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A Nice Jewish Boy Returns To New York #5

Day 9 New Orleans

I’m drinking some sort of frozen beverage, a mix of non-descript sugary syrups and 190-proof grain alcohol. With each straw sip, I picture this liquid burning a nickel-sized hole in my esophagus like battery acid dripped onto construction paper. I expect to lose my sight by the end of this walk down Bourbon Street. Maybe I’d be better off blind, as I’m spending most of my time on the famous street forcibly trying to avoid eye contact.

It’s even more tawdry than I had expectedd from watching hours of Girls Gone Wild in college. The daylight shines a depressing light on last night’s vomit and the cracked facades. Without the cover of night, it is hard to project sincerity onto the strippers’ false bravado and the megaphoned pronouncements of two-for-one frozen daiquiris.

I get to see a girl’s boobs. Painted to advertise drink specials, they belong to a slight girl-next-door type. She is very pretty but not in the vacant eye-fucking way necessary to be a stripper, so she stands outside bars as a glorified billboard. She can’t be older than nineteen.  I wonder if she’s doing this to pay for college and for a second I don’t feel like a creep. I want to tell her that there are more options for girls that look like her, like being a hostess at a sit-down restaurant or a receptionist at a Bally Total Fitness. But I don’t. She frightens me, this whole place does.

Bourbon Street makes me feel like I’m at a haunted house, careening my neck to avoid the ghastly sites only to find myself staring directly at a pair of breasts severed heads. I wish I could enjoy either and throw beads at the Universe as it flashes me its nether regions.

Day 10 New Orleans

I go to the Frenchman Street neighborhood. Every bar has a band and every band is performing a pastiche of black roots music.

A heavy-set black woman in a stunning red dress and platinum blonde wig asks if she can sing a song with the band. She has two twentydollar bills stapled to her chest denoting the birthday she’s celebrating. Though, she both doesn’t look a day over thirty or a day younger than fifty.

The band jumps into “Respect” and the birthday girl struts about the stage like a baby chick showing its mother how well it can walk. She doesn’t know many of the words but she sings the ones she does like they’ll be her last. The performance is a tangle of triumph and tragedy.

Walking back to the car, I hear an attempt at Dixieland Jazz coming from the bars. The music belongs to six white dudes, who look and sound like jazz performance students at Tulane. They aren’t playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” but to my untrained ear it all sounds like it.

In walks a slender, older black gentleman possessing a powder blue fedora and drum sticks. The man makes quick work of the bar, turning two benches and three half-empty beer bottles into his drum kit. He brings a necessary swing to the music. The crowd is no longer passively watching—asses shake, smiles smile. And when it’s his turn, the man takes a solo that blows the rest of the band out of the water. The song ends, the man jets out the door, and all of us tourists are left giddy over our New Orleans moment.

Day 11 New Orleans

I meet Vida. She is the matriarch of the Candlelight Lounge, a bar that looks and feels more like a community center. People come to see the Treme Brass Band and she makes them feel comfortable. Price for admission is $5, and with it comes a bowl of white bean and andouille stew. I’ve eaten a lot while here, and a lot of it has been transcendent, but this soup in this setting is the best and Vida knows it. Her outfit consists of a bright red tank top on top of brighter red pants that pulses and shouts over the din. She works the room, bringing people that soup and showing others how to dance.

When it’s time to go, she gives me a hug and a little too wet kiss on the cheek. I ask her why she likes living here. Not missing a beat, she offers, “There is no place like New Orleans. Every one welcomes you. The city opens their arms for you. It’s the best city in the world.”

I can’t argue with that.

Day 12 Mississippi Highway

I’m still not used to this driving. I catch myself counting every mile and ogling at every passing truck. The heat is less oppressive but the humidity coming off the Mighty Mississippi is not doing me any favors. I think there is a problem with my car’s weather stripping, because even with my AC on full blast, I’m sweating like a large gefilte fish sitting in its own jelly.

Unlike earlier in the trip, though, I’m content. The last few stops have been special and I’m listening to a CD that is temporarily putting me at ease.

Last night, I met James Winfield outside the Candlelight Lounge. He was sixty-two years young and at ease. When he learned I was from out of town, he ran to his car to get a CD recording of his music. “When you get where you’re going, burn a thousand copies of this and give them to everyone you know.”

I slip it into my CD player cautiously, fearing I’d quickly ruin my image of him and New Orleans.

It’s good, like really good. James has a sweet baritone that glides effortlessly over his band’s blues shuffle. For the record’s 30 minutes, my car is a time machine back to 1950s New Orleans.

When I get where I’m going, I will give this to everyone I know. Until then here is a video of the man himself:

Yep, he was dressed like that when I met him.

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