It has been a kind of madness here, in the past few weeks, a rush of adventure (turkey hunting, smith rock, hiking, sunsets, snow, falling into rivers, forgetting everything we might need for camping) followed by a solid two weeks of creative—and work—lethargy. But I feel back now! So I’ll start with the NOLA trip and go from there. About a week before we left, my dear friend Erin sent me a magnet for my birthday that says, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” It’s bright red, with dashes of black, white and yellow and it’s done by Simon, whose signage is ubiquitous in New Orleanian establishments. When I opened the envelope, all I could say was, oh, oh because I was so touched—by her thoughtfulness, of course, I am blessed with truly wonderful friends, but also because I do know. I know what it means.
Not every day, and sometimes not for long stretches—but every now and then I’ll think about the narrow color of the city, or a fried boudin ball, or an afternoon at the fly, and I’ll want to go back so badly, to breathe in thick humid air for just a minute. I’ll crave sunshine and the whisper of oak trees, I’ll wish for the safe comfort of the school library, the familiar sight of elegant houses along St. Charles. I am filled with longing, every now and then, as I stand in my garden and try to coax the honeysuckle into being, as one clap of thunder rolls through Portland, I am filled with a profound ache for a different place.
It surprises me then, that when we get to the airport, I am rather unemotional. It may be the after effects of an early-morning flight, it may have been because I didn’t see the enormous statue of Satchmo (did they take it down? Or were we just in a different terminal?). And even when we get in the car and venture out the old Jefferson Highway to get ribs at the Blue Tomato, it feels so familiar that it doesn’t register as the second coming I thought it might be.
A note on the Blue Tomato—they make some of the best ribs in the world. All credit goes to my Dad for discovering it, during the spring of my senior year. As the legend goes, he brought my car in to have the brakes checked while my Mom was at a conference and I was in class, and while he waited he asked for a lunch recommendation from the servicemen. They tell him to go to the Blue Tomato and get a burger. He goes in—the offer real home-made Mexican, Italian and American food—and he orders the ribs. It was one of those moments, apparently, where the divine reaches down and touches this world, because they were so good. So good, in fact, he brings some back to campus and lets me eat his leftovers while we sit on the porch of the Hillel House. Then he talked it up for three years, which is why we end up there within the first half hour of our time in the city.
It is as good as he remembers, meat falling off the bone in a succulent pile of barbecue. We end up ordering it again a few days later as take-out, so the whole Coleman clan can experience it. No, really. It’s that good.
Even later, after we’re full as ticks and driving to pick up my grandparents, we drive down St. Charles, past all the old familiar places—the Columns, the stone house, Superior Grill, it’s all as it should be. I fall back into the place as if I never left. Beads glimmer from the power lines above the neutral ground, the streetcar makes the same click-clack that’s ingrained in my memory (if I close my eyes, I could be back in a basement classroom at Gibson, a teacher delving into a passage while the breeze from the window carries the scent of magnolias and the sound of the streetcar), the houses still vaguely threaten of vampires.
We sit on the porch, we shop, we listen to music and we eat, we are sure there are ghosts in the house we rented, we accidentally let a cat in, we find my old favorite po-boy place and we swear at the birds that won’t stop squawking. We sweat in the heat and drink, and drink, and drink—we get our tarot cards read and we get harassed on the street. We walk underneath the oak trees and talk about lots of things, we listen to more music, we go to Cure. And through it all, I feel so sure of my place here, as if I’ve been here all along, and everybody else is just back for a visit.
Maybe it’s because New Orleans is never that far out of reach for me—it’s such a vibrant place, there is so much color and character and personality packed into one city—that it exists in my head vividly, so that when I stand in a forest of pine, I am also standing in a mossy swamp, like I’m also standing underneath the fern-laden limb of an oak, like I'm also standing on a dusty side street in Dakar. For all the places that I hold in my head, treasures of a kind, I think I also must have left pieces of myself in each place too. How else can you explain that feeling of knowing you get when you visit a place that should be foreign, except that once it was familiar--you must rejoin the part of you that you left, slip back into an old skin almost long-forgotten.
It was a touch of the surreal though too, of looking around and saying really—did I live here? Could I have been smart enough to choose this special of place? Could I have really done that? The answer, is, of course. Of course you did. So I return home bolstered, with a renewed sense of strength and a gratitude for a city that saved a place for me to come back to, when I need it.