I wake up and do that thing I do when I’m travelling and I just assume it’s going to be too hard to work out the public transport system. I walk. I have a list of places to visit: Storyland in City Park is number one, a magical place meant to bring to life fairy tales. My kinda deal. Love a good story. It’s hot and humid: I’m wearing ugly shoes that are comfortable, and short denim shorts. I follow the GPS on my iPod touch which has limited functionality and is playing the role of communication device while my phone is, at this point, lost in Toronto. When not connected to Wifi, which is most of the time, the most it can give me is my location, plotted on a map.
It turns out the most direct route from my hotel to Story Land is through some pretty poor neighbourhoods. I don’t know this before I set out. I pass beneath traffic overpasses but it’s fine, it’s 10am, it’s a Monday. I don’t have a phone or any way of calling for help in an emergency. But no one’s up to no good on a Monday. That’s how the world works, right?
Most people look at me with a deep, deep suspicion. A white blonde girl, on her own. Most streets are dead: there’s no one around. There are houses with windows that seem like portals into pits of despair, and sometimes a toy or a bicycle will lie in the street. I get thirsty. It’s hot. As I venture further into the unknown, I keep shifting into deeper levels of unease. It’s not that I haven’t followed my instinct. It’s just that sometimes, my instincts are shocking.
I keep focused on the little dot on my phone, willing the battery to last. Looking around, I wonder whether there’ll be a servo or a corner store soon. Eventually I pass some construction workers. I remember feeling safer for their number. The streets that are empty have this weird, dense smell to them, a sickly sweet and off kind of odour.
I slowly get closer to Storyland, and I venture near a corner store. A lady walks up to me, and reaches directly into my soul. Although it’s midday on a Monday, she looks terrified. She says, “Do you have any money you can give me? I need $35 to get into a shelter for the night.” Her eyes are gathering tears, her voice trembles. Her look of pleading is immense, she’s desperate. She says, “I stayed in a bar last night and I was too scared to even close my eyes.” This place is hell, I think. Of course I’ll help you. I know the feeling of being too scared to sleep, of begging someone to help you because it’s legitimately a last resort. I give her the money she asks for, and ever since, I’ve wished that I had given her all the money that I had, and I’ve hoped that she’s okay.
The streets get a little brighter and I’ve made it out of the rough neighbourhoods. I see a big sign that says, “Storyland”. I make my way to it. There are statues I can spot from a distance, of Humpty Dumpty and Little Bo Peep. I’m out of the woods. I walk to the gate.
And I learn that it’s closed via a sign that says it’s closed on Mondays. My legs are so sore and I’ve become sunburned. I’m thirsty and a bit grumpy, once again learning that just winging it isn’t always the best strategy when travelling.
City Park is cool, though. There’s a sculpture garden there. There’s no Alice in Wonderland but there is a sculpture of a giant constructed with letters that I feel like it could be me.
I take a streetcar back to my hotel.
The Menzingers show is only a few hours away and I’m looking forward to familiarity, safety, and rock and roll. I decide to leave early, to have dinner near the venue. I call a taxi and jump in, giving the driver the address. We drive a little way out of the city and then a little bit further. Then a little bit more. The road becomes a highway with intersections. The streets become industrial. The driver says, “Are you sure you’ve got the right address? There’s nothing out here.” I assure him that it’s fine. I assume that the venue will have wifi, I assume there will be taxis around.
Eventually I learn to stop making assumptions about New Orleans.
The driver drops me, skeptically, in the middle of a street in front of a rundown house of a venue. It makes total sense, of course it fucking does, that a punk show should be in the middle of nowhere. The name of the venue is Siberia. I’m relieved to have found it but feel a little too on edge to let my guard down and hang out the front, make friends. That’s hard enough to do anyway.
I find a place for dinner. It’s an Italian spot and it seems nice, the food is good, the service is good. From octaves of conversation I catch I deduce that it’s not been open for long. I order an Italian soda, which is a soda water with cordial in it. It’s nice so I order another. And then I knock it over, and the soda and ice goes everywhere. My plan to hide out in here ’til the start of the show is foiled. The staff are lovely and help me wipe up the mess.
I retreat. I cross the street and spot a Rite Aid: walking all day has given me blisters and I don’t want them to ruin the show. People stare at me. They glare at me. They leer at me. They beep their horns from across the street, and peel slow smiles across their worn faces when they trick me into looking. There’s not many of them, but they’re in groups of two or three, and they’re hanging out in the parking lots, bus stops, and gutters that I have no choice but to walk past.
In a street that should be safe, with a chemist, a venue, and a restaurant, the sun sets slowly. Reproachfully, like it wants to give its citizens below the maximum time possible to get home safe and sound before danger descends with the night. A man looks at me and loudly says, “I would pay to eat that pussy.”
It’s hard to stand up for the sisterhood when you feel like your existence is threatened; like any of these people might have guns; like no one would miss you if anything happened because no one knows where you are or that you’d be missing. Like any threat is especially bad when you can’t call for help and there are no friendly faces around to back you up.
The venue opens and I find out it doesn’t have wifi. There’s no payphone. The people behind the bar seem intimidating and I’m already weary. I wonder how I’m going to get back after the show.
The tour is the tour of the summer: The Menzingers, Cayetana, PUP, Lemuria. Each of these bands are kickarse on their own but sharing a tiny stage in a tiny pub, they’re stellar. I think it’s one of their birthdays. And I’m on my own, so I sing when I want and dance when I want. Tom from the Menzingers takes to the stage and says, “Wow, everyone in this town walks around looking kind of post-apocalyptic” and I love him so much for it.
Halfway through the Menzingers set I start to get a bit worried. I start to think, I hope there’s a taxi outside. I hope it’s easy to get home. I hope I can get a taxi. I repeat to the universe, to God, to the ether, “Please let me get a taxi. Please let me get a taxi. Please let me get a taxi.” I skip out on the encore so I can beat other people who might be getting taxis – but it turns out there are no others.
How lucky are we in Australia to be safe at and after shows? Pretty damn lucky.
I stand on the street corner and try to wave down a cab or two. There are none passing. There’s a traffic embankment in the middle of the road where I should be able to catch traffic going one way on one side, and the other way on the other side. I cross back and forth, pacing, getting more worried as time passes. I start to think of plan bs: I could walk to the fast food place at the end of this highway road but will I get there safely? Will it be open when I do? Will I miss a taxi on the way?
There’s an old couch on the traffic island, of course there fucking is. There are punk kids hanging out on it. I suck it up and approach them and ask, “Does anyone know where the nearest taxi rank is?”
“I can give you the bus stop”, one of them says. “That’s cool, but I really just need a taxi.” “I can give you the bus stop,” like I think I’m too good for the bus, when really I’m just terrified. I think I’m going to be stranded here and not make it through the night. Somebody else says, “I can give you the number for the taxis,” and I say, “Thanks but my phone isn’t working, I don’t have a phone.” “I can give you the phone number.”
I’m trying to communicate with these disconnected kids and suddenly a taxi drives past. I sprint for it and flag it down with all of my desperate energy. I can’t tell if it’s busy or vacant. The driver says, “What are you doing on this street?” and I tell him that there’s a venue there. He says, “It’s okay, it’s not like you’re in Baghdad… but it almost is.”
I’m so relieved to be safe in a taxi and I give him all of my remaining cash as a tip. He tells me that New Orleans has turned to shit since the hurricane: new money getting good deals on rundown places that have been abandoned have created an unfriendly social caste system that hates outsiders. Which is why I copped it.
I pack up my things and I head to the train station early: my next stop is Memphis and I can’t leave NOLA fast enough. I have a train trip that I use to write about the crushing despair of literally every part of the environment there. Writing sets me free.
Two nights later, when speaking with a man who will go on to break my heart and devastate me, I hear, “You basically started at the arse end of the country, and things will get better from here.”
On the train, I get lucky and sit next to a drummer and college kid named Miguel. Out of all the people I could be placed next to, it’s a music fan with tips for all the best venues in Memphis. Where I was meant to again see Pity Sex, but ended up just really, incredibly happy to be alive.
Sometimes travel is about escaping into someone else’s existence; sometimes it’s escaping your own. And usually, it’s about realising you don’t have it so bad at all.