Sunday, March 20, 2011

there are real fears, or rather fears of real things, justifiable fears, and then there are fears that are based on memories, or images, things that have been twisted or enlarged in your own mind over the years that have become more symbolic than anything else. but every once in a while you get to clean out the files and throw a bit of it in the recycling. i think an entire file was labeled with "nuclear disaster in japan," because we used to spend parts of school days huddled under desks and in hallways as schoolchildren during the cuban missile crisis, and when i asked why we had to do this kind of thing the answers led to pictures of japanese nuclear disaster. so nuclear disaster in japan unleashed a lot of subconscious anxiousness that built up as i prepared to leave my family for a short trip to new orleans.

what i didn't reckon with was that my own memories of traveling thirty-seven years ago contributed a little to my anxiety; out of forty-eight states that i hitchhiked in, new orleans was one of maybe only two or three where i got a ticket for hitchhiking (my memory is unclear on exactly what happened) but really the only one where the police were actually mean to me, and, in fact, they were meaner still to some guy who i saw on bourbon street getting beat up and shoved into a van. now it's true, it was before mardi gras, and, they were about to go on strike, this came out in their conversation. but i believe they started in on me simply because i was walking barefoot (through a park), and, our argument really was about whether a table-knife was an appropriate thing for a young traveler to carry around.

this time around i was traveling in style, in a rented car, and staying with a friend, so i could park the car there and walk into town for a convention that, for me, was the most fantastic of conventions only because it had a small zydeco band playing in the lobby of the convention center. new orleans was its usual self: beautiful, grand, with old metal balconies, faded facades, buildings sinking slowly into the soft ground; the river coming right down through the place and higher really than the city itself. the people were genuinely happy, often drunk, good-spirited; drunks would run into me accidentally, and i'd check my pants for my wallet, and it would still be there. after a while my mood softened and i found the saint patrick's day parade which was a small, bright-green version of mardi gras i'm sure. bands would ride in floats through the city, but, unlike those in carbondale's parades, they played good music, in tune, and pleasant to listen to.

there's an art to throwing beads, and apparently it happens often enough in new orleans so most of the people who do it are pretty good at it. at one point i got a little spot on a corner at bourbon street and a woman on a float saw me, and just pitched one at me, and i caught it. it made my evening, since i'd missed mardi gras many years ago, and in fact missed it for the following thirty-seven years. i no longer get drunk for such things; i no longer spend the last penny partying as many of these people were surely doing. but the spirit of the thing lifted me. i came back in a much better mood.

on the drive down, mississippi seemed dreamy: spring colors coming out from behind tall pines, with the sun backlighting them, and most of the old junk cars and refrigerators safely hidden from the road which was almost entirely surrounded by trees for the entire five or six hours. when i got off the road i'd see the red clay, the old trucks, the mississippi i knew was there. on the way back it seemed plainer, and the only restaurant signs were for mcdonalds, as if anything better just didn't bother, or wasn't able, to get one of those highway signs. finally, in jackson, i got off the road, and drove until i came to a barbecue place whose smell was filling the neighborhood. here, barbecue and fried okra were my lunch; it was wonderful, and this was all of mississippi i really needed to experience.

in new orleans, the nights would turn, late, and have an edge to them, as if there were a little too many broke and desperate folks hanging around, and i didn't much want to push my luck. once, in a small crowd of friends, one jumped in front of a police car at a don't-walk sign, and another followed him; in a split second, i did too, brazenly pushing my luck. only a canadian woman stayed behind, and we waited for her; she said she didn't jump, because it was the police, and it said, don't walk. i laughed a bit to think of it. this time, i had a tie on, and maybe that made a difference. i danced a little too, the music was so good. it felt good to shake out old ghosts, the memory of having to take a bus to baton rouge, because the freeway exit was right in front of the police office, and people were watching. those old memories last forever. but, they can be replaced, washed clean, or at least washed.


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