I can smell beignets in the air, hear the scream of a steel guitar. There’s a guy on the corner waving me down, fully clad in his waiters uniform, a wide smile pulled across his face. That place? They’ve got the best food in the Quarter. You’ll only know if you try it. A block away, someone’s wails into a karaoke microphone. The sludge in the gutters shine with the reflection of neon lights–somehow, here, even the sludge is attractive, buzzing with strange electricity, with an unshakable energy that you won’t soon forget. This is Bourbon Street, at least an outsider’s take. And while many would claim Bourbon is the pulse of all of Louisiana, they’d be wrong. Because I’ve had my finger on the pulse, and it’s far quieter than the incessant buzz of countless bars.
The closer we get to Mardi Gras, the more I miss it. Don’t get me wrong–when I visited Louisiana it wasn’t during Mardi Gras, and quite honestly I doubt I’d have adored the Quarter as much if it had been. With that many people, there’s an inevitable overflow of people onto the otherwise quiet Royal Street. I liked Royal the way I saw it–silent, nearly abandoned, its distinctly Southern homes standing in the shadow of ancient trees even in the dead of night. Those of you who know me and those of you who have read SEED are privy to the fact that when I packed my bags and left Louisiana in 2008, I didn’t pack everything. A sliver of my soul is out there somewhere, hovering over a murky bayou, twisting through the kudzu, tangled in the branches of an ancient oak. SEED was my attempt to take you with me, my attempt to drift back there on nothing but memory.
Louisiana is infectious, from the alligators that lazily drift through the swamps to the dilapidated shotgun shack along the water’s edge; there’s something in the air that turns you inside out, makes you feel like you’ve been there a thousand times even though it’s your first time. They say that meeting your soul mate is a lot like reuniting with a long lost friend. Maybe that’s it. I’ve stood on the Pacific Coast of Big Sur and watched the waves crash onto the shore. I’ve walked the streets of Manhattan while the buildings towered overhead. I’ve stood at the foot of the Matterhorn and had coffee in Freud’s favorite Viennese cafe. All of those places are still with me, but none of them haunt me like my geographical soul mate. Will I find another place that grabs hold of me the way Louisiana has? Maybe. Of all the places I’ve seen, I haven’t seen anything yet. For now, however, I stand firm: Louisiana has a certain kind of magic no other place can touch. There are ghosts in the air, secrets in the soil, Voodoo tangled in the moss that hangs from the trees.
I knew there would be magic. Anyone who has seen pictures of Lafayette’s cemetery #1 knows that. Magic like that is easy to feel after dark. What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d be able to feel it in broad daylight, be it on Bourbon Street or the distant town of Saint Francisville. But it was there. Walking the immaculate grounds of Oak Alley plantation in Valcherie, even just driving along the highways–seemingly in the middle of nowhere when, suddenly, there’s a picturesque Southern town winking past the car window–that magic was inescapable, and it came back with me. A thousand miles away, and I still feel it.
If there’s a place that can change you, that can twist you from the inside out, it’s her. Maybe I’m more open to it, maybe the Voodoo slithered up through my feet and into my blood. Maybe they poisoned my food, because everything was ‘the best’ I’d ever eaten. Maybe… but I doubt it.
I say that I left a piece of my soul in Louisiana, but in truth, I was just making room. I had to let a little piece of myself go to fit a piece of Louisiana inside my heart. Mardi Gras, king cakes and beads… they make me miss it because they remind me of where I could be when I’m not. Maybe I should bake myself a king cake and eat up until I find that plastic baby–and then I can wish for a reunion, me and that jazzy, haunting, beautiful place.