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.

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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.

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.

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.