The complex creature that is New Orleans remains such, perhaps even more so, at least in my own anecdotal exposure this past week. I played trumpet on the street, in nightclubs and in people’s homes, and I felt accepted by the bands and the audiences, with the most gratifying musical encounters being the most spontaneous. I stood feet away from master musicians in one no-cover music venue after another. And the news the day I got there was that two tourists had been beaten unconscious on Frenchman Street, by no means in the hood, by no means a place where they might have been advised not to go.
In one of many serendipitous musical encounters, Debra and I turned a corner and saw Mario Abner setting up to play along with some recorded grooves. He started, and over the course of a couple of tunes, I think he saw me kind of freaking out over his tone and his ideas, and he spotted my trumpet gig bag over my shoulder. He motioned me to join him and we played in a comfortable key and groove for me, and we traded four bar licks and jammed. A crowd gathered, reacting to my best riffs, reacting to Mario’s best riffs, and we were onto a sweet, spontaneous piece of accidental music, which creates a moment for me at least, where my spirit is at its most engaged. So, I got real happy. Real satisfied. Down deep in my soul-ness.
Then Debra and I took an Uber ride home and pulled up to a triple fatality that had occurred just twenty minutes before at the site of the RV park where our trusty steed was tethered. We got out and walked the final block where police were waving back gawkers and news crews as they strung up black and yellow crime scene tape all around most of the block. A duo had been on a petty crime spree with a two-year old girl in a car seat, perhaps as cover, perhaps convenience. The drill was to roll down Canal Street slowly with the accomplice hopping out if they saw an unlocked door to do a quick rifle on people stopping quickly for a pack of smokes or some such trivial errand. Surely a bold midday caprice like this would be seen and quickly reported, but our dynamic duo’s car sported stolen plates, so unless the police actually observed them, it was a safe scam.
The police did observe them and instigated pursuit, a seven-mile, batshit crazy chase that found its terminus in a crash on the porch of the RV park where Debra and I were staying. The car tore through an adjacent deserted lot and two rows of fencing after bouncing off two other cars on Chef Menteur Highway, finally crashing into the house where the RV park managers live. I assume they were first to see the two-year old girl with her skull split open and halved down the middle, as one other passer-by whom I spoke with had. She had been thrown from the car, as was the passenger/accomplice, who was likewise killed. After the car crashed into the porch, the driver emerged from the vehicle, and seeing the police converging and the carnage he had caused, shot himself to death. He apparently did not do so expertly though, as the RV park owner told me “he was still breathing” by the time he arrived on his porch to assess what had happened. He thought a second and added, “Coward.”
The vicious beating of tourists in a tourist area shows more than an interest in grabbing a few dollars, in buying some dope, in feeding a family. It shows a deep social frustration and hatred of the architect of its misery, or if not the architect, perhaps just archetypes of the architects. Going on a crime spree with a baby in the car and a mindset to run if challenged is a total loss of the real world, a desperate scream into a desperate night.
The desperation in New Orleans is palpable. As America and the world turn increasingly toward dark and self-imposed structures of authoritarianism, as middle and upper classes more and more are convinced to abandon the poor, society’s most marginalized fester like a sore, and then run. And they are running now, in New Orleans and across the country. The panhandling is more aggressive than I have seen it in any of my visits to New Orleans, and the street scams are more and more frequent and more and more ridiculous. One guy saw my gig bag and offered to lead me to an exclusive jam session, letting me know at the club door that the jam session was restricted, including friends of his in the Rebirth Brass Band, and that they usually get a $20 cover, but that he could get me in for $15 for Debra and me. I gave him five dollars and told him there was no jam session here and that he was a pathetic sack of shit, which seemed to make him happy. This fucking place.
New Orleans has always been on the list of possible cities in which to spend my early retirement. Visions of studying with a Dixieland master have danced in my head. As has the food. I am a terrible food writer, so won’t etouffe you with any of my gumbo, but I swear by the alligator sausage on my breath that both New Orleans’ fine dining and its not-so-fine dining are among the best in the land. But it won’t happen. It’s not Debra’s style, nor ultimately mine. I’ll visit a few times a year. I must. But I can’t live there. The way I see it, the battle for New Orleans’ soul is underway. I am not prepared to fight it on the front lines but I admire those who do. And I’ll try to do my part to help.