As you read this, my plane will be bumping from BWI to New Orleans, a town I’ve tried to visit at least once a year since 2001.
For me, New Orleans isn’t about some debauched weekend in the Quarter, or hooking up with frustrated friends to blow off steam and desperately grasp for youth. The bulk of my trips are spent in quiet bars, writing awful travel rants on napkins that eventually become gin-soaked trash, torn bookmarks, or vanish into the crumbs and lint in the bottom of my backpack. I wander aimlessly through the Garden District, or, in recent years, simply sit back and take it easy with two good friends who live in Uptown. With them, I always hit the same places. I never leave without spending money at McKeown’s Books, and we’ll while away an afternoon at 45 Tchoup, or fill a shopping cart with Abita and crash in their living room to bitch about the world, watch Britcoms, and just catch up.
New Orleans is one of those rare places where, as soon as I arrive, I feel like I’ve come home. A dreamy relaxation that has only hit me in one other place – stupid little Brampton in Cumbria. Which I write about far too often.
New Orleans is the last American city. It might just be the last American outpost, period. A final, dying ark in space where the freedom and joy of this country has been preserved. Where humanity – for all its good and bad – thrives.
There’s nothing hidden in New Orleans. It’s all right there squirming on the surface, and there’s no coyness. You’re not led into a dull, plodding, commuting existence. Everything about us – and about this country – that is beautiful, terrible, hopeful, and repulsive walks hand in hand in the light of day.
This stark human honesty warms the heart, even in dodgy situations. Though I’ve never felt real fear in New Orleans. I come from a city with a higher murder rate, walk streets with screaming lunatics who are more than happy to spray you with semen, and watch commuters snap for no reason and shove children onto the subway tracks. DC is a strange and twisted town. In ten years at my day job, I know of four co-workers or their family members who have been shot and killed, and all seemingly random. A spray of shots while they pump gas, a stray bullet through a window, a post-theater mugging gone wrong, a Beltway road-rage incident…
In recent years, I’ve started working on a project designed to get me out of the rut I’m in. The all too familiar modern American failings of debt, expectation, and misplaced loyalty in corporations has shaped me into something hard, evil, and distrustful. For years I’ve been a cog in the wheel, no matter how much I try to break out. I’ve been paid pennies by wicked, inhumane employers who expect me to be grateful when they cheat me, lie to me, or outright hurt me.
My goal is to bail out of the debt, get some sort of financial solvency, and leave this dirty little town of DC. For a while, I just wanted to run. As soon as the debt was paid off, I wanted to go hide in some hideous $400 a month apartment in Elkins, WV or somewhere like that. Flee to another sort of space station, with simpler people and simpler lives. After my childhood, and years spent with chronic pain, and working six jobs, I feel like I’ve aged 40 years. I feel like I should be sitting in a bar with a bunch of pensioners, complaining about foolish young people. At 36, I feel like that old man who’s always at the end of the bar, quietly watching the TV, and, one day, simply doesn’t show up. I saw my life ending as a corpse found rotting in an easy chair only because the bartender decided to call the cops after a few days.
With the pain cured, and the path of my life changing to provide a more hopeful outlook on my future, my goals also changed. Instead of simple escape, I started to look for change. A coordinated, thought out, positive change.
First up would be relocation. A new town, a new group of people. But, when you hate people, looking for places to move to where there’s actually hope of employment (unlike escapist Elkins) is difficult.
New Orleans had always been right under my nose. Through pain and surgery and renewal, I winged down there whenever I had the chance, communed with myself over a pint of beer, in a hotel room, on my friend’s couch, or in a tiny used bookstore. But I never thought about moving there.
I’m still not sure if that’s what I want, but there’s something I’ve realized over my 15 years of traveling the world: We are always coming home. We just don’t pay attention to that part of the journey.