When I was on spring break in New Orleans, I walked down Bourbon Street in the daylight. In doorways and on corners, next to trash and puddles of soured liquids, I saw cardboard boxes and plastic bags–the beds of the homeless. They would be back at night after they’d stood in shadows all day, watching tourists pass by or sifting through the trash for a leftover hot dog. I saw one man pull out a half-finished beer and lift it to his lips like he was simply indulging in the mundane. I put a hand over my mouth and held back a gag.
Of course, some of the city’s poor people take a different approach toward street life. I saw some sitting in doorways with their dogs or guitars. Instead of sleeping on cardboard boxes, they held up signs. Need cash for weed, one said. Only means of income–anything helps, said another. These people embarrassed me in ways I cannot explain. I frowned and looked away. Why don’t they get up, I thought. Why don’t they blend in? These people weren’t like the man drinking someone else’s beer, or the man shouting to me outside St. Louis Cathedral: “Hey! Wanna go to Hawaii? I got the money, let’s go.” Far from blending into societal norms, at least those two resisted stagnancy. They seemed gross to me, scary, too. But they weren’t sitting down. Maybe they’d finally stood up, and their gestures were evidence of imperfect steps, ugly staggers toward the society that ignores them. Or maybe they’re about to disappear.
New Orleans, especially the French Quarters, is the perfect place to vanish, or at least to try. Inside our condo, I sat on the couch nodding my head in time with the thumping bass of a nearby hip hop club called The Beach. The music played all day and early into the next morning, and everyday there was a crowd. And that place was only one of many where people of all backgrounds shimmy and twerk, laughing and laughing as the waitress begs them, “Please, just one more drink!”
One night I stood in a jazz club watching a woman dance as her left breast worked its way out of her rainbow sequined dress. At first I shook my head, thinking Oh dear god, why? But then I laughed and wanted a drink and wanted to join her because she was moving. She was forgetting herself. Earlier that day I’d seen her pedaling a cart that said “JUDGE NOT THAT YOU B NOT JUDGED.” I laughed when I saw it. That night the cart was parked on the corner outside the club. As I was leaving, I read those words again and glanced inside at a few bags of clothes and a few other possessions, probably all that she owns. I bet she’s still dancing tonight. In some empty part of myself, I long to be a little more like her. She pretends she’s not invisible.
On our last day in New Orleans, I woke up early to go to morning Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. I walked there slowly by myself. I felt completely anonymous, like I was no different from the bars and the bums and the street signs. The universe is indifferent to me, I thought. I shoved my hands into my pockets and looked down at my tennis shoes. What am doing here? Where am I going? Those were silly questions. I tried to think about God and Mary and Lent.
But I got distracted. There was a painting in the window of an art studio on Bienville Street, just a few hundred feet from the entrance to our condo. I stood there, gazing into the burning blue of a wave, always moving, yet always frozen. Its trajectory and suspension haunted me, but I smiled. I wonder now: what sign would I hold up if I lived on the street?
I am the woman in the rainbow dress. I’m the man calling out to strangers by the church, and the one looking for a drink. I’m that bright blue wave still lurching toward, still holding back, from the sand on the beach. Here I am blending in, falling into place, anonymous, but denying it all. Ask me again and I’ll tell you I’m just walking to Mass.
There’s a city in myself and I’m just standing on the street.