NEW ORLEANS

We fly in over swampland, crossed by highways and train tracks. The concrete seems to have no anchor in the fields of water and grass. The pilot apologises for the turbulence. There are thunderstorms overhead, he explains.

The woman to my left asks if I’ve been to the city before. I haven’t. Oh, she says, you’ve got to eat your way around the city. Start with the beignets. The man to my right, tanned and muscular, snaps up from his iPad screen of stock prices and nods. Café du Monde, he says. Everyone starts there.

Our Uber driver can’t stop laughing at us. For being from Australia. For travelling so far. For moving around so much. For being able to afford to go away for a protracted period. I work freelance, I say, and my mother has six months of accrued long service leave. The explanations feel like defences. He’s coming to Melbourne, he says. ‘I’m saving up my pennies. A penny a day.’ I say that the dollar is fairly comparable in Australia, so it’s not too expensive. ‘Maybe not for you,’ he says, and pauses thoughtfully. ‘I’m gonna have to start saving two pennies a day.’

The freeway takes us straight past the Superdome. I draw in a breath. On the plane ride over, I was reading Naomi Klein, reading about the horrible mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina. Of the effect of slow selling off public service to the private sector, of the profound preventability of death. I find it viscerally affecting, seeing that hulking structure, thinking of the 23,000 people stuck in there, boiling, as shit piled up on the seats of the toilets and food rotted through the seals of the fridges. On a reddit AMA with one of the National Guard members stationed there, the guardsman said, ‘I will never, never, never forget that smell.’

We creep through the business district. This is where jazz started, the driver said. Back when the city was segregated, and blacks were forced to crowd together here. There weren’t any physical signs saying that blacks weren’t welcome, he says. But his people, they could feel it. They could always feel it. Now, the area is full of that strange, glassy watchfulness of every business district in the world. Strangely quiet, but with the odd sense that lenses are trained on you. That someone is watching. A few jazz clubs defiantly stake out corner real estate, blaring life and neon into the air.

We’re staying in Marigny, right on the edge of a train line. The owner of the house has built a tiny shack in his backyard – just a bunkbed, two tv dinner tables and an air conditioner. Mosquitos swarm around us, leaving me with what look like two red spotted leg warmers of bites. There’s been a mix-up because the owner is away. Our room isn’t clean. There’s no key to get inside. The latter is more concerning – we have no toilet or running water. The key is coming in the mail – the last Airbnb guest took it with her by mistake. It will not arrive today. It’s only through luck that I find a spare set hidden away. Don’t keep them, the owner texts me. They’re for the couple staying indoors. We skulk inside, pee, fill water bottles.

The cross-streets on St Claude Avenue have their names mosaicked into the pavement. I look down and the word ‘MUSIC’ smiles back up at me. The air is heavy, dense, post-storm and wondering whether it’s ready for a reprise. The city feels like it’s holding its breath. Brooding, waiting. People sit on porches or in driver’s seats of parked cars, watching. The sun starts to go down.

We walk down Frenchmen Street. As we cross the road from the residential area to the bar section, the air explodes with music. Every doorway opens to a stage, a rapt crowd, beers in hand and faces red with the stage lights. We put our names on a waiting list, meander around a corner. Junk shops and galleries and massage parlours and palm readers crowd the windows. A couple sit on the floor outside a closed store. She pats a dog with a lesion on its paw. Her boyfriend plays a guitar with two strings and sings, both terribly. ‘My guitar only has two strings,’ he sings, ‘please give us some cash so I can buy more.’ I do not feel that more strings would in any way improve his musical ability.

I stand in front of a wall of butterflies and insects, taxidermied in frames. A woman backs into a cabinet in horror at a giant spider. I follow the electric blue antennae loops of a bug. It looks like a beetle crossed with a moustache.

We arrive back at the bar, sit on the floor and watch the band until a table clears. A mushroom poboy arrives on a plate piled ostentatiously with sweet potato fries. The band plays for hours. The trumpet player sails past with a tip jar. We throw in some cash, and she beams. She arrives at the next table, asks for money for the band. The man there balks. ‘We just got here,’ he says. ‘We’re playing til ten,’ she replies. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll fall in love with me and then you’ll tip.’

In the teetering top bunk, I wake at 4 am to the thundering of a cargo train. The proximity of our tiny hut to the rails mean that the whole bed shudders for minutes as the train thunders by. I try to sleep, but the trains come regularly, and when the engine idles over the tracks, it produces that particular displacement of air that comes when you open a car window on a freeway. The throb is tangible, uncomfortable. I lie awake and catalogue the effects of poor sleep on the body. The nagging upset stomach. The sensitivity in the teeth. I feel jetlagged. I tumble back to sleep around 10 am for an hour or so, wake feeling groggy. The air presses heavy on the earth. I book a replacement Airbnb and feel like a privileged tourist dickbag.

We walk along St Claude. There is a noise I can’t place – like a whip, a bright cracking of sound. As we cross the road, two boys – nine, maybe ten – stop giggling, turn to us, paste on winning smiles, wave. It’s an affectation of cute that is immediately suspicious. As we pass, they throw firecrackers at our feet and crow with laughter. I wonder how early we learn that – that particular colour of mischief that involves pretending to be sweet, the playing at innocence before cruelty. Learning to lie.

The French Quarter is a space between worlds. Close your eyes and the heat, the bustle feels like Asia. Open them and you’re in Europe – the cobbled streets, the architecture furiously dedicated to adornment. I imagine men in stuffy dress uniforms and drooping moustaches glumly surveying swampland, grimly forcing order and filigreed iron onto a seething land.

We join a shuffling line of tourists waiting for entrance to the Café du Monde. A man builds balloon animals for children as their overtired mothers fish for change. He stoops to speak to a young girl. ‘I can spell Mississippi with only one I,’ he declares. She squints at him. He covers an eye with his hand and spells the word, roars with laughter. Her mother passes him a twenty dollar bill, and he peels her change from a fist-size roll.

Inside, we eat beignets and sip chickory coffee. A woman arrives with five children in tow. She pulls aside a harried waitress and booms at her with the kind of volume that only Americans can produce. There are six of them, she bellows at the waitress, so she wants to take over this table, too. Her eldest daughter, hair like folded honey, makes eye contact with me, and we share the universal eye-roll dance of ‘Parents. So embarrassing.’

Outside St Louis Cathedral, a man plays a kora with a series of effects pedals, sending reverb sweeping across the square. Nearby, five tubby white men in their sixties smoke cigars. Physically, they take up a bench, but they give off some strange psychic forcefield of wealth and smugness that spreads across the square. The crowd intuitively avoids them, parting around the bench. The men blow clouds of acrid smoke into the paths of children, sluglike in their linen shirts and panama hats. There is something curiously performative about them, as though they’re being filmed by cameras I can’t see, for some deeply sycophantic documentary. I find myself hating them irrationally. By the time we’re out of the church, they’re mobile, oozing across the square. One passes in front of me, and when I see his ludicrously embroidered velvet slippers, I can’t help but burst out laughing. I wonder if he notices.

We find ourselves on Bourbon Street. It’s 2 pm, but people are already staggering. We pass a nightclub whose coloured lights are going strong. Eight or nine people are on the dancefloor, grinding into each other as the bass thuds into the sunlight. Around the corner on Canal Street, I ask my mother to photograph me with the statue of Ignatius J Reilly. ‘So who was he?’, she asks, and I laugh and explain the reference. He’s stationed outside the old site of the D.H. Department Store, under an old clock that they’ve sweetly left there for him. It’s the site of the Hyatt now, and the bellhop outside grins at us. ‘You know who that is?’, he asks. I nod. ‘What’s his name?’, he asks. He tries for a pronunciation of ‘Ignatius’ that’s at least twice as many syllables. We repeat the name together a few times. He laughs. ‘I think I was trying to make it harder than it is.’

On Dauphine Street, we pass the Museum of Death. I’ve mentioned this to my mother, but am unsure about whether she’d find it upsetting. She suggests we go in. As we pay, a framed photograph of a car accident victim, torso unhinged from his legs, sits next to the credit card machine. I keep half an eye on her as we swing through letters from serial killers, grisly photographs of crime scenes, daguerreotypes of dead babies. At one point I lose her for half an hour and find her in the cinema area, watching video after video of murder scenes set to a jolly brass soundtrack. She’s having a ball. I don’t know why I’m surprised. She’s a nurse, after all. She tells me about her teenage years, shooting and gutting rabbits, scrutinising roadkill. One of the staff asks us how we’re doing (people often get queasy here. If you faint, they give you a commemorative t-shirt). ‘I could have stayed all day!’, she beams.

We lug our bags to an Uber in the lightest scattering of rain and pull into our replacement accommodation – a huge, gorgeous, decadent house in Bywater. The owner is called Otter. Her wifi password is ‘hoodoolady.’ The room looks like a set for a palace – red velvet and gold wood everywhere. Mum’s bed is wider than she is tall. We stroll through the rainy night to buy wine and whiskey, and order pizzas so big that we can’t stop laughing. I text my boyfriend, tell him I wish he was here, in this city on the other side of the world.

At 4:30 the roosters start crowing. I fashion earplugs from tissues and watch the sun seep through the window. There are eight pillows on my bed and I’m not using any of them. The fan circles slowly. The rooster screams.

We walk through heat like custard to the local pool, but the doors are locked. A boy folds himself onto the step, watches us peek through the windows. ‘It’s closed,’ he says, voice small but certain. He watches us walk away. We find a gallery where the artist talks us through his show. He has taken photographs of members of the US government, exposed them onto fabric with a sordid pink UV dye. Lace borders the images. On the reverse side are pictures of Russian objects and machinery, each with some connection to the paired individual. The one of Sean Spicer is backed with a Russian salad, because of a statement he made about Trump – “If the President puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection.” Mum stands in front of the image of Trump. ‘He’s such a good looking man’, she says, and I panic mildly while I watch the artist try to decide whether she’s joking. Dry Australian humour doesn’t work well in this country.

At a café, I drink a giant iced coffee and almost immediately regret it, vibrating through Crescent Park feeling like a bear trap is in my chest. By the churning Mississippi, couples dance in a giant concrete hangar and I buzz uncomfortably in the heat.

We walk down Magazine Street, eat at an Ethiopian restaurant where a toddler parades up and down the driveway clutching his father’s hand. On the way home, our Uber driver proudly displays the evening’s prize – a huge punnet of Blue Bell icecream. The flavour is called ‘Bride Cake.’ It’s the last punnet in New Orleans, he says. His wife has been looking for it all day. She’s drained the car of gas looking for it. But he found it on Magazine Street, and he’s going to deliver it to her. There’s also a Groom’s Cake, he says, but it’s not nearly as good. People aren’t going nearly as crazy for it. ‘People get real cut up about this icecream,’ he says. He describes rooting through the freezer, seeing the right coloured lid. ‘When I saw that B, I knew I’d found it.’ His excitement is contagious. His wife calls over the car Bluetooth. He announces his victory. She doesn’t sound pleased. He’s not dissuaded. She’ll eat the whole thing, he says. She’s selfish like that. He won’t get a spoonful. But he’s found the elusive icecream and he’s taking it home to his bride.

I toss restlessly in bed. I write in my diary: ‘Something feels wrong. I don’t know what – maybe it’s this city. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe a combination of lack of sleep and coffee. But I have this lingering sense of dread – the calm before the storm.’

In the morning, heavy clouds brood overhead. The pool is open today. There is a lane rope across the middle, making it impossible to swim laps. There are three people in the pool, including us. There are eight lifeguards. I push from end to end, ducking under the rope with each pass. The lifeguards rustle in their chairs, frown. We’ve been there for less than ten minutes when fat rain begins to saunter down from the sky and the lifeguards leap up, gesture us out. You have to leave, they say. We’re already wet, I point out. No, no. You have to go. It’s not safe. One of them takes pity on us. There’s another pool, he says, over the bridge. We pull clothes on over our bathers and start walking. The bridge has a pedestrian route alongside it, and we kick water ahead of us as we trudge. The rain gets heavier. I am wearing a white jumpsuit, but it’s so sodden that it’s see through. I look as though I’m wearing just my bathers, if you squint. We pass a house stuffed to the gills with junk, spewing out into the yard, threatening to burst the banks of the fence and spill into the street. I feel unsettled. One or two men walk directionlessly and watch us from the corners of their eyes. We walk on. We can’t find the sign we’re meant to be following. I pull out my phone and realise that we’re in the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest by Katrina. Cars slow slightly as they pass us. We give up, call an Uber. The driver stares at us in awe. I’m sorry for you, he keeps saying. I’m sorry.

Otter greets us as we drip water onto her entrance hall floorboards. Her dog, a Mexican hairless, is black and fat and suspicious. She looks exactly like a hippopotamus, complete with odd little whiskery beard. She kills other dogs, Otter says. Her name is Haint – the hoodoo word for ghost. She feels somehow unearthly, wrinkled leather radiating warmth.

Otter directs us to the Country Club, a nearby private pool and restaurant. Much nicer than the public pools, she says, distaste staining her features. We go there for dinner, drink cocktails and swim in a saltwater pool flanked by palm trees and piss-yellow lighting. The sky is swollen, distended above us. A security guard sits so still in his chair that my mother thinks he is dead, or a mannequin. It’s not until he coughs that he comes to life, just for a second, then settles back into the effortless, half-conscious lizard state of security guards everywhere.

On the way home, a gorgeous brown-haired woman in a 50s sundress and brogues sits, backlit by hazy golden light, on the steps to her house and smokes, lazily stroking a cat. We exchange smiles. She seems something out of a dream.

Sleep eludes me, again.

One of the houses near us still has its FEMA markings spray painted on its façade. A giant X, letters, numbers, denoting who visited the house and what they found there. The zeroes in the quadrants for dead bodies does little to diffuse the strange hideous power of that mark. Mere blocks away, a coffee house uses the sort of logo that became popular in hipster design about five years ago – a giant X with images – coffee, arrows, rope – in each quadrant. I wonder how many people in this city shuddered a little once those coffee shops started opening.

We sit upstairs at a café as a French man sings and plays guitar. When we leave, he comes and stands on the street corner with us. New Orleans isn’t like any other city in America, he says. In some ways, it’s not part of America. It’s an aberration. Something foreign in its own country.

We head to NOMA. A painting of a woman in a headdress is apologetically annotated – ‘Unfortunately, this portrait received harmful repair work in the 20th century. The extensive retouching altered the color significantly. However, given its importance as a rare depiction of a New Orleans free woman of color, it is on display with this information, that the painting has been compromised as a historic object.’

At the bus stop on the way home, a man striding past makes eye contact with me and stops with the violence of a dog pulled by a choke chain. He approaches me and performs a passionate soliloquy about the meaning of life, the search for truth, the power of knowledge. It bears the fervour of the slightly unhinged, but his words make sense. If you put him in a yoga class, he’d almost pass for a mindfulness coach. People search for money, he says, but money is limited. You know what’s not limited? Knowledge. He looks at me. ‘What do you think?’ he asks. I laugh. ‘You’re right’, I say, ‘you’re right, all of it’. A crowd of teenagers struts past. He smiles at them. ‘That boy’, he says, he needed that. ‘He was asking for that. I gave it to him’. He looks at me. We are all miraculous beings, he says.

The next day, we do a tour of the St Louis 1 cemetery. Our tour guide, Teri, bears the sort of perky overenthusiasm that suggests a sort of underlying existential dread. She either really loves her job or really hates it. She natters about the history of the city. At one point, she brightly proclaims, ‘So they bred African slaves with Irish slaves to create this kind of indentured super-servant!’ Several graves – those of ‘Voodoo Queen’ Marie Laveau, her apparently wayward-to-the-point-of-maybe-evil daughter (I am disappointed at the lack of tour information about this daughter), as well as several unmarked ones – bear hundreds of carved triple Xs. The idea being, Teri says, that if you carve three Xs into one of these tombs, the inhabitant will come out and hex your enemies. I wonder how many of the people carving those letters really believed it. Really meant it. Hated someone enough to drag a witch out of the afterlife to wreak vengeance on them.

It is our last night in the city. We head back to where we began, to Frenchmen Street. We eat dinner in a scrappy Middle Eastern restaurant, where the staff have propped up a banjo at a plastic table like a guest of honour. We pick a new jazz bar, only to discover, rather to our delight, that the band we saw on our first night is here. I sit on the floor under the keyboard of the piano, drink a glass of terrible wine and watch lovers sweep each other across the tiny space between the band and the crowd. The lead singer calls out to the back of the room, and a trumpet answers, weaves through the crowd with an old man attached. There is laughter everywhere. After, we stand on a street corner and watch a brass band spray sound across the intersection like water from a burst fire hydrant. People stand, drinks in hand and beam with the particular unfocussed middle-distance gaze of the pleasantly inebriated. A man in light-up rollerskates weaves across the street. Another man dances so fast his legs blur. Taxis and cars bank up behind him, but they never beep, they just watch, grinning, then crawl past when his legs take him onto the sidewalk. The air is full of life, full of desire, full of hope, full of light.

I don’t sleep.

At airport security, I reach into my bag and bring my fingers out dusted with crushed praline. A man wanders past with a t-shirt so new that the folds in it are still visible. Across his chest, loud embellished letters bellow ‘NOLA.’

The plane takes off over the water, and everything is blue horizon and white clouds, and then the plane banks, and out the window is nothing but pure sky.

S x

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