Life, Death, the Second Line….
Last night my housemate Chikodi and I went for a bike ride across the city. We originally set out for a few bars along Magazine Street and Oak Street. We quickly got lost in the Central and Mid-City neighborhoods. By the time we made it to Oak Street we had lost most of our interest in going into the Maple Leaf (some Uptown Bar). The crowd was far too “frat boy” and self-obsessed. Fortified with some beer and iced-tea we decided to head back into the Central City to see what sorts of nightlife the place has to offer.
Central City is a rough neighborhood, not yet fully repopulated, but still crawling with people. It contains several of New Orleans housing projects. A few of its main streets are sprinkled with small corners bars out of which music is pouring. It’s a section of the city that few people think of heading to for a drink or to see a band play.
We weren’t quite out of uptown when we spotted some college party and decided to crash it. Perhaps there was a keg and a few college undergrads worth talking too. I figured I could find some informants to give me the straight drunk-honest down low on being a bourgy Tulane or Loyola student in the midst of a disaster zone. Inside the kids looked really young, mostly 18-20 year-olds swilling hard alcohol. The soundtrack was rap, probably the beats produced by young black men who lived in projects like the Calliope, not far by car or bike from this house party, but inaccessible in other terms.
We left quickly and rode through the Calliope (now known as B.W. Cooper homes). Right now it’s abandoned, not because residents have chosen to leave, but because they’ve been shut out and the housing authority plans to demolish it. Around the corner from the Calliope we spotted a small corner bar. It was right across the street from one of New Orleans’ above ground cemeteries. I said something to Chikodi like, “life, death, it’s all so close and intense here,” referring to the projects, the cemetery, the bars and social clubs.”
A few young men walked out as we walked in. There must have been only half a dozen people inside, but it was impossible to tell as couples could have been hiding away in the darkened corners. The joint’s juke box was filled with Soul, R&B, and a little hip hop. The walls were painted black and the decorations were spartan. We struck up a conversation with a guy who wanted to sell us his $300 food stamp debit card for $100. I turned him down.
Chikodi asked him something about the future of the city. He explained it really straight and clear with a cynical twist at the end: “We’ve got no homes, we’ve got no healthcare, we’ve got no schools, we’ve got no money, but shit, the Saints got Reggie Bush. Reggie Bush is going to save the day!” (The New Orleans Saints football team drafted Reggie Bush this year. Our friend’s comments were poking fun at the idea that this was a good thing.) “Who’s going to watch him play? Who’s going to buy the tickets? How are they going to pay him,” asked our friend.
I decided to ask him how Mayor Nagin got reelected. Simple, he said, “because Nagin is going to protect the interest the city’s powerful.”
Straight talk, no foolish ideas up in here.
We left and headed to another Central City hole in the wall (the bar was literally called “hole in the wall”). Inside we tried sparking up a conversation with one fellow who apparently had too much to drink. He railed on us for several minutes for being fools. Our faux pas was Chikodi’s mentioning that he worked for ACORN (gutting houses and organizing homeowners) and my feeble attempts to calm the fellow down. He said he was a contractor, that he “was in business,” and that we were jokes. The rest of the bar just laughed it off and reassured us that “he’s been looking to ‘talk to’ someone all night.” We came upon him like he was a coiled spring.
We asked another fellow if he knew anything about any second lines having occurred lately in the Central City. A second line is basically a parade that follows the first line of music and key participants in whatever is being paraded for – it could be a funeral for instance. The second line follows the first. It’s there for the music and it’s there to dance and have fun in the streets, not necessarily to grieve or whatever it is that the first line is doing. The second line is never supposed to disrespect the first, however.
He said he hadn’t heard or any. It’s the kind of thing you just have to keep your eyes and ears open for. Chikodi went on one a month ago and says it was a blast. The second line included coolers full of beer and water, and trucks with grills in the back dishing up barbeque. The whole procession would stop at every bar and establishment on its route. It just so happens that the hole in the wall we were in tonight was a frequent stop for many a second line.
We left the bar about one or two in the morning. There hadn’t been a crowd, in fact the streets around the whole area were mostly deserted except for some late night characters looking for a fix or some sort of need. We rode back up Bourbon Street just for the contrast. It was full of drunks and fools pounding away hurricanes, hand grenades, and plastic cups of cheap domestic beer. Sometime around 2 or 3 am several more people were murdered on the streets of New Orleans.