New Orleans

summer 2014 285Randy was the best –
a tourguide with
just the right combination
of local folklore, historical anecdotes, and bad jokes
to keep our little crowd of fifteen
laughing and listening
as we followed him
down narrow streets
in a strange city
thick with heat.

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Pausing, here,
by what otherwise
we would have walked by –
this old house
wedged in the back
of the fancy hotel
which old Brad Overstreet
still owns, refused to sell, years ago
even for 4 million dollars,
back in the day
when “The $25,000 Pyramid” was on TV
and a lot of money to win.
Built their concrete hotel around him,
threatened to build it overhead,
until he took them to court, won,
proved you can’t build over anyone
no matter how much money you have.

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Pausing,
by places that the fires took –
like here, where “The Upstairs Bar” used to be,
the gay nightclub set afire by an angry prostitute
at someone who was stealing his tricks.

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The crowds that gathered
shouting outside –
Burn!  Let ’em burn! –
It wasn’t always this liberal you know,
not the city where just anything goes-
no, not always, not then.

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Teaches us the difference between
“Creole” and “Cajun”
“Balconies” and “Galleries”
“Gumbo” and “Jambalaya”
and no, we didn’t always eat alligator,
how to pronounce “praw-leans”
that should melt like air
on your tongue
not gritty and sugary like
well, I’m not say’in but they’re
a poor excuse for pralines.

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The best place
to put your palm sweaty
in the hands of another
who will tell you how fortunate your future shall be,

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where to linger on Bourbon Street
where good jazz, some of the best around,
is still to be found,
but no, not the kind they blast on the streets,
you have to walk in to find it,
down dark corridors in back rooms
the kind of music like Miss Jessie’s here,
playing the clarinet like nobody’s business
as we fill her pail with applause and spare change.

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Where real muffaletta can be found
like Napoleon’s or Central Market
though they don’t serve it hot there
not like it’s meant to be,
and no, it’s not from New Orleans,
just ask someone from Sicily…

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The best Creole restaurants
like Tujagues and The Gumbo Shop,
and where the locals live –
Algiers, across the river
where I make plans to go tomorrow,
good book shops (Beckhams)
and the best gelato (Antoine’s) around.

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Sounds out New Or-leans,
not “N’awlins” –
no one around here but tourists
talks like that –
in this city without
Southern drawls,
a port city,
more connected to Philadelphia and Boston
than Atlanta which for all its other charms
does not have a port,
poor thing,
a Union city during the war,
but the Proclamation that freed the slaves
no, did not free them here, no,
but declared them merely the “spoils of war”
fit to wipe soldier’s boots and clean their pots,
shovel out stables.

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Tells us stories that leave us wide-mouthed,
anecdotes that make us dangerous,
tidbits of facts
to jumble into our own urban legends
like the carriage drivers do –
they are notorious for that –
don’t believe a word they tell you.

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But when we ask Randy about Katrina,
he walks off,
says there is a museum if we want to know,
can see it all –
where the waters came in
and how high they rose
but we need to live in the present
it was nine years ago –
you must let us live.

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Comes back,
eyes spotted
with tears,
says it took him six years to see the exhibit,
and all he could do was go and
hold Laurita and weep –
you can tell the locals,
it’s what we do –
nine years ago,
we have to move on,
you have to let us live…
leads us across the street
shaking the memory
out – I have to get it out –
brings us back to this
moment in time.

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We’re really not, we hope,
like the tourists on his bus route home
who ask him each day how high was the water
and how long the electricity was out,
how many died,
and what’s become of the city.

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Instead, he tells us everything we really wanted to know –
that the flood was real
and he is too,
that he was here and survived –
which is the possibility
that we’ve been looking for ourselves –
that we too
might make it through
the storms that are raging, and
might find our way
through the flood of tears,
our own secret byways and dark alleys.

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And yes, makes us wonder
as we follow on after him
what might happen
what might really happen if
we didn’t shy from each other –
made campfires
and told the stories
we have told no one before –
if we stopped believing
we all knew and understood each other so well,
much less ourselves,
and risked going to the limits
of the conversations –
to tell the stories
we need to remember,
to release the stories
we need to put down,
to be recalled to the present
we need to embrace.

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Peter Ilgenfritz
September 8, 2014

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One thought on “New Orleans

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