After the muggers don't kill me I go to the all-night diner and order eggs. I order chocolate chip pancakes. I order sausage and bacon and beer because eating and drinking is what alive-people do. There's no ordinary time in New Orleans, it's always some high holy day. Someone's always dancing wearing crimson velvet screaming in the streets some dark Vapor's always seething in the storm drains and someone is always eating pancakes in wonderment, alive to the flour and sugar and grease, amazed by the cracked vinyl seat: this banquette is a pew, the hiss of the griddle an endless sigh of relief—and tonight it's me. The other diners' faces placid as plaster saints, oblivious to the first supper of my second life. I tell the waitress thinking maybe she will cross herself or drop down on her knees, high priestess of the plate I've cleaned—but she doesn't even raise an eyebrow as she slips the bill beneath my bottle and says welcome to New Orleans.
Fourteen years ago today I almost died.
I’d been living in New Orleans one month. One night after getting off work at the French Quarter restaurant where I waited tables, I decided to walk to one of New Orlean’s famously-creepy above-ground cemeteries. I wanted to make chalk rubbings of the crypts on some butcher paper I’d taken from the restaurant. It was about eleven o’clock.
I know what you’re thinking: and yes, I was an idiot. I don’t remember why I thought this particular activity would be a good idea, or fun, or why I wanted to do it at night. I should have known better—and so should have the friend who accompanied me. He’d lived in New Orleans a long time.
But like I said, I’d been there for one month; I’d known the guy for even less time. Later, I would come to realize that good judgment wasn’t really his thing.
Anyway, on the evening of May 12, 2005, we found ourselves on the wrong side of Canal Street with a roll of butcher paper. As we moved further into the dark neighborhood, I noticed two figures approaching. Their stride was tense, purposeful. Something inside me said to turn and run, to at least cross the street, but I didn’t listen to my intuition.
When the men got closer, I tried to step aside to make room on the sidewalk, but they split and moved around the outside of us, like a pair of wolves. At the same time, they bumped our shoulders, hard. I turned to offer an apology, and when I looked up, I was staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Gimme your bag,” the guy said. I handed it over, tucking my face into my shoulder. I wanted him to see me not looking at him, not giving him any reason to pull the trigger. I saw my friend behind him, silhouetted by a streetlamp. He was kneeling on the sidewalk with a gun to his head.
I thought about my mom. Six weeks earlier she’d flown out to Phoenix to drive halfway across the country with me in my beater Honda without air conditioning and my yowling, miserable cat. All that trouble, and I was going to die for a night’s tips.
“Get on the ground, face-down,” the guy told me. I did as he said, and he patted me down, rifling my pockets and fondling my ass, and going Mmm. My stomach puckered and shrank inside me like a slug in salt. I had no idea what was happening to my friend. I hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“Get up and don’t stop running,” the gun-guy said. We did. As soon as we could, we turned down a side street. When was it okay to stop running? I wondered. Should I run the whole way home?
At Canal Street we stopped, clutching our knees and gasping for breath. “We have to call the cops!” I told my friend.
“What for?” he said. “They won’t do shit.”
I wasn’t interested in this perspective. I’d just been robbed at gunpoint; the police should be informed. I was insistent on this point.
“Do what you want,” my friend said, shrugging.
I called the police. A few minutes later a squad car met us. The cop got out looking annoyed, like we’d woken him from a nap. After he took our statement, he asked what we wanted him to do about it.
I couldn’t believe it. “Look for the bad guys or something.” I said. He nodded, assuring us he would do that, and drove away.
I told my friend to fuck off, and went home.
Only I couldn’t stay in my apartment, I was too amped up on adrenaline. In fact, I didn’t sleep for the next thirty-six hours. I needed to be with people but it was the middle of the night, in a new city. I had exactly two friends, including the one I’d just told to fuck off. The other one was probably asleep.
The obvious choice was to go to an all-night diner. Oh-Thank-God-I’m-Alive Day was born. For me, it’s a high holy day.
I ordered bacon. I ordered a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes and drenched them in butter and syrup. I ordered an omelet and two Dixie beers, one for each trembling hand—because eating and drinking is what alive people do. “I just got robbed at gunpoint,” I explained to the waitress. She nodded solemnly, and I felt as though I’d passed through some kind of bizarre New Orleans hazing. I’m one of them now, I thought. I lived to tell the tale.
I don’t know why I lived. Maybe it was luck. Maybe the guns weren’t real. Maybe they never intended to shoot us. Maybe the Great Whatchamacalit was looking out for me, or maybe it was because I didn’t look the guy in the face. (Later, this would mean I could not pick him from a photo lineup when the police caught a suspect.)
I’ll never know. But I am glad I didn’t die, and I’m grateful to whatever saved me. So every year on May 12, I celebrate. Cheers. Here’s to living to tell our tales. And happy Mother’s Day to my mom, who didn’t hear this story for a long time after it had happened.
Everywhere else it’s just Tuesday—but where I’m from
people are dancing, people are high-stepping in the streets
because where I’m from parading is a sacrament
and Mardi Gras our high holy day. More krewes
than you can shake a drumstick at, parades go on for weeks
men and women with their hands up, children
on their parents’ shoulders to extend their reach.
Where I’m from people mix: black and white,
purple green and gold-
en streets: in heaven as it is on earth, trumpet music
raining down on this day of jubilation sans remorse,
remorse is for tomorrow, tomorrow we’ll wear ashes
and dark colored clothes—today we’re dressed in sequins
if we are dressed at all: bare-chested flambeau men glow
like angels, strutting and sweating and lighting the way
for the rest of us who huddle hip to hip to hand
beneath the overpass where the music’s loudest,
the darkness thick and sweet
like the women where I’m from, women whose
bodies move with practiced purpose: to feel joy
running over us like rain, the bass drum kicking
hard into our hearts—we feel you looking and we
don’t mind, our legs and backsides keeping time—
we are the finest things you’ve ever seen, everyone is
beautiful on Mardi Gras day, so throw me something
mister, open up your hand like God and give
those fancy beads to me. Where I’m from even the trees
wear jewelry, we trample it beneath our feet
the gutters clog with glittery things, even our trash
is pretty, because where I’m from everyone
is a little drunk, a little stoned—we take our vices seriously,
as serious as we take the saints, as serious as you
take your paleo diet, your raw organic sugar free—here:
this is king cake, try it—grind that sugar with your teeth
feel it go into your blood, feel your blood do a little get-down
boogie in your veins—this is our body, broken
for you, you poor saps who never second-lined
who never drank a Coors for breakfast, you poor
fools at work today because everywhere else
it’s just Tuesday, and you won’t change your mind.
March 5, 2019, Mardi Gras Day
Thirteen years ago today, I married the city of New Orleans.
I’d moved there the day before, with nothing but some boxes full of books, and a white Mexican-style dress embroidered with red flowers, purchased for this particular occasion. I didn’t know a soul in town, but I knew the soul of New Orleans—or thought I did—well enough to pledge my eternal and undying love.
I stood on the wooden steps leading down into the Mississippi River, the candy-colored French Quarter at my back, overcome by all it had taken to get here: extricating myself from some bullshit in Phoenix, driving across the sunblasted southwest in a beater car without AC. Explaining to my parents that no, I was not home to stay; I was on my way to New Orleans. No, I didn’t have a place to live or a job—I’d figure it out when I arrived.
A handful of other people lounged on the dock: a lanky man drinking a tallboy, a couple of tourists photographing the St. Louis Cathedral behind us—these were the unwitting witnesses of my wedding. I could feel them giving me side-eye as I removed the battered silver ring I’d been wearing as an engagement ring, purchased in New Orleans the year before. I threw the ring into the river, and whispering my vows, replaced it with another ring purchased earlier that afternoon.
It was an unorthodox ceremony to be sure, peculiar and solemn as the girl I was then. I loved New Orleans the way you love a person: passionately, even obsessively. I wanted to gather New Orleans into my arms and kiss her. I wanted to whisper sweet-nothings in her ear. Obviously, this presented some complications. The best I could do was to devour a plate of etoufee, which is what I did next. I asked the waiter to seat me next to a window, so I could gaze at my city.
As with any marriage, the first months were a roller coaster. Delirious highs followed abysmal lows. I was the poorest I’d ever been—at one point things were so bad that I shared a can of potted meat with my cat. But I was also rich: I had my own apartment, an odd conjunction of small rooms that had probably once been servants’ quarters. And I had my own life, at last. I came and went as I pleased; I slept and woke accordingly. I bought a set of plastic plates shaped like flowers, and a coffee mug painted like a flamingo. For the first time in my life, I was free to be myself, free to discover who that was.
New Orleans was all around me all the time. She was there when I got out of bed in the morning, sun shining through the dirty windows. She sat on my balcony with me, sharing a cup of milky coffee and a cigarette. She sent me evening love notes on the breeze as bits of song, tootled forlornly by a clarinetist somewhere on my block. For supper, we ate boiled corn and potatoes, $1.50 for a whole sack. We drank Dixie beer. We walked shoeless through dirty puddles after a rainstorm. And when I got held up at gunpoint, she saved my life.
I thought I would live with her forever, but Hurricane Katrina, that conniving bitch, had other plans. Like so many, I was too poor to go back when there were no places to live and no jobs to go back to. By the time the city was on her feet again, I’d married a real person.
But once loved, a thing can never be un-loved, not completely. I don’t have that kind of heart. Just like my flower-shaped plates and my flamingo mug, I left part of myself there when I evacuated. And every time I go back, my heart thumps dangerously in my chest. To be back with her! Her hot breath putting a shine on my face, smelling her smells: beignets and beer and dumpsters and river water and magnolia blossoms big as pie tins. Hearts love what they love, no matter how little sense it makes.
Happy anniversary, New Orleans. I’ll always love you. Maybe one day I’ll come home for good.