What I really did tonight was I went to my friend Winston's surprise 81st birthday party. Once inside the "party venue," I approached him, expressed my anti-condolences, then went off to try like anything to find a goddamn seat to sit on.
Whenever there is a birthday party in the Quarter with a food spread, you would not believe how many people will turn out to wish you all the best. People you've never met in your life.
And one of those people I've never met in my life was this young man, very thin, very tall, very green, with a little straw fedora balanced atop his head.
I couldn't help but overhear his conversations. Well, not his conversations, really, his quotes: (These are verbatim.)
"It's nice to meet someone as good looking as I ..." (He really said this. I'm not making it up.)This was when I started to giggle.
"I'm visiting from New York. I ..."
"I'll be moving here in September. I ..."
"Well, not New York, originally, but Seattle. I ... "
"I'll be working for the S* B* P*. I ..."
"Oh, then I'll be your supervisor. I ..."
When I was his age, I came to New Orleans because I thought, over here, I could begin to be the person I was destined to become: outrageous, common, lovable, smart, artistic, or whatever the hell it was I was meant to be. Sort of like why Faulkner or Tennessee came here. To discover something about themselves that lay hidden and dormant, or forbidden, everywhere else.
I never dreamed I could have come to New Orleans to assume responsibility for anyone else's well-being. To mold a city like clay. I would have found that to be presumptuous.
The thought of it makes me shudder still.
But then, I've been around the block a couple of times since then—and to the Superdome, as well, hanging by my ankles from a festooned trapeze.
People who come here to save the city don't realize that New Orleans is not as malleable as they might think. She's easy, yes. She bends. She'll lean on you.
But she's a self-sufficient whore and so much (so much) stronger than anyone believes, and that's where they go wrong. She has control. She makes the final decisions. And, God knows, she'll outlive us all.
I hope to see that young man that I eavesdropped on tonight in another year or so.
Will he be another Quarter rat, crawling around on all fours, or another Mrs. Grundy clamoring about the noise and the smells and the hours people keep?