Part 1: Night
I came into this trip somehow having convinced myself that because it was the summer and because I was in a fun city and because this class involved a lot of writing which is something I liked, that I could immediately hop out of the depressive cavern I had been in all year. Since August, I had regressed to a point of struggling to complete even the simplest of homework assignments, missing several days of class in a row, spending entire days in my room with the blinds closed, only leaving at night if at all. Two semesters prior, I had dropped a writing class the night before a paper was due, and last semester I had failed to start a ten-page report for one of my toughest engineering classes, sentencing myself to another “W” in my transcript and an extra semester of school. Needless to say, entering this Bookpacking class, I was not in the best shape to complete the multiple reading and writing assignments we were to be assigned. I had gotten so accustomed to and debilitated by the anxiety surrounding any given task that even sitting in front of an open laptop or notebook made my stomach churn and my fingers shake and my heart start to beat faster. Come this Bookpacking experience and I decide that somehow, I was going to put my anxiety on pause, to defer my personal madness—my depression, my academic paralysis, my perfectionism, my irrational fears, my black-and-white thinking—until after the trip. I sure fooled myself, alright. Even in the first week I felt it poking out of its cage, probing—I had already stayed up until 5AM to finish reading The Awakening and pulled a quasi-all-nighter a few days later to finish my first blog—but I still was managing enough to not trigger any alarms. I was having fun, loving my new friends, and breathing in the city. Then came the due date of the first essay—the first writing assignment I’d have to do after almost a year of barely completing an assignment; and I cared about it—a lot. I had mounted an overwhelming pressure on myself to prove, through these blogs and essays, that I was in fact capable, despite all the evidence I had gathered throughout the year saying otherwise. We had been reading Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and like its tormented protagonist, Buddy Bolden, I began “swimming towards the sounds of madness.” I was unraveling. Yes, still participating, maintaining my deceivingly sunny disposition, but unraveling, still, under the twisting iron balconies of the French Quarter.
Being back in the South, in a place that often reminded me of my youth in Florida, brought back beautiful memories of a childhood that I felt I had betrayed—what went wrong, I wondered. I suffered a painful nostalgia. I felt for Buddy, who before his disastrous fall from grace and sanity, too had shared happy memories with his family, inspired to play the cornet from watching the Second Line Parade with his father. Walking around New Orleans, grappling with these feelings, I noticed the city had a mysterious edge to it, something that fills you with both joy and a profound sadness—something that sways with your mood like the Spanish Moss that clings to the live oak. Amidst bright colors, romantic fairy lights, hanging plants, and vibrant shops of antiques and art and crystals, lingers a melancholy irony of an impoverished people surrounded by aloof tourists; the palimpsest of slavery, Jim Crowe, and Katrina; and the wandering eyes of zombified characters, spilling into the French Quarter from Canal Street like jetties into the ocean. Roaming those whimsical streets on my own, struggling dually with a difficult workload and self-judgment for not being able to handle said workload, I was tossed around by the schizophrenic current of a bipolar city. Reading about a brilliant man who redefined music as we know it and despite all this went mad—and was immortalized in said madness—made me nauseous and sad and scared. I thought myself a decent writer—good, even—but I hated myself and my mind—a labyrinth of sealed pipes, I thought—for holding back my talents, for restraining me from basic work, for enveloping me in dark thoughts. It was an anxiety with no cure, a depression with no relief, and an outward appearance so unassumingly cheery that no one would ever know. I kept trying to convince myself that this city was fine and happy and wonderful while trying to convince myself that I was fine and happy and wonderful, that I had somehow been able to snap out of my anxiety-induced-procrastination—a “procrastination” that had long ago mutated into a much more nefarious paralysis—and that everything was okay; that I could decide to write a blog or an essay or read a book and then sit down and do it. But I was wrong. As I walked down Rampart street, passing Storyville and Congo Square, where Bolden dragged his intoxicated legs long ago—cornet in tow—dripping in sweat from the smothering affection of the Louisiana heat and humidity, I wondered if I too was “tormented by order, what [is] outside it”, and if like Bolden I would one day also go irreversibly mad; and if that was worth the chance of creating beautiful art.
Part 2: Day
Luckily, my friends came to the rescue, providing constant support and encouragement. Some noticed my inability to work like my peers, and to others I made small confessions. I realized that I had to open up about my personal madness, not defer it; that I could pursue my art without descending into a helpless pit. It took a bit more courage to admit all this to myself, and even more to talk about it with our professor Andrew, but I’m glad I did. I was scared of letting people down, but I recognize now that it is far better to confront these issues upfront, rather than let them fester—something that Buddy Bolden did not have the opportunity to do, relying instead on alcohol and other vices. Amidst the turmoil and pain and melancholy floating about the streets of New Orleans, there also exists a pervasive musicality and humor—a joy that stretches beyond racial and socioeconomic bounds—that I had the privilege of experiencing; alleviating, somewhat, my inner turmoil.
Our time in New Orleans—about two and a half weeks—was one of music, dancing, and happy surprises. I got into an almost daily habit of walking down St. Charles street from the Lafayette Hotel until it became Royal Street, stopping to people watch or enjoy the performances of scrappy tap dancers who had cleverly fashioned themselves tap shoes out of old sneakers. My fellow bookpackers and I discovered before us a city of jazz, born from the brilliant and mad mind of Buddy Bolden, moving in a syncopated rhythm, vibrating with its trills and trip-oh-lets of happenstance and serendipity.
Despite the intoxicating madness of the Big Easy, there was still plenty of opportunity to relax over some beignets and a cup of coffee, and each of us eventually found our own little nooks for work and contemplation. Mine was Café Beignet, either inside where a guitarist with a straw hat played under the pixie-light-lined sign and palm leaf painted ceiling; or outside in the patio on a wobbly iron chair, petting the cat who shared my taste in quaint coffeehouses and breezy outdoor sitting areas. In the late afternoons, you could expect a street performer to perch himself against the fence, working in tandem with the constant buzz of the city to create an atmosphere that was somehow both vibrant and relaxing. I enjoyed doing my reading or writing there, but mostly would find myself sketching or coloring with my childish stack of colored markers, greeting fellow Bookpackers as they came in and out.
Improvisation, the invention that made Buddy Bolden the father of Jazz—a departure from the melody while maintaining the harmony—is the invisible force that governs New Orleans. Here, daily life is a cacophony of beautiful and bizarre occurrences, a seemingly formless melody. On one of my many afternoons sitting outside Café Beignet, I watched a rugged street performer with a handsome face, dented straw hat, and guitar with mitten charms dangling from its tuning pegs, sing songs in English and Spanish with a charming country twang. A man riding a red moped down Royal St. was momentarily stopped in front of the café by traffic—he had in his left hand, a large beer bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and in his mouth, less teeth than most. To my happy surprise, he joined the street performer in song, harmonizing loudly while improvising bluesy adlibs, their complementary voices resting in my ears with a satisfying buzz. This lasted for just a few moments, and then Moped Man drove off. Packing his guitar and lighting a cigarette, the beautiful singer set off in the sun to another spot, where passersby would be, hopefully, more generous. The café cat had come back after a rather traumatic encounter with a visiting dog and I watched him readjust himself in his usual hangout, snuggling between a brick enclosure and the fence, still a bit frazzled but recovering from the ordeal.
The most special treat of the trip so far was crowding into a tiny room with high ceilings and musty air, sitting uncomfortably on the padded floor while smiling tourists sat behind us on benches, to watch the 45-minute Preservation Hall jazz show. Shoulder to shoulder, in that little venue on St. Peter Street, we were swept up by what felt like 5 minutes of immersive joy. The trombonist with an infectious smile mouthed the words and swayed with the music, the trumpet player—a resounding leader—sang with an insecure stance but a confident voice, the piano player improvised brilliantly, the saxophonist made my friend Tara swoon (she named her blog post in honor of him), and the drummer played with such relaxed swagger that I felt cool just watching him perform. We left that experience flushed with delight, wishing it had lasted for a few more minutes, hours even.
I love this city and I love this trip. Though I am still recovering from a difficult year, I am happy to be doing that here. An exercise in empathy and immersion, Bookpacking through Louisiana has been a true privilege, and the opportunity I needed to learn more about myself and reconfigure my mindset. Now onto to Cajun Louisiana, where more adventure awaits!