This colorful lovely is a house in New Orleans. For some months, over half a decade ago, it was a house that I called home. Fresh with a new paint coat of whatever colors you’d call those, the house looks as full of its character now as it did those years ago.
But this was the first time I’d seen the house since I left New Orleans in the summer of 2012.
My relationship with the house, like my relationship with New Orleans at large, is as undefined as it is positive; fuzzed of definition, bright with life. Perhaps the house, then, is a metaphor for the poignancy we all want, perhaps it’s just the type of perspective one gets from the lez bon temp roulez lifestyle of New Orleans.
I say the relationship is undefined because this might not have truly been a home, not for that long anyway. Or was it? I stayed in New Orleans for less than half of a year. Is that “living” somewhere? What’s the definition for that length of time, anyway? One month? Three? Eight? Years?
Revisiting New Orleans this month I am reminded that I know the city. I know places there—and I know streets, and restaurants, and where to go for this or that. I know more than someone who has just visited. Being there, I found myself wanting to explore what exactly what my relationship was to the place that I knew, but still felt like a visitor. Because spending time there again, I was flooded with love for the city; the special things only it has. And there are a lot.
What I decided was that my relationship in terms of living/passing through there didn’t matter as much as the positivity of what my memory had kept and the path the New Orleans brought me down.
Because when I decided to go to in late 2011, I had no idea what the city looked like. I hadn’t seen as much as a single map of it. So I certainly didn’t know what my future neighborhood, the Treme, was—or where it was. Or, perhaps more importantly, what it meant. Because in New Orleans, like some other cities of noble histories, neighborhoods are more than their names. They are stories themselves.
I definitely didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Ursulines’ either. I’m not even sure I do now.
But I found a post on Craigslist. It was a couple looking for a housemate or two. They had just found a house in the Treme. It was recently “fixed up”. They couldn’t afford the whole thing on their own to rent, but they wanted to move in the same day I was planning to come down. Most importantly, they were open to temporary arrangements. I was intrigued and that was before they really even sold me on the house itself. It had a backyard like you wouldn’t believe, with a patio surrounded by a tangled giant green garden. Beyond that backyard, just steps away, was a historically black church built in the 1840s.
I called. Things clicked. I was in.
In for something I had no idea about. What was a ‘shotgun’ house anyway?
But that didn’t matter. I was 22. I had just gotten back from South Korea and had no discernible plan but finding some kind of way to make money and continuing to travel. A friend was in New Orleans. He spoke highly of it, especially for someone looking to find something interesting.
I was dating a girl at the time as well. She was on the East Coast and I somehow convinced her to join me on the journey. We packed my car and drove from Chicago, right up to Ursuline Street where we’d find this house behind its purple shutter stacks.
I’m not sure if it sounds like the kind of barely-baked plan that it was. But it was certainly that. And I was proud of that, in a way—the way that a 22 year old should and could be proud of throwing his life in a car and driving to a city like New Orleans to figure some shit out.
But here’s the twist. Here’s what came back to me when looking at that house this last weekend: it all worked out.
The house was bare when we got there but soon it started getting filled. With furniture and things we brought, but also with music from the roommates who played several instruments. The ceilings were high, the garden grew in the warm February, the neighbors were all interesting. They played trumpet deep into the night. It echoed everywhere. It was a quintessential New Orleans house in some ways, without even knowing it.
The days filled in. I found work. We didn’t have wi-fi so it gave good reason to explore the various coffee shops of the city and really dive into virtual work. I made friends, and got to spend good time with old ones. I explored the long avenues Uptown. The (unbelievably talented) roommates played house concerts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers filmed a music video on the corner, we met Quentin Tarantino in a bar while he was in NOLA filming Django.
Drinks were had, nights went long. Mardi Gras was celebrated; as was French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday Second line parades. The food was relished: gumbo, po-boys, red beans and rice, alligator sausage, crawfish, way more. Visitors came to see the city and I got to play host; at Commander’s Palace, at Le Bon Temps Roule, on Frenchmen Street.
The lists are incomplete here but are dizzyingly long for the short time there, because the days are so full of life there.
And that’s what my relationship comes back to me as; for the house on Ursulines Street and for the city. Life being packed in; crowded hours of joy. Little sleep, lots of laughs.
But what compels me to write is what it all means to me now. Because New Orleans was a start for me. A start of a nomadic, off-kilter way of living that I’ve kept in spurts since then. And sure, I went to South Korea first which started the whole travel vibe, but I knew I’d get a foreign-ized experience traveling so many thousands of miles away. And it was contained there; come for a year, teach, leave.
NOLA was open, an experiment in living with a loose plan. And it turned into this gift because it worked so well; because it showed me I could live beautifully by being groundless. In that, it inspired in me a lifestyle which I am still crafting. Which has lived on now for the better part of a decade.
Some things have changed in New Orleans, some have not. The house is still there, though it looks fresh. When I left New Orleans this time, my thought was one of relief. That New Orleans is still there. That the house is. That my plans are still loose—this time I escape to Mexico City with as little reason as I went to New Orleans, but with a whole new goal. I left NOLA last week knowing that if I need to, the city would be there to return back to. Should I need it for another experiment.