Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stormy Weather




They say bad things occur in sets of three, and after hearing my story, even the least superstitious of you might agree.  

At the beginning of this summer, I was on the brink of a major transition.  For the first time in my life, I finally found a place so culturally rich, so entertaining, and so professionally stimulating that I decided to buy a house.  It is not something I pictured happening at the ripe age of 35, single, and without children, but there I was, preparing to move out of my apartment in the elite dollhouse Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans, into the distressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Central City.  It was a move I took time to make after moving here--a year to be exact--and it has taken another year for the blighted house I identified as my future home to finally complete construction, under the direction of the non-profit housing developer for which I work.  I was scheduled to close the first week in August.   

I can say without exaggeration that after living in nine different cities in the past 17 years, it is the first real commitment I have made in a very long time.  

This decision was not without tests, three of them to be exact, all of which occurred in the month of August.  But now it is September and I can look back knowing that I have learned invaluable lessons about commitment, friendship, and this place called New Orleans.

A Collapsing House and a Demolition
A New Orleans summer is not without its challenges, and this past one was no exception.  June and July brought monsoon-like showers that beat down on the city and its aged housing stock, many of which were left blighted and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  One such house loomed eerily next to my targeted new home and I only signed a purchase agreement because I knew that the monstrosity was on the City's demolition list.  It was rumored to be a once a historic home, characteristic of the Caribbean architecture imported here by freed slaves originating from the West Indies.  But by June of 2012 it was a decrepit mess with a caved-in roof, serving as a squatting location for homeless junkies looking for a dark corner in which to shoot up.  Its owners were wealthy residents living in one of the most elite neighborhoods of New Orleans, who claimed for years that they were saving to fix it up.  Twenty thousand dollars later in back taxes the property made its way onto the City's obligatory demolition list, but not in time to keep it from collapsing under the pressure June rains, causing it to crawl closer and closer towards my would-be home just days away from completing construction.  On July 27th, after a thunderstorm, it looked like this:





It made its way on the fast-track to demolition.  I was slated to close within days, and after an analysis of my Asian lunar calendar fortune, I was instructed by my mother to avoid, at all costs, closing or moving into the house on August 3rd, 4th, or 5th.  Despite the convenience of asking friends to help with the move on Saturday August 5th, I heeded my mother's advice.  The move was scheduled for August 6th, two days before I was scheduled to leave the state for a friend's wedding.

On August 5th, the City conducted the demolition of the neighboring structure.  I stopped by to find a pile of rubble, disturbingly close to my would-be home.





And on further inspection, I saw my the bedroom of my little house was not spared.



Repair work started two days later by the general contractor who had been hired by my work.  I stayed in town to make sure all was in order with the repairs to begin and missed the wedding of my long-time friend in California but still had time left in my planned vacation.  In my absence my pets stayed in my apartment with a friend who agreed to house-sit.  I hoped to get away from the commotion for at least a little bit and relax in California for two weeks with my nieces and nephews.

A Fire
I was not in California for more than four days when I learned that the apartment building where my stuff remained, with my pets and my house sitter,  caught on fire.  The handyman and plumber, fond of my dog Milo, came into my apartment even before the firefighters arrived.  They called me while I was in California to tell me that they saved my dog.  

But they forgot about my cats.  

After a flurry of phone calls, the cats were eventually saved by firefighters on a second trip into my apartment, this time escorted by the housesitter.  The fire made the evening news.  http://photos.nola.com/tpphotos/2012/08/nofd_saved_pets_from_burning_a_1.html

Though the fire-starting culprit lived in the apartment above mine across the hall, the entire building filled with smoke, and after all was said and done, the entire structure resembled a war zone.





My apartment was covered in soot, some of it drenched in stale water from the fire hoses.






I came back the next day, and after sending a few texts, several friends offered housing,  petsitting, help in packing and moving.  My boss offered a place in her own home for me, and also offered that I move into the new house before the closing date; the general contractor sped up repairs, working his crew overtime on the weekend.  

My friends moved me into the home which was not yet mine, pets and all.

A Hurricane
And, after two weeks of putting the finishing touches on the house that would be my home, with closing prolonged by my lender for a few more days, Hurricane Isaac decided to pay New Orleans a visit.  With my pets just barely starting to eat and poop normally again, I was in no mood to relocate them.  So-called expert predictions on Isaac's scope varied from a category 1 to a category 3 back down to a mere tropical storm.  Mayor Landrieu declared a state of emergency but did not require evacuation.  

A self-selected group of friends with strong stomachs decided to stay in town, and Hurricane pods were formed as designated by neighborhood and friendship proximity.  The decision amongst five of us was to hunker down at my house, located geographically on the incline of the flood plain, which did not see too much water during Hurricane Katrina.  

Three of us were Hurricane newbies, unused to the howling sounds of winds, rain, thunder, of  crackling houses busting up, of transformers throughout the neighborhood blowing once every few hours.  While I distracted myself with the tasks of hosting, others would crack jokes, suggest games to play, or help prepare the next meal.  We had all cooked up our perishables for that night, in contemplation of power outages and failing refrigerators.  We ate like kings, and frequently so, in order to pass the time.  

"It's not the Hurricane that sucks so much, it's the boredom without electricity," said Ryan, a veteran of Hurricane Gustav.  I spent my energy prioritizing items to be cooked next, and frozen yogurt to be made, based on a hierarchy of perishables.  I focused on cleaning and making sure my guests were comfortable.  I focused on hosting my first dinner party which happened to be in honor of a hurricane.  I focused on whatever I could to distract me from wondering if this newly rehabbed 100-year old house would keep us all safe and dry.

It did.  While others had rows of downed trees, missing siding, yards of shingles stripped from their roofs, collapsed fences, I counted on one hand the number of missing shingles.  Massive oak trees and medium sized banana trees took out fences, windows, and power lines.  We were lucky, I was lucky.  And for the second time in two days, I burned incense in gratitude to and in memory of my grandmother as tears quietly trickled down my cheeks.  The worst part was over.  Well, almost.


For two more days, we hurricane buddies gave eachother space but also stuck together, some of us going to work, others whiling the daytime hours with busy work in our houses, all of us staring down the dark, hot, muggy night, in the blackness of a place that once was and still is a swamp.  With no air-conditioning, no fans in our own homes and neighborhoods, we all gravitated to the French Quarter, the one neighborhood in town with electricity, spared from the blackout by the sole subterranean power grid in the city kept perfectly in tact.  We ate and drank like newly released prisoners, though we had been eating and drinking for the past two days just to stay sane.

The company helped us all get through the hot, sticky nights, as did the battery-powered karaoke machine, and our determination not only to stick it out, but help one another do the same.  And maybe the alcohol helped too.  The heat was a relentless, unforgivingly moist heat.  My heart wished in vain that Isaac had enough mercy to at least leave a little breeze.

By day four of no electricity, my determination waned and I second-guessed my decision to stay.  I did not contemplate that riding out the storm also meant enduring the merciless dank heat without power, and I accumulated less than 10 hours of sleep over the span of four days.  I took brief naps at houses that had  their power restored earlier than mine, and for one night I even camped on a friend's couch with my dog while her cats took refuge in her bedroom.  

In the daytime, I rode around the city, taking in a scenery of downed oak trees tangled in electrical wires in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  I saw tanks parked in front of French cafes, and the National Guard scurrying about in various spots.  



I saw electrical lines drooping from tilted poles, and portions of fences completely missing, wind-borne elsewhere.




The storm hit on Tuesday and not until Saturday evening was I able to enjoy the privilege of hearing the whirr of the motor on my central air-conditioning kick back on, of feeling the breeze from my ceiling fans, or of enjoying the sound of music from my computer.  Some of my hurricane friends had left town as planned for the long Labour Day weekend, others had their flights cancelled, and those of us remaining in town continued to check in on one another, for safety and for moral support, to stay sane after a hurricane which was more of a mind-bender than a natural disaster.

At some point my co-worker Charles called, a life-long New Orleanian who lost everything in his Lower Ninth Ward home in Hurricane Katrina, and said, "You're not a virgin anymore, baby girl!  Congratulations!  Wooo hooo!"  Isaac to him was a blink of the eye, his family safe and sound, well-fed by his hurricane-ready barbecue grill.  Charles and his family weathered Isaac and its merciless heat like professionals.

In the process writing this blog entry, part of me is surprised that I didn't pack my pets and bags and hit the road for good.  My first real attempt at commitment seem to be jinxed, and a different me in a different city might not have stuck through it, overwhelmed by negativity.  But instead, thoughts of this past August and all its disasters give me comfort.  I think of my new neighbors who stood by my side when a chunk of the house in between us flew through my would-be bedroom during a demolition; the new romance sparked between two close friends--never having met one another before--who came to my rescue to move my remaining possessions out of a charred apartment building; the hurricane-inspired slumber party-bender and the company of friends working hard to distract one another from the stress of impending natural disaster; my own brief hurricane romance involving a third generation barber whose swimming pool I enjoyed in my third day without electricity; and most certainly, the beautiful house in which I now sit, hurried to construction completion by general contractors who felt empathy for me and my odd housing luck--a house which kept me, my pets, and my friends safe and dry in a nasty little storm.   

New Orleans is a test of loyalty with its hurricanes, heat, and dysfunctional infrastructure, all of which work against those of us who live here, even in post-disaster times.   But the past month, with all its misfortune, served to galvanize existing friendships and spark new ones.  The way I see it now, bad things happen everywhere, so if they are going to, there's no place I'd rather be than here, and I am proud to call New Orleans home.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Dreaming


I was raised in Orange County, California. In the 1980's, it was still a place where a child could run through acres of orange groves, throw rocks into large quarries from the edge of a neighbor's backyard, and at night, hear the not-so-distant howl of coyotes in the brush-covered hills. In the 1980's I was young and so was Orange County--sparsely dotted hills with large houses comprising neighborhoods where children in a mile radius played with one another.

Beyond those couple blocks were miles and miles to be driven. And by the time I reached my teenage years, normal destinations such as school, movie theaters, and malls, required transport by car, in my case, an old hand-me-down that my conservative immigrant parents did not allow me to drive until I was 18 years old. Though less than 50 miles northbound, Los Angeles seemed a world away, and even on occasional big-girl visits to the city with friends for punk rock shows or shopping trips, the massive expanse seemed so unapproachable, so wealthy, and so lonely. And, by the time I left the area to go to college a universe away, less than 400 miles northward to Berkeley, the orange groves and brushy hills I grew up with were dotted with thousands of over-priced tract homes in various shades of pale earth tones, surrounded by secured gates. The skies of all of Southern California were cursed with low-hanging clouds of brown brought on by industrial productivity and wealth-induced car culture. Southern California was chock full of either wealthy families, or middle class folk aspiring to break the seal, exchanging good credit records for shiny cars and overpriced clothes.

And, though I was fortunate enough to be from a family of two professionals with at least one luxury car in the garage, by 18 I had already smelled something afoul in Orange County-land. Maybe it was the sinister rash of sex scandals throughout the areas' private Catholic high schools involving teachers and students. Maybe it was being called a "bleeding heart liberal" at the age of 17 in a classroom social studies group exercise. Or maybe it was the loneliness brought on by miles and miles of separation from one part of the city to the next. By the time I left, Southern California just seemed like a massive sprawl of land filled with small-minded people aspiring only for personal wealth. Big, dumb, shallow. And Los Angeles seemed just as much a part of that sprawl and isolation as Orange County.

But Southern California was not always a place of stranded people. As early as 1872 the City of Los Angeles began exploring a municipal transit system involving horse drawn cars. Not too much later, while in the process of connecting all of California to itself and the rest of the country by train, members of the railway baron Huntington family explored the development of a municipal light rail system within Los Angeles. It eventually comprised of 316 miles of lines within the city, and 1164 miles throughout Central and Southern California. This newfound transportation became integral in the development of various communities throughout the southland, and at 1500 miles total at its peak, was the most extensive network in the country. By 1924 the system served 109 million passengers annually, and maintained in excess of 54 million even after the development of the automobile. Then beginning in 1940, the system was systematically bought out and dismantled by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil in a concerted effort to decimate the competition to the personal automobile. (The three companies were later held liable in Federal Court for doing so in L.A. and numerous other cities; but the systems remained inoperative.) By the 1950's, the stage in Southern California was set for an era of cars and car culture.

This had not changed much when I left in the 1990's.

I wandered through many places after I left the Southland, eventually ending up even further south in New Orleans. In the Big Easy I found a lifestyle I have come to adore, characterized by strong cultural tradition, a living culture of live local music, neighborhoods filled with people proud to be neighbors, and a joie de vivre unlike any in the country. I also found an intriguing and fulfilling new profession in urban development, filled with both bountiful federal funds and new developments, but also entrenched systems of local government characterized by caste-like nepotism and backwards mentalities, with what often seems to be lip service to forward-thinking development and no real commitment on the financial level.

So I was happy to accept the opportunity to travel back to Southern California recently for an urban development training conference, to see how others do it--to get a little break from the sometimes stuffy swamp life.

Though I have spent a handful of weeks each year returning to California for family visits, my exposure to the changes of the time were limited as I quarantined myself to the houses of my parents and sisters; I've had no interest in the place I grew up and committed what little time I spent there with my half-dozen nieces and nephews since I left in the mid-1990's.

So I had not guessed what I would see. The conference was held in Downtown L.A., a formerly under-developed area which, when I was growing up, at night would tranform into a breeding ground for scores of homeless who slept in doorways of office buildings shut down for the evening. Since then, oversized buildings of defunct banks have been converted into sleek architecture offices, and the former Superior Oil Company high-rise is a major glam stop in its boutique hotel-bar formation. At night, the homeless have for the most part gone elsewhere, and the streets are now flanked with skinny rich girls with fluffy dogs going for a brief walk just outside their high-priced loft apartments.

But the changes haven't all been for the just the rich. In the '90's, not too long before I left the area, L.A. County and municipal governments began reinvesting into its once awesome transportation system. Line by line the system was expanded and today five different metro lines cover over 70 stops throughout the county, serving a ridership of approximately 35o,000 per weekday. From Rodeo Drive, to Crenshaw, from Long Beach to Chinatown, a limitless, all day pass costs $5.00.

Since my Southern California exodus, the trend of re-thinking urban development transferred to housing policy as well. Individual cities throughout L.A. County began designating certain areas as "inclusionary zones," regions where developers are forced by local government to dedicate between 10-30% of their development to benefit low- and medium-income households. Scores of mixed-income developments sprouted about the newly reinvigorated transportation system, resulting in pods of transportation-oriented multi-family developments for mixed income households.

On our various training field trips during the conference, my New Orleanian co-workers and I wander the streets of Pasadena, looking at the inclusionary development flanking the the metro station which has been rehabbed to its charmingly historic facade.

We ride the metro through Downtown L.A., Chinatown, Pasadena, through the hills of California.

We walk through the recently-rehabilitated Union Station in all its historic glory, its tall ceilings and tiled floors, the former virtual gift from the City to the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe Railways, three robber baron railway companies that once held a stronghold on state industry and development. We walk around Downtown, around the gobbly-shaped, Gehry-designed Disney Music Hall.


We see mixed-income housing that blows out of the water New Orleanian efforts to do the same.

Throughout the week I am finding it ironic that it is here in the very placed I was raised--and eagerly fled from--do I find the cutting edge work being done in the field to which I have just recently devoted all my professional efforts. Even now, in a period of draconian budget cuts, L.A. outpaces New Orleans in urban development more than ten-fold.

The California trip has left me feeling a little bit like the protagonist in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, who travels the world in search of an unknown treasure only to find it buried not so far from the village in which he grew up. I wonder if I would have ever left had I seen California for the potential it has rendered into a place I never could have even dreamed of during my upbringing in Orange County. I am confused; in a way I am liking L.A., and at the same time, its cutting-edge glamour, its largeness, its vastness, has made me feel strange; I feel a little left behind, a little amazed, and a little lonely.

At the end of the week I return home to New Orleans. I ride my bike to one of my favorite burger shops to meet up with friends, then later to a bar with my favorite local jazz band playing their standing gig. I am happy to be home to be comforted with the liveliness of the New Orleans neighborhoods, away from the confusion and loneliness of big old California. I get ready to return to work, for the frustrating tasks at hand involving dealing and working with various local government entities per norm. There are times when the oldness that makes this city so great can also frustrate me. It is a place that is entrenched in its own history, its own nepotism, its own tradition, even at the cost of its own development. But I love it. Geographically it is in fact a little big city, and already I know it fairly well. It is a sweet little place with both dark corners and big, happy celebrations, lovable despite its backwardness. But it is, in many ways against its own good, backwards.

And then I remember that it is possible for a place to change its most unlikable traits. California of today reminds me that those dreams can come true.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Miracle of Mardi Gras


It was reasonable of me to assume that my second Mardi Gras was not going to live up to the first. A holiday lasting a course of about two weeks in New Orleans, it is a celebration comprised of scores of daily parades with stunning floats which have been constructed over the course of the year, from which elite krewe members throw shiny junk at the parade-watchers. It is a time when friends and strangers on city streets share gallons of alcohol and piles of fatty foods. My first New Orleans Mardi Gras was magical and amazing and I will never forget it.

So how, afterall, can you outdo one's first exposure to scores of oversized floats, hoards of people at their happiest, glitter, romance--in other words, true razzmatazz worthy of a Broadway musical?


How can one outdo the first sighting of a rainbow, or one's first kiss in a field of flowers? Cannot be done. Nope.

Together with beginning of the year work-related stress, and two failed romantic interludes in the previous months, my 2012 Mardi Gras was not looking so good. This year I was, at first, what you could refer to as a Mardi Gras Grinch. And at almost two years of residency, my honeymoon with this town is over, and as of late I have been introduced to its unlikeable sides.

Take for instance my parade watching in front of a friend's boyfriend's family home, a mansion smack dab in the wealthiest section of St. Charles Avenue. I didn't appreciate the comment I heard from my acquaintance's white neighbor when one of the most elite marching bands of an all-black high school passes by: "Pretty good band, eh? Our welfare dollars at work."

Nor did I enjoy running into some parade-watching acquaintances, wasted beyond oblivion at 1 in the afternoon, still drinking in public New Orleans style. That's when one of them gives me a stunningly inappropriate, somewhat violative, "hug".

I could have done without any of it.

It is, afterall, a bit of a strange holiday, Catholic to hilt: get ready for 40 days of good behavior before celebrating the rising of Christ from the dead, by indulging of 14 days of very, very, very bad behavior. Does any other religion do this? I am not aware of Muslims running around in glitter costumes and drinking like demons before Ramadan. Mardi Gras is a little weird.

But then, then it happened. Like all good romances, the magic hits you in the face when you just about done give up on the thing.

It started on a Wednesday after work, when I accidentally came upon the newest parade of second only female troop, the Krewe of Nyx. I forgot about Mardi Gras until I stepped out of the bar after happy hour, to come upon the rain and the Nyx girls standing on their floats passing out magical junk: silk and lace eye masks, purses wrapped in satin and feathers, pink beer koozies.

Of course the other parades later in the week were larger than life as usual, bright lights and all; but for me the magic really started when I decided that I needed something completely--unexotic. Dear reader, the great thing about Mardi Gras is that this town shuts down. Gone fishing, back after lunch--offices all over the city shut down and it's time to just, just catch up with your people, and maybe just watch a parade or two. Nothing so crazy, but really, quite possibly, exotic in this country where the Protestant work ethic rules.

After attending enough parades to collect enough beads to line a balcony (contrary to popular belief, breast-flashing is in no way a part of that process for people who actually live here), after five days already of spectacular parades with amazing floats, we are all jaded, and I really, really just want to have friends over for brunch. With some bloody Mary's. On a Monday.


And I was really, really relieved when a work acquaintance, a visiting consultant from Washington D.C., and virgin Mardi Gras-goer, after attending 7 parades himself, suggested that all of us, just, just, go to Audubon park with my dog.


Whereas my first Mardi Gras last year was an amazing, glittery, bender involving a music video-worthy romance, this year's Mardi Gras was as exotic as playing with the dog, lounging around with old friends for a couple days, and making new friends, interspersed with just a few of the oversized float parades, eating, drinking, then repeat...

Five days of this was just enough rest for the most amazing parade of all on Mardi Gras Day: the small-time St. Ann's parade through the Marigny neighborhood, where these old little streets host a procession of un-motorized floats, and truly amazing, creative, sexy, strange, and glittery costumes made by and for locals.


Did I mention the glitter?


The one pattern I noticed in Mardi Gras of both years, aside from the glitter of course, was the time, and the ability, that Mardi Gras gives me as a recent New Orleanian to galvanize recent acquaintances into friends, and to remind me how lucky I am to have met those friends here I have already made. In the end, perhaps this phenomemon is in fact the true miracle of Mardi Gras.


Who knew it took costumes, a little booze and a lot of fatty foods to induce this magic?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Indian Giving


It is late afternoon on a Sunday when I meet up with a coworker for a drink. It has been a bad weekend for me, having just fought with a friend a few days ago and then falling ill soon after. Will, the coworker in question is something of a younger brother I've always wanted whose sunny disposition always cheers me up, so I am eager to meet up with him as a respite from my foul mood.

The bar he selects is located deep in the heart of the predominantly black neighborhood we work in. It is on a major artery through a crime-ridden section of New Orleans. Will is a young, white transplant with a heart of gold who recently graduated from an ivy league school. Will is a true small time explorer, always good for pushing his boundaries and exploring the unknown.

So unknown, in fact, that one could pass right by this spot without an inkling of its existence, as I must have done so already at least dozens of times. This watering hole resembles a defunct corner store more than an operational bar. Barely a few hundred square feet, its windowless facade is obscured by a large for sale sign. It is across the street from a sprawling public housing project and the only other commercial competition on the block is a coroner's office.

"I haven't gone here before and thought we could check it out. Daniel from the neighborhood says it's a good spot," says Will nonchalantly. I reluctantly agree.

Other than the bartender, the only occupants are three heavy-set middle-aged women perched on barstools listening to Aretha Franklin on the jukebox at about 1000 decibels. We grab a couple beers and sit outside on the street divider greenbelt, which in New Orleans, frequently serves as a place of convening for parades, street festivals, chess games, or any reason at all. Though drinking in public is legal, glass bottles outside a bar is not. But in this part of town, I am not worried that the police will cite my young white companion and me.

Will and I chat about his academic plans, his personal life, work, our respective personal futures, all the things I would talk about with a younger brother. The sun is setting and I savor the moment, recognizing that one day Will will return to the East Coast to continue his studies so that he can become something great. Though I am appreciative of his potential, my sad mood has turned just a bit sadder.

As night comes and the temperature drops, we return to the bar and chat with the proprietor and barkeep. I am famished and he is eager for me to try his yakamein, a favorite in soul Chinese food, a cuisine that I have only encountered in New Orleans. He is in his sixties, a retired school teacher, naval veteran, and husband of a nurse. He states with pride that his recipe is influenced by his travels to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. I slurp it up in seconds and can tell by his expression that he is pleased; what better approval than from an Asian...

The barkeep then casually mentions that the bar will be busy in an hours' time, when the Mardi Gras Indians come in for their practice. I find this hard to believe as the bar is dead empty at this point save for Will and me. I am also skeptical that such information would be disclosed to a couple of strays wandering through his bar--it hardly seems likely that my Asian appreciation of his yakamein is suffice to witness a performance as secretive as Mardi Gras Indian practice.

***

The Mardi Gras Indian tradition of New Orleans dates back at least a century. Legend has it that the ritual commemorates the relationship between Native Americans who gave asylum to African slaves fleeing their owners. In honor of that phenomenon, a group of African-American men created a tradition of masquerading as Mardi Gras Indians, spending tens of thousands of dollars and years constructing hand-made tribal regalia, complete with ornate beadwork and ostentatious feathers of every color imaginable. The costumes weigh hundreds of pounds and while wearing them the Indians engage in a theatrical play-act involving choreographed skipping and dancing, all to the rhythm of chanting, drum beats, and tambourines.

Traditional Mardi Gras Indians are black men and membership is extremely exclusive. And, despite the extensive labor required to construct the costume and rehearse the dance rituals, Indians publicly perform on just a handful of occasions a year, one of which is Mardi Gras day. Although rogue members will occasionally pose for tourists in the French Quarter in exchange for tips, by all accounts, true Mardi Gras Indians are for the most part extremely secretive.

***

So I am awestruck when instantly at 7pm, the bar is flooded with scores of men, tambourines and drums in hand. They have left their costumes at home and instead are wearing local civilian clothes--large leather jackets, baggy pants, ball caps, some with do-rags. Mostly men, ages range from 7 to 75. Will and I are introduced to a man I recognize as a Mardi Gras Indian living legend, who has collaborated on albums with the likes of Dr. John, Tab Benoit, and one of the Neville brothers.

Stunned that Will and I have not been herded out of the bar, I am sipping my second Long Island ice tea when it begins. The congregation assembles into an elongated oval on the pink and grey checkered linoleum floors. Drumbeats sound out from the corner of the room and the entire space booms with singing and chanting in unison, unrecognizable words in a call and response pattern, that gradually crescendo into a wave of not quite music, not quite chanting, but something strange and amazing. A dance begins with two Indians at a time, skipping and hopping on one foot in a rocking motion back and forth towards eachother. Space is traded and hoots and hollers exchanged. But for the dancing, the tableau could easily pass as a snapshot from a bar scene in Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City, or some other American inner city epic. But the audio resembles something from a National Geographic episode on Native American traditions, with a rhythm and blues score playing underneath it all.

Will eventually leaves, but like a fly on the wall I sit through the entire two hour practice, perched on my barstool, completely unbothered, mesmerized by the ritual taking place before me. I am one of four obvious outsiders in the place which is now filled to the brim, and one of four non-blacks in the room. I dare not activate the camera or recorder on my phone, being held captive by this phenomenon that few outsiders have ever witnessed, and it is this captivity that finally releases me from the heartache and disappointment of the weekend.

***

In my short time living in this town I have learned that behind the charm and splendor of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras kitsch of New Orleans, there are many dark corners, some frighteningly criminal, and some just plain beautiful in an unfathomable way. In my life I have always enjoyed traveling, finding it to be a relief from the strain of normal life; there's nothing like learning about a strange new place to remind me how wonderful it is to be alive. What is nice for me in New Orleans is that I need only to stray as far as a corner bar in an unpopular neighborhood to see something strange and wonderful and totally beyond my imagination. It is because of this--moreso than because of the historically preserved buildings or the scores of restaurants--that I am convinced that New Orleans is one of the most amazing places on this earth.