The past few weeks have been a prolapse of time; as if Dali’s clocks have come alive and slid down into waxen pools that recount neither the hour nor the minute and I can slip easily backwards or forwards — sometimes simultaneously. It is a neat trick I’ve learned in New Orleans, where the persistence of memory is more powerful than the hands of the clock on the St. Louis Cathedral. Time doesn’t work the same way in New Orleans as it does in New York.
New York is governed by time: Times Square is the pulsing heart of the city. Its endless series of tickers, digital displays, newscasts, building to a crescendo as a crystalline ball descends to a chanted count of time — 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — another year measured off in relentless obsession. If you’re on time you’re late in New York. It is a city where time is truly money. Dinner reservations, meetings, concerts, and dates happen promptly there. There is no time to be late. If you’re late you’ll miss out, and if you miss out… well, let’s not even consider that possibility. Just, instead, be on time.
Before I moved to New Orleans, I was relentlessly prompt; my wife, from here, not so much. For me, being late is at least (or was) as rude as cursing in front of someone’s grandma. It is a matter of respect for the time of others. Yet, since my slow, ineluctable move South, like the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, I’ve found the thought of being on time almost absurd.
I sometimes count time in heartbeats, my constant anxiety leads me to check my pulse — a nervous tick. I am constantly aware of time, and have an innate sense so acute that I can often tell you the almost exact time provided at some time that day I’d seen a clock. It is a skill that is incredibly useful in the professional kitchen: time as intuition. You just know when that fish is done. Time becomes a byproduct of observation and the senses. Your body’s metronome clicks out intervals, and sometimes you will catch yourself singing a song or humming or tapping your foot inadvertently. Time becomes not a master, in these instances, but an intimate dance partner.
Uncle Lionel Batiste wore a wristwatch across his knuckles: he had time on his hands. I never really thought about how clever that was until he passed away and I too had time on my hands — time to second line for what seemed like endless hours. I know there are many questions about respect and propriety dealing with how Uncle Lionel’s services and second lines were handled, and I share some of these reservations. It is always a sticky and culturally sensitive subject when the issue of who belongs is questioned — and often the question itself is disingenuous and sanctimonious. But I’m not writing about that, I’m writing about time. Time is sterile, but times are not: they are good and bad, best and worst, hard and soft. Uncle Lionel Batiste knew good times and bad, and he knew how to have a good time. I think that is the spirit that most of the revelers were trying to tap into, or tap out of, and to find themselves with time on their hands. And if any man ever knew how to extend time, to wring it out like my wet shirt after a rain drenched Friday second line, it was Uncle Lionel, who seemed determined not to let the party end. After a week in which time stood still for so many in a movie theater in Colorado, I can understand the sentiment to want to cheat time, to take it back and to suck a little joy out of it like a crawfish head.
The Tuesday after Uncle Lionel passed was my favorite second line and also the night before I flew back to New Jersey, back in time… or is that forward. I can’t really remember. It was that night I got to know Kermit, James and Glenn David Andrews as well as meet many of the Batiste clan as we de facto shut down the street outside of Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy. It was loosely organized and intimate, and we walked for what seemed like eternity, stopping into bars for the occasional High Life or Heineken, the crowd and the musicians one. I was told some amazing stories about Uncle which I get to keep. As much as I like to share certain things, I feel some things are sacred, unspeakable. That night time stopped for me.
And the next morning it started again rudely, early in the AM as I left the North Shore to drive across the dark expanse that is Lake Pontchartrain to MSY, destination: EWR, or Newark airport. As we bounced steadily across the Causeway (the only thing I know of in Louisiana that is not a musician that keeps time in intervals) I couldn’t help but get emotional. I was going home to see my son for the first time in three months. There is no science that will ever disprove the emotive side of “Relativity” to me; although what Einstein didn’t know is that similar to a prisoner of war, it’s possible to compartmentalize that time and condense it and render it meaningless. You think only about the moment and what is necessary in that moment, and suddenly you can control the passage of time and the relative pain of distance and loss. When you get close, however, when you can see the finish line, you suddenly realize exactly how far you have to go, and time and distance become acute and painful. So it was for me, as the three hour trip into the arms of my son felt much longer and I was fraught with nervous energy and guilt.
Relativity is an especially cruel master in relation to time when longing is involved, and the time I spent with my son was far too short. It felt like I had just deplaned when I had to again board. I felt like a ghost that had descended the clouds and visited him in a dream, soothing tears and assuaging fears until I was able to again visit. The last night was uneasy for both of us as he cried knowing I was leaving in the morning. I let him sleep in my bed that night and we watched the Yankees game together. I tried to answer his questions and realized that baseball is incredibly hard to explain at times, especially to a five year old. And explanations didn’t really matter. I choked back tears. I have the unusually ability to hold back tears at appropriate times and cry at unsettling and unexpected times, like at bad tearjerkers. It is a matter of control. The idea of time is all about control. Trying to harness the rhythms of the day into set increments. Trying to stop the flow of tears that drip upon the comforter furtively in a darkened room as “Now I lay me” is recited softly. But in the end you have no control, and if time isn’t a fiction it is a useless measure, because no one knows how much they are granted. Thus we plan and hope for more of it — I hope for another day in my son’s arms.
I’ll fly away is probably my favorite spiritual; I was singing it under my breath when I boarded the plane. “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” Fly away to where I wasn’t really sure. MSY for the moment. Forward into time, or no time.
The scariest thing the minister said at Uncle Lionel’s service had to do with eternity. The idea of eternity terrifies me, the idea of never ending far more troubling then the idea of ending. I want my love to carry on, but I’m hoping my body and spirit can someday rest. I already feel tired, but I know I have far too much to do before I sleep. I have time on my hands. And I have a responsibility to use it wisely.