DAY 15 – 20
NEW ORLEANS FINALLY!
First, I’m off to Bullet’s. I got the insight from an academic specializing in jazz. I head directly to Bullet’s, after dropping my bags off at Maurice’s, an adorable French expat settled here since the 60s, “Companion of the Tour de France” Master Chef in pastry. He now rents apartments in the “old French quarter”.
There is a festival happening in town for a large black magazine, which attracts thousands of visitors. Shopkeepers tell me, “When the blacks come, we prefer to keep our shops closed”. Closed blinds, the city is pretty much dead. I’m off to the “Seventh Ward, a place that I am told is dangerous.
I get there through an avenue that opens under a suspended highway. It’s definitely not the French Quarter! The architecture isn’t picturesque at all, and the decaying infrastructure tells me clearly where I am. The houses are newer, and the streets wider. It’s just another moderately poor American neighbourhood, roads a bit bumpy, and the charm neither Gothic, French, Spanish, nor historical. It has “the beauty of the ghetto”, as someone said.
BBQ, BASKETBALL AND BLUES
Outside of the bar, there are two mobile “food trucks” emitting dense fragrant smoke and tasty grilled meat. I have now learned that this is a good sign. One of them is serving BBQ ribs, and the other is grilling huge oysters covered with a thick glossy sauce. It comes with garlic bread. People go in and out. Everyone is smiling. Great vibe.
Inside, the place is full. Kermit Ruffin is playing this evening. As the official successor to Louis Armstrong, he represents one of the latest showcases of New Orleans, and his name alone attracts a large and mixed crowd. Plump waitresses undulate between customers with big smiles. The mood is inviting. Everybody lines up and a dozen of them –all genders, sexual orientation, ages and color –begin to line dance in the style of the 70s “Electric Slide”.
Large men at least my age –meaning in their early 50s –and clearly occupying the same stools every night, kindly exhibit some male and generational camaraderie. It’s in these moments that I see the benefits of getting old, which dulls the usual male competition.
People are discussing a basketball game on TV while the orchestra plays. The game is undoubtedly the most important thing.
And then, it really begins. The musicians come out from the shadows. One was at operating the BBQ, and the other at the bar. Nothing set them apart from the crowd. They emerge from the group for which they will are about to play as representatives, not as members of a caste apart. This relationship is palpable as they begin to play. They aren’t playing for an audience; they are its very expression.
A bar neighbour tap me with his elbow to prevent me kindly, lowering his voice, that “there are tamales going around”. A very short guy is selling them from “under the cloak”, as if it was dope. The tamales are literally in the inside pockets of a shabby overcoat! They’re cheap; He sells them to us in a plastic bag wrapped in newspaper.
CHUCK, THE EMBODIMENT OF SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY
My neighbour and immediately get along. It all started with food, of course. I stupidly said to him “Lookin’ good”, pointing to the generously loaded plate of oysters and grilled garlic bread that he was bringing back. His name is Chuck.
A native of New Orleans, he follows his wife to Northern Michigan where he breaks his back on a construction job. He has a disability pension that allows him to get by here. His wife doesn’t want to follow him to the sun. They have many small children up there, and he’s happy to come back home, but he’s often bored and has come here often. Chuck is the kind of person that isn’t easy to forget.
I spent several days in New Orleans. I read about the city. It sheds new light over the South.
A few days later, I find myself in the same bar, bursting at the seams. There is an entire black bikers’club that has decided to stop by; their fleet of big bikes are parked outside.
After a few glasses of the infamous “long Island tea” (five equal parts vodka, gin, triple sec, tequila rum, and a touch of coke), I find myself singing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with the band playing that night, in front of an adoring public. Again, this all thanks to Chuck. He trapped me by asking the lead singer to let me participate.
At 56, Chuck is preparing his new life, with a truck that will charcoal grill 400 turkey legs simultaneously! Chuck isn’t in great shape, he has a limp, he coughs a lot, but like any proud American, he’s full of hope and has plans for the future.
The same evening, we end up in another bar in the neighbourhood. There is also a live band playing old school R&B. The place is small, tight, and a voluptuous boss lady cinched in a shiny red corset presides, on a reserved table at the end of the counter. She’s heavily made-up, and is wearing a big curly hairdo. A long cigarette holder and a champagne bottle brilliantly complete the tableau.
As the lady singer performs some classics, with all the conviction that soul can inspires, I see clients give her dollar bills… as I have seen it done in Africa with at griots performances. A nervous and cold looking waitress with a stern face sneaks between tables while doing a few sensuous moves that sharply contrast with her dramatic facial expression. She reminds me of Billie Holiday. When I express my fascination to her, she confesses that she’s a former dancer “pole dancer”.
It’s touching to see the many signs of affection that people exchange in this place in the middle of a run-down neighbourhood. Such as the warmth with which the singer dedicates a song to a woman in the first row who’s celebrating her 62nd birthday. It’s as if everyone comes here to get something which is so rare outside.
Unexpectedly, one of my main motivations to undertake this journey, this reference to the blues and the culture resulting directly from it, no longer appears to me as an outdated clichéwhich we need to look beyond. Instead, the relevance of this music is growing stronger with even more vigour, the more I grasp how little the context has changed.
On the eve of my departure, Chuck invites me to his little house in the 7th Ward, located not too far from to one of the oldest black universities in USA, Dillard. I learn a lot more about his life, his Creole identity, and Katrina. The neighbourhood where they have lived for generations is traditionally Creole. But since Katrina, everything has been reshuffled, and there is a lot more mixing.
Historically, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, Creole communities made sure to distinguish themselves from black communities. Chuck shows me a Creole club where –in the 50s –they were still comparing skin color to a brown paper bag saying “Darker than the bag, you don’t get in buddy”.
He cooked a majestically Creole meal for his little family and friends…He gives me a Saints’ jersey, as it is the local football team that unites the entire city, a couple records, and invites me to taste the best beans with salted pork I’ve eaten since a memorable “cassoulet” from Toulouse.
Chuck’s family has many musicians and cooks.
Today, we’re celebrating Chuck’s daughter who came with her musician husband and their children. Arthur, Chuck’s best friend –a professional chef –is also here. They’re having a heated debate about the merits of “Soul” cuisine (Arthur’s specialty) compared to “Creole” cuisine (Chuck’s specialty).
During the meal, I film Chuck’s daughter tell him that a successful job search is forcing her to leave New Orleans, which has become too expensive, for a new life in Atlanta. This is one of the perverse consequences of Katrina and the gentrification that followed reconstruction. The city has become unaffordable for most of the black population who can no longer afford to return. And without this population, it’s the very soul of this place that will disappear to make way for a Disneyland of Jazz.
We pray, and the Bible is on the coffee table not too far. Chuck goes to mass every morning at 7am. Catholic and bon vivant. Chuck shows us the numbers that are still written on the house indicating the date the authorities searched the place, the number of the patrol, and a slashed zero which means: no fatalities. The next day, I meet Ryan, Chuck’s son. Ryan recently returned from Iraq where he spent seven years in the Navy.
He’s separated from his wife, although they share custody of their two-year-old child. Chuck acts as the neutral ground between the two. The situation is tense. Ryan is anxious. In Iraq, he was a leader of men. Here, they’re offering him to clean toilets at McDonald’s. The return is brutal. He explains to me the meaning of the tattoos on his arms.
His facial expression is kind. He has traveled, seen things, too many things… and as many veterans, he’s now heavily medicated. He has Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder. He is as sociable as his father and has the same rare openness. But he has a whole different opinion on New Orleans. All he wants to do is get the hell out of this “hole”.
Here, everyone is struggling to survive. The image of New Orleans as a permanent party is for tourists. He wants to go to California or Colorado, where he imagines that everything is just cool, luxurious, calm and opulent. The only thing keeping him here is his child. Again, people seem to all have balls chained to their feet, family obligations, and tangles in their solidarity and dependency linkages.
On the road, little girls accompanied by their mom are collecting money at a red light to send their softball team to compete at the state level.