Like Janus, New Orleans has at least two faces and a multitude of stories that chorus in your ears during the afternoon thunderstorms. They wake you up at night with their rush and pound; they build throughout the day with humidity and pressure, until you are begging the city to spill its tales. I lived two stories simultaneously while sipping pink sparkly at a little wine cafe on St. Charles St.
The air was soft and light from the rain in the morning–the rain that left the graveyard drowning, each mausoleum a mini ark, carrying its occupants safely through the flood. My wine sparkled, the beads in the trees sparkled, the streetcar whooshed and glimmered, the evening thunderheads flashed joy joy joy as the sun twined its fingers through their woolly heads. No longer dampened by humidity, the sound of a lone saxophone crooned over the patio; its source a mystery but all that much more precious for the sense of peace it brought. Yes, this was the New Orleans I wanted when I arrived: ambient, exotic, wine pouring freely and on happy hour. Certainly, I could find rest from the jolting thoughts, the nagging pressure that I needed to do one more thing.
Even though the book I was reading was research for a course I will teach in the fall, the very act of sitting in the sun at that moment, storm clouds gathering and light fading, felt exactly so. The exactly so I’d been craving since I’d arrived.
The sound of the sax grew louder as a lean, older man sauntered into view, playing his instrument like he loved it, moving languid and slow. Dressed in dark denim and a navy tee shirt that hung on his angular frame, he moved past the outdoor cafe, adding his sounds to the gentle surge and retreat of conversation: this table held two girlfriends, one about to move; another, lovers; still a third, a group of nurses just off shift and giddy with the possibility of the evening. All is right in the world as the man paused in front of the cafe, letting his music linger in the voices and the laughter before continuing his saunter down the street.
Or maybe something else happened.
It rained hard this morning. I had to carry an umbrella through the cemetery, and even that didn’t prevent me from getting soaked, slipping in the mud because I wore impractical shoes. The seats at the cafe were still puddled and reflected the sky that mushroomed with thunderheads. Still the air felt clean, light. None of the oppressive humidity nor social exertion that plagued me throughout the week. I felt light as I sipped my sparkling rose wine and thumbed through a book I considered using as a text in one of my courses this fall. The distinct wail of a saxophone sounded down the street. Must be from that hotel place that does live music and happy hour, I thought, content that I had chosen to stop at this cafe instead.
Still the sound grew closer. It was fitting for the fading day, airy as the clouds that billowed overhead yet weighty as the night that was coming. The musician eventually appeared: an older gentleman, gaunt in the way that signals intense hunger for something, teeth missing, eyes yellowed with age. He stopped by the tables nearest to the sidewalk. Hear me, he played. But the guests continued their conversations, letting their laughter drown out the notes.
I wanted to look him in the eye, not sit here ostensibly buried in a book. But I didn’t want him to single me out. He so fiercely called for attention. One person to acknowledge his presence there on that peaceful evening. And I was afraid he’d come over to me and never stop playing until I gave him something I didn’t want to give. He didn’t ask for anything; rather, my own miserliness was exposed as I projected what I thought this transaction should look like. Instead of taking the music as a gift that he so freely seemed to offer to the evening, I assumed that he would transform into a negotiate the moment I lifted my eyes to see him beyond that of my romantic musings.
Ignored, he continued down the street, playing to trees that dripped with beads and to the streetcar that hustled beside him.
Neither of these stories is true and both are. There are bits and pieces that make up what really happened. And Janusian, I must hold both conflicting stories in my heart as I consider what this evening revealed about me.