You never know who might turn out to be a great friend. I often fantasize about a science fiction technology that projects a small sphere of light above everyone’s head. The brighter it glows, the stronger the friendship you could form with that person. It’d make life much easier and I would see a bright glowing blue orb over Sushil’s head. He worked in the lab next to me when I did research during my last year of college (aka: wasted lab supplies). From the outside, we make a strange pair: a kid from Amish country and a distinguished scientist from Hyderabad. It’s not just a mutual love of reading, art and science. We share a view of the world aching to be explored. I’m lucky to have found him without the aforementioned “friend finder” technology. This is the story of his visit to New Orleans and the joy of being with someone who simply gets you.
People never see the sights where they grow up. New Yorkers don’t see the Statue of Liberty. Mumbaikers don’t visit the Gateway to India and Lititzians don’t take the tour at Sturgis Pretzels though we should. You can’t beat free pretzels. Since I’ve been mostly with natives, I haven’t seen many of the sights of New Orleans. Luckily, Sushil’s visit got me out there.
Of course, we began our adventure together on Bourbon Street with a stroll past the strip clubs, jazz bars and trinket stores. Tourists with cameras strapped around their neck walk next to partiers in Mardis Gras masks with beads around their neck. Touts lure in business with 3 for 1 drink specials and no cover charge. They don’t mention that almost nowhere has a cover charge. College frat boys with beers and bright green hand grenades take up the whole sidewalk when they walk past. Bikers in black leather make loud comments to their girlfriends about the lingerie in the window of the sex toy shop. Families slowly walk down the car free streets with children in strollers. The wild array of people on these ten blocks of Bourbon Street never cease to amaze me. Luckily, Sushil and I agree that we only need to see this area once.
He’s a better host than me. If I’m not interested, I’ll avoid taking my guest there. Sushil receives a stream of family and friends from India and he dutifully takes them to the same spots over and over. Almost every year of his eight years in America, he made the trip to Niagara Falls and Times Square in spite of the fact that these sights only need to be seen once. He exemplifies the Indian saying, “the guest is god.” Truly an autodidact (self-educated person, I loved this word since I learned it six months ago in Sartre’s Nausea, the nickname of an exceptional character). A wanderer himself, Sushil already visited half the states in America. When I stop to see him in Boston, we usually end up on long walks around the city, deep in discussion and laughter.
When I told him about this trip, Sushil replied that he wanted to “hitchhike with you for one day.” Once I settled in New Orleans, I suggested he come to visit and he emailed asking for dates. I told him between Christmas and New Years might be good and he responds twenty minutes later with the info for his plane tickets. I love to see a man who can grab the bull by the tail and face the situation (this analogy doesn’t quite work here but I can’t resist throwing in one of WC Fields best lines).
This is how I ended up in the French Quarter with Sushil on a far too warm and humid December day. We settle in an outdoor restaurant to listen to a band playing old timey music with a few rock songs thrown in to please the tourists. The concentration of musical talent in this city consistently amazes me. A friend said it’s the worst and best place for a musician. I hear good music on the street, at small bars, and on the radio. We pause during our walk to watch a band on Royal Street. A truly exemplary clarinet player leads the group, a dark black woman with a kind face and braids speckled with gray. Her cute young daughter sits on a stool quietly observing the crowd with large eyes. The fat drummer keeps up a quiet beat while often pushing up his falling glasses, identical to the pair worn by his son sitting next to him on a stool. The tuba player blows tremendous notes but has no child with him.
Chintzy antique shops dominate Royal Street. A chess board catches my eye in the window of a classy establishment. A white haired gentleman greets us in a British accent. Sushil silently observes as we learn about the $24,000 chess set. The man also graciously shows a piano from the early 19th century and a set of decanters with hand etched vines running around the base that cost as much as a new car. He describes the beautiful pieces as if to an old friend with not a hint of salesmanship. Outside, I express surprise at the cordial tour despite my obvious inability to buy anything more than a burger at McDonalds. Sushil explains that the salesman probably guessed I might be a front man for the silent and wealthy Indian accompanying me. We chuckle that two poor scientists might be mistaken for a team who could buy a piano worth more than a house.
We end the night with dinner and drinks on Magazine Street with friends from couchsurfing.com. Clint, an East Pete native, arrived in New Orleans around the same time as me. However, it took him six months versus my two because he biked here. He lost his father suddenly last year followed by a painful divorce. He decided to make a radical change and grabbed his bike to tour the country. I envy his slow approach to travel while he describes sitting by the road and peacefully watching insects. I do not envy biking on country roads at night with no lights.
At 11, I find out that our place to stay fell through. I borrow a phone to call Wynn Yuu also ate with us earlier. Wynn has several degrees including a masters in biochemistry and a veterinarians degree. She quit her pursuit of a doctorate in genetics because she decided this life no longer made her happy. Now she’s starting the third year of a three year voyage of self discovery. She buys her clothes from thrift stores, finds her food while dumpster diving and gladly tells us that she has never been happier in her life. She constantly stirs discussion about the Big Questions of Life. At dinner, Wynn mentioned that she just began housesitting. I call to tell her about our predicament and she immediately offers to let us stay with her. We quickly went from a night in an abandoned building to a beautiful house in Mid-City. As often on this trip, things seem to work out better than I could imagine.
On our first full day, Sushil and I begin with a walk to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. After earlier disappointing trips to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the galleries on Julia Street, I do not expect much from the Ogden. This makes the wonderful collections I find all the more a pleasant surprise. Sally Mann’s “Matter Lent” series stands out as powerful photographs of death using cameras and developing techniques from the turn of the century. This poem introduces her work:
All things summon us to death,
Nature, almost envious of the good she has given us,
tells us often and gives us notice
that she cannot for long allows us that scrap of matter she has lent…
She has need of it in other forms,
She claims it back for other works.
Basset’s “On Death, A Sermon”
While stopped at the post office to mail some Ogden postcards, Sushil shows me the wooden toy cars he bought at the gift store and we happily roll them back and forth at each other across the table like a couple of kids. We grab lunch at a corner store, two chili dogs for $1.39. I promptly spill chili and mustard down the front of my favorite shirt and feel slightly embarrassed as we visit the galleries along Julia Street. Sushil reassures me about the stains, “Don’t worry. It’s art.” None of the pieces in the galleries stand out but Sushil loves the chairs at each stop, reproductions of classics from the early 1900’s. It’s never good for the chairs to outshine the art.
We make a pass through Harrahs but neither of us like casinos so we take the ferry across Old Man River to my adopted home in Algiers Point. As the fog rises off the Mississippi, Sushil tells me of the importance of rivers to their family who lived next to one going back many generations. He grew up away from it in the city of Hyderabad but he remembers when a government sponsored tap brought water to their home. It meant a lot to his mother because it felt like the river had come to them.
Although a Hindu, she always paid her respects to one of the ten Sikh gurus and worshiped at the Sikh’s most holy place, the Golden Temple in Amritsar (the first stop Tessa and I made on our trip through the subcontinent). Soon after her death, Sushil happened to be watching the government television channel, an unusual occurrence because this station defines boredom. Think CSPAN with terrible production values. He saw an announcement that the Sikh’s would start accepting gold the next morning to be melted down for the repainting of the Golden Temple. This only occurs every thirty years or so and they stop the collection once they have enough gold to complete the project. This usually doesn’t take more than a day because people rush to donate and for this reason, they only announce the collection the night before it begins. Sushil leaped into action, grabbed the golden bangles his mother wore for most of her life and raced halfway across India to donate them. He doesn’t remember how he got there in time and I have no idea how he could make that journey so fast. However, he reached his goal and I’m sure his mother would be happy to know that a little bit of her gold now covers one of the most beautiful holy buildings in the world.
We continue our walk up Bourbon Street, loud with rock music and packed with the Crimson Tide from Alabama, excited for the coming Sugar Bowl (now you know how long I procrastinated getting this written). I hear someone shout my name and am delighted to see Cathy, an old friend from my days in Texas. We catch up while Sushil and her husband talk about metaphysics and philosophy. As we later listen to a friend of mine play piano covers at a bar around the corner, her husband tells me that he ranked Sushil in his top 10 people of all time. I couldn’t agree more.
Sushil and I wait in line to enter Preservation Hall, a New Orleans jazz institution that always gets mentioned in the guide books. This allows them to get away with a ten dollar cover charge. Even though I am a cheapskate and not a big jazz enthusiast, I consider this place to be money well spent. We file into the small wooden room containing only a few rough benches for the audience and chairs in the front for the band. The crowded press of people warm the room on an already balmy night. We sit on the floor in the first row, close enough to almost get beaned by the wisecracking trombone player during his solo. A sign behind them reads, “TRADITIONAL Requests $2, OTHERS $5, The SAINTS $10”. Even though they obviously play it ever set of every night, the band still puts their hearts into “When the Saints Come Marching In”. I won’t bother to describe the rest of their impressive set. If you want good descriptions of jazz, read Keourac. It’s out of my league.
The raucous Bourbon Street fades behind us as we walk into the more residential section of the Quarter where the classic beauty of the French influence can be easily seen (NOLA Fact Corner: almost all of the buildings in the French Quarter were built when the Spanish ruled the city). We reach Frenchmen Street, the Bourbon Street for locals, where live jazz and blues flow from every doorway. In an abandoned lot, a cute girl with pink dreadlocks twirls fire while keeping up a patter for the crowd, ending the show with a large fireball blown from her mouth. On the street, a hippy couple in patched pants and a skirt made out of neckties plays 60’s covers that rely more on enthusiasm than skill. After a loud rendition of Bobby McGee, they give a small plastic horse to Sushil and I as a thank you for listening.
We stop at the Apple Barrel where Coco Robiceaux plays blues and covers the Stones. By coincidence or clever marketing, the jukebox near the door is open to one of Coco’s albums. My five dollar tip gets me two Robert Johnson songs including the haunting Crossroad Blues where he sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. I stand in the doorway close to the band to listen while watching the people pass on the sidewalk. A couple of college freshmen stand next to me after they got kicked out for being underage, a rare occurrence in this town. The kids came just to hear the music and I start buying them beers in exchange for cigarettes for Sushil who only indulges on death sticks while on vacation. While Sushil stands outside talking to one of the young fans, I call to him about something and he turns towards me slowly just as he pulls the cigarette from his lips, blowing out a cloud of blue smoke under the dim street light. At that moment, my friend from Hyderabad looked exactly like Humphrey Bogart.
I strike up a conversation with Jimmy, the self proclaimed Mayor of Frenchmen Street. White haired and speaking with the slight slur of a stroke, he tells me about growing up in NOLA, the joys of Frenchmen Street and about the trust fund left by his beloved mother. I think it a little odd to bring up the trust fund so soon and I start to suspect he likes me for more than my witty conversation. I start really liking the Apple Barrel when Monica the bartender says, “You’re good people. You should come back here and hang out with us.” I like hearing that and I do feel like I fit in this town. People keep telling me I’m going to be a damn Yankee (Yankees come from the North, damn Yankees stay). That might even be true if it wasn’t for my intense hatred of the heat. They refer to old people who follow the sun as snowbirds. That makes me a bird of paradise. I follow the chill and there’s no way I could live through a New Orleans summer.
We stay out drinking and listening to blues until three. I finally throw in the towel although Sushil looks ready to stay until sunrise. We get a late start the next day but it turns into a day typical of my visits with Sushil. We simply walk for miles through the downtown and along the shops of Magazine Street, talking and taking in the sights. I stop by to pick up Catherine Stoner, the only Lititz native I know in this town and a close friend from high school. I’m hoping to have a guest column or two from her soon about teaching at the worst public school in the country (seriously, PBS did a documentary on it) and living through Hurricane Katrina. We meet with some more friends back at our beautiful little squat house and walk a few miles to the Hare Krishnas for their weekly free meal. I wax a tad nostalgic with the influx of good vegetarian Indian food and enjoy playing with all of the beautiful babies from the Indian and hippy families.
For our last day together, Sushil and I decide to venture out of the city with Wynn. At the famous Cafe Du Mond, we eat a breakfast of beignets, a donut similar to a fasnacht but snootier because it’s French. We drive my girlfriend’s car out on the scenic byway of Route 46. It takes us through the Lower 9th Ward, one of the neighborhoods most devastated by Katrina. Many abandoned and gutted houses line the road, still bearing the spray painted crosses containing information about when the house was searched, what agency searched it and the number of dead bodies found inside. The scenery becomes more rural as we pass giant oil refineries next to pastures of black cattle. Algae covered water stands next to the road with delicate snow white egrets stalking through it. An hour of driving finds us passing scores of fishing boats on the waterways leading to the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
We pass devastated buildings. A house with a few pieces of pieces of broken lumber rising out of the foundation, only the porch swing still standing. The abandoned contents of the home lay in the wreckage behind it. Houses razed down to the blocks with the efficiency of a bulldozer. Warehouses with aluminum siding ripped like paper. Empty steel framework standing against the marshes stretching off to the horizon. Destruction to make Sherman proud. At Rosies for a lunch of homemade burgers, the waitress smiles sadly and says, “We’re just starting to recover. Slowly but surely.”