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Love Song for New Orleans

May 23, 2012

Love Song for New Orleans

I came to you

a little broken, tightly wound,

like the metal coil of a jack-in-the-box,

yanked once too hard by an ornery toddler.

I came to you

with thoughts racing,

wanting to win you over,

to show you my competence,

the sophisticated things I could do

with my mind and my hands.

I as good as juggled bricks for you,

danced on a silk tightrope,

hurled daggers through the eye of a pinhole,

hoping that you would look at me and nod,

wanting me as one of your own.

But then one day,

juggling on my tightrope

(in a most death-defying fashion),

I missed a step and dropped a brick

with a resounding crash.

I froze

and waited

for your frown,

the reprimand,

a dark look of contempt.

But nothing.

Almost as if

you had never noticed

my brick juggling

to begin with.

Not to be daunted,

I juggled on,

powdery brick dust coating my hands,

watching you warily.

Until one day

I dropped another brick

(this time on my toe),

and only when the dust settled,

and no one looked up,

did I realize

the secret of this city:

you don’t care

whether I juggle bricks or not.

Bricks, scarves, knives, dandelions,

juggled with perfect precision,

make no difference to you,

do not make me one of yours.

To be one of yours,

I had only to walk through your streets,

bumpy and misshapen,

sidestepping eager cockroaches

attracted to the shadows made by my shoes.

I had to leap over monstrous puddles,

yet to drain from a torrential downpour

which lasted seventeen minutes

and left the streets undriveable for three days.

To be one of yours,

I had to park my car on a dimly lit street,

emerge onto the dark pavement, speckled with glinting shards of glass,

glance around at the blighted duplexes,

paint peeling, steps cracked.

I had to walk to a door,

double-check the number,

knock gingerly,

and then push the door tentatively open.

On the other side waited thirty laughing, chatting people

arranged in disorganized pods

according to available furniture surfaces.

A man with gray hair and a Saints jersey

thumped a blond guy in a polo shirt good-naturedly on the back,

while three dark-haired girls in summer dresses perched on the back of a tattered green couch

and sipped homemade mojitos from plastic cups.

I knew no one,

but it didn’t matter.

I wore a t-shirt

and had forgotten to put on eyeliner,

but it didn’t matter.

As I skulked to the kitchen to find the host,

four different people offered me beer

in dark brown bottles.

Two women scooted to the side of their overwrought couch

and patted the rumpled cushion,

making room for me.

There are no strangers in a place like this.

All you have to do is open the door.

To love you

is easy.

All it took for me

was the voice of that jazz singer

curling through the dim light of that club

(a voice better, I thought,

than Billie Holliday),

a voice made smokier and richer

by the fact that I may never have heard it

if I had not happened to walk by that tiny club

and popped in just to use their bathroom.

It took walking down the streetcar track

on St. Charles Avenue,

and smiling

a smile that I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to

because every car was honking

along with every boat on the river,

and schoolchildren were leaning out the open windows

of shiny SUV’s to slap hands with the homeless man

who was holding up his fist and shouting for joy

that black and gold had won the Super Bowl.

It took wandering through your pastel, sun-drenched streets,

until my feet ached

and I had lost my way

because streets meander here

and disappear

and reappear where you least expect them.

I have heard the saying repeated time and again:

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

Well, I don’t know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Because for three years,

I have been almost unwilling to leave this city long enough

even to go on vacation.

Because my body feels rooted to this spot.

To say it has seeped into my blood doesn’t quite describe it

because it never did much seeping.

From the very beginning, this place engulfed me.

To miss New Orleans.

I don’t know how that will be.

I have never loved a city before.

And you can’t just call a city on the phone

to catch up.

To ask it how the gigantic banana plants

that grow beside my front stoop, blocking sidewalk traffic with their enormous leaves

are getting along.

You can visit a city,

eat the Vietnamese po-boys again,

but how can a city be yours again

if you don’t really live there?

Perhaps when I leave you,

I’ll move on,

find a new love,

watch the Saints play from a clean bar that charges a cover when they have a band play,

buy groceries from a store with a name that doesn’t require a pseudo-French pronunciation.

But for now, this is hard to imagine.

Because this city lets me carry my beer into the street,

puts mayonnaise on my hamburgers,

lets me wear shoes that don’t match my dress.

This city is in my blood.

It has smoothed me out

so that now I can sit for hours in the sun

reading a young adult novel

without once checking my watch.

Goodbye is hard to say

to someone, something you love.

But my skin is different now,

my heart, my lungs, my blood.

I am smoother now, less frayed.

And I no longer juggle bricks

because there is no need for such things.


From → poetry

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