I’m in New Orleans for the month. Over and over, I’ve been saddened by the sight of boarded up strip malls, the potholes in the roads, too many houses still damaged, and too many empty lots. But there’s something about New Orleans that grabs your heart – the hundred year-old oak trees that line the boulevards, two- and three-story mansions in the Garden District with iron grillwork and pocket-sized gardens; the French Quarter, lined with restaurants, bars, tourists partying, irrepressible; the mighty Mississippi, volunteers and residents working together to reclaim each neighborhood, and the simple joy of Southern hospitality that welcomes everyone to this great historic city, full of hope.
This short story is all about the flavor of . . .
“St. Patrick’s Day”
New Orleans. St. Patrick’s Day. I was standing outside The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, listening to blues as only played in New Orleans, the tenor sax wailing a tune that curled around my bones. People stopped by as the sun fell into night, everyone wearing the green, a green shirt or hat, green beads, shamrocks spangled on their cheeks, and drinking green beer in paper cups.
I was alone but not alone that night, if you know what I mean. Just wandering through the streets of the Marigny, feeling a little sad but grateful another spring had come. I was OK when Katrina blew through; I just went upstate a little ways and camped in the living room with friends. Then the levees broke, and nine feet of water made me homeless, putting me on the list for a FEMA trailer.
When I first returned, it took me a few days to get up the courage to drive on my street. But it’s 2008 now, and I’m three years past that. Neighbors are back, at least four now on the block. I got sheetrock partly hung, wiring almost done. I got plans, just as soon as I get a fence up and the Road Home money in my bank account. And that cryptic code that the National Guard painted on my front porch, that’ll be gone. I’m not keeping it like some badge of courage.
So I hung out there on Frenchmen Street, waiting for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. They never start on time, not this one that wends its way from bar to bar, but I didn’t care. Drank another beer. Kissed a few girls. First a platoon of police on motorcycles came by, their sirens blaring, as if we didn’t know they were coming. A long wait. Then another group of blaring horns, the Shriners also on motorcycles. Another long wait. And then they came, the marchers, the floats, the music.
The crowd was mellow. I saw mothers with little kids on their hips and shoulders, hoping for some green beads to take home, and some younger people traveling in groups of four and five, drunk already, thinking the whole day and the whole night was just for them, and it was. Pretty girls already roped in green, dancing in the street right along with the marching bands and the little floats. The music, the Irish music blended with rock music as each club passed. The whole crowd was dancing. A string of beads for a kiss. A sip of someone else’s beer. Another string of beads. Big men passed by wearing kilts and top hats. Old guys, festooned with white beads, too old to march, perched on flatbed trucks and the backs of cars, waving to the crowd. Handsome young men danced behind the floats, beads piled up around their necks as they kissed every woman they saw, giving away strand after strand. The music changed with each float, funk, Irish tenors, rock and roll. We loved it all.
The last float passed. The street emptied; a few forgotten beads, gold, silver and green glittered on the pavement. I was alone again. Time to go home to my trailer. I walked along the dark side street where I’d parked the car, the noise of revelry still going on behind me, the cool night air making me glad to be alive. New Orleans. We’re back. And if I saw a few tears, or stumbled a bit, nobody cares. We’re really back.