I Walk the Line

IMG_3499New Orleans made national news on Sunday for a shooting at a second line; it was widely misreported across the country as a Mother’s Day parade, which in my opinion is what gave the story legs.  Otherwise it would have just been another shooting in New Orleans.  There are so many things that I could talk about here:  that shootings are as everyday here as they are in lawless third world regimes; that we have undermined and abandoned education and opportunity for so long and marginalized and abandoned our poorest and most vulnerable; that we have a culture that glorifies guns and gun violence.  You get the picture.  And many in and out of the media, and in and out of New Orleans, have already touched upon these issues.

I have plenty to say about all of these things as well, but I’m not in the mood to soapbox today.  Also, as a recent transplant to the area, I try to be guarded and measured with my critiques.  Not out of fear of angering anyone (let’s face it, complacency is our number one problem), but more out of fear I don’t know the whole story.  That’s why you’ll always find me asking.  Asking anyone I know that has deep roots here to tell me, show me, and help me understand this place.  It’s also why you’ll often find me out on the second line, trying to mainline New Orleans culture, and learn some essential truth that has thus far eluded me.

It always starts the same way for me.  I get out there early.  Usually I start by passing by Big Tony and seeing what he’s got on the smoker, or maybe catching Bittles with the Vittles for some wings.  There is a palpable energy.  Something is about to go down.  Brass musicians trickle in one by one, and a trumpet player hits a short staccato “Ba Da Ba Da” while the snare player rolls nervously, reflexively.  I order a cold red stripe and stick it in the koozie I brought from home and just look around.  There is always so much color on the second line.  Older cats wearing pressed pants, spit-shined shoes, and fedoras waiting to step.  Banners and flags and feathers start to arrive.  And smiles.  Everyone is always smiling.  I see familiar faces, and invariably I run into Melvin Holmes, a spry 60 year old that can Buckjump with the best of them and always has a story for me.  We hug each other because every meeting is a good meeting and you never know when it will be your last.

I was planning on going to that second line on Sunday.  I almost wrote that I was “supposed” to go, but that obviously isn’t true if you’re someone that believes everything happens for a reason.  The truth be told, I didn’t go because my back hurt.  Instead, I decided to go for a nice slow walk around the French Quarter to see if I could loosen it up.  I was sitting in the Erin Rose bar when I found out.  My heart dropped.  Then I heard Deborah Cotton was one of the victims, and I couldn’t help but think about where I usually stand.  I walked out of the bar and down onto Royal Street where I called my friend Meg to tell her the news.  And once again, I couldn’t help but notice the disconnect: the weather was so beautiful that day.  It always seems to go down when we least expect it.

I’ve never felt unsafe on a second line.  Maybe that’s because I have some weird New Orleans guardian angel that keeps me out of trouble.  If you’re at all familiar with my second line history you’d probably be inclined to think so.  I’ve been offered rides home, taken to Mardi Gras Indian practice, and personally escorted through the 7th Ward by James Andrews.  Or maybe I’ve never felt unsafe because danger is all around you everyday in New Orleans.  Your head is always on a swivel.  You walk down the middle of the street at night so you can see what’s coming from any direction.  It is, sadly, part of life here.  I often feel safer at a second line than I do walking out my front door.

I never knew I could dance until I started second lining.  When you grow up in white suburban America you generally don’t dance unless you’re female, and even then its more of a big circle of girls stepping awkwardly on the one and the three.  I learned to dance from watching, stepping, and being chided by old ladies who said to me, “No baby, you do it like this.”  And I did it like that.  Through the good-natured ribbing and tutelage of experienced second liners I developed my own style.  No to fancy, but with a little flair.  My days of being a self-conscious wallflower have evaporated enough for me to dance on Sunday nights at Bullet’s.

Many of my best memories since I’ve moved here involve second lines.  I’ll never forget my first one.  Tom Piazza, one of my few friends in town at the time, gave me the rundown on what to expect.  He told me about the king and queen, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the band… the rules of the game.  I walked that entire second line until I ended up in a bar way the hell from where I needed to be without the slightest idea of how I was going to get home.  Fortunately, after a few games of pool with a few guys from Zulu Club, they offered to give me a ride home.  But first they wanted to show my the home of their great Uncle, who they said was a famous bandleader back in the day.  As we drove behind St. Joseph’s Cemetery I got a little nervous.  Especially when the asked me to get out of the car in front of a small tan shotgun shack.  I was pretty sure this is where the story would end.  Instead, we walked up and read a small plaque affixed to the house, met the rest of the family, and they drove me home and told me to “Be safe.”  I haven’t exactly heeded that advice, but I do appreciate it.

So this Sunday, a few of my friends and I — friends who I met second lining — are going to be out there.  It’s not any kind of political statement.  I’m not dancing in the street for solidarity.  I’d like to see an end to the violence, but my presence there isn’t going to affect that.  No, I’ll be out there because it’s something I truly enjoy doing.  It brings me joy.  I like the community.  I like the music.  I need the exercise.  And yes, there is a little defiance in me that says “I won’t let fear take this away from me!”  But that’s not the reason I’ll be there.  I’ll be there because you only get so many days on this earth.  So many days with friends.  So many days to dance without inhibition in the sun.

This is why I walk the line.

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