When I drove in it was as though New Orleans pulled out all the stops to welcome me. I got in at the evening rush hour, and the I-10 coming in was clogged with traffic. Behind me somewhere a siren erupted; I looked into the rearview and saw an ambulance trying to bull its way through. It took a long time for it to pass me; I imagined someone hemorrhaging blood on a sidewalk, someone struggling for breath on their living room floor.
I avoided the long train of cars veering towards the St. Charles exit and the bridge crossing to the Westbank, electing to take Claiborne Avenue instead. This was the way I used to ride the motorcycle home from the university every day. I turned left onto MLK, which is a wide thoroughfare split by a generous neutral ground. A block in and I had to slow to a crawl as a huge congregation of people surrounded two young guys pounding the shit out of each other. It broke up fast, or maybeI just arrived at the tail end of it; two women pulled one of the boys away and one of them turned to shout back at the crowd: “Y’all gonna see! Y’all gonna see!”
Later that night I went to the French Quarter with the bride and groom and the bride’s family for dinner at the Court of Two Sisters. I came up from Decatur, avoiding the major tourist crowds on Bourbon Street. You could still walk down the side streets and look into open doors and see topless women, older and sadder this far from Bourbon, wearily circling a pole. Grandpa Elliot, the old harmonica player who recently discovered a measure of fame with Playing For Change, still sat on his overturned bucket, busking through the night. When I passed him that night he was leaning back, quiet, staring into the middle distance. The crowds moved around him like water around stone.
When I moved to Asheville again a few years ago, I was shocked by how white the city is. After spending so many years away in New Orleans and, to a lesser degree, in New York, I had forgotten that about it. It took me a long time to acclimate to its monochromatic nature. And going back to New Orleans, I realized how much I had acclimated. It was such a welcome feeling to get back to a place where cultures mixed and clashed and blended. On my last night there I was sitting in a restaurant and, thinking about this, I did a quick scan of the clientele. At least half of them were black.
This is it, I thought. This is my city.
After my last post, I got an email from Monte, one of my old friends and one of the regulars at the Pub during my time there. Monte has since moved to Tampa, where he is married to Maura, another friend and Pub regular. He reminded me that I could not go back and expect to find the old place, because that place was made up by the people. Monte and Maura, Craig, Jim, Violet, Beth, Neal, Jon and Molly, Evan, Ginger, Jon and Vanessa, Darren, Ingrid, Sobha … I could fill a whole page with their names. They were mostly scattered, and that time was done.
And of course he’s right. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back with the intention of recreating something from the past, or trying to find it again. Sometimes you should just let good memories be good memories.
But it was nice to see that there is still so much to recognize. Maybe one day I’ll go back there. I don’t think Asheville is where I’m going to settle down.
At the very least, crossing the Pontchartrain bridge in the middle of a lonely night on the motorcycle will always be a thrill.