Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Just finished reading Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, a complex and beautifully written 600-page fictional and sometimess vituperative critique of post-colonial India in the 1970s through the experiences of several empathetic characters. Allen says it captures the India he traveled through in the 1970s quite well, the crowds, extreme poverty, and rural traditions. I'm left feeling impressed and depressed at the same time. The characters are exceedingly well drawn, with strong family ties and dreams, yet poverty and government inefficiencies and brutalities grind them all down. After 600 pages, the reader (and the characters) are left without hope. Maybe from a Western point of view, I anticipate some kind of redemption, growth, or a sense of achievement; here, the characters, in spite of their best intentions and efforts become tragic heroes in the classic sense, destroyed from within and without.

So, the picture above is of a lovely house in the Garden District, formerly the home of Anne Rice, the house now on the market again. She lived here while writing some of her vampire novels and has since turned to writing the life of Christ, an interesting turn. New Orleans is quite seductive, with its lovely old homes influenced by French and Spanish colonial architecture, oak-lined streets, and sense of history everywhere. We walked through the Garden Quarter, a residential area set up by the Americans who moved here after the Louisiana Purchase. I don't understand the history all together, but the Creoles felt tremendous animosity against the Americans for changing their way of life, arguing even today that their Creole culture was more diverse and less racially divisive. The Americans were not welcomed or accepted; in fact, New Orleans became a divided city.

What remains truly vibrant, though, is the primarily black culture of blues and jazz that comes up out of this history of slavery and exploitation. Monday night, a rare night out on St. Patrick's Day, we ambled with our friend, the Guv, down along Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood, along narrow streets with two storied houses from the 1860s, the open French grillwork everywhere in overhanging balconies, past the Spotted Cat jazz club and then stopped. The music held us in sway, and here we'll return. We'll also return to Adolfo's, an upstairs four-star Cajun-Italian dining experience that leaves your mouth savoring every zippy bite.

The real draw was the St. Paddy's Day Parade, a neighborhood parade that never starts on time, as it wends its way from bar to bar, but the night was warm, the music very mellow. Finally, a platoon of police on motorcycles came by, their sirens blaring. A long wait. Then another group of blaring horns, the Shriners also on motorcycles. Another long wait. And then they came, the marchers, the floats, the music.

I saw mothers with little kids on their hips and shoulders, hoping for some green beads to take home, and some younger people traveling in groups of four and five, drunk already, thinking the whole day and the whole night was just for them, and it was. Pretty girls already roped in green, dancing in the street right along with the marching bands and the little floats. The music, the Irish music blended with rock music as each club passed. The whole crowd was dancing. A string of beads for a kiss. A sip of someone else’s beer. Another string of beads. Men passed by wearing kilts and top hats. Old guys, festooned with white beads, too old to march, perched on flatbed trucks and the backs of cars, waving to the crowd. Handsome young men danced behind the floats, beads piled up around their necks as they kissed every woman they saw, giving away strand after strand. The music changed with each float, funk, Irish tenors, rock and roll. Allen danced in the street and was rewarded with many beads and a few kisses. We loved it all.

The last float passed. The street emptied; a few forgotten beads, gold, silver and green glittered on the pavement. We walked along the park where we'd parked our car, the noise of revelry still going on behind us, the cool night air making me glad to be alive and a part somehow of New Orleans. What a night. Then on to WWOZ for the Govenor's Mansion on Monday night, to listen to the greats, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and the irrepresible Bobby Lounge. New Orleans is definitely back.

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