After making a quick trip to New Orleans last weekend, I could not help but be reminded of how much I love New Orleans. I am so thankful that the city is rebounding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I know much has been written on this subject but NOLA holds a special place in my heart. I attended a small university in New Orleans. While the majority of my classmates were planning their fall wardrobes sorority rush schedules, I was dreaming about exploring the history and culture of New Orleans while attending Loyola University, a wonderful liberal arts school. After my religion teacher showed us several films about the Jesuits (Romero and Mission) I was sold on the Jesuit education and was excited about a new chapter in my life in New Orleans.
This article was written by a Sarah Goldfarb-Tarrant, a family friend of my uncle, the late Richie Domingue. He passed away in July 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina. He loved New Orleans and loved it soulful music. I can’t think of a better way to honor and describe him and the city I love. You can read about him and his music at Gator Beat.
The Mississippi River, it rose all day,
Cutting at that levee, gonna break it away
The mayor puffed on his cigar
And blew out some smoke and said:
“God damn boys, you know this ain’t no joke.”
I have set out to consume a city. I’m going to absorb New Orleans. A few months ago a Cajun singer friend died in his sleep, sometime after 3 a.m. when he got home from playing at the Sweetwater Café. His friends were tipsy the last they saw him, glowing from the music and the dancing and the heart of the big curvy black woman who, when an inebriated fan clambered on stage, enveloped him in her arms and played like that, unable to see her instrument.
I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the opportunity I was missing until it was already gone. I knelt on the floor the next morning, enwrapping my sobbing friend in my left arm, stroking her long blonde hair, and rubbing the back of another. I stared ahead at wet, pallid, drowned faces. We sang his songs for him, reaching out with our shaky voices. Then I boarded a plane to New York, and no one there suspected a thing.
I had the option of telling them nothing of what had happened, and I took it. Instead of crying aloud to the heavens, I found my own private kind of mourning garment and devised my own rituals. Yellow, purple and green, though I’ve always thought the colours to be ugly together—too garish—became the staples of my wardrobe. I read Folktales of the South—I even tracked down which ones were from New Orleans, which is harder than you’d think. I immersed myself in the stories of the bayou. My eyes lingered on the Ann Rice novels in local bookshops, though I didn’t pick them up. Before, I hadn’t liked Zydeco—I’d tolerated it. Now it’s set to my alarm so that I hear it every morning for the 45 minutes it takes me to get ready for school. My voice has gotten lower, despite my aspirations to become a soprano. I’ve found that I have to rest in my alto range to transmit enough emotion to sing Zydeco. I can’t sing “Son of a gun we gonna passé un bon temps” the same way I would sing Mozart’s Kyrie in D.
As I drove to school on August 29, 2005, seven weeks later, I could hear the spirits howling all around me. I don’t know if anyone else heard them, because I couldn’t notice anything except the strange feelings in my body. My knuckles shone white as I gripped the steering wheel, but I didn’t feel the effort. My mind had gone soft and limp, buoyed by the space I felt around me.
My Cajun singer had taken his homeland with him. Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans, broken the levies, and had its way with one of the oldest cities and most major ports in America. As I was leaving the house, my father had whispered to the air, “Richie, you didn’t need to take New Orleans with you.” And I had heard National Public Radio echoing “Katrina, aftermath, slams gulf coast, metal fragments, flooding.” Then I shut the door.
Richie had never been vengeful, [he was] vital but never consumed by fury. [but/so] He must miss his country, his porches and hangouts in the Vieux Carre, his friends who performed in the 24-hour bars. But I had never known him to be so selfish. He had towed them behind him into the afterlife, like an Egyptian Pharaoh whose wives are entombed with him. He’d been buried with his fine Chinese porcelain and jewels of state.
It occurred to me that Richie was calling me out for trying to be a singer, trying to pretend I was a Cajun or Creole when I so obviously wasn’t. My pale, blotchy skin that won’t hold pigment, my love of Ballads from Sir Patrick Spens to The Highwayman, and my predilection for porridge mark me as distinctly Scottish. I’m miserable at the Zydeco and the Mamou two-step; I can never remember it in my body for some reason. I don’t have the loungy casual quality I need so I look funny. I want to get into college, to find a direction, to accomplish things. I’ve never wanted to just live—which is what New Orleans folk are traditionally good at. Without that living I can’t masquerade as one of them. So what was I doing dreaming of Richie’s Spanish moss adorning termite eaten columns and his gothic mansions with Arabesque ironwork? Of black men lazing in unbuttoned tees next to Mohawk Indians in full headdress, snapping their fingers on a porch with big spots of missing paint? “So keep off.” Richie was saying to me. “I don’t like your posing. I’m taking it with me, just to be sure you listen.” If only I’d had the oomph to pull off the tune about a wolf howlin’ at my door, to match my voice to an accordion and roll with whatever riff the keyboardist indulged in. But I didn’t, so New Orleans was gone.
Gone like Alexandria vanished beneath the tsunami, after its mistress Cleopatra died of poison as her snakes twined around her arms. Atlantis take two. I can hear the notes drifting up from the depths, carried on the current to fisherman’s ears like the siren’s song.
It seems to fit the character of New Orleans to be buried beneath the ocean. It was such a large part of its power. The submerged dreaming city, air bubbles drifting towards the surface as it exhales. It can dream there for ages, until the heat of the sun evaporates enough that it’s dry again. Sound travels just fine through water, no worries. Cosmopolitans and Hurricanes might not taste great with that much salt, but people will get used to it. Richie never drank them anyway, he drank white wine. No fancy whizzy things like Sazerac or Absinthe Francaise or whatever Mardi Gras revelers bathed themselves in.
Then I saw a picture of the flooded streets. That’s not water, I thought. It looked like petrol instead. There are plenty of oil refineries in Louisiana—it’s always been something that disgusted me in the back of my mind, but was never able to concentrate on because I was enthralled by the smell of cayenne. If I’d gotten to New Orleans, even in my mind, I wasn’t going to leave it for a rant against Standard Oil.
Think of driving down a major road when the power is out, cars backed up for miles not moving forward at all because of the blinking red traffic light visible at the head of the line. The claustrophobia that makes you tuck in your elbows as you wait, trying to make yourself smaller. That’s the sort of feeling the thousands of evacuees faced, but without the metal box to protect them. That compression of the world bearing down from all sides is not just what the freeways were like as they fled, but that’s how their homes are—in the Astrodome, in gyms, in barns. They are homeless, at least temporarily. But they can’t be, however much we try to convince them they are because that is how the nation sees it.
Richie was like a traveling minstrel, a troubadour of the 20th century. He loved New Orleans, just as everyone from there seems to. I don’t know whether he dreamed of going back, or whether he had managed to detach a small portion of himself to leave there to preserve his connection. To transmit the soul of the city when he felt its absence, as if through electrical wiring. But I’m certain he never left. He was home-less too; it didn’t seem to matter to him where he was. He never bothered to introduce himself or call ahead, he just walked in the door and sat down. Yet I have met many lost souls, the blackness of their eyes revealing them to be unmoored. Richie had nothing of that in him. He carried his home with him, like a swamp turtle, his heart not pumping blood but a lazy beat, the heat and sweat of the southern sun emanating from his skin. I can’t recall ever wearing a sweater in his presence, and I can’t recall him ever wearing one, though I usually saw him late at night. Somehow it was never cold.
I learned that Richie was from the swamps of Lafayette, and moved to the Vieux Carre when he was an adolescent. Not inundated in the swamps anymore, but near enough. At times it frightened me that he wore a huge alligator head during his performances, and had gators everywhere; up on the wall, in songs, dangling from his wife’s ears. He was asking for it, adopting his predator as his totem. It was a very gris-gris thing to do though, I suppose. The Voodoun in him proving that if he had the gumption to be a gator, he’d be all the more powerful for it.
Which brings me to another of my failures at being “le petit siren” of New Orleans. I can’t do Voodoo. No chance, I don’t have the ability to put so much faith in something. In New Orleans they believe in it, it’s real. Not like the metaphorical, metaphysical pagans of Northern California. Chickens will disappear at night, leave a few red drops and some feathers behind, and that’s normal. In the 1800s the Voodoo Queen of Santo Domingo and 400 young woman were arrested because it was illegal to practice non-Catholic religions within the city limits. But all of the witnesses became dazed and afflicted and were unable to testify. Whenever a Voodoun is identified the snitch seems to slip into a coma. I settle for preventing my mother from killing the garter snake in our backyard, a sad substitute for the venomous swamp snakes worshipped by the Queen.
But if anyone could thrive on destruction, it would be the musical children of the Haitian Voudouns. New Orleans is an old city, it’s not afraid of ghosts or of the darkness. The first New Orleans was built with the sweat and probably blood of Parisian prisoners, smack on top of a Native American burial swamp. I’ve always expected corpses to stare at me out of the rushes, preserved down to each last detail. Clammy skin tinged with gray, and rotting hair swirling in the eddies and mixing with the muck. Yet no one there seems to mind.
New Orleans has died before. It’s been razed twice by fire. The First Great Fire in 1788 took only five hours to destroy the work of 70 entire years. The Second Great Fire was only 6 years later, just as rebuilding had begun. It wasn’t as bad, but between the two the only building left standing was a convent of the Notre Dame de Bon Secours, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” and a smithy. The New Orleans Theatre burned down twice on its own, and the magnificent French Opera House on Bourbon did too. Entire buildings were swept away by storms on a fairly regular basis.
Jazz was born in lazy New Orleans, the only place that was quite non-chalant and breathtaking enough to sit back in its chair and play as the storms raged around it. Only it could nurture a piano professor, or to develop that method of playing keyboard that’s just the right amount slower than the rhythm of the song. I was scared and a little disgusted when some of the musicians forsook their city and claimed that they wouldn’t go back, like the drummer from the Thirsty Lizard. I was gladdened by men like Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino, who had to be forcefully evacuated last minute because they didn’t want to leave their city, because they were familiar with hurricanes and knew how to face them down. They tried to protect their synthesizers, their cassettes, their hand-inked sheet music, as a bear would protect its cubs. I understood that, from the memory of Richie’s devotion, of him locking himself up in a little room for days to perfect a piece. But I understood it more from my own devotion to this place I’d never been. I understood the picture of the hallways in evacuee shelters that read Bourbon and Canal in bold marker that made me think it should say “Lemonade.” The groups of teenagers and middle aged mothers sitting on the floor of gyms and yurts singing and playing cutlery, looking like the garage band next door. The classic New Orleans scene of players benches and street corners, or even further into history, to the cane fields where the slaves sang as they worked and were whipped. Their songs beckoned the Gods to inhabit their bodies. The soccer mom and the psychology major and the Bass player and the little girl playing with Legos will sing New Orleans back from the underworld. Persephone won’t be able to refuse, and the city will be drawn to their call, just as the rest of the world is.
Right now New Orleans is a part of the afterlife, it’s jamming with Hades. A languorous wind-tossed, laughing and living paradox of a ghost. I can feel the emptiness where New Orleans once was, a gap on my radar that makes me think I need new batteries. Everyone I talk to can feel it and is afraid of it. The sun shines brightly into vast space and I catch my breath and swallow the salt water of my tears and wonder if this vile taste is similar to that of the contaminated ocean water now ruling the city.
Yet New Orleans is by its own tradition not subject to the rules of the daylight. There is a French proverb, “What is true by firelight is not always true by daylight.” And New Orleans has taken it and flipped it around, just as so many Creole’s have corrupted French names. Like Richie’s daughter’s funky Chantelle from Chantal meaning “stony place” and Chanté meaning sing. By soft firelight and by moonlight, the graffiti and the looted stores are not as visible. Instead you can hear the sound of the smithy that stayed open, and of the bubbling of seafood stew and the murmur of the volunteer cooks, and the sound of chanting accompanied by a washboard player, whose quality of music is unaffected because washboards have always been played with spoons.
Sometimes, at dawn as the sun raps on my eyelids, I think of the images I’ve seen of deserted streets and great trees broken and bowed. It seems I should tear out my hair and condemn the river for being so callous, for destroying the only culture that understood it. Then I look at my own hand, which I was born with and have no doubt at all to belong to me— it has always been mine. And I remember that my cells recycle every seven years, so nothing is left of my original hand. And yet I don’t have to relearn sign language or how to use beading loom or how to write every seven years. Something greater than the physical matter of my hand is there, though it’s really just a ghost of the hand I once had.
The river rushed in to fill New Orleans and now those of us left follow its example of rushing in to occupy space. Renowned architects give treatises on how to preserve the city, rebuild it as it was, and public health workers wade through the toxic water, accumulating skin rashes, with a kind of bliss radiating from their faces. This is, after all, their art. Bank clerks learn to make proper gumbo for an understaffed restaurant. This is their first time, their initiation, before they were too busy and couldn’t take a whole day stir it as it simmered. I found the strength in me to improv Cajun songs. After a few floppy words I hit a chord and sang the rest, even though I shouldn’t have been able to. I did an acapella imitation of Richie’s electric keyboard, which I will learn eventually. I swelled to inhabit the space that Richie had left.
Before I sing his songs, I debate whether I’ve fully occupied and satiated the emptiness. How much of my voice ringing through the night air is my own growth, and how much is imbued with lack of Richie? In which case I would be an absence rather than a presence. My voice could be an adherence to the past, but not itself an entity. But improv and art don’t work like that. They can’t hang onto an impulse—they would become an actor with a frozen expression, a skipping record player, or even someone who plays Mozart exactly as it’s written, but without putting any of their own style or feeling into it. It is so tempting to hoard and protect former successes—performances that got encores, ideas that were hits, ways that things were—that it has become instinctive. But striking works of art are never that way. A good song is not a faithful repeat of the last good song that artist did. The only thing that is constant is the particular soul of the artist, and that changes as he lives. It changes even after he dies.
The river’s gonna go where it’s gotta go,
where it’s gonna stop, don’t nobody know.
— Sarah Goldfarb-Tarrant