I live here, on Washington Avenue, a block from where pirates once lived, a block from the old muddy Mississippi, a block from where a black bloke got hisself shot a few days before Christmas, a week or so after I moved here, a helluva introduction.
The longtimers who live here, the cracktoothed sweepers and shouters, they sit and they judge gently the passersby. They sit every day, they sit and they watch with their walking sticks not walking, just standing and sitting and good afternooning and wishing well for practically everyone except when they're yelling. Oh, the longtimers can yell. They yell at the young and the young men yell back and Washington Ave is a cacophony of well-meaning junkies and their mean grandmothers.
The longtimers, the ones who stuck through Katrina, they see people come and go and so I'm no different. The ones who left in the aftermath and came home, the ones who love but weren't stuck, they always say "You'll be back." I say, "Well, there's plenty more country to see, and your bugs are fucking annoying."
I don't understand much of what Washington Ave has to say. It's a lingo, a patois that hovers above my range of comprehension, an ultraviolet language laced with violence when children are playing in the cockroach-ridden leaves.
I live here, among the reasonless parades and bead-draped fences, palmettos and libidos, alligators and asphalt pores sweating humid sex and bourbon. The destruction and the hope, the crowded Walmart and the skinny squirrels and the swampboats. This is my environment, where holidays mean marching bands and random hospitality and stoic grandmothers hoping their boys come home from forty ounces of loud amplifiers and poor choices.
I live here, in the land of palmetto bugs and inhospitable weather and French-drenched history, big spiders, and I have a new proverb: You can't walk barefoot in a city where walking with open containers is encouraged.
I can give you more advice, because I live here: There is whiskey-drenched gypsy jazz on Frenchmen Street, as well as washboard blues, and young gun style shops, and vinyl, antiques, clarinets honking outside oysters from somewhere else because BP oil soiled theirs, there is flavor to be had, there are tugboats on the old muddy Mississippi who will honk at your picnic of cheap Malbec and funky cheese, there are shotgun houses that will make you rethink your architectural religion, and you might never love any other shrimp than Louisiana shrimp, if you're into shrimp.
I didn't live here before or during Katrina, but I can see her legacy. I see bare frames, rotten walls, broken boards, concrete holes, bricks gone missing, and longtimers with low faces. I walk down Washington Ave, just one street among a thousand, see the transition from artistic privileged insured cuteness to downtrodden welfare drugslinging necessity from house to house to house, and then there's the For Sale signs, and then there's the abandoned truck, and then there's the expensive newly-refurnished condo, and then there's the congregation of brownbagging unfortunates at Nick's Supermarket (slash crackhouse, slash boozepalace, slash godknowswhat), and then the adorable bistro and the Starbucks. The tables are rickety, the sidewalk is crooked, but Miley Cyrus was there a few weeks ago.
They love their Saints here. They love their celebrations. Yes, yes, yes Mardi Gras is still alive and kicking, it doesn't kick your teeth in but it kicks and scrambles and it's striving, no doubt. WHO DAT is aloud and well. The beads and beer keep flowing. The party rages, the parishes rage against the dying and the blight. The parades trudge on, and those masks they grin and glow and throw what cheap pride they've manufactured on the cheap in China to everyone who's waiting, because Oh, they're screaming THROW ME SOMETHIN' MISTAH! and New Orleans, if nothing else, will never... ever... let you down.
I live here, physically for now but my soul lives here for a bit longer. What keeps me, it's the god-be-damned stamina of a barely Catholic swamp, who've survived whatever whatever deity threw at them, and cultivated their tiny slivers of solid ground to grow chainlinks and crawfish, to sweep sidewalks and say thank you, to pray the river gets clean and the Gulf gets clean and the gods of the water don't hit 'em no more, to keep their younguns outta jail, to keep the rich folk a'comin', to keep that Delta singin' like it used to, the song of the South, the sound of the longtimers, the longriver, the strong swamp sense of living. Forever.