A Man sits across from us at the table, the kind of dude that squeezes so much out of life that man has to be spelled with a capital M. We are unsure of why he is allowed to stay at the hostel, considering that he is clearly in his 60s, and that he has lived in New Orleans all his life. These are usually two big no-nos in the hostel world, and yet here he is, holding court in the backyard. The cigarette in his left hand is slowly burning down towards his yellow fingers, momentarily forgotten as he tells us about his night. “We ate everything, we drank everything, we danced with everyone’s mama, we didn’t insult their dads, we fought everyone, we bet on everything…” He trails off to answer his phone, raising his hand apologetically towards us. The person on the other end of the line speaks for a moment before he responds apologetically. “Naw his nose ain’t broke, but it was a close thing. We tried to take care of him, but you know how he is, sometimes he says things…” we can’t hear the rest as he walks off towards the kitchen.
I am 24, and if I had a night like he had, I would talk about it for years afterward, but for this ageless sage, it was Wednesday. The next five days I tried to keep up with the city of New Orleans, but it wasn’t long before I was struggling to stay awake, let alone to keep moving at the deceptively break-neck pace of NOLA. The city chewed me up and spat me out, and I left with the beginnings of a fever and a nasty cough… but I cannot wait to go back, even though I know I will leave wrung out and exhausted.
Everywhere we went in the city, we could always hear music. Whether it was a band that had played together for 36 years, or a middle school kid playing his trumpet for change after getting out of school, music was a part of people in a way I have never experienced before. In the city, a “second line” is when one musician starts playing on the street, waiting for someone walking by to join in. Eventually, a rag tag band forms, and they clog up the street until the police tell them they have to disperse. People would burst into song, or drum rhythms as they walked. I always have a song repeating in my head, but it is never my own song, and I would never feel comfortable sharing it with the rest of the world. It should be no surprise that with a populace this musical, the live music is unparalleled. In some places, the atmosphere is two parts blues and one part smoke, the smell of gin and cigarettes mixing in the dimly lit hall as the bassist grimaces to the beat. You can’t see or hear the person next to you, but it doesn’t matter because the oboe is taking you back to a completely different place, thousands of miles away. Other places are ruled by the playful sounds of the trombone and the sax, as the crowd frantically dances, holding their drinks in a talon-like grip in order to avoid spilling on their neighbors. In one of these places, the power went out, and the musicians kept playing in the complete darkness for hours, and so we kept dancing.
I have never eaten so well in my entire life. Since returning, I have been perpetually hungry, simply because my caloric intake must have doubled while I was in the South. There is a reason that they call it soul food. Gumbo, jambalaya, char-broiled oysters, shrimp and grits, po-boys, red beans and rice, beignets, fried chicken… Every meal was better than the one before, and our days were planned around what we would eat next. We walked through neighborhoods we had no business walking through in our quest for the best food, and it was always worth it.
Most important of all though, were the people that I went with. I am firmly convinced that you could lock us in a hotel room in Cleveland for five days and it would still be one of the best weeks of my life. Granted, if we had stayed in our hotel room we wouldn’t have seen a degenerate get beaten with a giant wooden cross that was stolen from a bar, but the trip would have been memorable for other reasons. I haven’t seen some of these guys for two years, but it was like we were picking up right where we left off. We played card games in a park. We ran in the rain. We talked about all of the things that it isn’t ok to talk about. We wrote stories together. We danced while a man dressed like big bird sang reggae songs. We laughed until it hurt.
I do not remember every conversation that we had, and as time goes on the details will smudge together, but I will hold on to the feeling that I left with. For the first time in too long, I felt like I was a part of something larger than myself. I belonged with these people, and if we wanted to, we could take on the world. Joe is at Columbia, getting his Master’s in writing. Matt is finishing up his Master’s in Italian literature at Indiana. Cass is happily married, and just finished writing his second novel. Josh just finished up his job at the White House, and is looking into jobs as a speech-writer. In ten years, this rag-tag gang of buffoons is going to be making an enormous impact on the world, and we all see it in each other, even if we don’t see it in ourselves. Hopefully, we will still be meeting semi-annually ten years from now, and we will still be talking about the things that we normally have to hold close. And laughing until it hurts.