Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"You Either Get It, Or You Don't" (Songs 'n' The Hoods Part 13)

Friends insisted, "You will fall in love with New Orleans." This began in 1984.  I resisted.

I was young and cocky and nothing was going to take me away from my Brooklyn roots or my new home in the East Village. New Orleans? What the hell was that? All I really knew about New Orleans back then was that Archie Manning had one of the worst football card photos of the seventies I had ever seen. I knew Fats Domino, but hated "Blueberry Hill," thanks to Richie Cunningham. I had no idea how much I didn't know.

Fifteen years later, I cried uncle.

Beginning one April afternoon in 1999, the balcony on the corner of Royal Street and St. Philip was my private island for what became no less than 25 consecutive trips to the Crescent City. It was close enough to the ground to see the expressions on the faces of the passers-by, as they discussed their meals or the music they had just heard or were about to hear. And it was just high enough to keep me out of harm's way of the occasional unpleasant actions and conversations that can take place in this blessed and cursed city. It was a brilliant one-way mirror, replete with the aroma of crawfish boiling, herbs and spices traveling from doors and windows, and the sound of trumpets, drums and trains in the distance. On really lucky days, a second line would march right by. There were many lucky days in New Orleans.

That balcony quelled all fears. I didn't need to move or be anywhere else. New York City was struggling to be a memory. It never existed. I felt the warmth of the sun and people from my balcony chair. The smell of magnolia was a bonus. A tip. A crisp, precisely folded twenty, shoved into your breast pocket after washing some big shot's car. (Washing that Lincoln was special, but the twenty was the clue that you were onto something big and potentially life changing, for better or worse.)


You either get it or you don't.

Not getting it would be going to New Orleans, having a Hurricane on Bourbon Street and complaining about the stink. Getting it would be having a cocktail in a Marigny courtyard, a neighborhood too beautiful for the naked eye. Not getting it would be going on a swamp tour and whining over how you didn't see any alligators. Getting it would be a walk through the Bywater, just to have the praline bacon at Elizabeth's.

I spent days on that balcony, just sitting and smiling, two activities that are not a usual part of my make. I am also taller in New Orleans. (It's a special place.)

The back of the French Quarter was quiet. My corner was famous, and as each horse and buggy tour clomped its way through, you'd hear the guides loud and clear.

"That balcony there was where Elvis Presley sang King Creole."

You'd hear that across town, as well.

You either get it or you don't.

Evenings, right around 6:P.M., a voice, so beautifully haunting, would summon those who were listening.

"Pie lady. Piiiiiiiiie laaaady."

That voice, with the natural reverb of the Quarter adding to the already exclusive New Orleans mystique, always tore my heart in two. I'd wait until her voice got closer. And there she was. Tall, black and beautiful, pushing a cart with her homemade pies. I never moved so fast in my life. Down the steps, out the door, and up the block.

"Dinner or dessert," she would ask. Wrapped haphazardly in foil and saran, she'd offer lemon, cherry or meat. I'd buy all three. One night I asked, "How do you do out here?" I've never heard a voice so beaten in my life, and yet it was full of everything I was searching for when she replied, "Not so good." She knew it and she didn't mind.

New Orleans.

One morning, early, I had just come back from a walk. Grabbed a coffee and the Times-Picayune. Viola, the house-keeper of the twelve units that comprised the building on that corner, had stepped out onto the adjacent balcony to cook a smoothie.

"Good morning, Mr. Sal."

One look at Viola and you could feel 75 years of struggle. She was 46. She had 4 grandchildren.

"Mr. Sal, can I ask you a question? I'm having trouble with my credit cards. They keep calling me and telling me I have to pay. But I know I paid them. I was thinking, since you a lawyer and all, maybe you can call them and get them off my back."

"Viola, I'm not a lawyer."

"Yeah, but they don't know that."

You either get it or you don't.

One night there was six of us. Somewhere out there, either Uptown or over on Bourbon, or maybe on Frenchmen Street which was becoming the new place to be, itt was happening. But the balcony, my balcony was happening for us. Beer in the fridge. A bottle of Wild Turkey even closer. James Booker was on the box. "True," from Montreux. How do you get six lamped people to shut the hell up? Play Booker's "True," from Montreux. That balcony was happening and Booker was taking names.

I sat out the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival. Second time in three years after ten years straight. It wasn't easy. You either get it or you don't. I had put together a CD's worth of New Orleans music and I sent it to my friend who was making his first Fest trip in 5 years. I figured he'd enjoy it as he packed. I also thought about choreographing some ritualistic Italian brand of rain dance. Nothing catastrophic, but just enough to keep things muddy, as I sat at my desk in New York, creating a virtual itinerary of what I would be doing if I was making the trek. I thought better of that. It was a selfish wish for the most unselfish people I had ever met. I wished everyone well instead.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

When my friend received the music, he replied:

"Thanks. I'll save it for when I get back so I can have a good cry."

You either get it, or you don't.
















misospecial said...

I got it--beautiful. Another good one, Sal, keep 'em coming...

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Your details, as always, make it picturesque. My only criticism is that this is so good, it really is more suitable for publishing - real publishing - and seems a shame to be part a blog post. I can only compare it to having it in MP3 as opposed to being presented in a beautiful gatefold LP jacket, that one can hold in his/her hands. And I know that put that way, you get it.

In fact - this is what your writing reminds me of:

The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe. The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night. In the summer time, with all windows open, we would hear the pumping and the odor was very strong.

-Ernest Hemingway, excerpt from Ch. 1 of A Moveable Feast.

Again, really, really great writing. I hope that by posting it here, you aren't giving away the store, and that you consider someday having it published.

soundsource said...

thanks for ruining my day. On the other hand thanks for a beautiful piece on what NOLA is all about.and stimulating my own wonderful memories of that very special place.

I've got it and I miss it.

To paraphrase what we jews often say at the end of a holiday or special occasion "L'shana habaah b'yerushalayim" ,next year in Jerusalem, and expression of spiritual hope.
Well Mr. Wood next year in N'Awlins

Christine said...

This is a truly wonderful piece, and I agree that it should be published. I can't imagine a single person not being moved.

Troy said...

Fantastic piece, Sal. I, too, got it. Even though I am a veteran of 15 Jazzfests dating back to the early 90s, I think the experience that informs and shapes me more than any other was a mission trip I participated in after Katrina. We helped rebuild the house of a Deputy Sheriff for the NOLA police dept. She was a real nice lady, a single mom just working to get by. Three stories from that week still have an inexplicable impact on me:

The first was when one of our crew, an electrician from the south side of Chicago, started to go up into the attic of the house to check out some of the wiring. As he pulled down the folding staircase, a barbell came hurtling down from the attic and pounded him directly in the head. Turns out the sheriff and her daughter had taken the weights up there when the floodwaters were rising, in case they needed to bash through the roof to escape the house. After a trip to the ER and a handful of stitches, Willie was back on the job. Hearing about the reason for the weights in the attic really brought home the immediacy and terror that residents must have gone through for us.

The second took place at Gumbo Shop. We cooked and ate most of our meals at the church parsonage where we were staying, but one night we ventured out for dinner. We had a wonderful meal at the (mostly empty) restaurant, and our waitress asked what brought us to New Orleans. We told her about the house we were working on, and she thanked us for what we were doing. As we left the restaurant, the wait staff, bus boys, and cooks all lined up by the door and shook our hands and thanked us as we walked out. It wasn't showy, it was real and heartfelt. I can still see that image in my head to this day.

The third was one evening toward the end of the week, a couple of us wandered over to Magazine Street and found a little gelato shop. We went in and as the high school kid was ringing up our purchase, Miss Sophie, the owner of the shop, came in with the supplies to make the next batch of gelato. She came out and sat with us and regaled us with stories of the history of the neighborhood, her days as an aspiring actress, and how to make her amazing "je-la-TOW". To this day, that southern belle remains one of the most colorful and delightful characters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. On the way out of her shop, we thanked her profusely for her hospitality and I slipped an extra ten in the tip jar. In hindsight, I wish I'd given her a bit more, because she gave us more than a tasty dessert, she gave us a little bit of herself.

I really liked your piece today. It obviously touched a nerve for me, and got me thinking about my own love of that great city. Thanks for sharing.

whattawino said...

Do I know what it means to miss New Orleans? I sure
do now! For a few minutes I found myself sitting on that balcony too, listening to Booker and drinking in the sights and sounds of that little corner of the Quarter...aka heaven.
You've got a beautiful way with words....for a "lawyer".

Robin said...

Very moving. Obviously at least half your heart and soul reside in New Orleans permanently. After I read this, I started thinking of "Midnight in Paris"...Owen Wilson walking in the rain in Paris, wanting to stay. I wasn't sure why other than the twin love of place.

After reading Marcia's post, I realized that it was Hemingway who was also in my thoughts, and a character in the movie, the way he wrote of place, as in the chapter from Feast she cites.

This may be my favorite "Hoods" yet, and I agree they should be a book/published.

Sal Nunziato said...

Thanks everyone. Glad it resonated in some way.

And Troy thanks for sharing your stories.

It's some city.

jeff k said...

more important, how was the halvah?

Sal Nunziato said...

@Jeff K--even the Halvah is better in New Orleans, as it it seasoned with Old Bay.

jeff k said...

Sue is going to NO for her high school reunion next month. I'm going to ask her to bring some back.

A walk in the woods said...

Sal - I agree. And I sho' do get it. One of America's, and the world's, most magical cities. Half our culture comes from it...

cmealha said...

I'll admit that I'm one of those that don't get it. My favorite NO band is 'Better Than Ezra', but I thoroughly enjoyed going on the trip with you. Great post and you can never go wrong with 'True'. So I guess I do get it a little.

ana-b said...

"twenty-five consecutive trips to the Crescent City"

Excellent. Something around 40% of the city's total income derives from tourism. 80% of which is money spent in the Quarter.

allen vella said...

Excellent writing Sal..brings me right back, paints the picture perfectly. I got it in '89 and never looked back. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Nicely said, Sal. Yeah, I'm just an east Coast Yankee who's only been to Jazz Fest twice, but I get it. Hard to leave, as always, ands after spending some time w. an old friend who now lives in the Marigny, am seriously contemplating moving there some day. - bill buckner

Charlie Messing said...

Sal, this is so great. Love it. Your being a "lawyer" - all of it. Pie Lady. It makes me feel I've partly wasted my life, not going down there. I must go. Thank you so much for taking us with you. I get it. Thanks again, Charlie