I just came back from New Orleans. It was my third visit and it certainly won’t be my last, because, ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with that place.
There is no rhyme or reason to NOLA. The city is mainly built below water level so it’s flooding all the time, the humidity will take your breath away faster than its beauty will, and the mosquitoes will eat you alive in the summer. The year I first visited, it was the ‘murder capital of the U.S.’; high and mighty praise indeed. And yet... I am in love with New Orleans. Always have been. Always will be.
Pragmatic realists, of course, see a dangerous, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken city, which lives off silly drunken tourists stumbling around in the French Quarter. The dreamers see a port where dreams come to be born or die. A lush land of the unabashed and uninhibited; a crossroads of cultures, a place of ill repute, of bordellos and bayous, of voodoo and above ground cemeteries, a place that made Lord Dunsey exclaim: “What a strange, wonderful doom” and William Faulkner called “a place created for and by voluptuousness”.
I suspect that dreamers see what pragmatics cannot; the romance, the humanity, the soul, the disappointing in the decrepit; a city that sends its dead to their grave with a song. New Orleans is haunting in its imperfection, tantalizing and infuriating in its corruption, and breathtakingly seductive in its shortcomings. It’s a city that inspired Anne Rice to create Vampire Lestat and Tennessee Williams to write A Streetcar named Desire. It’s a city of jazz, blues, voodoo chants, of Italian muffaletta sandwiches, chicory-laced dark coffee and sweet beignets, of southern drawls and lazy afternoons. It’s my N’awlins...
There’s no other place in the world where people will go out of their way to greet you good morning, to wave to you from across the street. Their smiles are easy. Their ‘hellos’ are uninhibited. Their desire to know you is sincere.
Somewhere lost in the brass bands, the beignets, and the beads is a sense of anything goes. The freedom to just be...
I navigated a week where I effortlessly went from watching men gussied up in seersucker suits and bow ties at venerable institution Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, to spending a day at the Country Club, a clothing-optional pool in the über-trendy Bywater district, where a stranger insisted I share his chicken sandwich with him and told me what restaurants I shouldn’t miss.
I found myself discussing language and the need for it to be preserved and passed down with a half-naked male stripper on Bourbon Street who had a prominent fleur de lis on his chest, and a French-speaking Cajun grandmother. I wondered whether I was strange for broaching a serious subject with a stranger in a thong, or because I insisted on talking about the politics of language while on vacation. But, of course, where we come from (hello, Quebec) shapes everywhere we go.
Besides, life is funny. You just need to get the punch line.
I left New Orleans, one of my favourite cities in the world, to come back to Montreal. I left a city in pain over the Mother’s Day second-line shooting that injured 19 people, a city experiencing existential angst over how it’s even possible that such random, senseless violence can continue to exist in a place so full of light and life, and came back to a city that is still in the middle of a full-blown corruption inquiry, had just experienced a city-wide metro system failure (the second in only a matter of months), and was in the midst of informing its panicked residents that a water boil advisory had been issued.
Don’t fret, Toronto. Your mayor has been accused of smoking crack, so you’re pretty high up in the what-the-f*ck-o-meter, too. There appears to be enough crazy to go around in all cities, these days, so really… all you can ultimately do is pick the kind of crazy that speaks to you and work with it. There’s no perfect place. If there is, I’m not sure I even want to visit, let alone live there.
As much as it sometimes frustrates me, I thrive in the crazy. I like contradiction. I enjoy a city that buckles under its own imperfection, because it’s in cities like these I truly feel alive and creatively inspired.
I found myself discussing language and the need for it to be preserved and passed down with a half-naked male stripper on Bourbon Street who had a prominent fleur de lis on his chest, and a French-speaking Cajun grandmother
Montreal is like that, too. There are so many reasons to sigh with exasperation, to cringe at the corruption, to make fun of the silly politics, to throw your hands up in the air and try someplace new. But I don’t. And I probably never will. Because this city’s beating heart reverberates with something I can’t quite put my finger on, yet don’t want to stop trying to locate. It makes up for what it lacks in pulsating, inspiring, infuriating madness. There is beauty in imperfection; more so than there is in the pristine. The pieces that quite don’t fit in the puzzle, the things that make you scratch your head? Those are the things that make the whole make sense to me.
Yes, this city is raggedy and unprofessional and disorganized, but didn’t some poet who comes from here say that the cracks are what let the light in?
On my last night in New Orleans I squeezed myself into a small room on St. Peters Street in the French Quarter and watched the Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform. If music is religion, this is a holy temple for jazz purists. There’s no alcohol, barely any seats. It’s about nothing but the music.
I watched trumpeter Will Smith (not that Will Smith) sing a moving a-cappella version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful Life and joined in joyfully, along with the rest of the audience. The song has been performed so many times it had long lost any power for me. It was just a cheesy old song you know about, but wouldn’t bother listening to.
I listened that night.
I felt the words in a way I had never felt before. The trumpet’s wailing send shivers down my spine, gave me goose bumps, brought tears to my eyes, and made me aware of my own happiness. It IS a wonderful life. It’s wonderful precisely because it isn’t always. It’s wonderful because it twists and turns and surprises and scares you every step of the way. Even when you don’t want it to. Even when do you.
Embrace the chaos. Embrace the crazy. Revel in the imperfection of the places and the people you love. Sometimes the only thing that’ll do is an open heart and a death grip on your dreams.
This is my last column, being that TC Media has decided to go a different way with opinion pieces in their papers. It’s a decision that saddens me since I’ve always believed that strong opinion pieces with recognizable bylines are vital to a newspaper’s identity, and even more vital to the role newspapers are supposed to play, but the decision was not mine to make.
I’d like to thank my many readers who took the time, over the years, to write and share their thoughts on the many issues I’ve broached. Your lengthy, well-reasoned arguments and thoughts have humbled me. I am forever amazed at your patience and your gratitude for my writing. I am even thankful to those who shared nasty, ad-hominem attacks because… hell, they’re entertaining, and the thick skin I’ve developed over the years has served me well.
It is a joy and a privilege to be able to write your thoughts for a living and have people read them and react to them in whatever way they choose fit. It’s a joy I don’t take for granted. It is a joy I will continue to seek out, as I continue to write. Feel free to follow me on Twitter (@toulastake) as I decide where and how I will continue Toula’s Take.
There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit,’ but I haven’t figured out what that is yet, so I’ll just say thanks for the ride and good-bye. It’s been a real pleasure.