New Orleans weighs heavily on my mind and heart as of late. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of that era I have compartmentalized within myself over the past ten years. So I’m going to reconcile with that the best way I know how: I’ll write about it.
What follows are a decade’s worth of recollections of daily life in New Orleans, spanning a ten year time period between the spring of 1995 and late 2005, up to the eve of Hurricane Katrina.
It’s worth noting that I write from the perspective of a long-time resident, not a “native”. Thankfully, it has been my experience that most New Orleanians don’t give a tin shit whether you were born and raised in Louisiana, with one important caveat:
If really want to live in New Orleans, you must make a genuine effort to embrace her ways and traditions.
Try as you might, you can’t twist New Orleans into the place you came from, and transplants arrogant enough to try are usually the first to find themselves ejected by the city (forcibly, if need be). This is one facet of New Orleans culture, I’m convinced, that has not changed one iota since Katrina.
Part One: The Anti-Irvine
I moved to New Orleans twice in my lifetime. My first attempt was in April of 1995, a solitary venture which lasted roughly two weeks.
The second attempt was two years later in 1997. This time I was not alone, and we had more money behind the trip — not a lot, but enough to stay. We stayed for quite some time.
But before I arrive in New Orleans, it’s important to first consider where I came from.
During the mid-90s I spent a brief amount of time in Irvine, California: a very safe, meticulously manicured city with an arguably exaggerated sense of its own worth (to whit: community license frames read “The Land of Gracious Living”).
Irvine was, and remains, a gentle oasis for affluent families. A planned community. I was neither affluent nor raising a family. I was there for the work. Well that and John, my best friend.
I grew up in Southern California. I couldn’t wait to leave home after high school. I went straight into military service after graduation. I chose the Navy, in part to make my father proud (he served in the Navy during Vietnam), in part for the prospect of travel.
I met John in boot camp. We recognized early on that we were not like the rest of our forced companions. We agreed to stick together. After boot camp, in spite of inconsequential squabbling, we continued to stick together. That is, until I was sent to my first overseas tour in Japan.
Then the Persian Gulf.
Then the Philippines.
Guam was, for me, bleak beyond description. By 1992, I had trapped myself in an awful, ill-conceived marriage. Nine months later, we lost a child, a son, to stillbirth. The following year I dissolved the marriage and left the island. And when I left the island, I left the Navy along with it. I flew back to California, badly shaken but relieved.
When I arrived in LAX I was met with two surprises. The first was celebratory: John arranged a limo ride for us. His older brother Bob had come along for the ride. Listening to the familiar banter between them, I began to relax a little. John popped a cassette tape into the car stereo, and I couldn’t help but grin. It was a compilation tape I had made for him while overseas.
The second surprise was grander: John had just secured an apartment in San Clemente, a place we could split the rent on. The complex was a five minute walk from the ocean. I was thrilled. I was unemployed, and increasingly worried about how to find work with a limited skill set, but I was thrilled all the same.
It wasn’t to last. John had already met a girl who worked and went to school in Irvine. We all know how that goes. First it’s a daily commute to “visit” in the evenings, then it’s moving “to be closer” time. So John and I found a new rental in the quiet Woodbridge area of Irvine: a two bedroom townhouse, a bit narrow, but with a nice fireplace. Whatever else I may think of Irvine, I have fond memories of that little place.
We enjoyed it for a time. John’s neurotic girlfriend, less so. We made nice-nice for a few months, she and I, mostly for John’s benefit. Another temporary arrangement. She became increasingly hostile, and finally the tension between the three of us was untenable. She was possessive. I was unsympathetic. John was stuck in the middle. Typical 20s bullshit.
By early 1995, it was either me or her. In a moment of shared magnanimity, John and I soberly agreed that I should be the one to go. I was going to save up enough money to move out. Somewhere.
I can’t (and won’t) lay it all on them, however. I was already feeling restless and bored with Irvine itself: the job, the repressive atmosphere, the social posturing, all of it. Roughly six months into it, I decided that all this contrived “community” and geometric tidiness just wasn’t for me.
I remember the precise moment it happened. It was on a weekend. I had left the apartment to take a walk down to the nearby grocery store. I deliberately took the route that would lead me past my favorite bit of flora along the way: a jasmine hedge. It was part of an established walking ritual. Every time I saw it, I’d lean in to the tiny jasmine blooms and breathe them in. The fragrance always made me feel alive.
On this particular occasion, however, I had the misfortune of discovering a community greens-keeper bearing down on that very same hedge with an electric trimmer. Transfixed, I stood there long enough to watch this somewhat loose, but lovely growth reduced to a perfect rectangle, its “surface” sheared so flat you could throw a tablecloth over it. Then, or now, I can think of no clearer metaphor for Irvine than the image of that freshly sheared jasmine hedge. I walked on. I had seen enough.
But where to go? I grew up in southern California, so that was out. I liked the idea of heading north to San Francisco, but ultimately decided against it. I was looking for something far more impacting.
It’s hard to nail down the absolute first inclination I had toward New Orleans, but I remember this much: just as I contemplated leaving California, references to New Orleans began popping up all around me: in books, in music, in films. Even in Disneyland, with its sanitized, microcosmic depiction of “New Orleans Square”.
New Orleans Square. I had passed through it through many, many times as a child. It was all about the rides then, first among them my beloved Haunted Mansion, the pristine colonial with its massive columns and decorative wrought iron lace.
When I passed through this area of the park again as an adult, however, I found myself staring at the French Quarter facsimiles around me, as though truly seeing them for the first time. I find it somewhat poetic that New Orleans Square was also the last place many people saw Walt Disney alive. From Wikipedia:
“The land was opened to the public on July 24, 1966 with New Orleans Mayor Victor H. Schiro participating in the dedication ceremony. Schiro announced Walt Disney had been made an honorary citizen of New Orleans; Disney joked the addition cost as much as the original Louisiana Purchase. This was Walt Disney’s last major public appearance at Disneyland before his death in December 1966.”
Visiting New Orleans Square in 1995, I found that I still loved my old Mansion, of course, and the neighboring Pirates of the Caribbean. But the backdrop of the miniature “city” itself now began to command my attention as well. It seemed the more I thought about New Orleans, the more it thought about me.
Neil Jordan’s film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire came out around this time. I wasn’t sure what to make of Tom Cruise being cast as Lestat, but I was willing to give it a shot.
And what a shot. Neil Jordan’s cinematic interpretation took me by the shoulders and gave me really good shake. Cruise was great (certainly better than most were willing to admit). Brad Pitt as the over-wrought Louis was great. But the real star of the film for me then, as now, was Louisiana itself.
When I first saw Interview on the big screen, I went with a co-worker. The theater paired it with, of all films, Pulp Fiction. My friend, who looked like Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s, didn’t know what she was in for. Neither of us did. The two films were promoted as a “double feature”, and both made their respective nods to New Orleans; Interview more overtly so.
But it was the scene in Interview where Louis experiences his “last sunrise” that really stands out. It unlocked something inside me. In that darkened theater, I felt summoned. It was subtle, but it was there.
I sensed (quite correctly) that Louisiana, as a state, was culturally unique and lively enough to be interesting, yet haunted enough to be comfortable and “familiar”.
Mind you, I certainly didn’t expect present-day Louisiana to resemble Interview any more than I expected New Orleans to look like New Orleans Square in Disneyland. Yet it did strike me that both of these fictional creations, however sensational or sanitized in their presentation, were inspired by their real world namesakes. That meant something. It suggested an underlying spirit of the region people couldn’t help but respond to.
The difference between me and most people is that I knew I wouldn’t be content to just sample that energy. I wanted to be part of it. But first I had to do my homework.
I knew next to squat about Louisiana. I had little to no access to the internet in 1995, so I sent away for a Louisiana “information” package from the state’s tourism board. I knew I was getting filtered, rose-colored data, but I had to start somewhere.
Next, I picked up an Insight Guide for New Orleans. I lucked out with this one: lots of photos and neighborhood breakdowns by writers local to the city. These brief essays proved to be surprisingly frank, detailing both the good (culture, food, things to do) and the bad (crime, poverty, corruption). Who knows how many times I flipped through that book, absorbing as much as I could.
By the time the Louisiana tourism envelope arrived, packed with various pamphlets, flyers and maps (oh my), I didn’t feel quite as lost. Still, I needed to hear from a local, and I already had someone in mind.
A few years previous, still stuck on Guam, I picked up a (now-defunct) issue of Propaganda magazine. It featured an interview with a New Orleans artist named Leilah Wendell.
Leilah’s art was devoted to the subject of necromancy in general and Azrael, the “Angel of Death” in particular. Leilah, I read, had moved from the East Coast to New Orleans in the late 80s, purchased a two story home on Magazine street and, to the consternation of some, painted it in black and purple. She christened it “Westgate: The House of Death”.
Coming across this article in 1993, so soon after losing Daniel (named for the Daniel Malloy, a character from “Interview with the Vampire”), I found a strange comfort in Leilah’s expression of what death was, both philosophically and artistically. That she chose New Orleans as her home also spoke to me. Intuitively I felt that if anyone could give me a candid take on what I was getting myself into, she could.
I wrote Leilah a letter of inquiry, which she promptly responded to. I made no mention of Interview, Disneyland or any other nebulous influence in my letter. instead, I solicited her advice on how I might find a place there and attempt to find work.
Leilah’s response was printed on a single page of smooth, gray-marbled vellum. In spite of my omissions, she stressed that New Orleans, while wondrous, was “nothing like what you would find in an Anne Rice novel.” Noted. That admonition aside, Leilah’s letter was warm and gracious. She thought I should heed my intuition and come.
John, to his credit, was very supportive of the move. He was relieved, yes, but perhaps disappointed as well. He may not have entirely understood why I chose New Orleans, (save, perhaps, recalling our need for peak experiences), but he knew it was important to me and that was enough for him. To help, John let me stay rent-free until I had enough money saved up for the flight and a few nights of lodging. Beyond that? Well, hopefully I could land work before my funds ran out.
Later that night, I walked into my bedroom and closed the door. I sat down cross-legged on the carpet, which also doubled as my “bed” (I hadn’t slept on a bed since leaving Guam). I surrounded myself with all of my Louisiana paraphernalia, picking up items here and there, seeing words but not reading them. It was decided then.
I was terrified, but I was going.
On the morning of April 17th, 1995, two years to the date since losing Daniel, I hastily packed a few essentials into a green duffel bag, then walked around our apartment one last time. I said farewell to my best friend, boarded a one-way flight for New Orleans, and set out to become what I became.
New Orleans. Part Two.