Portraits of America #2 – The Steam Punk of New Orleans

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I met V at a Steam Punk party at the House of Blues.

From what I could understand, Steam Punk is a mix of punk, Renaissance, Goth and vampire. The underground scene of New Orleans fell apart after Katrina, because the city lost more than a third of its population. People moved away after the hurricane and never came back. Six years after the disaster, the steam punk is on its way to be reborn from its ashes.

V is from New York City. Over the course of three years, between the age of 24 and 27, his father and his best friend died and his sister was murdered.

Simultaneously, the mother of his daughter was giving him a hard time to let him see the child.

He fell in love with a girl called Ellen Nicole Nigma, whom everyone was calling ‘Enigma’. Enigma had been to New Orleans before and really loved it, so she moved there first and V followed her for love and because his NYC life had grown to really suck bad.

The relationship with Enigma didn’t last but V fell in love with New Orleans where he’s been living for 20 years now.

Before settling there for good, he went road tripping around the country, joined some hippy Rainbow Gatherings in the woods, crashed the Goth scene in Colorado Springs. He landed back in New Orleans where he belongs and has been working in a cajun restaurant for fourteen years.

I suppose he found a way to overcome challenges and build a great relationship with his daughter, because she was at the party with him, dressed all fancy punk.

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Episode #2 – Love Letter To New Orleans

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I am already sinking in the tropical & jazzy mood of New Orleans. I am writing this in a café called ‘Fleur de Lis’ (pronounce ‘fleu de lee’) in the French quarter. New Orleans (aka NoLa) is ‘fleu de lee’ all the way. Much more than in Québec which also has it as a symbol. But the New Orleanians are so proud of it that they tend to overuse it. The huge blonde black lady working at the supermarket had it tattooed on her hand, close to her 2-inch fake glitter nails. I saw a gangsta rap style guy wearing a chain of golden fleu de lee. Awesome. It is also on all the trash cans of the city. I was explaining to my host that the fleu de lee is the symbol of the Kings of France, and that back in Europe we put it on castles, old weapons, heraldic signs and generally royal stuff. That is what America is about. Putting the European royal symbols on trash cans. I really hope that some day England has the faces of the royal family on the public bins.

New Orleans is a trade port nesting in a curve of the Mississippi river, so it has a confusing vibe for so many influences have been meeting for two and a half centuries. A lot of the names are French, especially in the historical French quarter, but they butcher the pronounciation in such way that it is incomprehensible to a native French speaker. “Chartres” street is pronounced “Chatter”, “Faubourg” Wine bar I haven’t managed to reproduce the sound of the American version just yet. It is becoming a running gag when I say the names the original way. I like their way much better.

The French and Spanish successively ruled the city in the 18th century so there is a strong catholic twist to it, mixed with the voodoo of the first African slaves. I love the concept of Catholic voodoo. When walking the streets, I get hit by images and memories of a lot of contradictory places: latin America for the Spanish architecture, San Francisco for the colourful wooden houses and bougainvillea, the midwest for its sticky humid aspect and funny electric wires network. And sometimes, very furtively, France. Bottom line is: it is a quite unique spot of earth.

New Orleans is contradiction. New Orleans is oxymoron. Is that why I love it so much?

It is also damn queer. And there is a strong burlesque tradition, “chic brothel” type. The guys told me of an erotic Beat Generation poetry reading that recently took place. They have the most unusual arty events, mixing together stuff that I would never think of. Just like the food menu in the restaurants. You have “Tomato Mozzarella” right above “Fried Alligator”. Oh My God. I never expected to fit in like that.

The city is built on sand under the level of the river – that’s why they regularly get in trouble with the elements. Because of the nature of its soil, the roots of the trees spread horizontally rather than vertically and it has as an effect to fuck up all the sidewalks. They are uneven and broken into pieces, creating an arty, but nevertheless trippy effect. It definitely adds to the uniqueness of the streets.

Last night I was walking in the neighborhood with the guys and I saw a sign on one of the doors. It was a big cross with 4 different numbers (see picture). κ² explained me that this is a remnant of Katrina. The rescue squads entered all the houses after the hurricane and marked each house with a cross stating: the day they got in (top number), the squad number (left), the number of dead bodies found (bottom) and the numbers of dead animals found (right). This is the only tangible sign of Katrina I’ve seen so far.

The Mississippi River is three blocks down where I am sitting now and it makes me lazy, sticky and dreamy. The theme of the Tom Sawyer cartoon is stuck in my head. I used to watch it as a kid. “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique, Pour tous ceux qui aiment la liberté, Il est né sur les bords du fleuve Mississippi…” Has it influenced my imagination as I grew up and started craving for freedom?

I sat near the Saint Louis Cathedral to listen to some big jazz band. Jazz music everywhere is not a legend. I don’t know if the locals find it overrated? There’s music in every corner, and sometimes your ears are competing to catch all the different sources of music in one spot.

I walked along the Mississippi river earlier, as the sun was going down. There was a huge steam boat covered in colourful flags and playing some vintagy classic songs with its siren. α called me from New York on my American number, just because she can call me just like whilst I am in the country.

“I am walking home along the Mississippi river!!!” I told her when I picked up. What a fabulous thing to say.

New Orleans is fabulousness all the way.