of licorice, and a small can of Pringles, he announced he was starving.

The Marigny neighborhood was historically where rich white New Orleanians would set up homes for their creole/mixed race mistresses and kids; in the last decade or so, it’s been populated by folks, particularly artist types, fleeing the high rent and tourist madness of the Quarter. (For an excellent New Orleans history, check out Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans.) Our street is lovely, quiet and lined with wonderful cottages and two-stories; many are decked out in twinkling lights. There are hardly any businesses. It’s a New Orleans I’ve never seen at night – I’ve always stayed in the Quarter – and it’s breathtaking; there are echoes of Parisian, tropical, and Spanish neighborhoods, but it’s really not quite like any place else. I asked the kid what he thought.

“It’s old, it’s damp, but I kinda like it. Oh, Mom, put the camera down. You look like a tourist.”

“I am a tourist.”

“Yeah, but do you have to look like one? It’s so tacky.”

“But I have a flip camera. I want to use it.”

“Look, Mom, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re not very good at it.”

I put the camera in my pocket. We’d arrived at Frenchman Street, home to a dozen clubs with serious jazz reputations. (When you walk near Bourbon, it’s jarring how many shitty covers pour out into the street.) Snug Harbor was one where I could take the kid and also grab a bite. Notoriously picky, he did venture to try a drop of gumbo, then made a confused face. “What’s that taste?”

“Filé, I think. It’s sassafras. I think they also make root beer from it. You like it?”

“Nah. It’s dark greenish brown, Mom. I just…don’t want any.” He tucked back into his hamburger with barbecue sauce. Then we headed upstairs to see the act for the night.

Thursdays are Marsalis nights at Snug. Wynton’s touring right now with Lincoln Center Jazz (I know this because he got snowed out of Ann Arbor for a concert I was scheduled to usher), but his father Ellis is often there. Last night, the baby of the family, Jason, played vibes.

Vibes really need to be seen live. They sound cool, but to watch someone play what amounts to a giant steel piano with a pair of sticks is magical. Backed by one hell of a crew on piano (Austin Johnson), bass, and drums (and like a moron I didn’t get their names; these were different musicians than the ones here), Marsalis ripped through a few standards, starting off with a snappy riff on classic clock chimes, followed by “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Stardust,” and then gliding into a stunning, moody “Tenderly.” Any qualms I had about the kid just humoring the old lady and saying he liked it were stayed when he picked up the camera and started recording. What a thrill to see that glorious, silver music writhe out and embrace my gawky 14-year-old.

This is the way you see music, in a small, dark room, the audience laser focused on the musicians, the musicians deep in the spell of what their hands are producing, the notes slithering all around you making the air vibrate. This is what I’ve wanted to share for so long. How heavenly that my favorite guy in the world is the person I got to share it with.

3 more full days, and the sun is shining.

Happy Birthday.

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