When I made the right on the turnpike onto Interstate 59 I knew there was no turning back from this leg of my trip. Coming out of Mississippi around the coastline I saw a lot of things I thought I would have been more prepared to see. I guess what I'm saying is I didn't figure it would be as bad as it really was. Buildings got torn down, homes got blown away, there are lakes where I didn't remember there being lakes. This place just isn't the same since last August.
Across the border in Louisiana it's hard to tell anything has changed at first. Coming in on 59 took me right across Lake Pontchartrain and it's exactly how I remembered it, gorgeous and awe inspiring in every way.
My favorite part of being on the road has always been the bridges. I grew up wanting to be an architect, an engineer; so sure I would end up building those bridges. So it is just in me to take my time on bridges, to pay attention to both the road and what is under it. To wonder at the marvel of its construction, from simple girder bridges to gigantic suspension bridges. To listen to the whistle, that's my favorite part. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway gets all of these parts right -- the road is long and narrow and for twenty four miles are there are only three sounds: the engine, the whistle, and the water.
I was lucky enough to cross it at sunset, just when the sun's reflection is dead on with the water to make beautiful orange rays radiate across the entire horizon. It was stoic and silencing and the type of sunset that makes your heart beat a little bit faster knowing that you're lucky enough to see it. Now that's the type of sunset a man can get used to out here on the road.
The air in the west was humming soft pinks and purples as I hit the New Orleans city limits and found the cheap hotel I had reservations with. In any other city I would probably hole myself up for the night, forget about seeing anything, and just take the night to sleep off my weariness from the road. But this is the voodoo city and there's always something to keep you awake here.
I can't help but be honest in saying that part of what brought me out on the town was morbid curiosity. After seeing the Mississippi coast and knowing what I was supposed to find here, it's hard to resist trying to find out for myself.
I debated hailing a taxi or walking, and my feet won out, giving me a chance to walk through these historic streets.
A few months ago these roads were still closed. Some of them still are. But most are open and by all means look normal, except for a few forgotten buildings here and there; those still left watermarked and rotting.
Buildings that birthed a culture sit in disrepair. It's not possible to give you words of just how moving it is; you wouldn't understand unless you saw it too. I spent the same amount of nights you did watching it all unfold on the news. The news reports didn't even do the city justice in the damage that the hurricane caused.
The last time I was in the city I could walk down any street and hear a trumpet, a beautiful melody with just the right tinge of jazz. This time around I was lucky to hear a boom box with horrible remixed beats and dubs. That's the real damage.
I found a good bar on the north side of town with a fellow on resonator guitar crooning on a tiny stage in the back. I remember being that man ten years ago, lips nervously pursed too close to the mic, fingers slick with sweat sliding down guitar frets, trying to make eye contact with the audience without having to look a single one of them in the face.
I had a few beers, and when the band took a break between sets, one of the regulars picked me out at the bar and asked me to sing a song or two. I laughed awkwardly and chided, normally I get paid for this, but just this once. And I tuned down that crooner's guitar, wishing it was a steel string, and got the lights turned way down low.
When the crowd quieted down I started picking a blues scale, soft and slow. When I strummed out that first E and then that F sharp chord out and one of the old guys in the back who didn't leave during the hurricane and has no intention of leaving this city anyway but in a box sat up and said, Well that boy knows a Leadbelly song.
I played it out just the way it should be played, raspy on the vocals and heavy on the bass, and then sank back to my chair when it was over. The old man bought me a bourbon and traded a story or two with me.
I took a taxi home that night and found myself staring at the same buildings wondering who it is that's going to get all the mud out of these places, who it is that's going to repaint them all, who it is that's going fill them all; bring trumpets back and who will sing the next real life blues about it all.