Sitting in the bar Le Bon Temps Roule, an easy stroll from the lush white stone campus of the private university Tulane, I’m introduced to two ex-cons from Angola. Not the country, but the notorious prison in Louisiana, a state which has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. They’re nice men, calm, and although one them is very drunk, quiet in a particular way. The drunk one speaks to me at length about his story, then commends me for listening to him. The other ex-con is introduced to me by my newly minted bar pal, a clean-cut assistant engineer in the merchant marine originally from California. This other ex-con is sober, dreadlocked, and like his friend, in his late middle years. He talks briefly about the annual annual Angola Rodeo, organized by the prison warden: a bull is brought in, and a hundred dollars is strapped between the bull’s horns. Prisoners then have the chance to seize this reward, only if they dare a goring by the bull. It’s an incredible story, and despite my incredulity, is completely true. “My life is worth more than a hundred dollars,” he said, and I agreed.
The ex-cons are black, and the rest of the bar is filled with white people. I suppose I’m not a white person, but I’m neither black and this is, after all, the South. New Orleans is at this time of the year winter cool, but beautiful and temperate, warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt at the mid-point of the day. The city streets are clean, and there is evidence enough of renovated homes, amidst the abandoned commercial buildings of the city core, to encourage thoughts that things are getting better years after Katrina swept through. The argument on this point varies from one resident to another, but there is a consistent series of facts about New Orleans that all will agree with. The food is to die for; and crime is everywhere. Where is the crime, exactly? I ask.
It’s noticeable that though New Orleans is friendly in parts to the pedestrian, there’s not a whole lot of foot traffic on the streets after dark. One of my other new bar friends, an aspiring writer from Alabama who tends bar down the street, regales me of the gang rape that took place only a block away. A woman, on her way to work, was kidnapped by a gang of men, assaulted, and at six-thirty on a weekday morning. In a neighbourhood largely described as being affluent, though far less so only a few blocks down that way, over a bit closer to the river. On the bus ride in from the airport to the central business district, two men on greeted one another in front of me and began a discussion about a mutual friend who had just been shot. “Shot!” said one, and the other nodded, and said, “Shot. Sure. You know how it is.”
Indeed, if it weren’t for this fact of life—the frightening mélange of guns, poverty, and random violence—the comparison to Montréal would be easy. My aspiring writer, who quoted liberally from Hemingway and those two Germanic Henrys, Miller and Bukowski, had lived in Canada for a time, and predicted my thinking. “Montréal’s the frozen New Orleans,” he said, and the relationship is apt, historically and socially. The city has the same sort of compact urban density and plan, narrow roads and two to three story homes shaded by neat rows of trees, connected by broad avenues and boulevards. It’s a different architecture from one city to another, but the feeling is unmistakably European, and that they were both once seats of French colonial power in the New World completes the analogy. The people of the Big Easy like to eat, drink, and smoke, and they have a style about them which says bon vivant, which is just another way of saying joie de vivre.
The night wore on and the writer left us to pursue the now off-shift bartender of Le Bon Temps Roule. He wrote, he claimed, “only when he was drinking,” and disdained the mentality that writing was a workman’s job of regular stints before the keys. The book he was working on was about the everyday hypocrisy of life, the lies that each of us tell and enact without consciousness, and my attempt to qualify this as a morality tale was unsuccessful. Later that same evening his friend, the mariner, told me while we traveled to see some live music that the writer also wrote poetry. The engineer also told me that the sober ex-con had been incarcerated for murder. He had been in a fight as a young man and his opponent pulled a gun on him, and it came down to him or the other guy.
At the Maple Leaf the music was loud, the crowd energetic, and after a while, the Miller High Life wore thinner than usual. On stage was a better built version of a young Stevie Wonder called Nigel Hall, each song working to an organ roar crescendo that sounded much as the last one did, but was good music all the same. Later, the band and its entourage came to the small bar counter at the back of the venue where we sat, and the red-capped lead singer embraced a blonde woman before reluctantly shaking my hand. It was a supple hand with rough skin like sandpaper, used to manual labour despite the fluency over which they had run on the electric organ. A musician’s life, as can be the case, is variable between songs.
Stepping out in the late night, the stream of life coursing through my veins, the mariner cautioned me that it would wiser to call a cab. And unsaid but by his body language, to wait for its arrival within the bar where it would be safer. Such precautions are not unusual for, say, Nairobi, but appear to be the norm for this city within the leading nation of our world. For a city that breathes in such deep exhalations through the night and into the day, it is undermined by the highly unflattering patina of social inequity that is a scourge of human society in the twenty-first century.