It’s been nice being back. Not that I’ve lived in here before, but the culture is much the same as Biloxi. Biloxi had less tourism and definitely fewer drunk people, but the heavy air that permeates everything and dampens the paper on which I write; the stumble-upon, crumbling history as notable for its mere continued existence as for its historical value; the tall, green trees and verdant gardens and honeysuckle along the sidewalks and in the random, frequent small parks; the mighty oaks with their bulging roots. The oaks I love. Magnolias, too, but oaks and I have a history. Except: The oaks have changed since I last spent any real time in the Deep South.
My friends and I climbed over what had been dubbed “The Old Oak” just inside Gate Six on Pass Road entering Keesler AFB in Biloxi. I hope it and the magnolia still stand even though the Air Force turned the neighborhood and adjoining kids’ park into a disc golf course. We would never climb it now.
As you walk beneath the oak trees here, these furry-looking, fat, two-inch long, black caterpillars come out of the oaks, soaking the sidewalk with their poisonous spines and the guts and remains of their crushed comrades. It’s a struggle to keep Carl from stepping on one and having him hopping on three legs until he gets home to lick his paw.
I didn’t believe Misty about these things being so poisonous, frustrating and new because I’d never had to worry about them in Mississippi or Alabama until she pulled up a story from a few years ago warning that these little punks are moving into the area (sorta like the hipsters). That’s what I get for acting like a know-it-all.
Thirty minutes later . . .
I stopped writing the above suddenly when I heard through my open office window the sound of a trombone’s deep, raspy, trembly horn. Intermittent at first, its sound became more pregnant as the beats between honks slowly shortened. After alerting Misty, who was watching TV in the other room, grabbing Carl and making sure the door was locked, we “walked with purpose” (something I try to avoid in order to enjoy the pace of the city: where do you have to be?) through the courtyard toward the sound of the horn.
Crossing Felicity on Annunciation, we witnessed our very first second line. A true New Orleans second line. Not one for Prince or Will Smith or another celebrity.
In less than half a block, we were in a park running along Annunciation with Carl sniffing and making bathroom stops as we joined the procession along the sidewalk.
Two white people walking their dog on the sidewalk in the second line — though the color of our skin may have put us more in the fifth or sixth line behind the cops blocking the intersections.
Carl’s nose help us up and we fell a bit too far behind the brass, ending up walking alongside a truck towing a stack of speakers and some dancing girls (I didn’t look). We tried walking purposefully to catch up to the brass band but we finally relented to the New Orleans pace and started to fall behind the truck and the procession of cars and hung a left, another left and headed home via Chippewa. What a random experience. One I feel like I wouldn’t experience else. (Misty says, “It pays to keep your windows open.” It also keeps our electricity bill at $22.)
It’s like the late night offer by a former history teacher Lyft driver a few weeks ago to take us to a crawfish boil at a locals bars in the Quarter where, every night but especially Fridays, they boil up live crawfish and, for $15, you get as much as you can load onto a large Styrofoam take-out box. We easily had four or five pounds.
People sat or stood around picnic tables cracking the shells, sucking the spicy juice out of the heads and the meat from the tails. Misty complained that I left too much meat in the tails. We brought two to three pounds home with us.
There’s some sort of grill out going on across the street in the little green patch at Chippewa and Felicity. Misty reported there being a crowd with more people arriving, a truck with a grill and PA system and a few stoned hipsters drinking beers out of coozies looking on from across the street.
And at the word hipster you see why I must differentiate sometimes between races, ethnicities, colors and all when discussing this neighborhood. And it likely, but unfortunately and sadly, means the beginnings of the end for this mostly minority neighborhood and its culture. [Little history: This are was the projects, according to Miss Janet, a black woman who lives with Miss Chocolate across the courtyard from us. I sat outside with her and learned some New Orleans history (and recorded it on my phone). She told me that before Katrina, we (that being white people) couldn’t have walked down here. This was the projects.]
That’s something I often find myself reminding myself and pointing out to Misty that certain things exist, no longer exist, have been brought back to life or left to be covered with dirt and a new building, at best — a house-flipper opportunity, at worst — or just let be after Katrina. The state of some of the city, undoubtedly, comes from disrepair and neglect, but many things that existed before Katrina and are still being used — like the cracked, unlevel, easy-to-faceplant-on sidewalks — are attributable to the hurricane. (Oh, hey, Austin: New Orleans may have an inferiority complex with you but it also has sidewalks on both sides of the street. Novel idea, I know. Also, a reliable, efficient and green mass transit system.)
Hurricane Katrina may have hit Biloxi head-on but it certainly didn’t give New Orleans any breaks.
And so I wonder if The Old Oak still stands on the disc golf course at Keesler. What about the old magnolia that was just yards away? I don’t remember from my last visit.
I have to remind myself that things have changed down here along the Gulf Coast (just as I’ve changed since I last lived along it 17 years ago) since I was younger — more than just invasive, asshole caterpillars. Massive destruction and rebuilding. A hole where many refugees once lived sadly being filled with hipsters.