Saturday, December 29, 2007

Carry Me Home

"Our precious hearts are all shattered, scattered across the land.
And I know that I'm going back to a place where I know who I am"
-- Susan Cowsill in "Crescent City Snow"

Last night I met the man who brought me home.

No, he didn't carry me on his back like St. Christopher or ferry me home in a boat or even loan me twenty bills. Still, it is because of him that I find myself here on the shores of my own personal Ithaca. The meeting that resulted was not as profound as it sounds. A sideman in the band I was listening to, he was introduced to the crowd and in the moment I knew who he was. Later, I spoke to him briefly like two men who discover they have a common friend or interest, as any two men in New Orleans, given time enough to talk, may likely find. And in that brief encounter, I closed the circle on a journey of 21 years.

My wife and a very old friend and I went to hear Ingrid Lucia sing at the d.b.a bar on Frenchman Street in the Farbourg Marigny just behind the French Quarter. For out-of-towners, this is where the locals hang, where the French Quarter of Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs still lives on just across Esplanade Avenue from the Vieux Carre. For the first set, we sat in a small window seat carrel and listened, having an animated conversation about this and that, a big trip to Europe we were planning. Every now and then, we'd fall silent and listen to Ingrid sing, or the quartet backing her wail. During the second set, we decided to move out into the main room and just listen to the music. My friend Eric and my wife grabbed some seats along the wall, and I settled in on the floor at their feet.

As we watched the group, I kept looking at the horn player. There was something so damned familiar about him, but I couldn't place it. This happens to me all the time since I returned to New Orleans. The city is full of people I knew in passing over twenty years ago, and I keep seeing faces I feel I might have known in the long ago but since forgotten. There was something about the trumpet players that told me: you know him from somewhere. Then the singer introduced him. And now, she said, we're going to feature Marc Braud on vocals.

It was then I knew. The name triggered a flood of memory that washed over me like the warm air from a brightly lit doorway opened onto a cold, damp alley. I was transported briefly from the floor of a small, dark nightclub in the Marigny to an auditorium at the University of North Dakota in Fargo, to late September of 2005 and the first days after the Federal Flood. My wife and I were alone in front. Most of the crowd sat to the back of the room, tentative and polite as any crowd of North Dakotans will mostly be. Like characters from a monologue by Garrison Keillor, they huddled like a herd against the back and side walls: none was going to push up to close to the bright lights in front and call attention to themselves.

My wife is from North Dakota, and we raised our children there. I had lived in that area for over a decade and away from New Orleans for almost 20 years, but remained deep down a Crescent City boy. Clad in a Mardi Gras-colored rugby shirt and clutching a large purple, green and gold golf umbrella, I had brashly marched down to the front and plopped myself center, just one row back from the empty front. In the cold and dark of the north that dreadful September of 2005, I went to this concert like a lost soul stumbling into a church, desperate for some redemption. If there were to be any splash of holy water or waft of incense from the altar, I was going to be close enough to catch it.

I had spent the prior weeks like a man adrift, had been struggling not to drown in tears or burst into flame with anger ever since 8-29-05. I was desperate to escape the television and Internet news, was anxious to hear the sound of a voice with a certain, familiar timber and turn of phrase; to be in the company of people who had moved from rice gruel to gumbo before they could properly say the word; to feel the insistent rhythms of the second line, to witness fingers doing that peculiar boogie-woogie dance that is New Orleans piano, to hear a horn by turns plaintive and brash trumpet the familiar songs. At a time when it was not clear that home would ever be there to go to again, I wanted to be carried home.

The affair was a Red Cross benefit for the victims of Katrina. Someone in the Red Cross had managed to put the Troy Davis Quartet on the road doing benefits, raising money for the cause and giving these displaced musicians a role to play doing what they knew best, playing the music of New Orleans. Somewhere I have a clipping from the Fargo Forum newspaper reviewing the show. Sometime I will pull it out and read it again, but not today. There was only one moment in the show that will remain with me until the day I die and they carry me less than a mile from Toulouse Street to Schoen funeral home, then a few blocks down Canal Street to Greenwood Cemetery.

At a point late in the show Marc Braud spoke briefly, looking not at the crowd but at the horn in his hand, of how the Red Cross had arranged for him to get in and out of the city and recover his instrument. Tonight was the first time he would play it since the flood. He said some more words about the city and its predicament, spoke of the losses of so many, but I was lost after he spoke of recovering his trumpet, transported into sorrow, all of the pathetic scenes from TV and the Internet rushed back at me like sudden flood waters. When I focused again, he had called the song and the band began to play "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans".

They played it just a bit slower than the usual tempo, the drummer on brushes playing the soft and respectful cadence of a jazz funeral marching out. Between singing the verses and playing his horn Braud looked not at his audience but down at the stage, rubbing away what I knew were tears in his eyes, the same that clouded my own view of the stage. When he lifted his horn to his lips he played that song with the same sad joy musicians of his father's and perhaps his grandfather's generation had played it. Unlike most of the polite audience, I heard not one but the voice of a hundred trumpeters from New Orleans who were, that night in September 2005, somewhere other than home; I heard them like a chorus of the sanctified in heavenly white robes blowing draped horns to call all the children home; I heard in it the wobbly wail of a late night busker somewhere in the quarter playing the Lincoln Center in his head.

I quietly wept. I don't know about the audience. I couldn't turn my head to look, as I might have with the training of a journalist to sweep the situation and look for the bit of color to add to the story, the picture in words of the crowd that might make the scene. That night I was that bit of color, one of the five men in that room for whom that song on that night in the Fall of 2005 was not just a song but was like the wailing of the apostles after the Crucifixion and the later descent of tongues of fire onto their heads. And I was not the only one who was moved.

Next to me my wife listened and watched as Braud wiped at his eyes between singing and blowing. This Pentecost of the lost reached down and touched her as well. She told me later that in that moment she understood my earlier announcement that I wanted to, no needed to go home to New Orleans, to a city at that time more than still half underwater and in near complete ruin. She understood that my past light-hearted remarks about emigrating to America from New Orleans were not a joke but a way of saying how much I needed to be home, that home was more than just where she and I and the kids lived but a very specific and irreplaceable point on the map. She had watched me the preceding weeks glued to the television and computer, sleeping maybe five hours a night and slowly unraveling in grief, and that night in Fargo saw that grief paraded on stage.

She told me it was then she knew that she had to let me come home.

And that was how I came to find myself sitting on the floor of d.b.a watching Marc Braud playing his horn, just as I had sat in that Fargo auditorium two-and-a-half years earlier; how recognized him as the man who had brought me home. It wasn't as powerful a moment as the one in 2005, but I knew as I sat there and listened that I had closed a circle, completed the journey that began when I left the city New Year's Eve morning 1986. Seeing Braud there on stage closed the chapter that began with a weather forecast one Friday late in August two years ago and which I thought had ended when I crossed the Causeway Memorial Day 2006 with the city skyline rising up from the horizon, but which did not really resolve itself until I shook Braud's hand, told him the story and thanked him for helping to bring me home.

It was a quietly anti-climactic moment. What does one say when a complete stranger comes up to you and says something like, "I just wanted to tell you you're the reason I'm home." He just looked at me with no particular expression on his face, then began to smile a bit as I told him the story in brief--living in Fargo, the concert and his story of recovering his horn and his tears as he sang the song, and how that had moved my wife to decide that yes, somehow, we would move to New Orleans. He was silent for a bit, trying to place my odd story in among the expected things people will say to a performer just off stage. He just kept nodding his head slightly as if I were still taking, until his face lit up with a broad smile and he said, "well, welcome home man!" My own story all told, I couldn't think of another word myself. "You, too" I offered.

With that, I took my drink out into the street for a cigarette, and watched the crowd passing along Frenchman Street. I thought about the long journey to this evening, twenty one year’s almost to the day, to this night in a club listening to fantastic New Orleans music with an old, old friend and my wife the newest Orleanian. As Braud returned to the stage and I heard his horn from inside dueling with the coronet player up the block in the street band, and the music pouring out of the Spotted Cat where later I would catch the Jazz Vipers; while I watched the parade of tourists and quarter rats and people dressed up for a just-once-in-a-while night on the town passing up and down the street and in and out of clubs; as I contemplated a plate of red beans and some fried okra at the Praline Connection to soak up the beer; as I stood there and the music and the scene and the thought of good food contended for my attention, the words from Cowsill's alt-country/folk anthem somehow came to mind. "And I know that I'm going back to a place where I know who I am." I crushed out my cigarette and stepped back into the crowded club and the music to find my wife and friend, the last pieces I needed to put together the puzzle that is home; stepped into the heart of Frenchman Street Friday night, into the heart of New Orleans: home for certain and home to stay.

Your words have touched me deeply. My love and spiritual connection to this city is so hard to describe and here, you have nailed it. I don't know you, but I know you well. Thank you. Absolutely beautiful.

Claudia Kent
Algiers Point homeowner.
very very nice!
i was happy to read your post.
it brought tears to my eyes.
i'm glad you're now home.
i lived in New Orleans for 4 or 5 months in the late '70s-----and i haven't quit loving the city since!
(my mom grew up near fargo and i spent many many summer vacations there, btw.)
Beautiful as always.
I can't say anything more than, welcome home. And now we all know that you smoke.
Damn fithly habit, cigarettes, and an old, old friend at the same time. We all have a friend like that, don't we? The one the wife wishes you wouldn't bring over?

Maybe 2008 is the year I can say goodbye to them with no regrets.
Awesome post, man. Happy New Year!
Mark, this is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. I'm giving you the award for Best blog of 2007. No cash, no trophy, just high praise on my blog.

Welcome home, and peace,

I saw Tim's link a while ago but, amidst holidays and travel and computer problems, I'm just getting here to read your amazing post. Blubbering like a baby, as usual. Bravo!
Thank you, Mark. That was wonderful.
Wonderful post.
It will not truly have success, I feel like this.
The article posted was very informative and useful
thanks for sharing.
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Mark, this is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. I'm giving you the award for Best blog of superslot
Mark, this is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. I'm giving you the aw superslot
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