New Orleans Episode #3 – A Tropical Eros & Thanatos Story

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# New Orleans is Contradiction

New Orleans is slow, humid, warm and sticky like sex. When you are about to let go and indulge, losing yourself into it, someone or something brings your awareness back because it can be a matter of life or death. I have never been anywhere where the Eros & Thanatos friction (pulsion of life vs pulsion of death) is perceptible in such extent.

# New Orleans is Glamour

Who would have believed that I would have fully embraced my frustrated glamorous side in New Orleans? Certainly not me. Glamour is appearing to me just like that.

On Tuesday, I crashed the movie set where κ² is currently working. New Orleans has a lot of cinema and TV show shooting going on, as it is cheaper than LA. The set I crashed is a big production with Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton. I told the massive security dude that I knew someone in the crew and he didn’t ask me anything. He just held the door for me. I was surprised at how easy it is to get on movie sets, but apparently it is not supposed to be the case. I was just lucky. The same day, I saw Katy Perry on Frenchmen street. She was performing at the Smoothie King Center. She had no security around her, just a bunch of weird friends. She was on everyone’s lips the day after. “Katy Perry was in town!” Yeah, I know.

And same day finally, the drag queen living upstairs knocked the door late at night. I opened to him and we decided to meet up for brunch. Those who know me know my obsession for drag queens. They are my absolute favourite creatures of all. So I was excited like a teenager on a first date. He told me his story. We exchanged a bunch of artistic inspirations and he took me shopping. “Would you like to come with me to my favourite wig shop?” What a question. I had to control myself not to scream and kiss his size 14 feet. On the way, he told me that he would like a wig like my hair. He actually gave me hope, because in New Orleans, there are girls who do drag. It is called “Faux Queen”. (Love the irony of how a girl incarnating a girl is called “faux”). I’m on the way to embrace this. New Orleans has been almost the only time of my life that I want to be in my skin and not in someone else’s. Probably because my glamorous daily needs are finally met? I went to see my drag friend on stage on Friday. His outfits were the fanciest of all. He danced on “Dancing Queen” with a whole bunch of fake flowers pinned on his head.

# New Orleans is Morbid

The city has a weird relationship to death. By order of importance, the top symbols of New Orleans are: the Fleur-de-lis, skulls, catholic imagery and voodoo stuff. They all mix up. There are more skulls than one can see, and it is not only due to Halloween coming up – which is huge down here, of course. (But Mardi Gras still is the main celebration.) Witchcraft and tarot readers are omnipresent. My drag friend explained me that New Orleans funerals are very eccentric. They sing and dance endlessly and take pictures of the dead surrounded by his/her favourite objects. I really want to crash a funeral while I’m here. My dark side is magnetised by this place.

# New Orleans is Burlesque

And Queer. The burlesque scene is vibrant, and they create new concepts for it, like “Erotic poetry reading” nights the first Wednesday of the month. There is a tradition from burlesque inherited from the chic brothels. You see more drag and burlesque than regular strippers. On Frenchmen street, I interacted with an “Erotica smut writer”. She writes you an erotic poem while you wait. She also had a one woman show called “Slut (r)evolution”. There’s a lot of fancy dress, costume, cross dressing all over the city. It is the kingdom of Creatures. You can’t really get self conscious for wearing whatever you feel like wearing. On my first day at Floras, the cafe where I write, a lovely bearded woman from California made my coffee. Nothing could be more normal here.

# New Orleans is Violence

You only become a true New Orleanian once you’ve been mugged. I don’t get used to it. People talk about violence and crime all the time. It is a huge part of their mind set, but as a European, it is not a part of mine. I always walked home late at night or early in the morning in all the cities where I’ve been (including New York which is a European city at that extent). It frustrates me to stop myself from embracing the night. I asked the guys if I could walk around with no money and no purse so I have nothing to steal. They told me that I could still be raped. (True. This one I can’t leave at home.) Mind set.

You don’t want to know how many guns are in the city. A taxi driver I was talking to asked me the usual question: “Is it safe back there?” (Europe). And then he told me that he had a gun under the seat because 6 taxi drivers were shot last year. I was tempted to ask him to show it to me but I’d rather keep away from these as long as possible.

I was at a bar with the guys of the arty house the other night – and by the way, you can still smoke in public places – and they simultaneously showed me their respective weapons under the table cause they are illegal. β4 had brass knuckles and μ3 had a knife shaped as a pen. She also got a taser for Christmas. I was seating between them and realised that I was surrounded with armed people.

The weirdest is that violence is explicitly or implicitly codified. Guns are legal, but brass knuckles and a bunch of “minor” weapons are not. You can get mugged/raped/murdered on the street but you can leave belongings under your porch a few steps up from the street, and no one would touch them.

Fascinating place.

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Portraits of America #3 – The Lady Who Loved Cremation

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I went to Saint Louis Cemetery yesterday. It is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, inaugurated in 1789. Some of it looks brand new and a lot of it is crumbling down.

Most of the epitaphs were written in French so I came across a few good stories when the engraving was still visible. For some reason, a lot of the French immigrants buried there were originally from Bordeaux.

Saint Louis Cemetery is famous for housing the grave of Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen. She was a brilliant woman, black/white mixed, worked as a hairdresser for rich white people, picked up all the gossip and then launched a psychic and Catholic Voodoo business using the stories she had heard for her divinations.

Her grave doesn’t have her name on it but it is easily recognisable as it is covered with XXX and with shitty gifts left by random disciples: lip balm, Chanel concealer, Starbucks coffee sachet, even a tampon just in case.

I spotted a jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise filled with a funny powder. I asked α6 who was there with me if he thought it was ashes.

A lady in her 50s intervened from the other side of the grave: “Let me have a look. I work in a funeral home.”

She took the mayonnaise jar from my hands with authority and shook the powder. She observed it with an expert eye. Her diagnosis was that it wasn’t human ashes, because certain bones are too big to consume completely when being cremated. The thigh bone for instance is so thick that some little bone shards would remain in the ashes.

She was so intense about it that I got intrigued and started asking her questions.

Her name was λ and she was doing admin in a funeral home in Nebraska. She didn’t do cremations herself but she was often attending them because she felt “passionate about sciences.” It was clearly her hobby, which was odd cause she looked like an average Midwest grandmother.

She said how much she loved her job, also for the emotional support that she provides to the families.

Her dream was to be a funeral house director, but she didn’t like the free lance aspect of it. She didn’t want to be on call because there is too much competition in the death industry.

I felt a little creeped out when she hugged me good bye.

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.

Portraits of America #1 – The Drag Queen of New Orleans

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βμ goes by the name of Eureeka Starfish* as a drag queen in the local clubs of New Orleans. His main job is at the Lucky Pierre on Bourbon Street.

He moved to New Orleans two months ago from his native South Carolina where he used to occasionally perform in small clubs. But that wasn’t taking him where he wanted and his ambitions were frustrated.

A few months ago, his dad manifested from Louisiana where he had moved. βμ hadn’t spoken with him for ten years because he disapproved of his homosexuality and queerness. βμ took it as a sign of destiny and made the move to New Orleans to live with his father on the other side of the river.

He’s quickly built a professional circle here and now spends most of his time in drag, working in average 6 nights a week. His skin can barely breathe, and as he “loves his porcelain skin”, he walks around the hot streets of New Orleans with a vintage sun umbrella.

About a month ago, his dad came to see him on stage. He finally understood. (There is hope for everyone!) Not only is he now supportive of his son’s life style and identity, he’s also super proud to have given birth to a diva with that many eccentric yet classy outfits.

βμ now lives with his boyfriend on the second floor of a gunshot house near the French Quarter, where most of his gigs are happening.

On his days off, βμ goes drag shopping in the vintagy extravaganza shops of the city: Fifi Mahony’s, Trashy Diva… he knows his wig and lingerie stuff.

He’s mixing all kind of influences in his numbers and outfits: Japanese pop culture, Pop Art Warholy icons, house wife from the 50s, vintage, mainstream. He also writes his own electro music and would like to bring more arty numbers to his drag club such as covers of the electro French singer Emilie Simon and other French divas who are unknow here. (I HAD to tell him about Mylène Farmer and he obviously instantly fell in love with her. If some Mylène Farmer covers are ever being performed in NoLA drag clubs, I might be the one responsible for it.) He’s finding his balance between paying mainstream gigs and his real artistic, more alternative vein.

One of his favorite part about drag is contributing to the cultural shift in mentalities, especially when working in more commercial venues. He’s very often confronted to audiences who have never seen drag before. They can even be afraid of queer and gay, because it is unknown to them. He takes time to make them feel comfortable about it, to talk to them with goodwill. In most cases, after the show, uptightness and fear have turned into enthusiasm and admiration. These are his routinely little victories.

βμ is changing the world on his own way.

*His facebook account as Eureeka Starfish was recently suspended by Facebook which censored many drag queen artists and arbitrarily closed their accounts under the pretext that they were using their stage name and not their legal name. Facebook has since then presented an apology to the Drag queens in question.

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New Orleans, Episode #1 – Sleeping in some Strangers’ Kitchen

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I can barely recall how events have chained up in the last 24 hours up to that point. There is a surreal dimension to it.

I got off the Amtrak in the City of Jazz yesterday at 5.30pm after 21 hours on the train. How glamorous I was feeling!

In the first seconds, New Orleans (aka NoLA) hit me like a sauna. I walked out of the station and saw the first palm trees. No one bothered to warn me that Louisiana was THAT tropical and I was feeling kinda stupid with my rainbow fur coat. I will have to use something else to make connections with strangers while I’m down here. I’m totally unequipped for that climate.

On the train, I had exchanged a bunch of text messages with 3 different people I didn’t know (friends of friends of friends) and I started losing track and mixing them up. The only tangible element I had was an address where a party was apparently happening later on, so I asked if I could just come over with my huge bag of irrelevant clothes. Someone texted ‘yes’ so I followed that track and got on a cab. I had a starting point at least.

I was excited to chat the taxi driver up, but he politely asked me to shut it cause his wife was on the phone. Welcome to town.

Then, magic kicked in. I got dropped off on Burgundy Street in front of this little Gone with the wind looking house plus palm trees. NoLa is movies. A tall and pretty ginger girl who looked like Madison Young (queer sex positive porn actress) came out of the house and asked me if I was me. I said yes. When I got inside the Gone with the wind looking house and found myself face to face with a giant papier mâché rib cage, I knew that I had been set up with the right people.

Pretty ginger porn star doppelgänger is μ3, her boyfriend working on the gigantic papier mâché skeleton is β4, and there was also their housemate α6, who is a mix of Salvador Dali and Alice in Wonderland crazy hatter. The three of them got on a car four months ago and moved to New Orleans from their native Ohio to make puppets, papier-mâché skulls, films and arty stuff. They all rock the world and welcomed me like a member of their family.

Their house is to die for, there are crazy details to watch in every corner. The house is “gunshot” shaped, which means that it is like a long corridor of rooms (back at the time with no air conditioning it was apparently the best way to get a draft). The legend says that it is called ‘gunshot’ because from the entrance door you can shoot your wife cheating on you in the last bedroom at the end of the corridor. Here, the first room is the crafty workshop.

We talked for a very long time drinking French wine and they gave me security tips cause the city is dangerous. α6 got mugged with a gun last week cause he walked home alone at 2am. So I will have to compromise on my night hawk and loner tendencies and rethink my travel habits. They all seem a bit concerned for my safety and made a map of areas not to go to. I’ve never really dealt with crime risks in all my US trips so it’s new to me.

Shortly after, κ² arrived at the house. He is the one responsible for all this. He worked with my super good friend H on a horror movie few years ago. His job title on movie sets is “grip” — which from what I understood means that he pushes the trolley with cameras when filming traveling shots. My description of it is probably heretic but it’s just to give a rough picture.

We all went around the corner to eat tapas. I’m French so I know my stuff regarding food, and these really were in the Top 2 best tapas I’ve ever had. NoLA is food! On top of it, I quenched my thirst with a house cocktail called “Hawaiian Erection”. I couldn’t have invented this.

The guys are going to set me up with a bunch of interesting people that I want to portrait for my blog. Their above neighbour is a drag queen and μ3‘s boss used to be a millionaire sent to jail for buying gifts to judges. Good encounters ahead.

More people came in later at arty house and I had great conversations about guns and death penalty with them. μ3 says she doesn’t like guns but prefers that citizens carry guns rather than having only representatives of the government carrying guns. Basically, she said that many Americans own guns to defend themselves against police and justice because they are not trustworthy. I had never thought of that under that light and that’s when soaking with locals is priceless. It is so easy to caricature Americans all the time with our European standards, just claiming they are violent for the sake of it and own guns to play it like western movies. Fuck clichés.

I was meant to sleep over at 겑s but arty house guys blew me a mattress and I slept in their kitchen. Of course.

I’m now writing this from a café in the French quarter. κ² is working on a movie set around the corner. I’m going to try to catch up with him in his lunch break. Maybe I’ll get a better understanding of what his job is actually about.

I can’t believe I didn’t know these guys 24 hours ago. Magic.