New Orleans in the time of floods

My Dad and I recently set out for New Orleans like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in our own contrived version of On the Road. I’m sure it was just a regular road trip but my mind likes to kick things up a notch. It’s been 20 years since I read On the Road but the vision is still there. 2 guys in an old car watching the American dream unfold as they drive down the map’s grey and red roads, avoiding the Interstate and the fat families that have become the realization of that old American dream.  On the Road was based on real events and Kerouac had Cassady, one of the biggest characters in American history. I had them beat as there is no bigger character than my dad. In fact, I think everyone should have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes with my dad and get his take on life. The signals in my dad’s brain flash erratically and whatever the flashes tell him is what he does, rational or not. He calls these flashes “the little chicken” and the chicken is always pecking around up there. Whenever my dad starts a conversation out with “hey Chris, the little chicken has been pecking…” I know it’s going to be a good one. He called me out of the blue in March and told me that the little chicken had spoken and that we needed to take a road trip to New Orleans and see the Brad Pitt houses. Not being quite sure what that meant I asked for a little clarification. My parents retired a couple of years ago and soon after took a couple drives down to see me in Miami. The first time they drove here from Kansas and stayed a week. Wanting to take “the scenic route” back, they drove up the Eastern seaboard into Quebec and then back down to Kansas. Go big or go home…I wonder where I get that from. The second time they drove back through New Orleans and spent a couple days there rooting around the Big Easy and taking the tours they advertise next to the free coffee in the rest areas. While there, they went on a tour of the lower ninth ward that was especially hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt started a foundation called Make It Right that helped build some new, environmentally friendly houses there and the whole thing left an impression on my dad and he wanted me to see and photograph them as well as the rest of the city. I was already planning to take the train to my parents house so we would drive from Kansas City to New Orleans. He would drive back to KC and I would take a plane back to Miami. hanging beads in French Quarter. New Orleans, LA

I had not been on a road trip with my dad in many years and who knows how many more we’ll be able to go on so I was very much looking forward to it all.  Totally random but I was all for it.  We would set out on the back roads with sandwiches and trail mix down through Missouri into Arkansas, stopping in Memphis for the night, then waking up early to get a jump on New Orleans and arrive there around 2pm.  The Beale Street Music festival for Memphis in May was going on and so was Jazzfest in New Orleans so I wanted to hit both of them and take pics of the street scenes outside of the festivals. A veteran of many music festivals throughout my life, I’ve long since stopped paying to get inside to hear what I can hear just fine out side. It’s not that I wouldn’t pay, it’s just that I’m not working right now (at a J-O-B, anyway) and besides, all the action is outside the gates. The anticipation in all the faces to get in and then the intoxication in all the faces coming out is more worth seeing than the acts and that is the slice of life that I want to capture in my camera. I had never been to Bourbon Street or the French Quarter sober (or not hungover) and wanted to photograph the lanterns, doors and whatever else I could find. I would also be able to get into the cemeteries and we would take a swamp tour. The complete freakin New Orleans experience on a dime. Jazzfest street scene. New Orleans, LA oak. New Orleans, LA

cemetery. New Orleans, LA We used to take road trips when I was a teenager and I raced BMX. We traveled all over the country to the national races that we could afford or to the small tracks that would hold regional events. Usually we only had enough money to stay in flea bag motels.  Sometimes we didn’t even get a hotel and slept in the car, like the time we went to Gilley’s in Houston for the Lone Star Nationals. One time, on the way to Mississippi, we slept on picnic tables in a park out side of Memphis.  I would be in charge of reading the map to find out what exits to take or to locate the rest areas, back before the internet, cell phones and GPS. If I couldn’t find it on the map, we didn’t get there. Or maybe we did, but the map guy was a very important position on our road trips. I never did spectacular in those bike races, but I was there. My dad was the one that got me there. On many levels it was more about the trip anyway and that’s what I remember most. I owe my life to those road trips and this road trip was going to be epic.  The “little chicken” flashes usually tell my dad to eat so it was going to be interesting to see how many times we would stop and pick up 2 day old fried chicken or catfish and wash it down with those Dolly Madison fried cherry pies and a coke. Maybe we would even find a Whataburger along the way.

Steamboat Willie. New Orleans, LA

We passed through Missouri and Arkansas never touching an interstate and listening to Carl Hiaasen’s “Star Island” on CD along the way. Some of the roads we traversed were so small as to be swallowed by the water spilling out of the rivers that flow into the Mississippi. Twice we had to turn around to find a new route. By the time we got to Memphis we saw the flooding that all the news outlets had been reporting. I had never seen a river as big as that, a hungry river that was getting ready to eat a large city. There were concerns as to whether they would be able to have the music festival and within the week the river would reach almost record heights.

 

 

 

 

We made it to New Orleans around 2 pm on Saturday as expected and checked in to the Days Inn in Meterie, the one that connects to the IHOP. We ate as good a meal as one can expect from an IHOP and set off into the city. After driving around the city a bit my dad dropped me off at the gates of Jazz fest, told me to have a nice time, and went back to the motel. The plan was to take a cab back since my dad has no cell phone and it would be almost impossible for him to find me if I asked him to pick me up. I found many wonderful things outside the festival and ended up walking all the way to the quarter, snapping pictures and talking to others along the way. I did find that cab back to the motel and of all the cabs I could have gotten into, I got into Pal’s cab. Pal was at least 75, a native of New Orleans that had seen the world and had settled to “retire” but started driving and can’t give it up. Pal was a real character as you might expect and we had great conversation during the 20 minute ride. His stories were magnificent and he told me of a big breasted nun he befriended that had left mango lady. New Orleans, LA the church for the pleasures of this world. I’m sure he had the story timed to end exactly when he pulled up to the hotel, for in true storyteller fashion he put the car in park, turned around to tell me it was a pleasure and get the fare, and asked if he could leave me with some advice the nun gave him. How could I pass that up? He then tells me that the nun had one simple motto: “drink a lot and screw more than that.” And with a wink he was off. Good advice I suppose, from a man born in a city that has taken booze and sex to a whole new level, turning saints into sinners for the past 300 years.

My dad has spent many years coasting on what seems to be autopilot and I won’t say that he’s stopped thinking or stopped trying but many of our conversations leave me wondering and he never ceases to fascinate me. There’s nothing wrong with living on impulse. Sometimes the impulses turn out to be good ideas or if nothing else they are usually fun.  My dad’s impulses have largely centered around me and he has always been a father that is there for his children first. My dad’s mantra has always been that he doesn’t want to die with a large bank account and he uses that rationalization every time he wants to help me or my sister. He always finds a reason to give me a little money for something…usually it’s to help fund a crazy impulse that I have or he’ll give me $20 towards an undertaking that I am convinced will enrich my life in some magical way.

The fruit, in this case, does not fall far from the tree and I have spent my lifetime to this point studying my father for the simple fact that I begrudgingly realized when I was about 18 that I was a lot like him and would continue to become more so as the years went by. Those that have known me for a large part of my life have also recognized this fact and the last words of that conversation are always the same….”but your dad is one hell of a guy so it’s cool.” Then the conversation will always go into remembering something funny that he said, not meaning to be funny. I suppose that every boy spends a lifetime studying their father and looking to him for answers. Boys turn into men, whether they act like men or not and the men that are their fathers….well, they become older and at some point the boy realizes that his father has become an old man. If my dad is old then it means that I must be getting old too. When I got home I looked at this photo and it drew me in. A man  peering out into the world from within his head, truly content with his place in it and liking nothing more than to watch it all go by and it was at that moment that I realized that my dad is now an old man, pushing 70, and these are his twilight years. It had never been so real for me and I have never imagined my life without my dad in it but that time is getting closer, even if it may still be many years away.

That night, after staring at that picture for what seemed like an eternity, I woke up in the middle of the night and for some strange reason there was this Pearl Jam song in my head that I had seen 8 months before on Austin City Limits. I have not been “into” Pearl Jam for quite some time and I only watched about 15 minutes of the show but there was this acoustic song that I hadn’t thought of since. I didn’t even know the name or the words but I remembered how haunting it was. I got up to look for the song online and found it. The song is “Just breathe” and I listened to it probably 10 times, hitting replay after replay. What got to me were many of the lyrics and to me they were about a lifetime and wondering if you’ve said enough to those that you’re lucky enough to love or lucky enough to have love you. I suppose I wasn’t thinking solely of my dad but of everyone that may not know how much I need them and how fortunate I am to be able to count on both hands the ones I love. My dad is healthy at this point but I know many people who have lost their fathers way too early. I know I’m lucky so I hope I’ve said enough to mine. It was a great trip and I’m blessed to have gone with just my dad.

Bourbon Street during Jazzfest 2011. New Orleans, LA

bucket drummer hustler. New Orleans, LA college fund band. New Orleans, LA

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *