New Orleans, a unique American port city on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River. Well known for its rich Creole culture, famous carnivals and French and Spanish architecture. It’s suffered a turbulent history with the American civil war, and in recent years, hurricane Katrina. Although at times chaotic, this hasn’t swayed the attraction to this city in Louisiana also famous for its cuisine, music scene and southern hospitality…
Sounds like a lovely entry into a travel brochure if you’re thinking about your next holiday destination, doesn’t it?
This was also my impression of this city having never visited, and quite frankly, never fancied it. However, earlier this year a very good friend of mine from London went on an extended holiday to NOLA and invited me down to join her. So within 24 hours of having that conversation I was on a plane to holiday in America for the first time in well over a decade.
Liv’s friend from London, a Nola native herself, kindly let us stay in the guest house of their grand 300 year old plantation house in an affluent neighbourhood called the Garden District. The property is very well maintained to a high-end standard, we swam in the pool, heard stories of belles at fancy balls and caught beads thrown down to us from balconies on Bourbon Street. Our dinners were Michelin quality, we drank fine wines, visited the best cocktail bars and slept in luxurious sheets. All the makings of a 5 star holiday. But something about all this gloss seemed slightly artificial to me, almost as if there was a dark secret hiding. Our hosts ministered words of warning about the dangers of New Orleans when the sun goes down. And like every parable, there is an element of truth to it. There were undercurrents of racism and prejudice prevalent within some of the circles we encountered, although no one dare speak of these horrible words. Oftentimes they didn’t have to, and I saw a very clear and vast separation of the classes and the liberal-minded and conservatives. Many were oblivious of this dynamic, and one night a young man from Minnesota, on a lad’s holiday even proclaimed in conversation, “America is THE most open-minded and welcoming country in the world.” I decided it better to excuse myself from the conversation than to engage in a debate about race and prejudice that night.
This proclamation did bring up questions in my own mind about this dynamic, as its common knowledge that there is a lot of political and racial, unrest in America. I read what the media releases and I watch glossy Hollywood films, but thought there must be more to the crafted conventional arguments of liberal vs conservative, or good vs evil set forth in the media. In line with my knowledge-seeking psyche, whether unconsciously or consciously, I was on the hunt for a meal to feed my appetite for understanding humanity.
One night out on Frenchman Street (Bourbon Street’s quieter, but no less hedonistic younger brother) while nursing a beer and struggling to maintain a conversation with a recent college graduate from middle America somewhere. Liv and I met a pair of Train Punks, or Crust Punks. They are part of a subculture of transient young people who jump rides on America’s trains and choose to drift. They are generally anarchistic in theory and practice, and squatting, panhandling or selling drugs are ways they survive. Tony, the friendly one, sports a green Mohawk, check shirt and red kerchief around his neck. He’s an artist originally from New York and expressed his frustration with the current political climate and the large population of “sheep” inhabiting the country. He believed Crust’s, Hippies and other anarchistic groups would likely be the ones to survive an apocalypse should there ever be one. It’s not a bad theory, if I’m honest. These subcultures have learned the survival skills to exist in cities that the rest of us surrounded by our computer desk jobs and “Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Soy Milk, Vanilla Latte” drinking yuppies haven’t. Brandon, his wild-eyed companion, preferred to leave the cerebral chat to his mate and dazzle us with his stomach-wave “cool” party trick.
We formed an unlikely quartet and were out all night on the streets of Nola and I got to see first-hand what the words of warnings were all about. Two words: Holy Fuck! Away from the lights and music of the tourist strip is a real seedy side of New Orleans the glossy travel brochures don’t talk about. Like the rats that feed on the rubbish left on the banks of the Mississippi, under the cover of darkness when all the fanny pack wearing tourists are all safely tucked in bed. The weirdness that sleeps during the day come out from the holes they’ve been hiding in. The river walk next to the Mississippi was our first stop. There was a kaleidoscope of bizarre characteristics to the people there; face tattoos, missing teeth, dreadlocks, piercings, grungy clothes and fingernails. Facial disfigurement whether intentional for self-expression, or scars of a dreadful accident, these dirty faces looked quite young likely in their 20’s and below. However the wear of the streets were apparent on their haggard faces. Some people were clearly high, but many weren’t and there was a carefree vibe similar to what you would find at the park on a sunny summer afternoon. Except people were dressed in black Punk and Goth or bohemian outfits basking under the light of the street lamps.
Various people would join us to say hi and chat, but some were actually even too strange for our guardian punks, “you could smell the weird off that one” Tony would say. One guy whose name completely escapes me, looked like a Japanese Anime character. He wore an all-black outfit reminiscent of Edward Scissor Hands with the pale skin to match, purple coiffed hair, multiple piercings to his face and ears, and wore coloured contact lenses that made him look animalistic. He actually was quite beautiful in an ethereal way and had a pair of glow in the dark performance Poi (balls attached to the end of a rope). He swung them around creating circles of light as he demonstrated his nimble movements jumping off and on a train that was slowly making its way along the track lines that run next to the river walk. Seeing all these idiosyncratic faces, coupled with the cat-sized rats running around, the deep horn of the Mississippi tug boats and the clanging bells of the trains. It was all very intense, surreal and dream-like, as if you stepped into a Dali painting on acid.
The four of us jumped a stationary train to leave the river walk, taking heed the advice of our guardians to never cross under a train as they described some of the horrific accidents they’ve seen. We headed back into the French Quarter to a 24 hour bar where the bizarre vibe continued, inside we were greeted by a buxom bearded lady bartender wearing a fedora. Here the “friendlier” vibe of river walk transformed, and the only words I can use to describe it was that it felt fucked up. The streets around here seemed to be were the crackheads hung out, yelling out nonsense at anyone and everyone so we stuck close to the bar. More people came in and out to have a chat as Liv’s and I’s appearance definitely stuck out in this crowd. At one point I noticed almost everyone was carrying a knife, some even had guns, or both. Whooaa! Reality check! I am in America after all and was told it’s for safety. One Punk, looking dodgy as fuck, with missing front teeth, a stringy long Mohawk, pale skin and a massive scar on his right cheek was trying to impress me by showing his knife. He was very proud of the piece of weaponry and I tried to make small talk to conceal my uneasiness with the situation. Though, I’m unsure whether I was very convincing. If it wasn’t for our Punk guardians I don’t know that I’d feel relaxed, but my curiosity took precedence over my discomfort and I just went with the vibe.
We watched the sunrise sitting on a patch of grass from the banks of the Mississippi, as normal life was waking up to a beautiful Saturday morning. Gradually the knife wielding beasts from the night before retreated once more to their hideouts, and were replaced with the fanny pack wearing tourists and morning joggers emulating virtuous energy.
After experiencing Nola under the cover of darkness, walking through the crowds of tourists around Jackson Square and hearing upbeat jazz brass music in the morning sun felt almost like Disney Land. Make-believe was almost necessary to suppress the night-time version of the same streets. To be fair, I get it. Parts of it IS seedy, it IS uncomfortable, it IS weird and potentially dangerous although I never felt like my life was threatened. Tony made an interesting statement about New Orleans and said every once in a while he needs to leave as the vibe of the city gets too intense. It’s very easy to be allured to the dark side with drugs and generally “falling down the rabbit hole”. This disconnection from reality has had detrimental consequences and the proof is in the evident opioid epidemic in Louisiana which has gotten so bad that Naloxone, an antidote to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, are offered free of charge at pharmacies.
I asked Tony what he loved about this way of life, and he said part of it is the freedom. He can jump on a train and see parts of America that you would never be able to see from a car on the highway or from the air. However this transient life comes at a cost. Separation from your family is a common occurrence, through virtue of the lifestyle means you are ostracized from your loved ones who are more likely than not, part of conventional society. Oftentimes, separation from family drives the choice to leave as an unstable, abusive environment at home is worse. But at some point, re-connection is desired. Brandon spoke about his young daughter in California briefly, and how he is ready to lead a more stable life and get a job so he could be a better father and provider, thus reintegrating into society again. So it seems this life is temporary, which explains why it’s a subculture of young people.
I realised these Punks aren’t trying to fit into society, they are trying to separate themselves from it. That’s what anarchy in this context is all about, it’s a rejection to authority and law for whatever their reasons may be. When the sun came out, Tony looked just as uncomfortable being around the conventional world as the conventional world was uncomfortable with his presence. It’s interesting because the prejudices are not one-sided, in this case, it’s more of a very complicated two-way street. The Punks are condemned by the “sheep” for their choice to make a stand against the constructs of society. On the other hand, the Punks condemn the “sheep” for buying into the structure and for what they view is a false existence thought up and controlled by all that is evil in their world. I’m still not sure how and why drugs are such a strong theme amongst this group. I suppose one explanation could be that in the process of seeking freedom from convention, you are more likely to be open to other experiences whether for mind expanding or distraction. With no responsibilities to keep you in check, it is very easy to get wrapped up in it.
I think it’s human nature to romanticise events in the world in black and white terms or good vs evil because it’s the easy way. However, I’ve learned life has got a whole lot of fucking grey areas with a massive complicated mess of uncertainty and instability. We compartmentalise to make sense of our lives, and adopt predetermined beliefs that fit within our own value system, then choose a category or seek tribes that share similar beliefs in order to feel the sense of community we desire as social animals. Becoming a product of our environment just as much as a product of our own thoughts. Then an “us vs them” mentality is an inevitable occurence to justify our choices.
Contrast in the world exists only to make each ones existence relevant. In this case, the Punks wouldn’t have a culture of anarchy if there wasn’t a structure in place to fight against. Structure, laws and government wouldn’t be necessary if the world could run without falling into complete chaos without it. Either of these sides wouldn’t exist without the other, and form a strange co-dependent relationship.
That night in Nola proved to be a psychedelic kaleidoscope of bizarre events and has definitely expanded my understanding of humanity and the social structures that simultaneously exist. Sounds great, now I can go home and check this night off the bucket list and return to my cushy desk job, and tell my story to friends at the pub. But that’s not really how my time in New Orleans ends.
After dinner one night, Liv and I were sitting at the bar having some wine when we were approached by a pair of gay guys. After some conversation and a few drunk group photos, one of them asks, “Y’all girls wanna see some cock tonight?” (in that charming southern drawl) and we were invited to join them at a gay strip club in the French Quarter.
Watch out for my next post where I talk about what I learned from my time with strippers.
Much Love Peeps. To be continued…….