New Year in New Orleans
Last time we tried to get to New Orleans, our car broke down close to Holly Beach, Lousiana. Holly Beach was a major disaster area at the time: ruins after the hurricane, no facilities… so we had to go back to Texas.
This time, again close to Holly Beach, we almost ran out of petrol. Fools that we are, we expected a gas station on a highway, but a woman living there told us that, since the storms — not “Katrina,” but “Ike” and “Rita” — no gas stations had been built for thirty miles in either direction.
And this is the USA? The land of opportunities: in front of us, huge iron pumpjacks were pumping oil out of the earth, at the same speed and ever bigger prices, for decades on end. And yet these people, who had lost their home to storms twice and lived in a trailer, had no gas stations, no proper houses, and no facilities! This could be South Serbia not South Louisiana!
When we realized we would run out of gas in a mosquito haunted coast, miles from anywhere, we knocked on a trailer door to ask for help. A woman answered with a cast on her arm. She summoned a family member, found five gallons of fuel stockpiled in a plastic jug, and gave it to us, asking for nothing and simply wishing us a happy new year.
I asked about her injury. She said, a minor accident, no broken bones. Then I asked: what happened to the house? She said: just our third hurricane, but we are rebuilding it again. Like people under the volcano, these Cajuns don’t give up. Proud as they are, they didn’t want our money, or even a modest gift. So I took a photo of them, smiling embraced: it proved that solidarity existed even in the land of falling capitalism, even in a desert: even more so.
If you judge fun by the amount of people in the streets than Bourbon Street in New Orleans is the biggest place of fun in the world: people were so tightly packed that it verged on a stampede. When the crowds started randomly jostling in waves it felt like million-person Serbian crowd that toppled Milosevic.
If you judge the place by the way people are dressed, then Bourbon Street at new year could be the place of the worst taste in the world: awful but quite uniform, sequins and high heels for women, and anything extravagant for men.
If you judge a New Years Eve by the amount of booze then Bourbon Street could be the center of the world; every few yards a person was falling over high heels or a bottle, commonly clutching handheld mobiles as they slumped to the pavement. With their last bits of strength or reason the celebrants were text-messaging, Googling, whatever.
No blues no jazz no voodoo dances: shops clothes gadgets food drinks from the coast to the French Quarter: all night long.
In the sleazy motel where we finally and randomly collapsed, guests were drinking on the porch until dawn: the sheets on my bed had stains of blood, and the blood was not mine. The guy next door crept into our room as soon as we left it. We drove away in a short powerful storm that cleared the sky.
On the beach, in the Ninth Ward, drowned by Katrina six years ago, everything was calm and beautiful. No signs of destruction, the old is swept away, concealed or forgotten. Some new people are living in the outskirts; “Welcome to the wild west,” a beautiful African American girl shouted at us.
I come from the wild east, I thought. The radio played Cajun music and spoke half English half French. I understood it better than American English. Out of New Orleans, rural Louisiana is poor, the centers of old small towns are deserted, boarded-up and silent: only the highways are kitted-out with flashy restaurant chains and cheap tourist motels.
People from downtown have nothing to do other than gamble and drink, I was told: I saw a drug court in Opelousas, a bankruptcy court in Alexandria. Lots of public-service ads for gambling and other addiction problems.
I remembered the movie Storyville with Billie Holliday set in New Orleans when jazz was born in the brothels. When the population, proudly singing the blues, leaves the town. I remember the refugees from the Katrina hurricane in Austin Convention center, a couple of days after the tragedy, telling me their stories of loss. Refugees from politics, climate and warfare all sing the same blues.