Note from your author: Over the last three years, I've been blessed to share my experiences and perspectives on this site, on matters of politics, criminal justice, race, poverty, and much more. This community has been extremely supportive of me as a writer, and some of the voices here have helped to cultivate me as a thinker. I've recognized, however, that the America I write about is largely strange to me. No longer content to be a stranger in my own country, I am setting out with a friend from high school in my 2002 Lexus RX300 - a gentle beast we've named Quixote - to travel the country. We're in search of the American soul, learning stories, seeing places, and recording what we find with cameras, a new GoPro action camera, and our course, my words. We are already around a week into this journey, but I wanted to share it with this community, so that you all could follow along with me. We hope to tell the story of Americans who are finding their strength within institutions that set them up for struggle. And we'll have some fun, too. Below is a re-post from our website, detailing what we found in New Orleans. We are currently in Denver and moving to the West.
You can find us on our Facebook page at Good Days and Great Days. You might also find us on Instagram @GoodDaysAndGreatDays, or through our website at GoodDaysAndGreatDays.com.
When Katrina submerged New Orleans, few neighborhoods were harder hit than the one a few miles from downtown, sitting secluded from the niceties of tourist life, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. And in the city’s effort to rebuild, few stories have been as inspiring as the ones told on these streets. Toward the end of this throughway sits the Crescent Palms Motel. It’s known to most as the cheapest place that you’d still consider choosing on the hotel review sites. And that’s how it was known to us, too, until we arrived.
Pulling into the motel is like charging hard into the early 1960s. The colors – muted pastels of red and blue and greed – are some combination of vintage and modern chic. The property is construed in a rectangular manner, with inward facing balconies creating a sort of courtyard on the interior. If you’re facing the motel, you’ll see a well-appointed patio on the second level of the front left corner. It’s a space fit for entertaining and gives the property more flair than its online profile suggests.
We fell instantly in love with the place, A.J. with its unique style and me with the history I was sure it possessed.
“This looks like the hotel in Memphis where MLK was murdered,” I said, as we took pictures from the patio. At that moment, a poorly dressed man appeared, walking around the place like he owned it. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he’d pulled into the budget hotel in an expensive sport utility vehicle.
“What a beautiful property this is,” A.J. said, as the man introduced himself.
“It sure is. I’m Michael, I own the joint.”
“This looks a lot like the hotels where civil rights leaders stayed in the ‘60s,” I chimed in, waiting for Michael to offer some insight into the history of his haunt.
“I’m only the third owner,” he told us. “This place was built as the first upscale hotel for black guests, back when they weren’t allowed to stay at the downtown hotels. Lots of boxers stayed here, and music stars, and even MLK himself, back before the road was named for him.”
The structure had become run down sometime in the wake of Katrina, not only falling on hard times, but falling on fatal ones. Michael and a group of investors saw the property at its worst, but recognized its aesthetic appeal and significance to the local community.
“We got a $100,000 grant from the city when they were trying to encourage people to invest in this area. And we knew a guy who ran a bank, who gave us the rest of the money. We bought this property and the adjacent duplex for less than $200,000,” he said.
I remember wondering what the place had to look like to drive the purchase price so low. More comfortable discussing the frills of the property over the actuarial details, Michael pointed to a neon sign a few yards in front of us. It wasn’t lit at the time, and we inquired about its significance.
“This place takes on a completely different character at night,” he said. “I believe in having a day dress and a night dress. And boy does this patio have a night dress when that sign’s lit.”
The Crescent Palms is leading a rejuvenation of the surrounding community, where various money-ed sources have pooled their charitable efforts to help some of the citizens re-build. On the right side of the street, the homes are still falling apart. The lots are overrun with foliage. Broken windows remind you that some stores have never come back to the community. On the left side, though, brightly-colored homes with fluorescent paint provide hope for the neighborhood and her residents. There’s a community feel, with kids playing football and swinging on swings in a well-maintained communal area.
As I walked through this neighborhood, an action camera attached to my skull and a backpack fastened about my shoulders, a few young kids approached.
“Is that a GoPro?” asked a boy, probably 11-years old. “How much do you want for it” he asked before I had an opportunity to answer his first seeking question.
“I can’t sell this, buddy. We’re heading across the country and I’ve got to use it.”
“I’ll give you $1,000,” he offered, in a way that only kids can. Kids, of course, have little concept of how much money is a lot of money, and they have even less of an idea of how much things cost. I remember thinking when I was his age that a computer must cost somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. A trip to Paris or some other far West locale? You’d have to sell an awful lot of lemonade to make that kind of money. A.J. observed later that the kid probably thought he was getting a good deal by offering a cool G for my equipment.
“I might have to sell it to you, then,” I quipped back, laughing in a suddenly uncomfortable manner. These were kids living, and playing, in an almost-entirely black part of a city where I was already a stranger. Here I was, on a non-descript Saturday afternoon, walking through their neighborhood with a camera strapped a few inches north of my eyebrows, and with an unnecessarily large backpack affixed to my person. I thought as I walked through this neighborhood, making certain observations, that I must be careful to treat the experience as an opportunity to meet with the people and learn their stories. I must be careful, I thought, not to treat the ordeal like a sociological experiment, where I note our differences like a Western sociologist studying the contours of some far-off land.
In that moment, though, I realized that just as their neighborhood was unfamiliar for me, and just as I may have felt some apprehension walking into an unusual place, my presence was unfamiliar to them. I was, as they say, Stranger Danger in the oddest form. And to my surprise, they treated my presence with curiosity.
“Are you going hiking?” one boy asked.
“We’ll hike once we get out West,” I answered, as his previously-squinted eyes lit up. He then asked if we’d planned to climb any mountains.
“I think so,” I said, stopping to ask him if he liked climbing mountains.
He assured me that he did, and when I told him he could climb Mount Everest one day, he asked a question I’ve asked myself quite often over the last few months.
“What’s it take to do that?”
“You have to train really hard,” I told him, “And you’ll need to stumble into an absurd amount of money.”
“Like $1,000,” added the prospective GoPro buyer.
“Yea, something like that,” I said with a laugh. “Maybe you can set your sights on Mount Rainier.”
I recognized immediately that my last statement made me sound 1,000 years old. No child grows up dreaming of climbing Mount Rainier, though perhaps they should. And I had squashed dead his dreams of climbing Mount Everest. I laughed at the thought of him going home to his mother and asking, “Where’s Mount Rainier?” before adorning his bedroom walls with a poster of Washington State’s prized peak.
“You’ve been talking to old, disillusioned white people, again, haven’t you?” she might ask him.
With that, we left the neighborhood, bound for the French Quarter and all it has to offer. While the night was filled with the normal things one finds in a night spent skirting around the edges of loatheful Bourbon Street, it was also spent finding more beauty in unexpected places. Down in the forgotten parts of the city where Katrina’s impact had been felt the hardest, we discovered a meek hotel owner trying to help revive a neighborhood by preserving its distinguished Civil Rights-era history. In the playgrounds there, we found little kids, dreaming big dreams about climbing the highest mountains. On the streets of the Quarter, there was beauty in the artists peddling their craft for the pure enjoyment of passers-by.
It is my experience that few truths are absolute, especially those told by human beings. I caution the reader that the morsels I find in my travels are mine alone, told through the lens of emotion and feeling and perception that I brought to the observing on that particular day. How I see a city like New Orleans on the first day of a three-month road trip would invariably different from how I’d write it on Day 67, especially without the benefit of sleep. And this is what allows each of us to view a place and to tell two distinct stories with neither being wrong nor dishonest.
For me, New Orleans has long been a place colored by the perceptions of others. Some that I’ve known closely see the city as a dark place, full of evil, and even of spirits. And to walk the streets with the right set of eyes, you could easily leave with that conclusion. Head to Bourbon Street or into the riverside casino – which coincidentally rates as perhaps the darkest of casinos in these United States, both literally and figuratively – and you’ll see debauchery and listlessness that trends hard toward indulgent heathenism. But spending a few more hours in New Orleans reveals a strength and resilience in her people, often expressed through creative bursts with the brush or the voice.
On this night, I encountered Maurice, white-haired, bearded, and a stately hippie, if such a thing can exist. Maurice owned and operated a squalid little shop full of jazz instruments. It’s the sort of place you could buy a tuba or trombone if you were apt to do so. I fiddled around for a few minutes, remarking in private thought and public voice that I’d be Maurice’s best buyer if he’d only teach me how to play anything housed in his space.
“How about this one?” he said, reaching toward what looked to me like the kind of log my dad might pull from a beaver dam in the creek behind my childhood home.
“What is it?” I asked him, eyeing the reasonable $5 price tag that made it a reasonable learner’s investment.
“It’s a wall piece,” he said in a deep Cajun accept that made it sound like he’d said “walpus.”
“A what?” I followed, completely certain that I’d never seen an instrument like this before.
“A wall piece,” he repeated. “Something you put on your wall. It doesn’t play music. Seems like it might be perfect for you.”
“I guess it looks like a flute,” I said, thinking to myself how Maurice’s wall-bound New Orleans flute might make the perfect gift for the only flute player I know, given her affinity for NOLA and the events that had once taken place there.
Maurice looked at me with a humored look on his face. It was well before 10PM on the Saturday night of the second weekend of JazzFest, and while he had merchandise to sell, he acted like he’d not been engaged by a customer in quite some time.
“What if I really practice?” I asked him, laughing as I lifted the fashioned wood to my mouth. I placed my lips atop an oversized hole and curled my fingers over the places they were meant to be, had this been more than a simple walpus.
“You know what they say,” Maurice started. “Practice makes something.”
Practice makes something, indeed. I smiled, handed Maurice a crisp five-dollar bill, and stuffed my newfound treasure into my pack. He offered me a handshake and asked my name before I headed for the exit.
Not all of the hidden beauty in New Orleans comes from those who sell the instruments. On the streets, we encountered two unsightly brothers whose surprising music sounded like what might happen if an Avett Brothers album made a child with some LP produced by Gregory Alan Isakov. They sang so well that one man tossed a $20 bill into their donation reservoir at the urging of his much younger companion.
Down the road, a crowd had gathered for what became the main event of the New Orleans street show that dotted intermittent blocks on various corners. A woman of Asian descent, probably in her early 30s, was playing a violin alongside a black woman aged the same number of years. While that black woman was an adequate guitarist, the violinist was the star of the show. As she bent the strings to the sound of Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, an older woman broke from her husband to engage me.
“Have you ever heard anything like this?” she asked in the sort of way a child asks the first time they figure out that adults can do something they have no chance of doing.
“I didn’t think I’d ever hear violin strings sound out human sadness,” I said, as the corners of my new friend’s mouth bent in an admiring smile. We weren’t alone in our amazement, of course. At least a hundred people were mostly blocking a busy Quarter street to see the show, and the women were now taking requests. On a night when various musicians – Elton John and Ed Sheeran among them – were playing to thousands-deep crowds at one of the country’s premier music festivals, these two had put on an entrancing show, completely free to their patrons.
As a writer, sometimes you get to choose how to tell the story of a place. And sometimes the story tells itself. In New Orleans, our trip into the American soul started with true American soul, seeing the eyes of a business owner light up as he talked about how his sign lit up, listening as a young boy from the nation’s Bayou talked of his desire to climb a miles-high mountain a hemisphere away, meeting a man who sold to the talented musicians their tools of expression, and hearing Hallelujah for the first time, surrounded by people who had recognized the beauty in an artist’s undiscovered (to this point, at least) talent. New Orleans might be dark, and it might be evil. On another day, and with another set of eyes, I might have descended upon the spooky bars that serve hallucination-inducing absinthe, and I might have experienced the hordes of tourists finding the fault in their stars through creepy tarot card readings. Today, the city nearly sunk by Katrina shone through with the kind of beauty that keeps her, and keeps people like me, coming back for more.