NEW ORLEANS, LA – The rain fell from the sky as if someone from above was ladling it out, spreading it generously on top of the French Quarter like maple syrup on pancakes. I carefully made my way along Bourbon Street, the overhead awnings from the old and historical buildings provided only so much cover, as people on the sidewalk took turns making a run for the next spot of shelter like some game of Frogger, avoiding puddles, cars and other pedestrians.
“Rain, Oh rain, just go away… Come on back some other day…”
The soulful voice and spirited trumpet pierced the grey sky and echoed through alleyways, spreading happy vibes, NOLA’s way of giving rainclouds the middle finger. You ain’t gonna rain on my parade!
And as much as I often wish my wife could be with me on my various trips, that she could just say “The heck with it!” (Or a more colorful variation of the phrase), this time it’s my father that I had wished could be with me.
Early next month will mark the two-year anniversary of his passing. And as the cliché typically goes, he’s with us in spirit. But on this trip there are more than just a few subtle reminders of my old man. Every back alley saxophone filling the night sky, every key from a piano and harmony erupting from some singer’s mouth is a sound I wish he was hearing with me. Music was a big part of his life, his love for jazz was something he passed onto my four brothers and I (although I’d like to think that I embraced this genre of music more profoundly than my siblings).
As a musician who played on the West Coast and in our hometown of El Paso, my father was used to playing in places big and small, joints just like the colorful and lively establishments that one can find all over New Orleans, especially the ones located on Bourbon Street.
“This is a place for ghosts,” says the bartender at the French 75 Bar. “You seen any, my friend?”
Incredulously, I don’t know whether to punch this guy in the face or start crying. Before I could muster a sound he started in on how New Orleans has great ghost tours and even cemetery excursions.
“I’m just here for work,” I respond, still thinking about a ghost.
The bar is part of the famous Arnoud’s French Restaurant, which opened in 1918, and is known as the “Grande Dame” of Creole dining.
“You should warm yourself up with some soup,” the bartender says. He can see that my clothes are soaking, not a good combination with the cool humid air outside.
“All our soups are good but you’d be a fool not to try a cup of the turtle,” he says proudly.
Not one to argue, and when in the hell will I ever get this opportunity again, I go with his recommendation on the condition that I can sop it up with a nice piece of French bread.
The soup is nothing short of incredible, but the rain won’t stop. My dad would have really liked this local delicacy. Something tells me he’d appreciate eating something so out of left field, something that would make other people feel queasy. I start thinking about animals that could be considered both pet and food. Turtles, bunnies, pigs…
An older couple walks through the bar entrance from the outside and lose control of the door. In a THWACK people are startled; the atmosphere and good food inside made some people forget how wet it is outside as the couple shake off rain like wet dogs before finding a seat at the bar.
“Does this weather remind you of Katrina in some way?” I ask, a hopeless attempt at occupying my mind about something else. The bartender is more than happy to share his ordeals when the levees broke and basically shut down a major American city for months.
“There was nothing to do here in the wake of Katrina,” he said. “Everything was closed down during the rebuild. I decided to leave – but that meant you couldn’t come back in.”
He went on to explain the journey he took right after the hurricane, a journey that took him from New Orleans, to Indiana, to New York City, back to New Orleans – “I had to sneak back in to get clothes and other stuff that I needed,” – through to West Texas and down to Mexico.
“Arnaud’s was one of the first places to reopen in the French Quarter. They needed help and I needed a job, so I came back.”
There’s a story everywhere you turn in New Orleans, from Ms. Lachorelle, the cab driver that took me to my hotel – she was back home in Haiti during Katrina – to the man playing Bob Marley in front of a small food stand inside my terminal at Louis Armstrong Airport.
Hell, I’m pretty sure even that turtle I ate, plucked from some marshy wetland along Lake Pontchartrain, had some kind of backstory.
I used to love hearing my dad’s stories about his jazz-playing days (daze). He talked about taking part in a jam session with Janis Joplin once, a story a kid can hang onto with pride. Maybe that’s why I like New Orleans so. There are stories all around and the people telling them do so with pride; they’re sharing a part of themselves.
I’ve often thought about my father enjoying his own little jam session in Heaven; that thought grows more prevalent every time one of the greats of our time passes away like Bowie and Frey. The more atmosphere I take in on this trip, well, the more I start to think that this place would be the perfect setting for it. My dad would fit right in. He loved gumbo and jambalaya (It’s the meal he ordered after we left the doctor’s office from a place called Crawdaddy’s, cancer diagnosis in hand).
Yeah, there are reminders of him everywhere in this place. And although I’m not exactly sure I believe in ghosts, right now I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing one. Who knows? Maybe he was with me on this trip?
My new book, Summer Son/hijo del sol, is due out this spring from Floricanto Press. Tell me about your ghost stories @phillipdcortez.