Photo: JayL/Shutterstock

Notes on Life and Death in New Orleans

New Orleans Narrative
by Nina Mashurova Jan 10, 2012
On an improvised documentary project to cover music in New Orleans, Nina Mashurova finds the thin line between longing and belonging.

THERE ARE PLACES you fall in love with and you don’t know why. 1am on Halloween and I’m sitting in a tree somewhere in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. More specifically, I’ve climbed an impressive structure of ladders and platforms built in two gnarled oaks in the backyard of an art collective.

A bridge constructed out of a chain link fence spans the two trees – I was just watching a drag queen in stilettos toddle across it, and I am now watching a guy in a bowler hat secure the corner. He lives here. He tells me it’s safe, so I feel safe. He tells me that he stopped here on a road trip two years ago and never left. Not for the first time, I consider doing the same.

This isn’t quite what I expected. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything pop culture had told me about New Orleans was less about a city and more about a party – Mardi Gras, Carnival, sequins, beads, balls-to-the-wall girls-gone-wild hedonism. Endless Facebook albums showed people crashing into town to down foot-long rum-heavy hurricanes and rub up against strangers in the French Quarter. It looked messy.

In mid-October, Em, A#, and I filled Em’s janky Toyota Camry up with peanut butter and hope, and set out south from Boston to cover folk musicians for an improvised documentary project. Our best days were spent filming on grassy knolls or walking through mountains, our best nights were at shows and dive bars. It was chill but perfect. I have a love-hate relationship with partying – one of my favorite highs is the high of large-scale celebrations (the energy, the night, the music, the Dionysian delirium!) but I always feel uncomfortable on the MTV Spring Break back-out-or-blackout circuit. But as we plotted out our road trip, we knew there was only one possible endpoint. New Orleans. Halloween. Game time.

Frenchman street is the epicenter of sensory overload – I didn’t take our host up on her offer of psychoactives, but I still feel like my brain is about to short-circuit. Skin flashes, bodies on balconies jam up against the wrought iron rails. The bars are thick with smoke and smeared face paint, the streets packed with the crush of celebration. Three flappers on a pickup truck flash their fishnet-covered butts at the crowd. Barely-legal Tulane students do body shots in front of a bodega. A doughy polar bear leers at me. “We should make animal babies,” he proposes. I hide deeper inside my raccoon-eared hoodie.

We escape to the Treehouse in the Marigny, which is a lot more our speed.

“You should go check out Rebirth tomorrow,” says a zombie DJ with a wax mustache. From his Victorian gown and a powdered wig, I assume he is supposed to be Marie Antoinette, but he explains that he is actually vampire food.

“What do they sound like?”

“They’re a brass band.”

“There’s a lot of brass in New Orleans, right?”

Vampire Food narrows his eyes and lifts an eyebrow. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

We’re not, but neither are a lot of the residents. We meet person after person who stayed after an AmeriCorps fellowship expired or after gig with a nonprofit made so little profit that the whole thing went under.

It reminds me of a scene in Shortbus in which Justin Bond is talking about all the young people who moved to New York in the early aughts. “9/11 is the only real thing that ever happened to them,” he says. For a certain type of person, real always seems to mean damaged.

In the days to come, we retrace our steps to find a different city. Warm October sun shines on pastel houses and funky cruiser bikes. Cafe flyers advertise music, endless music, as well as urban garden projects and community events. We step into an info shop where I buy a zine about liberation and friendship written by a punk who sailed down the Mississippi on a homemade boat. Em reads a zine about grief.

The nights are sweet with jazz, brass, and good spirit. By Wednesday, it’s hard to remember that just two nights ago I was in a bar two doors down making small talk with a skinny chain-smoking Rainbow Brite who looked an awful lot like Kevin Barnes. He told me about cigarette regulations as the place was emptying out and the last of the bedraggled stragglers sat at the bar, chain-smoking, nursing half-full glasses, winking grotesquely at each other from behind smeared face paint. Now the bars are alive with sultry jazz vocals. I watch a gentleman in oxfords and suspenders waltz with a stunning woman with a glamorous hairdo and an epic sleeve tattoo. The sum of it blurs together into the explosive carnival of my Tom Waits dreams – dirty, sexy, soulful, dangerous, magic.

It’s love. I think I could spend forever walking around the Lower Garden District, dancing to zydeco, riding a bike by the murky Mississippi. My heart reacts with giddy hiccups at every spindle of Spanish moss, every gaggle of bike punks pedaling past us with dusty vaudeville boots and instruments strapped to their packs. I want this. I want the open container laws and the second line, the urban decay desperation and the antique glamor. I could live here, I think, and I would feel alive.

I’m obsessed, but my friends are tired. We have been on the road for nearly three weeks and everyone is having a good time but they’re also eager to get back. A# is a northeast boy through and through – he is at home in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire. Em is ambitious and resourceful, practical and creative. She will go to Austin, to New York. Somewhere with a thriving creative economy and an innovative music scene. Bike-friendly, Richard Florida-approved. Maybe we will all stay in Boston. We do well there.

The headlines on November 1st report 15 people shot in the French Quarter on Halloween night, minutes away from where we had been walking. No one’s surprised – New Orleans has the highest per-capita murder rate in the country, with over 175 killings a year.

“Violence is just part of the culture here,” explains a musician who we interview as part of our documentary.

She is sitting on a stoop in the Lower Ninth as the sun sets and a three-legged dog bounds around the yard; she tells us how she freight hopped all over the country but finally settled in New Orleans because it was the only place that felt right; she sings and her voice gives us goosebumps. There are a lot of young people with nothing to look forward to, she explains, and the devastation of Katrina is still felt in many of the poorer neighborhoods. She feels it personally – four friends and members of the arts community were murdered in the past winter.

Because of that, she is done up in full Dia de los Muertos costume in preparation for a community parade to mourn the dead and celebrate their lives. There is biking and chanting and music – a punk interpretation of the NoLa jazz funeral tradition.

Dusk on Dia de los Muertos by the train tracks in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans and as the parade prepares to set out, our Camry crew prepares to pull out of the city. I’m glued to the window. On some level, I always believed I could be a purely impulsive person. I wait for the moment where I say “no guys, just let me out at the next light, mail me my stuff later,” but it never comes. Maybe it’s the inconvenience or maybe it’s the inertia. I’m glued to my seat. Something tightens inside me – an imagined purpose, an internalized superego that insists I owe something to someone or to somewhere. Up north I will plan how to get back, look up programs and restaurant jobs. I will watch Treme and listen to Mississippi circus-folk and tell myself, from behind the safety of my laptop screen, that I am a flaneur and a free atom. I will know the dream world is waiting and I will wonder if I will ever be brave enough to get there, and when I do, what it will look like then.

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