I have always loved my little solo day trips to New Orleans. Simply ambling around the uneven streets of this beautiful, historic city with no distractions, no responsibilities and no one but myself to entertain, satisfies that selfish part of me that craves alone time, at least temporarily. I can go where I want…do what I want…be whomever I want to be. A middle-aged woman wandering aimlessly through the French Quarter on a weekday morning is no more unusual than a portrait artist wearing a dinosaur tail or a “bride” posing with tourists for a small fee, or a toothless woman selling bottled water for a dollar. No one really even notices.
My friends know that I am a fervent cheerleader for the city of New Orleans and all of its magic. The music…the history…the food…I love all of it. I frequently look for excuses to cross the twenty-four mile stretch that connect sleepy suburbia to another world…one that has been surreptitiously stealing tiny pieces of my heart over the past seventeen years so that it takes the occasional visit to make me feel complete. In recent months, however, I had not been feeling the pull of the city that I normally experience. I kept telling myself that I needed to make the trip across the bridge, if for nothing else, to get new photos for some future work posts. Needing to go for work and just needing to be there are two very different animals, however, and the first option was not terribly appealing.
After a few weeks of excuses, cooler temperatures and a little boredom spurred an impromptu outing earlier this week. (I’m nothing if not a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants girl.) Aside from household chores and a few only slightly pressing errands, my day was wide open. I grabbed my camera, made sure I had my toll money (the Causeway turn-around of shame is embarrassing…or so I’ve heard) faked a little enthusiasm, and allowed my Jeep to make its way toward our destination, as if on auto-pilot. Fake enthusiasm grew in to genuine excitement until about mile marker ten, at which point, the sky, seemingly within seconds, turned a drab gray and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain developed a slight chop. What had happened to my beautiful fall day? Fluffy white clouds or even ominous blue-gray clouds make for great photos, but these clouds were neither of those. They were merely flat and low and gray. Feeling deflated, I contemplated calling it a day and turning around at the next crossover. I would have other free days…someday. It was tempting to go back home, but laundry and a few layers of dust lurked there, so I convinced myself to press on.
My usual riverfront parking lot was waiting for me, and I grabbed a ticket and parked. The river looked lonely and sad, in spite of the crowd of tourists preparing to board the Natchez riverboat, its red paddlewheel supplying the only splash of color amidst the drabness. A lone saxophonist provided the soundtrack, an upbeat tune that seemed eerily out of place.
I made my way to St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, which is consistently my first stop. Sure I’ve walked past it more times than I can keep track of, but it doesn’t matter. I always stop and take a few pictures because its beauty always sucks me in. I do make an effort to mix it up a little…shoot it from different angles and distances…with or without people walking in front…flowers in the foreground…maybe a tree limb obscuring a little piece. Anything to distinguish it from previous shots that thousands of tourists and I have taken over the years. But I couldn’t come up with anything new on this day. Every shot looked gray and uninteresting, and I was discouraged…and again slightly bored. I just wasn’t feeling it.
As I mentally went through the laundry list of things that needed my attention at home, I sat down on a bench in front of the cathedral, something I had never actually done in all of my visits here. In this moment of accidental meditation, two things struck me. First, I realized that this was quite possibly the most uncomfortable bench my back and all areas below had ever experienced…guess it keeps people from overstaying their welcome. And second, I decided that maybe it’s ok to just be a part of the city and enjoy all that it has to offer without worrying so much about catching it all “on film.” I turned off my camera, put my phone in my purse, and just enjoyed being there. It occurred to me that I spend so much time trying to preserve memories, that often I’m not really a part of them. And I decided that this was something I could , and would work on…not just on visits to the city, but in life in general.
I stayed on that bench for as long as my backside could tolerate it, which was about twenty minutes. I took in the architectural sights, which are breathtaking. I people watched, fascinating in any city, but especially so in New Orleans. I had a pleasant conversation with an elderly man from Alabama who, ironically, informed me he had been taking photos of me sitting on the bench. He was nice enough to ask me if that was ok (obviously unaware of my aversion to that side of the camera), and I said sure, even if I didn’t mean it. He told me how lucky I was to be “from here” and I told him I couldn’t agree more. Just as we wished each other a nice day, the clouds began to shift and the sky transformed from steely gray into a beautiful mix of bright blue and various shades of gray, with some white fluff thrown in for good measure. And, as if on cue, the cathedral bells began to chime. It was noon on a Wednesday, and I was sitting in one of the most fascinating cities in the world…with no agenda, no responsibilities, and no one to entertain but me.
I began walking, stopping directly in front of the cathedral where a five-piece band put their spin on “Little Liza Jane.” I stayed longer than I normally would have, and I tipped a little more generously than my usual. (The informal rule…if a performer causes you to stop and look or listen, leave a tip. Always.) I wandered in a few boutiques and galleries on some of my favorite streets, my intent simply to browse and enjoy what they had to offer. I was not scouring the streets for photo opportunities, but they began presenting themselves, nonetheless…the pirate walking down Royal Street, the flamboyant dancing guy who grasped his purse more securely than even I do, the seemingly pregnant woman standing almost entirely naked in the middle of the sidewalk while a man covered her in silver paint, the horse-drawn carriage passing by at just the right spot at just the right time. Only a handful of my shots were work-appropriate, and that was ok because each one spoke to me in some way.
I reluctantly made the trek back to my parking spot by the now vibrant Mississippi River. The lone saxophonist had been joined by Uncle Louie, a minor celebrity by street performer standards , and a guy with a parrot on his shoulder. After a little searching, I spotted my Jeep waiting for me, and as I turned the key, The Cars “Just What I Needed” was playing on the radio. (Really!) And that really kind of said it all.