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New Orleans: Time and Place

May 15, 2007

Nick Marinello
Photography By / Illustration By Arthur Nead

Location, location, location. Locality rocks. Especially here, on the watery fringe of civilization, where dubious global positioning seems to have fostered a fierce -- if fragile -- sense of place. Along the River, by the Lake, above the Gulf, at 30 degrees north and 90 degrees west, amid a hundred neighborhoods both occupied and ghosted by the storm -- the city is right here, slap-dash central to itself and inhabiting the leading edge of Time as it pushes headlong out of Katrina and into whatever it is that's not Katrina.

tulspring_07_drjohnBecause we experience them together, we tend to think of time and place as an inseparable pair, as if they were cosmic twins sharing the same hairstyle and way of dressing. Truth is, time and place are often intersecting at interesting, even difficult angles and sometimes it feels as if they are not intersecting at all.

Where y'at? It's 11:15 on a Tuesday night at an Oak Street club, and the band ought to be on stage because it's a weeknight and some folks do have to get up in the morning, but word is the tuba player has hit a nail on his way to the gig, and so the crowded little room filled with this motley set of night denizens -- many whom will be bleary-eyed when the alarm rings in the morning -- wait for the music that waits on a spare tire. 

It's early morning at a truck stop in Irish Bayou, the farthermost outpost in eastern New Orleans, and a trucker is lingering over his last sip of coffee while lamenting that he has to be in Nashville by late afternoon and will miss a crawfish boil to which he was invited the night before. It's lunchtime at a corner grocery by the River, where the cashier ticks off a list of landmarks in her Arabi neighborhood as she tries to help a customer recall the location of a house where a friend lived more than 40 years ago. But the decades in between their experiences are too large an obstacle and the customer leaves with only a carton of milk and his fading memory.

Seems we are always trying to reconcile time and place to behave in a way that is more convenient to our lives. Good luck. Didn't Einstein tell us that time and place are not nearly as dependable as we think they are, and that the only thing we can depend on as being constant is the speed of light? And try setting your watch to that. No wonder there's not a band in New Orleans that can start on time.

Refried confusion is making itself clear/ Wonder which way do I go to get on out of here, sings New Orleans native Mac Rebennak, aka Dr. John, in his signature song "Right Place Wrong Time," which ponders the earthly consequences of the cosmic disconnect.

Remove the barriers of place and time and picture Albert and Mac sitting down to have a drink, or better yet, playing a duet, with Mac on the keys and Albert on the fiddle. After concluding a heartfelt version of the Rolling Stones' "Time Is On My Side," Albert, wearing a quizzical expression, turns to his partner. "Mac, explain to me your concept of 'refried confusion.'" Good thing the evening is young.

Meanwhile, back in the here and now the evening grows later.

"Yeah, it already feels like a light year since I moved here," says a guy who is cooling his heels by making small talk to a group of folks who have stepped outside the Oak Street club for some fresh air. Sure, he's misplaced his hyperbole, but he's had a few extra beers waiting for the band and, really, he's no Einstein to begin with.

But he does know this: There's something in the air tonight that feels, well, good. It's funny how the breeze cools to comfort the humidity that clings to his skin. It occurs to him that being here on this sidewalk with these people at this moment means not being anywhere else -- not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Actually, he's been in town for only a few months, but the city is already working its strange, zero-sum mojo. Soon he'll be forgetting what living is like in other places except for the evaporating sense that life there is tuned to a key in which he seems to no longer have a voice.

He looks at his watch and whistles. It's late, and he thinks perhaps he should call it a night. But just then the group outside the club stirs to open a path wide enough for a tuba to get through.

A minute later the band's on stage. Better late than never.

Locality rocks.

Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Office of University Publications.

Spring 2007

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000