Thursday, July 29, 2010

Boxing Days

For someone who enjoys playing the violin, and has made a living requiring an acute memory, signing up for boxing lessons seemed like the right thing to do. Okay, maybe it's not the best idea in the world but I blame my new friend Jayne, an itinerant Aussie traveling the world as they are known to do. But this Aussie stayed in New Orleans for two months now, enough time to sign up for boxing lessons, and almost enough time to compete in an amateur fight.

Jayne didn’t need to say much about her brief boxing career for me to take the bait. I had once signed up for a boxing “course” in college at the local YMCA, which was comprised of aerobics and some air boxing--fantastically disappointing to say the least. Since then I had abandoned my would-be hobby, and generally avoided physical activity until the pizza diet, drinking binges, and all-night study sessions of law school mandated that I take up that annoying but effective ritual of jogging.

From there I moved to Alaska, where I bumped into the outdoors and dived in wholeheartedly. I tried hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding on for size, but it was truly ice climbing that swept me away. With heavy tools banging into ice, nurturing a kind of controlled and calculated fearlessness, ice climbing was the perfect complement to my legal career and trial mindset. Ice climbing gave me the taste of exploring the boundaries both of my physical and mental worlds.

A few months ago I readily ended my career path in the legal field, and moved from Alaska to New Orleans. Without a secure job or any contacts, and having recently ended a dysfunctional relationship with another lawyer, I moved down here. I found an apartment, made friends, and rode my bike as much as my Alaska-acclimated body could handle.

But something was amiss. Although I was ready to say goodbye to the winter, I already missed ice climbing. I liked bashing ice. I liked having a visceral fear of a task, and then completing it. I liked looking down that wall of frozen water, knowing I had more to climb, forgetting about all the workplace stress I had in my day life. I missed the pure adrenaline, unrivaled in any other activities I had ever engaged in.

So, when in Rome, I decided to do as the Romans do, or at least the Romans who are boxing. Short of hell freezing over, I’ll never ice climb in New Orleans. So boxing seemed only natural. The more Jayne spoke about it the more I realized how important a structured activity wherein I could release my pent up aggression was an important element in my life. It just seemed like a good idea.

Day One

My trainer is Matt, nicknamed by his boxing co-horts as Cadillac Matt, because of all the different Cadillacs he has driven at various times of his life. But I'll call him Italian Matt because of his multi-syllabic Italian surname and his audible Italian-American accent. Walking towards me he gives me a little bit of a look. It’s that same look I first received many years ago in jail on my first day on the job as a public defender. I am Vietnamese-American woman, about 5’5”, and look about 5-10 years younger than I am. I recall something of a “Are-you-kidding-me-is-this-really-my-f*****g-lawyer-or-is-this-just-a-Japanese-exchange-student” look on my clients faces when they first saw me in court, before I had proven my loyalty to them and their incarcerated kind. Matt is giving me a more gentle version of that look now. So I walk towards him coolly and confidently introduce myself as if to say, “No really, I’m serious.”

Italian Matt is shaped like a lean refrigerator. Neither tall nor short, he has a squarish, closely cropped head, a thick neck, and a strong, squarish body to match. He is comfortable with his movements and uncomfortable with his words. I had heard that the gym owner, though well-intentioned, had the tendency to be a touch on the brutal side, once refusing to continue training a woman who had told him she was too tired to continue a jabbing exercise. Matt seems like a gentle giant, and in that sweltering gym, I knew to be grateful.

The gym itself could serve as a movie set about boxing in the seventies. Located in one of the numerous developing neighborhoods of New Orleans, it is comprised of concrete floors, cinder block walls, large fans and absolutely no air conditioning. There is a ring off to the side, large mirrors along the walls, and various punching bags hanging around. A few exercise bikes and a couple of bench presses. On the front windows are two conspicuous spots where it looks like someone threw a couple of punches. Like their surroundings, most of the gym’s patrons look lean and tough.

Skipping any uncomfortable small talk, Matt puts me on the exercise bike. Not wanting to look like a whiner I omit mentioning to him that I had just ridden my bike to the gym on this 95 degree day. He makes a jumbled explanation of the buzzer system running at all times in the gym. I am to train for three minutes at a time. The green light means I start the three minute period, the yellow light means 30 seconds more, the red light means stop and rest for 3 minutes. Each light is accompanied with a buzzing sound. Okay, I can handle that, so far so good.

Matt shows me the one punch. Step jab, twist that wrist, but just at the end. Move on the ball of your back foot, keep balance between the A shape between your feet, which should be no further than your shoulders. Legs bent, torso straight. Don’t huddle in, it takes away the force. Corkscrew that punch, that’s where the power is.

After about three rounds he directs me to the ring.

My instinct is to start climbing over the ropes and he quickly pulls the bottom rope down, beckoning to climb in between the ropes instead, biting his tongue to keep from laughing. Despite the fact that this is a boxing lesson and I am sweating like a pig, I appreciate the fact he is chivalrous, though I would be fine without it.

I step into the ring. I like it here and feel a certain oooing and ahhhing inside of me. Matt makes me shuffle around the ring, interspersing with some jabs and steps forward. I do a few rounds of around one side of the ring, jab jab jab, forward, jab jab jab back. Around and around the ring I go.

Matt takes me out of the ring and brings me back down to earth. He teaches me the two punch and makes me combine it with the left hook. After a few rounds of this, the smart-ass in me wants to stop, cross my arms and say, “Don’t you think that’s enough to try to figure out on my first day?” But I had already resolved not to show any weakness after hearing the story of the other woman. Instead, I comply with his demands, dripping with salty, fluidy, me, my shirt, shorts and hair drenched and clinging to my body. But despite my attempts to disguise my fatigue it is showing: I accidentally punch him twice in the face, followed by an unedited, “Oh f**k, I’m so sorry!” He tells me it’s okay and compliments me on the force of the punch. Matt sees that I am toasty and pours my water bottle directly on my head. In the mirror I can almost see the steam rising from my noggin. I almost laugh at my own image: I have never seen myself look more disgusting than I do right now.

After forty-five minutes he begins the “cool-down” part of the session. Instructing me to tuck my feet under the frame of the boxing ring, he makes me do twenty sit-ups. Matt notices from my first five sit-ups that under my flat tire is something resembling a core, a remnant of my climbing days, and so he ups the ante to twenty-five. I falsely lull my mind into thinking the torture is over until he tells me to do ten push-ups. He compliments me, and I decide not to tell him that it’s from yoga. Again, I falsely lull my mind into thinking the torture is over when he forces me to do two more rounds of each. I complete his demands without even a whimper, but emotionally I’m hurt. Why couldn’t he just be straightforward with me from the beginning? Man-up and tell me what was really going on? That’s right, THREE rounds of 25 sit-ups and 10 push-ups, totaling 75 sit-ups and 30 push-ups! Would the truth have been so hard??!!

The session ends, and we plan the next one for two days later. In his awkward, monosyllabic, Rocky Balboa way, he tells me my punches are good, I have good endurance, but that I’ve got to work on my cardio. Doesn’t he know? Would he care that I just moved here from Alaska a month ago? That even my dog is exhausted by this heat? I shut my mouth and obediently tell him that I’ll do rounds in Audobon Park.

I agree to sign up for ten more sessions. By now Matt has loosened up a bit in that awkward guy sort of way and endeavors the formidable task of making small talk. He can tell that there’s something about this nutty activity that I like and makes a comment along those lines. With a straight face I explain simply, “Yeah, I have a lot of pent up aggression.” He laughs and says he can relate. He explains that he was training competitively five years ago until Katrina happened and that shortly afterwards he quit altogether. “Well, you know...” he says, his eyes darting towards the ground. I always find it odd how locals either talk about Hurricane Katrina as if it made them a martyr, or, in the alternative, as if it were their fault, like Matt did right at that moment. As if he was some type of quitter for not boxing after the hurricane.

Matt tells me that he ended up driving limosines. “Wasn’t any other work around afterwards, you know?” The irony reminded me of some observations I once made while traveling overseas in a couple developing countries. No matter how poor, how devastated a region is, there are always people hanging around in the aftermath who get driven around by the locals. Matt perks up by telling me that he came back to train two months ago, lost 20 pounds in the process, and is preparing to fight professionally again. He notices my blue mountain bike, lovingly dubbed the Blue Bayou Bomber. We end the session by chatting about biking and kayaking on Lake Pontchartrain.

It usually takes a day before I am sore from rigorous physical activity. Oh but not today. Boxing efficiently eradicates that lag time and my arms and all sorts of muscles near my shoulders are sore immediately upon stepping out of the gym. Somehow, I make it home on my bike, and am able to hoist my body into a cold shower, and quickly pass out into a deep slumber on my bed.

I am 5’6” a size 6-8. Sure, I’m a little out of shape since leaving Alaska, having enjoyed my fair share of daiquiris and local food here in New Orleans, but by no stretch of the imagination am I obese. Yet, somehow, Matt leaves me feeling like a fat pig, squealing in pain.

I wake up from my nap, with both trepidation and excitement for my next training session on Thursday. I call Jayne and confirm with her that boxing is a very good thing. I know that the pain in my muscles are a promise that they will grow in the future. The pain lets me know that things are starting to build for me here in New Orleans.

Day Two

I wake up on Thursday, mentally eager but with some rudimentary concerns. For instance, why do the muscles under my boobs hurt? And the ones all over my arms, and creeping around my shoulder blades in the back? Same with the ones under the flat tire I like to carry with me around my waist? Is this how I should be feeling the day of a workout?

We start our training session and a few minutes into it I’m combining my punches. Jab, right, left hook. 1-2-3. Then 1-2-3-1. Then 1-2-3. Whatever he calls I’m doing it. I’m soaked in sweat, and soon after the adrenaline comes, I lose my form, and am pre-empting his calls incorrectly. “Slow down,” he tells me. “Wait ‘til I make the call. And don’t forget your form.” We slow it down, and I am learning the physics of the punch, the importance of the the pivot, keeping balance, keeping appropriate distance from the opponent. I find a rhythm and hear a satisfying, “BAM!” when my fists make contact with the pads he’s holding up. “Boys you better not mess with her 'cause she’s gonna kick your ass!” He hollers out, laughing. He calls the gym owner over, “Hey Mike, check it out.” BAM! BAM! BAM! go my punches. Mike smiles big.

I ride my bike home and think about the day’s lesson. I recall the story of Mike Tyson and how it was widely criticized that a man of his broken, violent background was allowed to box. I also recall something my friend Liz, a member of the National Guard, once said to me. “People think that if you’re in the military, then you should be against gun control, because you use and handle them all the time. But what those people don’t recognize is that in the military, your use of weapons is so highly controlled and regulated. There are regular weapon counts, and you're only allowed to handle them a certain way. That’s pretty different than the type of rights gun advocates lobby for, which so often results in bad gun accidents.”

I'm starting to view boxing with the same eyes. It is a controlled use of violence, with a set of rules, and a protocol of acceptable behavior. Losing your cool is not to the boxer’s advantage; in fact, uncontrolled adrenaline can distract one from the physics of the punch, and decrease your effectiveness and power. Of course biting the opponent’s ear off is a terrible thing. It doesn't take a psychologist to observe that Mike Tyson clearly had uncontrollable rage issues. But where would that rage have been directed for all those years prior had he not been able to box? Boxing alone could not have solved Mike’s deeply-rooted psychological issues but I’d dare say that boxing probably did not cause them.

For me, boxing is the new ice climbing. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Friday Night Fight and I’m looking forward to the day when Mike and Matt pop the question: “Kim, would you like to compete in an amateur fight?”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bullets, Barbecue, and Kermit

Here in New Orleans my life thus far has been strangely pristine. I live near a couple of beautiful private universities, in a part of town almost completely spared of any blemish from Hurricane Katrina, oil spills, or any sort of economic disadvantage. I feel a little bit like I live in a doll house in a neighborhood full of doll houses. Don't get me wrong, I love where I live. It's the definition of picturesque, with all these historic buildings and mansions, quaint shops, artsy restaurants and cafes. It's convenient, being next to a bike path, and right off a streetcar line. And it's safe, being in one of the high ground areas (meaning flood safe), with mostly students or affluent people living in the neighborhood, not much of a crime rate to speak of.

But there's a part of me that wonders where the action is. Sure, I love roaming around the French Quarter, pristine and well-preserved historic buildings, or the funky warehouse district with its big galleries and museums. And the Lower and Upper Garden Districts near me are also neighborhoods with a lot of aesthetic. But demographically, this town is 67% African-American who I haven't seen much of. Music is everywhere, and I've seen it, but mostly in college venues, or the trendy Frenchman Street clubs. And of the 20 or so people I've met, about five of them are actually from New Orleans, and of those 5, 4 of them are maintenance staff for the building I live in. I'm definitely living like a tourist right now.

Save for tonight, when I ventured out to Bullets Sports Bar. It got a cameo on HBO's Treme series, but Bullets was first recommended to me by an Alaskan musician friend of mine of the old school breed. I was informed that local trumpeter Kermit Ruffins grills up some ribs before stepping on stage for some tunes. A little wore out on the hipster music scenes, I recruit Joe, my new 64-year old friend and maintenance man, to explore with me. Joe is quirky, fun, trustworthy, and one of New Orleans' many ardent music lovers. He agrees to venture out to Bullets.

I googlemap the location to learn that it is located in the terribly unfashionable 7th ward, not so close to downtown as I previously thought. Joe decides to drive and our route necessarily takes us through part of the city I haven't yet had the opportunity to explore. It is the part where most of that 67% of the city's population I never see lives. Houses are small, but well-kept. Neighbors are talking to one another from their stoops. There are mom-and-pop corner stores selling po-boys and cajun seafood and liquor.

We arrive at a tiny bar which looks like a converted shotgun house situated within a completely residential neighborhood. I'm surprised that zoning would allow for it but the neighbors are out and will not be complaining. The city is out and alive. Old women are with their grandchildren and there are a couple grills on. There is a school half a block away. People of all ages are milling about.

Joe and I walk in and comprise part of the 10% non-black patrons in the bar. Women are in their clubbing clothes, skin tight shirts and hotpants showing off bulbous rear ends. But instead of ear-wrenching techno or top 40 hits, the sweetest old school jazz standards are being thrown out by Kermit on trumpet, a keyboardist, drummer and guitar. They appropriately call themselves Kermit and the BBQ Swingers.

Joe and I go outside and wait patiently next to a behemoth grill for barbecue plates. For $15.00, on my styrofoam take-out tray are three no-skimp ribs, and a chicken breast and drumstick, sitting on top a bed of baked beans, a side of baked macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and a slice of bread, all home-made. The smokiness of the meat is perfect, the sauce tangy and not too sweet. The sides are made with love. We take our loaded-down foam containers inside where we equip ourselves with a beer and a soda each. Kermit is playing the Treme theme song of his alma mater Rebirth Brass Band. Passers-by jokingly threaten to steal our plates. Middle-aged women greet eachother with big hugs. One friend fixes the other's bra-strap. The chefs give us a big smile when they notice that I have won the clean plate club, and the woman who took my money gives me a big hug, appreciative of my appreciation.

The stage itself is nothing but a little space at the front of the bar, not even a platform of any sort. Closer to the stage, the dancing is strong, but never rude. A man in his eighties has on high-wader pants belted just below his chest. He is wearing one of his best button-up shirts, a bowler hat with a feather tucked in the band, and shiny white patton-leather shoes. His objective is to strut his stuff, and boy does he, with all the young ladies near the stage. Kermit is right there with us, dancing as his trumpet sweetly hollers. He lets one of the waitresses get on stage with him who raps while the band backs her up with old-school/classic jazz beats. This band is on.

A belly full of warm soul food. Great, traditional music--world famous music. Tonight, Joe and I in every way, shape and form were outsiders. But I've never felt like such a welcome outsider, in this unimpressive-looking neighborhood sports bar near a local high school, a far cry from any tourist attraction. What a great New Orleans night.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Higher Ground

I once had a boyfriend in Alaska who told me that he could never imagine a life without wilderness. At the time, I could not relate, despite the fact that by that I had already tasted the pleasures of the great outdoors. Only now since I've moved to New Orleans do I realize the impact of having lived for six years in a state like Alaska, so massive and so wild. Even in the thriving metropolis of Anchorage (wink wink) I had access to state parks with dozens of trails up and around dozens of hills, at 3-5,000 feet elevation.

In New Orleans, the local currency is culture. Walking down the streets of the Riverbend area or the French Quarter, there is no shortage of interesting cafes, bars, and restaurants, historic buildings, galleries and museums. Plenty of stimulation for the mind, plenty of food and toxins for the body.

But a little air is nice too. In a city which is 50% below sea level, there are no vistas to be had. And after a month here, I have begun to yearn for higher ground. Here, that means 12-17 feet above sea level at most. So yesterday, on a 80 degree afternoon, almost chilly by Louisiana standards, I took my bike to the levee (formally called the Mississippi River Trail), a few blocks from my house and hopped on the bike path, where cars are prohibited. In a Forrest Gump-like fashion, I rode. And rode. And rode.

Within New Orleans proper, the levee is flanked on either side with tools and instruments of industry and commerce. On the water side barges and cargo ships park or float by. On the city side, factories, storage units, and other block-like buildings take up the real estate. Clanging of tools and buzzing of various motors or engines remind you that you are in a shipping area. Water pumps, bulldozers, and even helicopters can be found on this stretch of the trail.

But within these stretches are little pockets where the loner-types I know so well from Alaska construct the bayou answer to cabins; wooden-shanties on stilts, close to but tucked just a bit away from the electrical towers and barge ports.

It doesn't take long before the scenery starts changing. With the growing hum of cicadas, the foliage also gets thicker. Waterside of the levy starts looking like
an excerpt of a bayou and it is easy to imagine what the banks of the Mississippi looked like before they were augmented for industrial purposes. On the city side of the levy, factory buildings are replaced with houses, and the further from New Orleans proper you get, the larger the houses are. With the abundance of space, there are small horse stables. At one house you can see a large parade float being constructed in honor of the Saints.

Later on along the path, you can see an exclusive neighborhood called "plantation estates". Judging by the size and landscaping of the trees, and the history of that side of the vicinity, this property likely comprised a plantation back in the days when agriculture and slavery were a part of the Southern consciousness. Tennis courts and golf courses are also now in this stretch of the path. Opposite these houses, on the waterside, the terrain starts to resemble a jungle in Panama, with large banana plants and other tropical-looking foliage taking over.

And, as with most areas in or near New Orleans, you don't need to go very far before you run into a neighborhood watering hole. In the Jefferson section of the ride, you'll find the River Shack.
At various times the River Shack has served as a grocer, restaurant, and bar, for the last 100 years in the very same building that stands today. It drew recent attention when toxic asbestos shingles were removed for safety purposes, revealing a facade full of colorful advertisements from a time long past. The current owners now don these painted signs proudly. Live music and typical Louisiana fare are available here.

In Alaska, I was never much of a cyclist. Frankly, I was scared of real mountain biking and found the accompanying saddle soreness to be somewhat humiliating. At most, I would occasionally ride my cruiser on a paved trail. In fact, at certain points I was somewhat hostile towards cycling and gave my former climbing partner quite a bit of grief as she replaced climbing and me with a couple of dumb bikes in her recreation heart. But here, in the still, swampy heat, the only breeze I have found as of yet is the one I catch from my bike. And, in the process, my DIY cooling system has forced me to tour parts of the city I would not have otherwise. True wilderness in New Orleans is pretty much gone and you will not find it on the Mississippi River Trail. But with 22 miles to play around with on a smoothly paved path, protected from the terrifying New Orleans drivers, the levee trail offers a bit of a cure for those suffering from urban claustrophobia. Highly recommended for anyone staying in the city for a significant amount of time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I Left Alaska

I moved to Alaska from from New York City in 2004. I signed up for a year long legal clerkship, and thought I would be gone at the end of the position. And I did move eventually, six years later. How did one year turn into six?

My story starts in New York City, where, after a whirlwind four years I was decidedly overwhelmed by the city pace, and my exasperation was eclipsed by the fall of the World Trade Center. After finishing law school with a few detours, I decided that I needed to leave. As much as I loved the City, I hated it. On one hand I loved the intensity, the high caliber of everything available there, the ethnic neighborhoods, the cutting edge of it all. On the other hand I hated the competition, the 12 hour minimum work days, the pretension, the tragic hipness, the old lady jabbing me on the subway, the sound of babies crying and couples arguing through the dilapidated walls of my tenement apartment, the echo of gunshots on any given evening. To me the throngs of talented ambitious people started to look like nothing but a shameless swarm of humanity.

I went to the career center at my law school and saw a clerkship application for Alaska. On the announcement there was a cartoon picture of a mountain, an eagle, and a bear. I telephone-interviewed with one judge who ended up hiring someone else, and I sent him a perfunctory thank you card, a ritual ingrained in the minds of every East Coast law student. But, unlike the 100 judges in New Jersey and NYC to whom I also submitted my resume, the Alaskan judge wrote me back. He informed me that he had hired another because that person grew up in Alaska, and not because he thought me unqualified. He encouraged me to apply to other judges, so I did.

A few months later, sight unseen, I moved to Palmer, Alaska, population 5,000. I took a job working for a bearded judge who had spent the better part of his career helping Alaska Natives and polar bears. In the summer he wore a tennis shoes and shorts under his robe and hunted moose in the fall. I lived in a cabin where all I could see out my window were mountains and a glacier. Grizzly bear and moose roamed my backyard. I learned to hike mountains. I learned to ski. I learned to play oldtime music on a fiddle. I saw the Northern Lights, regularly. I split wood.

Eventually i moved to the urban haven of Anchorage, population 250,000. I moved into another cabin, with a 40 foot spruce growing on its roof. I felt modern because this one had running water and a flush toilet inside.

I kept on skiing, I met lots of people, I learned to ice climb.

I learned to rock climb.

I learned how to fish.

I even started a band.

I tried to settle down, and I thought I would. I moved from political jobs, to legal jobs. I became a public defender and learned that even 100 of me could not do for my clients what I wanted to do for them. Then I worked for the elderly, and learned that I can't help anyone working for a small-town tyrant, dead set on keeping her job at any cost.

I skiied less. I played music less. I got frostbite on my toe while ice-climbing.

I left the state twice, hoping that small escapades down south would remind me how beautiful Alaska was. I went to Nicaragua and came back. I went to Argentina and came back. But each time I returned, I looked at the dark night sky. I knew the beauty of Alaska, but I also knew how cold and dark it was, every year, nine months at a time.

I stopped climbing, I stopped skiing, I stopped playing music. I hated work and work hated me. I broke up with one boyfriend and then another. Things were no longer good for me in the Great Land.

So I packed my fiddle, my cats, my dog, and my computer. The most recent ex- offered to take my whole little crew to New Orleans, and I accepted. He dropped us off, and then turned around to go to his true home, Detroit. I hugged him goodbye, and he left. I looked around, and found myself in New Orleans.

Once upon a time I moved to Alaska to see if I could take care of myself in the rugged West. After the fall of the twin towers, I became a little bit of a fatalist and wanted to know that if the world collapsed, that I could take care of myself. I wanted to see if I could split wood, carry water, live in winter. The world did not collapse but I did alright taking care of myself anyways.

Afterwards, I knew that I wanted to be back home. Not California, where I grew up, but home. Where I could listen to music, walk to a cafe, wear a t-shirt at night, and visit with friends without having to make arrangements beforehand. I got that in spades here in New Orleans. Am I home? I have no idea.

Up until recently, I loved traveling and moving because I saw it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. As I got a little older, I loved it because all the new sights and the new people I met allowed me to forget the pressures and commitments of being a full-time working professional. Now, I'm not sure whether I want to stop moving around or whether I want to float forever. Either way, I'm done reinventing myself. In fact, unless we're Madonna, we cannot and do not reinvent ourselves. In actuality, we build upon what we already have, and get rid of the crap we don't like. Even when we change, a part of us still stays the same. Once upon a time I was a snotty, bookish, Berkeley grad who scoffed at people who exercised or went camping. Then I moved to Alaska, wore flannel shirts more often than not, and learned how to ice climb. Now in New Orleans, I love the culture that surrounds me, I go to museums and galleries and music shows on a regular basis, but I also yearn to see the bayou, ride my bike along the shores of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain for as long as I can, and see everything the South has to offer in the universe of the outdoors. Like an Alaskan I have come to appreciate my privacy and my independence. But like the old me, I thrive in and treasure my friendships. And maybe, just maybe, I will find friends who can connect to these paradoxical values.

It's difficult to say what lies ahead of me. But gladly, I still have my dog, my cats, my education, some savings, and I just found a comfortable, reasonably priced apartment. I also have the photographs of places I saw, memories of people I met, and things I did in Alaska. I still have the job announcement, and the returned thank you letter from the judge in Alaska who I never met. These things remind me of how far I have come.

At the last minute, I was scared to leave Alaska and all the stability it offered. Dead scared in fact. But now, here in New Orleans, with some residual amount of anxiety over what lies ahead, I have confidence that leaving was the right thing to do. As I write this entry, I watch people ride their horses on the streetcar tracks past my window, under large oak trees, past a French fountain shop and an Italian restaurant. It is all very comforting.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Land of the Dead

We know New Orleans for its life: Mardi Gras, music, and food.
We know New Orleans for its undead: voodoo magic, vampires, and ghosts.
But New Orleans is also a land of the dead.

Home to 42 cemeteries, New Orleans makes a great tourist destination for the ghoul in us. Many of these graveyards are located in the heart of the city, including the French Quarter and Uptown. Myself a personal fan of graveyards, I made a Saturday out of exploring just three of these block long spaces of history. As if traveling through portals into different centuries I saw and learned about so many of the different characters of the past who comprise New Orleans' rich history and tradition. An excursion not to be missed by anyone interested in time travel.

Because the New Orleans is quite low in elevation, underground burials were frequently thwarted by the land's proximity to the water table. Airtight coffins would often rise from the ground, particularly after a storm or a flood. Various techniques were employed, including weighting the coffins with bricks, or boring holes through the exterior. But eventually, the city adopted the Spanish tradition of above-ground crypts, serving multiple members of the same family.

These tombs were and are frequently constructed in part of brick. When a family member passes on, bricks in the entry spot of the tomb are removed and a body is interred. The bricks are reset with mortar. The scorching Louisiana heat combined with the brick structure of the tomb act like an oven, cremating the remains. Upon the death of another family member, the bricks are removed, and the next body is interred on top of the remains of the predecessors. And so on and so forth.

This tradition continues today. A local ordinance allows for the remains of multiple individuals to rest in the same vault, so long as the individuals died not less than two years of each other. If that time restriction cannot be met, then the remains of the prior decedent are stored in a bag in a holding cell until the ordinance is satisfied, and then placed back in the vault. What results are small but efficient graveyards. For example, St. Louis no. 1 takes up merely one city block, but houses 100,000 dead. These graveyards resemble towns, and appropriately are dubbed "Cities of the Dead."

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Part of a group of three, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the French Quarter is the
oldest cemetery in the city dating back to 1789. Like the live residents of the streets of New Orleans, dead people also maintain a sense of aesthetics, as exemplified by St. Louis No. 1. Tombs here are made of marble engraved with fancy fonts, adorned with statues or elaborate metal work. Some even have decorative wrought iron gates and knockers for each body space. In St. Louis No. 1 I met sugar plantation owners, soldiers from 1812, legendary jazz families, and the notorious Madame Laveau, voodoo queen to some, philanthropist to others. Her crypt conspicuously bears the unconventional markings and gifts of her followers.

St. Louis Cemeteries No. 2 and 3
After a walk through Iberville, a low-income public housing project, I leave the French Quarter and enter the neighborhood called Treme. Claude Treme, a hat-maker and real estate developer from Burgundy, France, owned a large chunk of the neighborhood which bears his name. A white man, Treme sold much of his property to black people at least 50 years before the Civil War, and lived in this area himself.

He and other figures who played a role in the black community in New Orleans are buried in cemeteries 2 and 3, including the Sisters of the Holy Family, who served the poor black community of New Orleans. By the placards on the tomb itself, I counted many dozens of nuns interred that single crypt.

Also in no. 3 is "Chef's Corner," housing a number of famed restauranteur families, including the Prudhomme dynasty.

Currently, there is a waiting list to get into No. 3. I can't resist saying it: people are dying to get in.

As with many aspects of its cultural heritage, New Orleans residents have organized to preserve this after-life tradition. Though the graveyards are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, the institution itself only provides maintenance for the burials of those who pay for perpetual care. There are no cameras or efforts to curb looting. However, a non-profit group called Save Our Cemeteries offers tours, and a portion of proceeds are set aside for restoration.

Efforts by Save Our Cemeteries and other groups have been at least somewhat successful in maintaining these relics of tradition throughout modernity. All three, but especially the later two cemeteries are located within the modern landscape, sitting under a major highway and next to industrial warehouses. A panoramic perspective of No. 2 and 3 reveal a tombstone landscape juxtaposed against the cityscape of the skyscrapers of the Central Business District.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are a must-see, not only for the ghouls at heart but also for those intrigued by history and storytelling. The gates close on the early side (3pm) so make sure you get in and out before they do...unless you wish to rest with the dead!