If you didn’t grow up land-locked, I’m not sure if I have the words to describe what it was like to see a great big old river for the first time. Or the Gulf of Mexico. How different the air feels and smells around the water. Or the sound of water rolling onto a sandy beach.
I know I whined about the humidity last week, but when it’s not too hot or too cold, humidity can turn the air into silk flowing across your skin. And when combined with the rich, spicy gumbo that is New Orleans? It’s a different kind of feast.
It gets really humid here in Texas, but…it’s a different kind of humidity. I know that sounds crazy, but it is a different—bouquet of humidity. Of course it smells different, but it feels like it was more than that in my memory.
Houston is young and brash and busy.
New Orleans is old, a bit jaded, a lot wicked and charming. Like Blanche, she often “relies on the kindness of strangers.” She’s easy. She’s uneasy. She is.
I used to feel like all my senses come online when I’d leave the house. And I’ll admit, I’ve struggled to capture that sensation when trying to write about New Orleans. I’m an outsider, who lived inside her for eighteen years. There were things I learned, things I “got,” and things I’ll never “get” because I didn’t grow up there.
But the river—well, I think I “got” the river. It feels like I did. She flows through New Orleans, she’s part of the city, but also just passing through on her way to somewhere else. She doesn’t linger, though she does shape the city (helping create those crazy directions, for one thing).
One of our favorite things to do was take visiting friends and family to ride the ferry. You approach the ferry from below, because of the levee. You’ll have heard a lot about the levees during the Hurricane Katrina coverage. Yeah, they are walls built to protect the low-lying city, but they are also the city’s “up,” it’s altitude, so to speak. They gotta be high to keep the river back.
(In fact our son, when he was small enough to not know, but old enough to talk, caught sight of the mountains where the hubs and I were raised, looked at my dad, his eyes wide and said, “Wow, big levees, grandpa.”)
Only thing higher are freeway overpasses.
So, you’re driving down on the road by the levee and you look up there’s this giant, ocean-going ship passing by ABOVE you. It’s like seriously huge and you’re thinking, “What the heck…?”
It’s unnerving. First time. Hundredth time, at least for me. And…and…so New Orleans. Of course the ships go by up there because the river is higher than most of the city. What, you want them to go by below?
Um, yeah. lol
And when you get up there on the levee and can see the river? When you see that silver ribbon of water wending by, looking lazier than it probably is, it changes you. You can sit on a bench and watch it pass by, not even aware that time is passing. Or ride the ferry back and forth. It takes hold of your mind and your heart and you understand the songs and the stories. Why artists and authors had to write about the river and about New Orleans.
I can’t imagine New Orleans without the river. I know that the river passes by a lot of cities, a lot of land before it gets to New Orleans, but I also know that it’s not the same river. That when it reaches New Orleans, it changes, is changed, by passing through the city.
It leaves its mark, and not just as a waterline on the levee or the inside of your house. You can’t hear the word “river” without remembering and giving a knowing sigh.
Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.
Have you ever been transported to a totally alien environment? Because that’s what it was for me. How did you feel? Did it change you? You know I love comments so much that I pick a favorite to receive my monthly AnaBanana gift basket ($25 value). Recipient is announced the first blog post of the new month.
P.S. Stay tuned for the release of Dead Spaces!