An older woman adorned with rings and a floral hat sits at a table alone, her back turned most decidedly to a ten-piece brass band. Her back is literally right in front of the saxophonist who is blasting a gutsy, elastic solo with all his heart. Neither the banjo, clarinet, drums, nor tuba seem to sway her, while all around us the bar is shaking with the vigor of people dancing.
It is my last week of a nine-month period volunteering and working in New Orleans, and I have come here to the Candlelight Lounge to see the Treme Brass Band play for their hometown, Treme, the neighborhood where I live. It takes all of my energy not to burst out of my chair and laugh out loud for joy of the fantastic, huge sound inside such a small place, but I remain intrigued by this lady's response to the music. As long as I have been in this city, I am still caught between the simultaneous desires to participate as a neighbor and observe as an outsider. So I stay seated and, out of the corner of my eye, I watch her sit there sipping Scotch on the rocks with the same demeanor as a woman alone at her kitchen window.
Eventually, a grin inches across the right side of her face, and she starts to tap her foot on the ground. A few more songs and she spins her chair all the way around, allowing her shoulders to dance.
I furrow my brow, but before I get the chance to really speculate about the situation, someone interrupts me with a challenge. "Can you move your feet?" he says, mid-twirl. I laugh, and gratefully hop out of my chair. I release my eyes from their watchful duty, and let my head and limbs go. My mind follows suit, riding the music through a flutter of sweet New Orleans memories.
I remember being woken up from an afternoon nap one Sunday by a brass band playing right outside my window. Looking out, I saw a massive parade with feathered dancers, rolling barbeques, and costumed men on horses! I ran outside beaming like a kid at a carnival and asked what was the occasion, only to find out that these "Second Line" parades happen every Sunday in different neighborhoods. They are organized by neighborhood Social Aid and Pleasure clubs and are named for the growing "second line" of neighbors who come out of their houses to join the "first line" of the band and dancers.
I remember following another Second Line on a different Sunday, and watching in awe as pink and green feathered fans waved against a backdrop of historic shotgun houses with their detail paint chipping and red spray paint still marking how many bodies were found there after the storm. I watched people literally down on their knees dancing past so many blighted, vine-covered buildings, some of which were now just the facade of a house. I witnessed parents, grandparents, and children follow the music of the tuba out to their doorways, porches, and streets. This, I thought, is the spirit that keeps the city alive. This is the spirit of New Orleans embodied -- the reason why walking through these streets on any other day of the week, I feel a great sense of hope and inspiration despite the still apparent destruction.
I remember riding my bike downtown one day and happening upon a Jazz Funeral -- a brass band filled one family's porch and about sixty people gathered to listen, dance, eat, and be together. One woman told me that the family's grandma had died. I watched in admiration as a little girl of about three years danced her grief amidst a sea of relatives and neighbors.
I remember Mardi Gras afternoon sitting with friends in the neutral ground on St. Claude Avenue, watching the Zulu parade pass by and enjoying the masses of families, barbeques, and boom boxes. I was so delighted when I looked up and noticed one of the kindergarten students from my after school art class standing up like a dignified king on one of the colorful floats, handing out throws.
I remember my five-year-old neighbor welcoming me to her block and describing to me the seasons of celebration that run throughout the year. "First," she said, "you have Halloween. And then you have Christmas and New Year's. Then it's Mardi Gras season. After that you have Easter. Then it's Jazz Fest season..."
The band's last song winds to a close, and I plop back into my chair. I smile at the lady in the flower hat, and ask her an easy question: "Are you from here?"
She tells me proudly "Born and raised. I grew up just over on Tonti."
"It's a beautiful home," I say, somewhat wistfully.
"I just came back from Houston last January," she smiled.
"That's wonderful," I say.
She surprises me again by continuing to smile as she tells me proudly about her experience of the storm, and coming home afterwards to a house stripped of so many possessions. I shake my head in respect and amazement, and smile back at her, but for a moment the world behind my eyes darkens. Why is our government not working to uphold, protect, and learn from New Orleans' decimated neighborhoods? Why, like the storm, does our current culture literally seem to crush communities, rich and poor alike, smothering our traditions and systems of communal intelligence?
As though she can see and respond to my inner thoughts, my new friend leans forward as though to tell me a secret. She says with a grin, "I have nothing to complain about. I have everything to be grateful for -- I'm home." My shoulders drop. I close my eyes, sigh, and smile a little. "She's got the right idea," I think. If the people of Treme, or the ninth ward, or any other place in New Orleans decided to just "complain" or to allow oppressive systems to dictate the tone of their lives, there might be no Second Lines or no Jazz Funerals. The little girl who lives next door to me might not see the year in seasons of festivity. It seems to me that New Orleanians' immense capacity to move beyond survival is fed by their ongoing decision to express profound gratitude. Within their traditions of public music and dance, people come together to proclaim whatever is within, creating a community that celebrates life.
Even as an outsider in this community, I am welcomed to take part in a nourishing and personally meaningful group experience. The very interaction I am having with my neighbor is being held and honored within this atmosphere of artful rejoicing. I wonder what inner experience might have caused my friend to turn her back to the band earlier tonight. Maybe she was testing the band to see if and how they might move her again after so many decades of hearing them play. Or maybe she was actually feeling subdued and low, and was genuinely uplifted by the music, but not right away. Or maybe she was less about an inner experience, and in fact she was more interested in what was going on outside herself. It could be that she was facing out with the band, rather than turning her back to it -- looking out at this familiar scene to catch any nuances, or to connect with new people.
Whatever her reasons, I am grateful to be a part of this unique moment. Tonight, tucked away in the Candlelight Lounge in Treme, I get to be a part of one of the quieter moments of recovery and growth that occur constantly all over New Orleans. Suspended in this thick nest of music, dancing, and neighbors talking, an elder black woman native to New Orleans, and a white Philly girl in her twenties clink glasses and exchange broad smiles. Somewhere in the midst of this work of art that is Wednesday night at the Candlelight Lounge, the two of us experience a sense of home together.
Interdisciplinary artist Lee Fogel currently lives and works in Philadelphia. She is a former COSACOSA Youth Council member and creator of the Listening for Dialogue project.