Muddy waters can’t wash away Big Easy’s spirit
‘“All my people plowed their pastures,
made their living with their hands.
Let the water flow around them
and wash away the spirit from the land.’”
‘— ‘“Spiritland’”; Coco Robicheaux
‘“They put their tip jar on the bar here?’”
‘“Yeah,’” I said.
‘“Don’t people just walk off with it?’”
‘“Not as often as you’d think,’” I said. ‘“You’re not in New Orleans anymore.’”
I don’t think twice about it now, the tip jar on the bar thing, but attempting the same placement in New Orleans would have disastrous consequences, financially speaking.
I tried it once, the summer after I graduated from Loyola when I worked a go-bar at 227 Bourbon St. For the uninitiated, a go-bar is a distinctly New Orleans thing: a tiny space with sidewalk frontage where beers, shots and cocktails (and, in rare cases, wine) are sold in plastic cups for cash and meant to be imbibed on the street.
On Bourbon Street most of my customers were tourists, many of them unfamiliar with or recalcitrant to the American custom of tipping. I thought that by increasing the visibility of my meager gratuity jar, which at one time had held half a gallon of maraschino cherries, it might attract more attention.
It was a failed experiment ‘— one of the tap-dancing youths, the ones with the bottlecaps stuck to the soles of their shoes who delight the tourists in the Quarter, made off with it before it had collected five bucks. By the end of the summer I was taking my tip jar to the bathroom with me.
But like I told my friend Adam, this is not New Orleans.
I’ve known Adam for more than 10 years, and when levee broke he was the first person I thought of. He’s lived there his whole life, and no hurricane had ever chased him from the city. The phones were down, but I finally got a text message through (making me forever a fan of the technology). He had made it to a small town up by Shreveport. His girlfriend Nathalie took refuge in Florida.
They got here last Monday, she by Greyhound bus and he taking the long route bypassing Atlanta in a car that had likely not traveled more than 20 miles at a clip before its journey across the South.
And now they’re not in New Orleans anymore. Thank God.
When they got here the sum total of their belongings, car notwithstanding, could have fit in two paper grocery bags.
Greensboro has been unbelievably kind to them. It’s no secret that the Gate City has an awfully big heart, but the generosity and kindness the city has extended towards my friends has caused a stirring in my heart.
Within five days they had procured an apartment and jobs, and on top of that promises for furniture, clothing, financial assistance and more as their needs for these things arise.
And they were delighted to hear that the green space across the street from their new digs in Fisher Park is not only needle-free, but also an entirely safe spot for an evening stroll.
You see, walking through the park, any park, at night in New Orleans was a risky proposition.
Some other things they won’t have to deal with in Greensboro:
Strangers asking for handouts on the street nearly everywhere they go.
Tourists peeing on their lawn during Mardi Gras (or any other time of year, really).
The temptations of bars that don’t close, drive-thru daiquiri shops and a downtown casino (can you imagine?).
Drunks in the grocery store.
Of course, there are many, many wonderful things in New Orleans that simply don’t exist here. But post-deluvium New Orleans is not the same place she used to be and quite possibly never will be again.
And as the soup bowl slowly drains down there, her beautiful people now congregate with the general population in places like Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado and possibly every other state in the lower 48.
They are lucky to be alive. And we are all lucky to have them.
Because now New Orleans’ greatest treasures ‘— her people and the culture they carry ‘— belong to all of us. The spirit of New Orleans is now spread throughout the country, and we will all be richer for it.
And if you’re wondering about the city, whether the mass exodus and toxic waters did indeed wash the spirit from the land, I can only tell you what I’ve heard.
I’ve heard there are holdouts in the French Quarter with enough water and whiskey to last a month, that at least two bars were still pouring drinks up until the very last minute, that there’s a cop driving around the 6th Ward in a white stretch limo with police lights affixed to the roof and that soldiers are giving Mardi Gras beads to the people they rescue.
How soon before the first crawfish boil?
To comment on this column, e-mail Brain at firstname.lastname@example.org.