Across town, a woman waits along the Mississippi River. In New Orleans it’s about twenty minutes before 1995 turns to 1996, and as she waits, without warning , she is struck in the head by a bullet not intended for her. She dies shortly thereafter. The bullet, police find, comes from a gun not fired at anyone in particular but sent directly upwards into the air, likely in a benign gesture of celebration for the coming new year, the person who triggered it probably unaware of its resting point, unaware of the conclusion. When I hear about this I can’t help but track the bullet in an imagined narrative, a rowdy pistol waving and repeatedly shot, not much different from the way Hollywood portrays post-warring Native Americans, the bullet rapidly moving through the night sky into the quiet until arching back down towards the ground, rapidly taking aim. The event is a sort of a harder representation of what is happening not a half hour away, where I stand, surveying an undulating crowd coated in neon on Bourbon Street. It’s the biggest party I can imagine, heavy and multidimensional that fans out in all directions like ribbons of light from a star. Everyone moves and yells as if they have a life expectancy of just that night, as if they are, in that moment, free of consequence and unconcerned of aftermath. Me? I’m looking for a booth, a place amongst it, wondering which word I am within this story.
And any good story of plunge needs to start on the cliff. My cliff was a section of humid curb outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans and it was apt, that step down, because I immediately felt like I was making a singular descent into a wave of already-moving life, the spray of animation reflecting what I imagine as the 1940’s Wicker Park of Nelson Algren’s late-night Chicago—the jubilance, the seedy, the pockets of creation and embellishment, of anecdote, of drunkenness and heave of dew-sweated bodies, voices amplifying in unchecked conversation. Everyone was talking over each other trying to just to let their words escape, as if squeezing a sponge, the words collecting overhead like an umbrella and with this, as I stood, I felt both terribly alone while enlivened to walk amongst the color. It was New Year’s Eve and I’d graduated high school just a half year earlier, bisecting the line of “young adult” and whatever comes after that but before “adult.” We were on a short vacation, me and my family, and that night I longed for something, some type of exploit, though I didn’t have the details thought out; I didn’t exactly know what it looked like at the time. Perhaps it was to just be momentarily on my own, to be nonaligned or governed, to be amongst what I wondered and maybe hoped was a representation, a micrograph of the bigger world. I asked my parents for an hour, to which even though they were fine with must’ve brought them some level of unease, those the days before cell phones and instant connection. The crowd in front of us was tangled; the step off that curb would lead me into a soup of hedonism and I tried to hide my mix of excitement and hesitation, which I hoped would be interpreted as nonchalance. I stepped and walked off into the swarm and tried to establish a base of where I was and where to go. There were pockets of people, groups that kept bounded and others that craned their necks to see past themselves, to try and pull in their surroundings. I couldn’t tell if the majority of what I was looking at were solitary mobs or if it was a slow, mass movement down the street. There were huddles outside of bar entrances, the doors all open which limited the separation between inside and outside. There were splashes of green and yellow and purple and quickly pieced together costumes. There were women flipping their shirts up for beads, which I heard about and, while I was a teenager and once was the kid who watched scrambled Cinemax with hopes of catching a glimpse of indefinite nipple, New Orleans was quickly more than just some cheap nudity for me. Although it ran at a full, unsustainable throttle, the street was packed with story and any memories I wanted to keep I hoped would come, in some way, from these collective plotlines.
I wanted to walk with a drink. I already had a couple of beers from the hotel fridge and there were two reasons I didn’t think I’d have a problem keeping the party going: 1. I felt like I was outside the jurisdiction of any type of law that would stop me from walking around in public with a drink. I figured with all the nakedness and public urination, most laws were thin for the night and a well-collected 18-year-old strolling with a cocktail wasn’t worth anyone’s paperwork. 2. I wasn’t really 18. I was indeed 21. Or so said the fake ID I bought with my friends from a booth in the back of a flea market in northwest Indiana. When buying the ID I had my choice of home and I chose to be from Kettering, Ohio because although a real place, I couldn’t ever imagine meeting someone actually from there. It felt safe. I would be the only person I’d ever come across from Kettering. The only name I wanted was based off a real person, someone I looked up to from my days of watching “Quantum Leap” and “Magnum, P.I.”, that being, of course, screenwriter and producer Don Bellirsario, a strong name that would play off my Italian roots and affection for hour-long evening serials. I later found out that Don Bellisario came from a town named “Cokeburg, Pennsylvania,” which sounded even phonier than Kettering, Ohio. The first place I came to was a bar of sorts, maybe more of a kiosk, built in between a real bar and some gated up storefront where I could get a hurricane, which is a drink with syrups and sugar and juice and a thimble portion of rum, or any color daiquiri you can think of. I ordered something blue and frozen and festive and got it without any sort of question of my age whatsoever. I’ve recently seen some pictures of myself from around that age and I look so much like a young mix of Vinnie Barbarino from “Welcome Back, Kotter” and Stanley Spadowski from Weird Al Yankovic’s movie “UHF” and I’m sure that bartender cared less about my real age and more about getting the next drink for the next person poured. I walked away high and in search of my next experience which came upon me pretty quickly.
In those days I wore a University of Michigan ball cap regularly, and as I walked by a crowd that recognized it they screamed and quickly pulled me into their circle. I don’t think they ever even asked me if I was a college student and although I assumed they all were, who the hell knows, really? I don’t think it mattered all that much and before long we were talking some of Chicago and how great the whole night was and then one of the girls in the group just full-on mouth-kissed me and it was like a type of beatification in New Orleans night life. Someone gave me a pull of their small bottle of brown liquor and we continued to laugh with the glow of bar signs brightening our faces, collectively euphoric. At some point my novelty wore away and the group talked just amongst themselves. I realized my newness had over-cooked I felt like a dangling old leaf. I don’t know what I expected but still thanked them and we parted with an anticlimactic split. I mostly walked on the sidewalks at that point, more comfortable on the periphery, transitioning through sounds. With bar doors opened, variants of jazz escaped into the night and then got lost in the bellowing of the street. It was an interesting border to stand on, trying to balance the loudness and eventually it all became background utterance. I scanned the street crowd and was amazed at these men and women, the way they called out and grabbed at flung beaded necklace, it was like a match of Hungry, Hungry Hippos, this scraping desire for abundance, the stretch for more. I wondered how mutated everyone was, how they presented on the street and on the sidewalk then versus how they were at home or at the office. Nothing and nobody seemed real. It was then I noticed a tall man covered in silver across the street. I walked over to him and I realized he was some form of a busker. He was propped on a box and wore a suit and a top hat and had glasses and readied a saxophone near his lips—everything painted a metallic silver. He stood there frozen, waiting, and I studied him hoping to witness the artifice of his act, as if seeing his chest move in breath was the fraud that would contrast the reality of his monochromatic statuism. I pulled out a dollar and dropped it into his open instrument case, which was adorned with a sign that read, “Sax Machine.” Just as quickly as the money landed, he came to life, moving in clunky shifts while playing a meandering song, fit for the swells and valleys of our surroundings. He soon stopped, refrozen. I dropped another dollar and watched his performance again. I felt weirdly kindred to him, seeing someone who wanted to be both part of the greater mass and the background at the same time. I tried to talk with him hoping he’d break character but he didn’t. And there we both stood, two people whose axis branched in different offshoots, waiting, for something genuine or the chance to be part of something genuine, to insert ourselves into the world in hopes of getting something real from it.
The Sax Machine, probably worked another couple of hours and then closed his case and walked home. I imagine him standing in his shower, letting the water peel away the paint. I imagine him in his kitchen, warming up food, eating it on his couch. I imagine him thinking of his other real life—the life outside of the statue while drunk tourists poured money into his case, the life that sits on benches and watches the river, the life that loves someone, the life with someone disappointed in his lack of love.
I realized that’s who I hoped I would meet—the man under the makeup, the girl not commoditizing plastic beads, the person who wanted to tell me a story about New Orleans on a nothing Tuesday in September—free of tourists and the sweet sour stink of puked beer and piss. The people who weren’t just living as fast as they could for one night. The thing under the eggshell that held different realities and truths then I experienced back home. And maybe I did, though just in hints. Maybe that’s all the fleeting life of that night could give me. I think, now, about myself on that street. And I think about that bullet—shot clean and fast out of the mouth of that gun and I think about myself, arcing up in anticipation, pulling away from the Earth, hoping to continually rise, unaware of what I would meet on my way back down.