September 14, 2005

Drinking In the Artistic Spirits of New Orleans

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:36 pm

By the time you read this, it will be almost four weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of reminiscences about New Orleans. Part of that is due to the statistical probability that with all the New Orleans press, someone else must have already said what I have to say about New Orleans as an exemplar for celebrating the arts in everyday living. Remarkably, I haven’t seen that perspective voiced yet.

I also feel somewhat guilty giving New Orleans one more warm fuzzy memory piece as if the lives and culture in that one city are more important than anyone or anything in Mississippi. Coverage has been lopsided, I feel, with less ink and airtime going to the Mississippi devastation and aftermath. But I have never been to Mississippi, and I have been to New Orleans and New Orleans happens to be a place I can’t forget.

My one and only visit was two years ago. I was prejudiced against the city going in, with its famed Mardi Gras celebrations, 24-hour bars and the laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler attitude. I’m not a big drinker or partier and you would never catch me in the Crescent City during Mardi Gras. It seemed like my personality and the city’s were diametrically opposed. And as it turned out, during my visit I never went into a bar and I was in bed by 11 p.m. every night just as the city was waking up.

But New Orleans by day surprised me and I felt incredibly at home, as if I had visited many times before, if only in my imaginings about an utopia for the arts. In the daytime, when the streets were relatively empty of people and the noise from the bars and neighborhood hangouts was silenced, the true heartbeat of the city pumped loud and clear. New Orleans was undeniably a city that celebrated the arts and artistic expression in the small, everyday moments of life.

Distant strains of music played constantly. If it wasn’t a lone instrument several blocks away, it was a person singing as they passed on the street. I saw high-end art and street art, local art and imported art everywhere. I saw people dressed with an individualistic flair that most of us don’t have the guts to even imagine. Performing artists on street had genuine talent rightly commanding the attention they garnered.

I liken the artistic approach to life by New Orleanians to my experience with their food. Whether I was eating in an inexpensive eatery or the grandest of fine restaurants, every bite was exquisite. I can still taste several delectable dishes from my stay. That’s also how I felt about the visual and performing arts I experienced in New Orleans. From the lowest rung of the arts echelon to the highest, every sampling was exquisite.

I don’t have a romanticized view of New Orleans. We did not stay in the best part of town. Our rental van was stolen and trashed our first night in town, including my son’s car seat. A discourteous streetcar driver did not give me (seven months pregnant at the time), my two-year-old son and my husband enough time to get off at our stop, abruptly closing the door in our faces just as we reached the last stair. When we asked for directions at the next stop to get back to our intended destination, she slammed the door in our faces again and drove away. And the all-time rudest exchange I have ever had with another human being was with a restaurant bathroom attendant in New Orleans.

Still, the so-called Great Cities of the World that I have visited didn’t have the visceral impact on me that New Orleans did. Two years later, my memories are as fresh as if they were just made, and they pop into my head on regular occasion. Paris, New York, London and Rome are fabulous cities, but they didn’t nestle their way into my heart.
As a Bay Area native, I’ve always felt we have a lot going for us where the arts are concerned. The general community is supportive of the arts. San Francisco and Berkeley provide a wonderful stage for artists to take risks and push the boundaries of their genres. But I would call the overriding nature of the Bay Area arts scene to be rather refined and highly intellectualized. In contrast, the day-to-day arts environment in New Orleans felt raw, and was as easy and natural as breathing. Nothing else could have been more intoxicating for me.

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