You never feel as alive as you do when you’re trying not to die.
I have this quaint notion that I’ll visit the Meccas of musical North America. New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville.
It starts with a music festival announcement: Brand New, Circa Survive, the Hold Steady, Say Anything, Seahaven, The Front Bottoms, The So So Glos, Kevin Devine, Braid. If that sounds like heaven – that’s because it is: specifically, it’s Commonground Music Festival held in Lansing, Michigan, in 2014.
From my desk at my workplace in my 6,500 person town in rural Australia, I check out the ticket details. For kicks. Just to see. I find that a ticket costs $35 American dollars. You can’t buy a band tee, let alone a record in Australia for $35. The festival is a no-brainer, and lucky too, because my brain shuts down and my heart adds to cart, and clicks purchase.
I decide I’ll take this trip and tack on as many musical experiences as possible: it will be summer in North America, I’ll have an excuse to almost entirely bypass our brutal winter and instead fill it with punk rock and adventure on the other side of the globe. I can go via Amnesia Rockfest in Quebec and see Brand New. I can reroute and see Tigers Jaw and Pity Sex in Toronto, with Eliot Babin on drums. I can go to Warped Tour. To Warped Tour!
A whole bunch of coincidences lead me to New Orleans.
It feels like the universe has paved the way for me to visit, and I’m a kid who acts on her instincts. All I really know about the city is that once, a man left his wife there (with forty five cents and a can of beans.) And also, that the Menzingers are playing, and the Menzingers have me by the fucking heart.
The plane lands at New Orleans airport and I make my way to the luggage collect area, waiting for my bags to carouse around the conveyor belt with the rest of my flight’s. The people I wait with look and speak like they are from the television show Hart of Dixie.
A little bit disconcerting.
I get in a taxi and a man drives me to my hotel, a sprawling resort on the outskirts of downtown New Orleans. He points out the landmarks on the way in a thick accent, and I politely nod because I’m only getting every third word. I wheel my suitcase to the hotel lobby and wait in line. Called to the front, I read my receptionist’s name, written on her name badge: Katrina.
A little bit of an omen.
I check in. I’ve heard that the jazz bars in the French Quarter are the place to be: I take a streetcar but get off too early and rationalise that I’ll get some dinner instead, then maybe go find some music. I turn the corner and walk to Bourbon Street.
In my experience, places never really live up to their reputations. New York is magical but I didn’t see any muggings or murders; Paris is pretty but there weren’t couples proposing on every corner; London is bustling but I saw no gangs of hungry youths, no Oliver and friends. Turning onto Bourbon Street, though…
First a homeless man asks me for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, can’t help him out, but he follows me up Bourbon St with eyes that are glazed over and a wobble in his gait that makes him seem unpredictable, like he’s ready to lunge. I look for shops I can hide in to shake him off.
There’s neon and noise everywhere. Around me are packs of bros armed with icy, slushy cocktails in plastic cups. There’s a naked girl in a doorframe, enticing wandering bros to step inside. There are countless strip clubs, fluorescent signs lighting up windows that hint at dungeons beneath. It’s 9pm on a Sunday.
Still trying to evade the homeless man, I think, “He won’t follow me into a restaurant,” and rationalise that I’ll feel better when I’ve eaten something. I go into a Willie’s Chicken Shack. I order a meal that comes served with a scone. I feel a tiny bit more myself. I feel a tiny bit nonplussed about the scone. I start to watch the other diners.
There is a super obese lady sitting at a table looking lonely; a fit, black guy in a wife beater walks in off the street and sits down next to her. They start talking. I think, “Wow, humanity in a place like this. What an unlikely looking friendship. Isn’t that nice.”
Then the man leaves, the lady gets up, and I realise she’s either going to sell her body or drugs.
When an entire street has a cult reputation of being a non-stop party, and it’s overrun with vice, it turns out to not be a super fun place to visit when you’re a blonde girl on your own. Lesson learned, I think. I’ll catch a view of the Mississippi River, maybe follow it back to my hotel, and go to bed, I think. Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is The Menzingers.
Back past the streetcar tracks, I wander to the banks of the river. It’s big, it’s really big. It feels immense, monumental.
I think, “I’ll follow the river back to my hotel. I’ll have a good sleep, wake up in the morning, and start my New Orleans adventure then.” Reassured, I exhale for maybe the first time all night. I stare ahead at the stars above the river and the reflection of the moon on the water. It feels a world removed from Bourbon St two streets over; it’s quiet and there’s space. I can hear ripples in the water.
Then two rats run directly at me and I scream.
Preferring a rat-free route instead of the riverbed, I spy a shortcut. It winds around the back of some buildings, dimly lit, no one around, but a thick, sticky ominous essence in the air. I start toward the buildings, jumping at shuffles, shadows, and hisses.
My brain takes a holiday when I’m on holiday.
I realise that I’m walking in a back alley, alone at night in New Orleans, and legitimately nobody on earth knows where I am. Here is a fun fact about New Orleans according to the real estate website NeighbourhoodScout:
“Violent offenses tracked included rape, murder and non-negligent manslaughter, armed robbery, and aggravated assault, including assault with a deadly weapon. According to NeighborhoodScout’s analysis of FBI reported crime data, your chance of becoming a victim of one of these crimes in New Orleans is one in 102.”
Here’s another one: New Orleans is safer than 5% of cities in America.
I snap out of it. I have to, for reasons of self-preservation. I take the longer, more brightly lit way back.
I get back to my hotel safely, and I think, this night doesn’t have to be a write off. I’m safe now. I’m okay. I’m safe. I sit at the bar and order a red wine and a gumbo, because when you’re in New Orleans that’s apparently a thing that you do. Then, a man enters, and out of all the empty seats at the bar, he takes the one directly next to me.
He’s bald, the shiny head type of bald that makes you wonder if he’s trying to collect reflective surfaces to gaze into. He asks me what I’m doing in New Orleans, I tell him I’m on holiday. He asks me what I do back home, I tell him I work in fashion. “No way, I work in fashion, too!” he tells me, and gives me a high five. He starts to pitch his clothing label to me. “No Color, it’s called. Because at the end of the day, without colour, we’re all the same. No Color. It’s going on t-shirts. The shirts won’t have colour on them.” High five.
You know those moments when you look back at something that happened and think, “Well, that guy was clearly on drugs, and I just completely missed it”? I’m having one of those moments right now.
“You should give me your phone number, we should get together.” I tell him I lost my phone, he looks pointedly at my iPod touch which admittedly, does look like a phone, and I tell him he’ll have to catch me on email. I try to placate him by saving his number in the notes section of my iPod touch and then showing him. High five. He talks some more about fashion, and business, and the Mardi Gras, and New Orleans. More high fives. Then eventually he shakes my hand and wanders off, and I think: Jesus.
Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is The Menzingers. And they have me by the fucking heart.
Seriously though, The Menzingers.