This past winter I still pined a bit for the south, for New Orleans in particular. But it is enough now, my knowing that a city existed suited to my temperament, to my solitary engagement with it. I was a better fit than I had been. I didn’t feel so odd anywhere after having been there.
I took a lot of photographs in the south. The only ones that held any drama for me had it only in their black and white versions. I paint these days from those, in monochrome, southern shadows I picked up and trailed home. I paint colour from memory and preference.
I don’t know how the lad here, my partner, keeps things up. I can hardly keep up to him. Some days fashion is scarcely a concern. There’s a quarter mile of vertical road he’ll plough, in snapping cold, as grandma would say, slapping her palms and rubbing them briskly together for emphasis, moving from chore to familiar chore. My main concerns are fire, water and pathways in snow and these may be occasionally gruelling to maintain but they are simple. I prefer a heavy axe. It isn’t Aleppo. It isn’t America under Trump. Not yet. The unfinished summer chores poke up through the frozen drifts and my back is sore. So it is in winter.
When bucolic summer comes down our country road it is just as good as Dixie. Suddenly we live in a green jungle. This rural disengagement of ours, the lad’s and mine, becomes ideal. Our place becomes enviable, feels privileged. We feel harried by the news, by the topical radio, but immediately by not much. We can just walk down the road to the beach.
We were to Nashville and Atlanta – Memphis really was a nice walking town – and Birmingham and Selma but we always came back to New Orleans. I knew the names of places in between from Emmylou Harris songs. I knew them from old news reports. I knew them from Bert’s description. He was down there in the sixties, when the marches, the walks, the violence, the courage convicted us on TV. It changed him in ways I only understood in Selma.
I remember thinking that Selma was just about the saddest place I’d ever seen. Oprah and Obama had been there just a few days before us. There was a movie newly released about the bridge in Selma, but if Selma spruced herself up for them I hate to think how sombre she must have been. Edward hopper in tatters. The young lad and I wandered around that poor old haunted down town for a day. We walk and walk. I bet we crossed that bridge more times than Reverend King ever did but we met no tear-gas, guns, dog or nightsticks, no state troopers waiting on the other side. I got to see the church where King preached. Some deep part of my lizard brain was surprised those places existed in living colour and not just in my sixties childhood’s civil rights TV news reel black and white.
It was the oddest thing, that black and white. That trick of my mind.
There we were the lad and I, doing the civil rights tourist thing. Rental car. Air B and b. We followed the roads the civil rights marchers took. We stood on the corners and peered into the shop window displays. Some seemed to have been abandoned; wares from those days were gathering dust in time capsules. We watched the old newsreels in brave little museums and in visitors’ centres along the way. Those marches seem close now, and the fear that Americans will perish as fools, all in the same boat.
In the photographs of that American civil rights road trip we’re sporting farm wear from home up in Canada. Whatever affectations, sartorial or otherwise, we took on in the cities overlaid those country things. I bought things I couldn’t pass up, had been looking for all my adult life. A cowboy jacket out of Brokeback Mountain. Little Beatle boots from sixties Italy. I was a big hit sometimes in highway-side diners or in late morning bars because I spoke fluent hill-billy. I just had more words for snow, few of them repeatable.
The lad’s about twice my size and half my age. My mother says he looks like Nick on “The Young and the Restless.” He’s your age. I have to remind him not to screw the lid on the gas can so tight.
We’re kind of a white dad and the lad on a road trip at first glance. He works in emergency so our holidays from my isolation, and his daily crisis management, veer from risk to refuge. We move alongside each other pretty well given our temperaments which are neither given to the shared yoke. He’s not sure what he wants to do but he does more than most think of doing. I never had much choice as to what to do. I knew. I was lucky for the simplicity but then I had to take the consequences. My range of skills is pretty narrow, hard won, and useless, only irrationally prioritised. But I had no interests outside them. They were reliable company, and so they remain.
I wasn’t long in New Orleans before I had a little routine established. I knew ratty old bars and cafés in the Bywater with simple coffee and stalls, with locals who would exchange a few words of recognition, even of curiosity, which I found I treasured. There were enough red-necks in half tons from the country around the city that I felt at home in my speech.
People I talked to sometimes would be surprised that I knew southern literature. I knew a pin oak from my reading. “Hell”, I’d say, “Just add snow.”
Settling young white gentrifiers were buying up the shotgun houses. They wanted to upgrade everything for its own good. They saw possibilities after the hurricane. More power to them, the government sure wasn’t going to fix things up. I remember overhearing one glossy white girl saying to a friend with amazement, suddenly cognisant. “This is a real dive bar, not just a place set up to look like one!”
We blithely sop up hard-won history as an inflection for our own pastiche selfie, I suppose. Some mornings the whole history of the place was just sound track and scenery in a miniseries about upward actualization. It was all Netflix. I noticed how the white settlers liked to brush up against what they called authentic but they generally didn’t have the breeding or the brains to say hello when passing its front stoop. They didn’t like cigarettes outdoors in side walk cafés. They’d snarl as they sat down, fanning white hands in dismay, flipping their hair in Kellyanne Conway petulance. They would get the laws changed. They would order off menu, had no compunction about doing so.
They had no local sense, they were so mindful of themselves here now. At their most honest, unguarded and alone, they looked afraid and haughty, they lacked warmth, lacked any grace not merely upwardly athletic. I’m old enough they didn’t notice me, but for my smoke. Some of us get to disappear before we die.
We get the same types here.
The lad was often off socializing, but I was gun-shy, just looking at the place, passing judgement on white privilege perhaps in a corner cafe. I had fair time to myself. In the past I had always travelled in America alone and I was reminded of those solitary journeys again, changed and unchanged, on strange ground. I wrote a bit. I processed images. I was reminded. I’d had the word ‘expat’ flicker unbidden across my mind. I was aware of the word flickering, as if on wings overhead occasionally, among pigeons above Jackson square.
I’d made a friend among the artists on the square. I hadn’t made a new friend fast in a long time. I am not a very good friend, I disappear. I am a recluse. She was a painter. She and I shared vocabulary and point of view. We’d sit with long legs on her stoop like teenagers skipping school and smoke cigarettes in the morning. We’d mock the strutting gentry’s outfits, imagine and tally their morning fashion check list. We’d mock the signifiers. We enjoyed occasionally tossing a pebble at a bike into the spokes, the lurch of smart rental wheels over hurricane cracks and buckles, in the rutty side streets that irritated smart progress.
I’d sip my morning coffee and watch the street artists set up around the cathedral. It was off season, no jostling for space in tourism’s bustle. I’d see shades of my youth, setting up a stall like that long ago in the morning in San Francisco on Fisherman’s wharf. The days seemed familiar though I remembered more than searched, a symptom of my age. I’d keep an eye out for erotic beauty more out of duty than from desire for company. I never missed anyone alive or talked to anybody much when I went out on my own. Sometimes wireless feeds were offered in cafés and I sent home pictures but I had already begun to be indisposed. One night I saw my own young face enraptured, looking in the window of “The Black Cat”, watching the dancers. He was too shy to go in, maybe too young but he had his rapture.