Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Orleans at Any Age

I fell in love with New Orleans 20-some years ago, when I attended a Writers Conference here. The high point of the closing party was an impromptu Cake Walk procession led by a woman no longer in the springtime of life. She was bold and vibrant and wore a gardenia in her hair—and she was 70 if she was a day. No one was embarrassed for her. You’re never too old to have fun here, I thought, and when I’m old, this is where I will come. (Any other nominations for places where you’re never too old to have fun?)

Since that trip I have returned to the city many times. What has most charmed me over the years is a kind of collective sense of humor. Everyone in New Orleans gets the joke, and this turns even mundane transactions into playful encounters. Here’s one only-in-the-New Orleans story: I was standing in the parking lot of the Rock n Bowl, a combined bowling alley and dance hall that draws crowds from all walks of life. A black stretch limousine drew up, and from it emerged a Just Married couple, he in black tie, she in full bridal white. Each clutched a long neck bottle of bear. As the bystanders gaped, the groom turned to his new wife and, after an exquisitely timed comic pause, said, “Gee, honey, do you think we’re a little overdressed?” (If you have a favorite New Orleans story, please send it in.)

A couple of years ago, I started hearing people talk about moving to New Orleans someday. My sister and her husband began looking at real estate there. It made sense. There was great food, great music, a lively cultural scene, bookstores, sidewalks, universities and teaching hospitals. The winters were warm and you could wear a flower in your hair and lead a Cake Walk at any age.

I pictured New Orleans becoming a Boomer retirement mecca. Hurricane Katrina may have scotched that idea for now, but the city remains a place where older citizens do not subside. Even in death they seem to have plenty to celebrate. I get to see that for myself one afternoon when I fall in with a Second-Line jazz funeral parade. The traditional way to mark the passing of a New Orleans personage is to hold a procession led by a brass band and open to anyone who wants to follow along.

As the marchers gather outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum, I learn that the decedent, Keith “Flames” Keller, was a blues harmonica player, a sound engineer and a rehabber of houses destroyed by Katrina. The pace is set by two Grand Marshals twirling festooned umbrellas, and the famous Treme Brass Band provides the music. Bringing up the rear is a carriage drawn by two black horses and holding a photograph of Keller decorated with musical notes and a tuba.

The procession winds from the Treme neighborhood through the French Quarter to the Mississippi River, picking up followers all along the way. As we near the Quarter we’re at least 80 strong, and, the dirges give way to that most exultant of spirituals, “I’ll Fly Away.” People begin strutting in time with the brass band. And I decide that a New Orleans jazz funeral is the best kind of send-off anybody could have.

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