fun illumination live new-orleans poetry

My Second Line

Get in line, 
my second line,
find your groove
keep it movin’
with high steppin’ 
hip hoppin’ and
I will dance
along with you
in the…

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art college illumination new-orleans travel

New Orleans through a Montage of Unrelated Art

Homage to a land of stories

Illustration: ‘Rue Bourbon’ by Anusha Subramanian

My first meal in New Orleans was a modest plate of scrambled eggs at a wayside diner by the name of Lil’ Dizzy. The waitresses were familiar, if not friendly, and the coarse black coffee washed away residues of the 6 hour flight from San Francisco marvellously. On our last day in the city, my Uber driver picked us up from the WWII museum. Amidst heated debates regarding our next meal, he asked if we’d been to Lil’ Dizzy’s yet. “My family owns it,” he grinned. We’d come a full circle.

there was something about
that city, though
it didn’t let me feel guilty
that I had no feeling for the
things so many others
it let me alone.
– Charles Bukowski, Young in New Orleans

And yet, connections coursed through the city’s veins, rife with accounts of magic and mysticism, like a paradise built on art, melody and grotesque criminality. New Orleans was the land of stories, where every inch of the cobblestoned Quarter dripped with accumulated history, united in nothing but the indelible mark it left on us voyeurs.

While my spirit traverses Rue Bourbon often, my body is confined to weekly travels through my camera roll. Thumbing idly through those pictures, the photos that give me pause are often shots without context that connect me to moments in the past through a shared evocative feeling. And committing those memories into art (that you’ll find interspersed through the page) helped me relive them in all their technicolored glory.

Illustration: ‘1447’ by Anusha Subramanian

More than a city, New Orleans is state of mind. Which is why I found it inescapable even outside of the French Quarter. Beyond those hazy, blurred out yellow doorways of light was an eclectic family of 10, wildly different college kids in the prime of their thanksgiving break, attempting to cook thanksgiving dinner. There was music, there was laughter and in true New Orleans spirit, there were tendrils of pungent smoke drifting in from the backyard. That night, everyone was a professional chef, but one more than the others for he demonstrated the art of a flambé, resulting in a spectacular mushroom and toast. Later that week, the same troupe would be split into two — one, painstakingly shelling whole seafood on the dinner table while the other scarfed down the most flavourful Israeli spread on the floor, next to them. But going back to the Thanksgiving scene, the chaos of porcelain plates and saying grace around the table, intermingled with hurricane drink mix in red solo cups captured the rough sophistication of life in the Big Easy. So did waking up to Captain Morgan securely planted beside a venti cereal&milk. Food of the gods, indeed.

Illustrations: (left) ‘A little Bloodshed’ — an ode to the ER dash when a friend put his hand through our glass window during a particularly heated game of “hand tennis” & (right) ‘Morning After’ by Anusha Subramanian.
Illustration: ‘The Reluctant Poet’ by Anusha Subramanian

“Summer blows bubblegum, winter’s skin gently flayed,” he wrote. The card on his makeshift table titled him ‘the reluctant poet’ but offered no explanation. Everything about him embodied the Quarter. Our poet for hire sat nestled in a corner, between a high-end art gallery that prided itself on colour blocked dog paintings, and a black and neon adult lingerie store. His eclectic ensemble made it easy to spot him a mile away, a solitary artist claiming his nook. He click-clacked on his typewriter, immortalising his words onto artificially aged parchment, in response to our request for a poem on “Pink”. Struck with a fit of apophenia, our topic of choice was motivated by the shared colour of clothing that we wore. It’s no surprise that the poet saw bubblegum skies where we saw skirts. He handed us the parchment, along with a handy tip to stay away from back alley cocaine-entrepreneurs and asked us to pay him “what we saw fit”. I don’t tend to wonder aloud what doesn’t have answers. Instead, it floats around my mind, looking for a comfortable home between my gray matter, and lodges there firmly, unuttered. That day I wondered about the price of words. The price that hangs heavy with the connotation of ‘gimmick’ and I wondered who I was to judge the merit of his words. Especially while we stood there with our bubblegum outfits, and he churned out rhymes — separated by a few inches of cobblestone but a whole world of realities.

Illustration: ‘Rosé tinted glasses’ by Anusha Subramanian

24 hours in New Orleans don’t function like the rest of the world. Like pretty much everything else in the Big Easy, time too, has character. Not only is its passage beautiful — framed by satiny sunrises, blazing sunsets and infinitely inky nights lit by neon heralds of jazz clubs — it’s presence is felt through cultural shifts rather than seen on mundane numbers on a watch-face. If mornings were reserved for discovery and leftover beer, afternoons for creole and frozen daiquiri, and nights for fishbowls and fake IDs, dusk called for live music outdoors and wine. Just for a couple of hours, we dressed up and played wealthy patrons to musicians that fine-tuned their craft under the intermingling canopy of fairy lights, starlit skies and the orange of a fading sunset. Probably the most kitsch illustration in the set, I found this glaringly urban sticker slapped on a wine (or rather rosé) cooler at Bacchanal Fine Wine and Spirits, in the Ninth Ward. A tiny wine & cheese cellar eventually gives way to a courtyard of classy, yet relaxed atmosphere of festivities. You could almost taste the pervasive jazz culture of the Quarter. And so I swirled the rosé I shared with a friend, settling into the role of an underage wine connoisseur and realised truly for the first time what a walking contradiction this city presented. I tucked the image of this glaringly modern sign in a cork-board cellar and the memory of the anxious steps and sinister streets we walked to get here, into the taste of that alcohol. New Orleans thrived on these startling juxtapositions.

Illustration: ‘Prohibition’ by Anusha Subramanian

“You tryna get on bourbon bourbon where u get drunk at?”

Well, yes — we were. When they say that New Orleans is the world’s biggest party, believe them. I’d never seen anything quite like Bourban Street coming alive at night. Jazz music and eclectic people spilled out onto the street from every doorway. Laughter and hooting rang unchecked through the air. Neon signage, many posing a metaphorical middle finger to the Prohibition era, invited partygoers in to test their cocktail concoctions. Everything that night was blanketed by an implication of “if you dare”. A friend and I watched wild-eyed as bottles of mixed spirits were wantonly emptied into a fishbowl and handed to us with a straw. I remember thinking about the drinking rule of thumb to never mix dark and light spirits together. I guess, rules didn’t apply on Rue Bourbon, did they? Never before had I seen a culture so profoundly grateful for the existence of alcohol that almost everything was built on the foundation of sharing a hearty drink together.

Thanksgiving weekend was also the night of the Big Game and the Bayou Classic had every kind Uber driver warning us to be careful of the extravaganzas that post-game festivities would result in. Every adjoining street corner brought with it another group of merrymakers, soon to be engulfed into the ocean of bodies on Bourbon that were all a part of the same, universal, communal party. I’m not really a people-watcher but you’d have to be incredibly blind to miss this carnally hedonistic display of pleasure. If I sampled the crowd that night I’d find a whole spectrum of individuals from the dressed-down locals revelling in their culture to the garishly over-the-top tourists and wild-eyed college students with a free rein on their freedom. What intrigued me the most was how lost in their own worlds they were. There was nothing performative about their ecstasy. New Orleans was about maximising your happiness but without the pressure to look like you were doing that.

Illustration: ‘Carousel Bar’ by Anusha Subramanian

Most moments of clarity are retrospective. But there are some that you know are happening when they happen. Those are the ones you want to remember forever. And thus almost subconsciously, I got into the ridiculously rewarding habit of jotting down real-time (some intoxicated?) journal entries in my notes of what I was feeling. I know what that sounds like, did I really step away from parties or gatherings to write in my diary? Yes and no. Whatever I wrote was always pretty incoherent. They were more a string of barely connected words than sentences. But re-reading them after the moment let me capture that ephemeral clarity, that fleeting sense of “everything will be alright” within the chaos of the incoherence. And I find that I often need that reminder, if for nothing else but some comfort.

I had a lot of them in New Orleans — good ones and not so good ones — but I was always seized by an incredible urge to bottle that memory and store exactly how I felt in some crevice. And one of my most memorable moments was in the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. While we may like to play wealthy patrons from time to time, we were but college students, relegated to grocery store 6-packs and not champagne problems. But we did say that we’d stop by one high-end bar and that happened to be this one. No cover charge, and only one of us bought an actual drink. And yet it features predominantly on my highlight reel. The vibe was unlike anything I’d felt before, like the inside of a classy arcade. A nod to the name, the bar was a giant golden carousel that revolved ever so slowly. I was told that multiple US Presidents had sat in my currently occupied seat, through the course of history. The air reeked of opulence and a hotel band played festive jazz a few feet away in an intimate indoor clearing. And I don’t remember the last time we actually danced that way, with each other. Clean duets, waltzing, spinning around in sync and then laughter for that inevitable stumble or misstep. Classy is not a word I’d immediately assign to myself, but in that moment I felt that way. I know I was grinning because it felt like a parody of the life we usually lead, as though my dance partner and I had somehow transitioned into high society for those few bars of music. So when the song ended, we clapped and they tipped their hats and I found time to bottle this moment in time on an iPhone app.

(top left) ‘Evening Beignets’ at the world famous Cafe du Monde.(top right) ‘Frenchmen Street’ outside an artistic bookstore. (bottom left) ‘Hotel Royal’ from The Originals. (bottom right) ‘Magazine’ road sign that marked the beginning of the street. Illustrations by Anusha Subramanian

And the stories don’t end there. I could write pages about the time at Café du Monde where after a hearty meal of beignets and café au laits we realised they only took cash and we had none. Or about the outdoor exhibition on Frenchman street with eclectic stalls selling everything from “did you fart” magnets to antique polaroid cameras. I could go on and on about the Pimms cup at the Napoleon house or the palm reader in Jackson square who told me I was a city girl who would find love in the next six months. I could tell you about the meal at the cuban joint on Magazine street to which our Uber was a pickup truck or the famous walking Ghost tours around the Quarter where I shuddered in morbid fascination at the local haunted spots. My personal favourite would be the two hours I spent walking around the city alone, my iced coffee glaringly out of place in the land of day-drinking. I visited the Hotel Royal and the fountain that backdropped Marcel’s compound in one of my favourite TV shows, The Originals. The hotel manager smiled knowingly at my obsession. After that, I got lost trying to find Tennessee Williams’ house on Toulouse Street where he wrote ‘Streetcar named Desire’.

Point is, the stories don’t end. And even if they did, my interpretations of them, don’t. There’s no single piece of the literature or art or music that can encapsulate the spirit of New Orleans. Much like a song that has varied meaning according to the phase of life you listen to it in, every soul takes away something different from the city. I don’t intend this, or anything else I might write to give you the ‘big picture’. Because for me, it’s about the infinite little things that eventually sum up to the Big Easy. And the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the age-old city pulse with youth was like living inside a time-lapse.

New Orleans through a Montage of Unrelated Art was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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