MY 21st BIRTHDAY
I am one of the youngest in my grade, forcing me to stand by the wayside, indulging in others for their birthdays while painstakingly waiting for my own to come. Not being 21 was probably a large cost saver on this trip, but it also only let me view places like Vegas instead of participate. But here, in New Orleans, I was certainly going to participate in the festivities.
The drive from Houston to New Orleans was only a couple of hours and it passed by relatively quickly. I arrived at my hostel, India House, with little confusion. There was actually parking right in front of the place so I hopped out and ran in. I waded through the Europeans gathered on the expansive front porch, making plans and passing their cigarettes. Inside, the walls were painted with various bright colors, wonderful patters, and probably resident-designed murals. The bohemian couches were filled with college students either staring at the ceiling or pontificating on their favorite artists (especially Bob Dylan, who one particularly enthusiastic fan requested that he be played over the speakers at least five times during my check-in period). The one air-conditioned room down the hall was packed with people watching the hangover on a relatively new though color challenged television. It was the middle of a sweltering august afternoon in the bayou and I soon found that even though I was full of energy, everyone around me seemed splayed like a hot dog on a porch. Their groups seemed already cliqued up and had the demeanor like they were still recovering from weekend festivities, giving me little hope of infiltrating them to create my own birthday party. Monday isn’t entirely the greatest night to turn 21. But nevertheless I would do what I want and have fun doing it!
So what does a 21 year old do when she first arrives in New Orleans? Visit the cemeteries of course! (What, you didn’t see that one coming?) In having the honor of being at or below sea level, New Orleans enjoys expansive aboveground cemeteries, like little cities of the dead. As my Girl Scout leader for a few years, my mother had me well trained in the art of preserving the artistry of gravestones from rubbing a crayon on an overlaying piece of paper. Somehow then I notice the imagery on all the tombs, the grandeur of some and the humbleness of others. The blankness of the place struck me. Everything was cemented in; there was little grass or fresh flowers or anything with a hint of color. The halls of the dead even had white street signs to allow the living to navigate (though perhaps the incorporeal and living dead may get lost every now and then as well). Swallowing the urge to break out my Thriller moves, I drove on instead.
On my map there appeared to be some body of water next to a very large park. Since I like parks and water, and normally trust my AAA map for touristy spots, I drove there next. Though the rest of the day was relatively sunny and clear, my memories of the park and water are just dismal versions of gray. The water was concreted in next to a wide four-lane road and the park, though pretty from afar with its trails and fountains, was actually quite boring without other people to play Frisbee/picnic with. In other circumstances it might have been nicer, but here it just felt like a waste of time.
Next I drove on to the lower 9th ward. This was one of the hardest hit areas after hurricane Katrina and her wake left the houses in this low-income area either swept away or in shambles. In a highly applauded recovery effort, Brad Pitt (apparently a long time architecture enthusiast) has worked in this neighborhood to build environmentally friendly (solar panels!), architecturally interesting designs. Several people told me that this was a really cool place to visit, though later the nice guy giving me directions told me I was crazy for going there in the first place, let alone by myself. I took note that as I drove further in from the main road, official street signs were replaced with painted planks nailed to a tree – even the cemeteries had had real street signs. The neighborhood was a scattering of depression and renewal. Older houses stood in an abandoned slump beside completely empty lots or those that still had cemented steps leading to nowhere, their only signifier a spray painted address. One house was surrounded by scores of tires for seemingly no apparent reason. But amongst these were beautifully angled homes, bursting with both front porch life and blasting indoor jams as people began arriving home from a long work day. I had never seen so many solar panels and it made my upcoming internship feel even more exciting. I took a few pictures, but soon got the creeping feeling I was a terrible tourist reveling in other’s misery and invading their personal space. I drove on through the French quarter, around past Tulane, and back to my hostel.
I dropped my stuff off, figured out how to use the trolley system and headed for Bourbon Street just as the sun was beginning to set. My first legal drink came from a sort of alcoholic slurpee machine – it was bright, lime green, and called “The Jester.” And that is where I shall leave this tale.