by Bryan Washington
Everywhere in New Orleans is hellish in June, but the astonishing thing is what the heat does to the people. Some it makes cordial, like the Korean lady in the shop on Freret, who insisted that I take two, three, four Ozarkas from her cooler. The more I insisted that, really, I was fine, the more she insisted that I was not. I was very thirsty, she said. I would take the water and I would leave and I would enjoy my day.
The papers pen annual columns about the weather’s relationship to the murder rate, which seems to spike whenever the sun lingers, or the Saints are losing, or both. Everyone’s on the edge of something. On the streetcar, you’ll see a gaggle of black kids in too-big shirts beside the middle-aged white woman with FUCK tattooed on her neck, and you can’t guess what either of them is thinking, only that it’s probably Not Good. But it is simply too hot to function, let alone kill someone, so the boys nod at the woman from under their snapbacks and the woman smiles in turn, showing all of her teeth.
There are people who move to New Orleans for the labor, and there are people who move to New Orleans for the movies, and there are people who move here for its jazz and its blackness. I do not think I am alone in that I moved down for Moments. Moments! I’d read about them in books, from Tom Piazza to Tennessee Williams, and I’d seen them on HBO, ferried along by Wendell Pierce, and I knew that mine was precisely the mindset that the locals actively loathe: a young person from Elsewhere looking to drive up rent. But I’d only read so many books, and I’d been broke in Houston, and I never thought to wonder how I’d react when those Moments finally came.
On Zora Neale Hurston’s first trip to the city, she stayed with the great hoodoo doctor Luke Turner, the supposed grand-nephew of a great hoodoo queen. To reach a final state of enlightenment, or knowingness, or whatever, in order to collect the requisite notes for a piece she was writing, Hurston spent seventy hours on a sofa without water. Talking about it later, she said, “for sixty nine hours I lay there. I had five psychic experiences and awoke at last with no feeling of hunger, only one of exaltation.” It is the kind of anecdote you find in on overpriced visitor’s pamphlet, but I got it from a well-meaning teacher in junior high. It came with a photo of Hurston donning tilted hat and pistol. She’s grinning in the picture, as if she’s found The Point and deemed it ludicrous, and she became my projection of everyone in that city: black people coasting down the streets, fingering bourbon and muttering jazz; men and women and musicians donning capes, mysterious and cunning.
I took my first trip down when I was fourteen — visiting family friends around the way — but after spending most of the day in a hotel, having realized there’d be neither hoodoo nor enlightenment, I slipped out of my room, a little past midnight, and simply didn’t go back. I made a beeline to Bourbon. There is a long list of maladies that can befall a kid in the Quarter, but for better or worse I experienced none of them: I watched a squad of strippers smoking on break outside of Penthouse; I saw a bridesmaid hitch her skirt to take a shit in an alley; and a short, hairy guy in an Alabama sweatshirt walked right up to me, right on the edge of the curb, to lay a sloppy kiss on my left cheek. After that introduction, he gave me a hug. Was I okay? Okay. He apologized, disappearing into the mass. It was probably my first sense of being alone in a crowd — except I wasn’t really alone, because there was a whiff of something in the air and we were united even if we all weren’t blasted or giddy on E.
Walking back to the hotel, hours and hours later, I ended up stepping around Louis Armstrong Park. A quartet of drunks sat on a stage wiping down their instruments. I pulled a chair beside a trio of Asian guys with cameras. The crooner behind the microphone was deeply drunk but asked for requests anyways. But nothing fancy, he said, just the usual shit. After some deliberation, one of the cameramen asked, a little fearfully, for “It’s a Wonderful World.” The crooner groaned, but that’s what they played.
When I arrived a decade later, it was a little less enticing. The city felt grimier. Garbage was everywhere. The roads had been paved with TNT. Rent felt explosive and groceries were astronomical. Louisiana had reached a tipping point. Bobby Jindal’s political antics had stumbled across the national stage, and David Vitter, a long-time senator, was running as the Republican in his stead. But Vitter was, among other things, at the tail end of a prostitution scandal. Although the statute of limitations had elapsed, his constituents hadn’t forgotten, which made it a good a time to be a Democrat. The party had a guy named John Bel Edwards — standing on the “Hope!” platform — who, if elected, would be the only blue governor in the Deep South. His people were out in droves: You couldn’t drive four blocks without running over election signs, especially in Gentilly, a largely black suburb near the levees.
The bodies I saw on Elysian and St. Bernard, all of them campaigning for Edwards, were nearly always black — they were the ones on the ground. They championed this white man as a savior for the state and, by association, its cardinal city. In the general American consciousness, blackness can mean a number of things: culture and authenticity and hip-hop and the rest. It’s less often, and hardly enough, that you see the political girth of it — the anvil-weighted influence of the demographic in a city. It’s delicious to see black people achieve. The transaction in between, the working for the thing to happen, isn’t something we hear enough about — the idea of New Orleans as a “working black city” isn’t as sexy as the idea that it is a violent one.
So, for the first time in a long time, I felt implicated by the actions of people who looked like me. The notion of “representing the race,” whether you’ve fucked up or done something great, isn’t a mindset I’m partial toward, but in New Orleans, all of a sudden, those gestures were amplified. The feeling got tighter whenever I glanced at the crime reports, until I stopped reading them — only to come back to them hours later. The Uptown robberies were a cardinal example: Late at night on August 20th, three gunmen entered the Patois restaurant on Laurel Street and told everyone to get on the fucking floor. They went through patrons’ pockets, took wallets and cash and phones, then left the joint with an empty bottle of Vodka. The restaurant’s co-owner, Leon Touzet, told The Times-Picayune that they “were definitely amateurs.” A few weeks after that, on September 24th, two gunmen robbed the Atchafalaya restaurant on Louisiana Avenue. Not even a week later, the Monkey Hill Bar on Magazine was robbed on a Monday night. The owner, Johnny Vodanovich, said he “knew it was a matter of time.” The police presence in the area rose from “present” to highly visible, and that meant the constant churning of a sort of loose street calculus. People took care to clear the streets in the evenings; when people saw me on the sidewalk, more than a few of them crossed the road. It was another few months before three suspects were named. A fourth one turned himself in shortly afterwards. I was (still) unpacking boxes at my place when I heard, scanning the news for updates on my phone. I’d been looking for that specific thing, the thing I knew I didn’t need to confirm, but when I got to the pictures, I couldn’t help but sigh, because each of them was, without exception, very young and very black.
My apartment sits in the outskirts — the suburbs, really — surrounded by the highway. It isn’t very large, but there’s a courtyard in the back. There’s room for the kids in the complex to kick the fùtbol onto the main road, and when everyone hits their porches in the evenings, they’ve got their Abitas and their Buds and Modelos in tow. There’s a young-ish Puerto Rican couple in the unit beside mine, and an old black man living below me who bums cigarettes. The Arab lady across the banister is always in tottering in heels. Every day of the week she has an entirely different hairstyle. By my entirely unscientific conclusions, it is probably the most diverse pocket in the New Orleans metropolitan area, which isn’t especially diverse: It’s a black city, home of the oldest black neighborhood in this country, the first major neighborhood maintained by free people of color — slaves who’d toiled and worked and prospered and died and probably hoped they’d get to pass a little something on.
This is all to say that the city I visited years ago isn’t at all the one I’m in now: The population has returned to seventy-nine percent of what it was before Katrina, but the black population has been reduced by nearly a hundred thousand. Just over seventy percent of the people displaced by the storm were black, and at least a third of that group was economically disadvantaged. The Asian population has jumped all of 0.7 percent over the course of fourteen years and the Latino population, comparatively low for the South, has risen by nearly 2.2 percent; the city supports one of the largest Honduran communities outside of Honduras, and it’s generally understood that the influx of Latino workers made rebuilding the city a smoother affair.
But the white people. Oh, man. The white people are renovating shotguns and they are opening gourmet grilled cheese cafes. White people are here and white people are there and white people going where they’ve never gone before, building beautiful things in places they’d have sped past only a year ago. No one I’ve spoken to seems to know how they feel about this. Or they do have an opinion, one they’re ready to defend, but there’s always a lingering but. We’re being priced out, but the Bywater’s safer. Black businesses are closing, but we don’t mind the Whole Foods on Broad Street. You may be geographically in New Orleans, but not in New Orleans at all. The city is very much itself all over, except where it isn’t. It is, ironically, a chiasmus everyone seems to agree on: something needs to change, but too many things are changing.
Near the end of October, a month before the election, if you were driving through Gentilly or Broadview or Mid-City you saw even more Edwards supporters. Some of them had the signs, and some of them fiddled with leaflets, but the bulk of them simply stood in the crowd, in the midst of the thing even if their hands were free. I flirted with the idea of joining them. Occasionally I’d honk a horn in solidarity, or support, or something, and the people turned sharply, and then they saw me, and I think they understood. One let out a yell. Once, a woman ambushed me just outside of the Rouse’s. She told me this election would be different. She said Edwards had the people in mind. I did not contradict her.
Maybe a month later, I was sitting on the patio of a bar in the middle of town, well past two or even three in the morning. It was packed, with this breeze floating just above everyone’s voices, and the streetcar crackling in the background. Someone in the corner collapsed into laughter, and all of a sudden we were having it, a good time. It was one of the evenings I told myself I’ve moved to New Orleans for. It was happening, right then, right there in front of my eyes.
Someone launched into another joke when two black girls, both of them impeccably dressed, made their way onto the patio from the corner. They sidled up to the table, asking for cigarettes, and we quickly distributed them because we had no reason not to. The girls were very funny, and very pretty, and they folded easily into our laughter, until they’d finally made it their own in the funny way that black women can, which also made sense, because it was their city we were in, and all of a sudden they were telling us stories about it.
A man flew out of the bar, moving with an urgency I’ve rarely seen amongst civilians. He told the girls to get the fuck out. He’d had problems with stragglers, they’d been plugging his patrons for money, and he’d seen the two girls come off of the road. He wasn’t having it tonight. Someone had to put a stop to it.
The girl who could’ve been a model took a drag on her cigarette. She asked the man if he knew who her father was. He did not. Nor did we. But when she told us, everyone sort of exhaled — it was a Name That Was Known, a jazz musician. The man didn’t look entirely convinced, but he backed off anyways. He said he was just checking. They’d had problems before. Someone had to fix it. One of the girls said she understood, she didn’t want any trouble, and the man retreated into the doorway.
The mood had been dampened — irremediably, I thought — but eventually it returned. There was laughter again, and jokes. The streetcar tinkling. Many beers later, the daughter of the musician pulled me aside. We were the only black people at the bar, and she joked that she had to make the effort. She asked if I liked it in her city. I told her I hadn’t been around long enough to know. She knocked on the bench between us, cementing our words in the wood. “Me,” she said. “I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here. People come down here from fucking wherever and they think there’s a million things to do.”
“But us,” she continued. “Ain’t nothing left for us. We suffocating. So I got to go.”
After another cigarette, she and her friend waved goodbye. They told us they were going for a walk. This was the only time of day they didn’t have to worry about tourists crowding the park, and they thought it would be romantic. It was well past three in the evening. I wanted to say something about staying safe, but it felt inappropriate, so I didn’t.
In November, hours before the final tally on election night, John Bel Edwards had already wrapped up the vote. The tavern I watched the election in stayed at a medium hum, with about half of the patrons eying the screen above the bar, and the other half crowded at the pool table. I was sitting with a friend, a woman who’d spent most of the month campaigning. One guy sitting beside us, a white dude in a hunting jacket, called it a damn shame. The black guy beside him agreed. The white girl that I came with spoke up, and while I braced for something heated, she only called it a beautiful thing. One of the men grunted. He wasn’t looking for an argument, either. The other rose his mug in a perverse sort of toast.
I thought Edwards’ victory would also be a victory for the black volunteers — the ones doing work on the ground, forcing the rest of us to give a fuck. I imagined them celebrating in the streets, or at least reaping the spoils of their sweat. But the roads were empty that night, and then again the following day. Most of the signs I’d seen posted for weeks evaporated altogether. Every once in a while, I’d find a flyer on Elysian, blown loose and collected on the slope of a traffic island, but it wasn’t any different from what was already there. It’d found its place with the rest of the trash, overshadowed by the renovations beside it. You had no way of knowing when the city would clean it up.
Photo by Shanon Mollreus