New Orleans, Louisiana, is the only place in the world where a semi-sentient being as lazy as myself could exist. Not only exist, but be nourished. Be fed the Good Stuff. Happiness po-boys are home-delivered here. You can walk to the corner cafe, step up to the bar, put your elbows on the cypress counter and be served joy at the source. You can pick up the phone, go through the ritual calling in of a request to a honey-voiced person who calls you “Baby” while taking your order, and then bicycle a few blocks to pick up a butcher-paper-wrapped, French-bread-encrusted dose of happiness at a take-away window.
But mostly, Good Stuff gets brought right to your doorstep.
Like music. There is music everywhere in these neighborhoods. Human beings walk about creating family-sized helpings of only-slightly-organized sounds, and sometimes dance down the street, seemingly not of their own volition. There is a soulful buffet of conjoined rhythm and melody, served and consumed on a daily basis. No waiting. No gratuity necessary.
Sounds a tad esoteric, all this blissful description, and more than a little like strained and steamed pseudo-poetry, especially coming out of an old fart like me, but I know it to be true. Because it is happening again. Right now.
Let me describe, in the present tense, because it was.
I am trimming banana plants. It is around noon, and I have been laboring for about two hours. I am consequently quite dirty, crusted in fact, and layered in soil that we locals call gumbo mud. Coal black and tenacious, and true to its name – like gumbo, it sticks to your ribs, among other body and clothing parts.
It is a huge surprise when the first blast hits my ears, causing me to look up from ground level at what I instantly surmise to be a wedding party. I mean, there is a band followed by a bride and groom in fairly traditional white dress and black tux. This is a significant clue, even to a ground-level laborer such as myself. The parade is lurching forward at a consciously undisciplined pace, zig-zagging down the center of Marigny street. Where I live. Nobody else around on sidewalks or front porches at noontime.
Only me, mired in the horrifically messy process of pulling up invasive tropical tree roots with a crowbar and sledge hammer in hand, with the further intent of hacking the six-foot leaves into manageable sections with a rusty and dull machete. Made in Columbia, my blade. Not particularly efficient or effective. Probably works better when chopping up errant drug mules, I have speculated repeatedly throughout the morning. A result of my seeing the name of one of the mindless hack-and-chop “Rambo” movies in the morning newspaper’s TV listings. Though the joke doesn’t carry the same light-hearted comic power after the sixth swat at a leaf that firmly resists the incurably dull edge of the long knife. No, it is not getting sharper with use, and neither obviously am I.
Disgruntled by the effects of manual labor, and now prompted by sound, I stand up. Ten feet to the north comes the full-bore, formally dressed brass band, maybe ten pieces. They pass me mid-segue between a decidedly New Orleans-tinged klezmer tune and a frenetically-paced cover of Dave Mathews’ “Crash Into Me”. The trombonist sings loudly:Hike up your skirt a little more
and show the world to me
Hike up your skirt a little more
and show your world to me
In a boys dream... In a boys dream...
Musicians are followed by the newlyweds and dozens of happy drunken people all dancing. The groom repeats the Mathews song’s refrain directly to his new spouse. “Crash... into me!” he yells.The now legally-sanctioned couple are actively engaged in exploring one another in quite physical fashion as they caper side by side.
There is no doubt where this individual party of two is headed.
An all-pervasive sensual atmosphere swirls in abbreviated dust devils, spiraling sex winds, in the street. You can almost see it, smell it, feel it on your skin. It is there. The sirocco of lust is blowing full upon everyone present. Including dusty old me.
A bridesmaid – I think that is what she is, considering the expensive fabric and deep décolletage of the dress – approaches my cast-iron front fence. Where I, the working man, currently stand mouth agape. She beckons me closer, closer, puts her arms around my sweaty neck and presses that mouth of mine with a quite deep kiss from her own. The scent she brings is lemon and vanilla, the taste red wine and oranges. I am caught mid-breath. Cannot exhale, and do not want to let either the breath or touch go.
She pulls back, pauses, with the smallest speck of my personal dirt on her lip. Her green eyes smile. And then... she goes dancing on her way and does not look back.
The soundtrack changes to the Soul Rebels cover of Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”. Resist this song, I dare you. (You might want to continue to play it while you read the rest of this story.)
And then it trails away in the distance...Who am I to disagree
I travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody's looking for something
... and I am left with a quieter street. Quiet. Silence. An empty street.
I discover that I am crazy caught up in desire, crazy tangled up in love. I am lost without following this experience, I must follow... the woman... the music... I must ...
And then, of course, being an adult, I let it go.
I am a reasonable fellow. Life continues. I turn back to the dirt and banana plants.
I touch my mouth.
And then I begin to think suddenly of the loss: this is my story. Has been my story, over and over. And over. Inescapable loops being the expected daily mode when you achieve my age. I have let an opportunity – for an irrational cartoon dream, I know – go. Yet again. It has been my way for some time now. After decades of making mistakes, I “grew up”, designated avoiding unlikely individual pursuits of happiness as the correct reaction. This was a major turning point for me, some forty years ago.
The rule remains true and enforced to this day. That does not, however, mean that I have not changed it or will change it. Or cannot change anything at all.
And now logic fades, and there is a resultant flash of some sort. The situation has ignited the fuel of memory. I think it was the perfume. Lemon and vanilla. Magnolia grandiflora. As trite as it sounds (“Lawzy an’ goodgawdamighty, mistah man!” is, I believe the correct Faulknerian narrative statement), I think, here stands yet another Southerner waxing on about the scent of magnolias. But, live in this same place and try to keep from inhaling the luxury. Another unavoidable cycle.
Over the course of my life, I have come to dote on the overwhelming summertime fragrance generated by the thousands of blooming trees in the city. Brought to the fore only hours after they start pushing out those huge waxy and ivoried petal shapes that sweat beauty each morning in the summer heat. Perfectly clear droplets of dewy moisture form at the flowers’ center every sunup, and I imagine it the concentrated and botanically pure essence of a bouquet that holds the City’s population in thrall: leave this? Never.
It is the all-pervasive temperature and cloying humidity of a New Orleans July that amplify the lemon-vanilla scent to the point where I reflexively find my head turning to the left and right, then around to the rear. Looking. Searching, in quick but discreet glances. Looking for the undoubtedly female creature whose seductive pheromones have just caused such a dramatic surge of electrical memory, a physical charge that runs through my body. Like that which has just occurred.
This is a tree that I have willingly brought into a discussion of sexual attraction. And attendant mistakes. There is a reason. And thus the digression.
Magnolia is a native of warm environs, originally flourishing in the Caribbean and Gulf, and now distributed in temperate zones worldwide. It has been around a long long time. In 1988 the botanist P.R. Crane cited evidence that “fossilized specimens of Magnolia acuminata have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago.”
In fact, the trees were already stabilized on this planet long before even honeybees showed up onscreen in Act Two of The Big Evolutionary Movie. But the ever-resourceful magnolia tree developed flowers to attract other, more primitive insects, like beetles, for pollination. Descendants of these beetles remain their principal fertilizers even today. But having such ravenous and sharp-beaked bugs crawl all over their limbs in search of flower nectar, the magnolia trees also found it necessary to develop blooms with petals tough enough to resist extreme damage.
Thus one of the more delicate natural scents on the planet is attached to one of its more calloused and indestructible bits of flora. A lesson I have seen affirmed too well in my own life.
Today my hands are clutching the iron arrow spikes atop the century-old front yard fence. I find myself losing focus in the distance. This was a quick loss, but it triggered something deep down. I have a history of losing such moments. Of not following through on such fleeting opportunities in life. Dwelling instead, in the bittersweet Proustian dolor of the past.
That hesitation, the dominance of logical decision-making over acting on impulse, is a cycle I would now like to break. In spite of this desire being of course completely out of touch with reality, I feel that thinking too much about life makes me older more quickly every single day, without the benefit of the added life experience.
So instead, I think about tough and delicate trees and their pollinators. And I think of Annie Lennox’s stern warning in the oft-repeated verse of “Sweet Dreams”:Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you
Some of them want to abuse you
Some of them want to be abused
But I think... Annie girl, use or abuse, I think I need to make more mistakes.