Le Bon Temps
We shared a table with a Canadian couple the other night, Saturday, waiting for the parade to start. He was already four scotches in and still seemed mighty sober. She was adjusting her scarf, watching out for him, watching out for herself, the plum limit inside her glass falling down slowly. A slightly older couple from Toronto, one of those Train A and Train B type unions leaving lives set far apart only to meet and scream one alongside the other due to speed and time and distance and the merits of divorce. I guess you could say the same for us, only we were looking for an empty seat in a bar full of people waiting for the parade to start.
I say waiting to start when I mean waiting for it to meet up with us. It had started an hour an a half ago, breaking open with a cheer, the condensed floats and marchers taking their first steps forward and widening the separation between each unit. A full spectacle widening into phrases. It must have been slow going for them down Royal Street, bottlenecked by their own spectators. A parade here in the city moves in a straight line down a predetermined path, but it can still be subject to friction. Flame-hatted devils slow down to pass trinkets to open hands. Bearded ladies pause to pose for pictures. Wide floats wait for the eager, rubber-neck-lean-in crowd to self-govern and realign. It all takes time, and those of us at the far end of the route, the Canadians and us and the fifty or so others twisting cocktail straws and counting out dollar bills chat and turn at every flash of light and think of it as waiting for the parade to start.
The Canadians, though, have their own way of looking at things. They have been walking in unordained, unplanned paths, speculating their own spectacle, walking close together. As if they were powering the landscape along with foot-motion, as if they were causing the city to move around the fixed point of their own awe. When they stop the city stops. When they push off with the balls of their feet, feel the strain in their calves, the storefronts grudge then budge then start to slide easy again. There is the strain only when you stop and have to start again, when you have to leave something bright and pretty behind in anticipation of the next bright and pretty thing. The city is a parade itself, sparkling streamers hiding whatever is underneath that hauls it forward.
“The music always seems to be above our heads,” they say to us. They mean like coming from the balconies. They mean like slow afternoon radio on speakers hung up in shop ceiling nooks like fly paper. They mean like in a parade when you are standing in a gutter and the brass band is marching along the apex of the humped street, the high median. The barrier of people between you and the band, all the backs of their bobbing heads and upthrust hands blocking any view of the marchers, only allowing sightlines to their instruments: the big bell of a tuba oscillating like a summer fan, the dancing edge of a trombone, the top end of a bass drum jumping up above the surface when the big man holding it tosses it up to readjust the weight across his chest. The sounds scatter and bleat but somehow Be Unite, spread in distance across half a block but locked together in time.
See, we are getting what the Canadians mean, now. We’re no longer strangers split into two halves of the table now that an hour has passed and the parade along with it. We are trading rounds and comparing idiosyncrasies, but of course they keep pushing the ball back over to our side—“Now you, now you!”—being the visitors, not wanting to miss out on expert testimony, explanations of things fully seen but half-understood. All four of us know that Toronto is an absent in-law now, out of sight and out of mind, better off left excused and tucked into bed. They gain courage, gain relevance knowing that a few places they’ve visited are, yes, Places the Locals Go when it is not Carnival, when it is not as loud. The things they’ve tasted taste good to us as well: it’s not a sham in that place, not a doppelganger of some real experience in a truer part of town.
We leave the bar and join them for another impromptu lap. We make four left turns around the same block before realizing it and we laugh and joke that we were just gaining momentum, terminal velocity, and we walk diagonal through an intersection, join up catty-corner with a separate crowd, fall in with their pace headed towards blues guitar doorways. The man wraps his arm over my shoulder. His girl and my girl are walking two steps ahead of us, laughing at a comment that will have to wait for us to catch up. He leans in and wonders what it’s like to live in such a historical city.
“Shit,” I say. “I weren’t here for most of it.”
It’s a lot like this, I guess, a lot like tonight: free-wheeling and music-filled and booze dreamy. Except for when we have to work, of course. Except for when we are waiting for our cars to be repaired. Except for when the bills are overdue, for when a yelling match breaks out at a cashier’s counter, for when tensions rise faster than that sixth sense, Common, can react. It’s very much like this all the time except for when the rain falls for four days straight and can’t find a place to escape down the drains because of all our laziness and trash and wasted taxes. We all have a great time just like we are tonight except for when we hear a gunshot in the next yard over and know that we have a pretty good feeling who just fell and why but have no defense against it except prayer.
History is for the pedants and the tourists. Time hanging back or catching up, time beating one-two or hushing three-four? Time shining in the day or lining in the night? Time is for the rest of us and an answer to a problem.