Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rendezvous on Mystery Street

Instead of spending time talking about something that happened 10 years ago this weekend, I thought I would devote this post to telling a little story about New Orleans via the protagonist of my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel. This is a brand new chapter of the novel, part of my current editing project. Harper's adventure is inspired by my own 2005 Jazz Fest experience; I did get in for free that year because of a friend and we did have to rendezvous on Mystery Street to make it happen. We wanted to see The Meters like everyone else. I hope this honors the spirit of New Orleans as much as anything else I could write.

I Never Travel Far, Without a Little Big Star
May 2005
Rendezvous on Mystery Street
by Harper Monroe

There are certain places that no matter how many times you visit remain as you saw them the first time. Much like the postcard you tuck into a book or memory box, the image is a little worn around the edges but never less vibrant than the first time you were there. If you close your eyes you can see that place and hear it and smell it and remember the feeling of the sun on your face as you walked around and got to know it a bit better. No matter how long you stay away or how often you visit, that first experience is fixed forever in your brain.

New Orleans has always been that place for me. My first trip to the city took place the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. My dad was big on road trips. My older siblings would have preferred a cruise or maybe Hawaii. My mother wanted a nice hotel and no amusement parks.While I don't believe that I was able to truly appreciate all that the city had to offer at the time, I knew in my fifteen year old heart that I would never be able to get New Orleans out of my system. I vividly recall hearing snippets of music as we walked around the French Quarter (I was too young to go in most places) and I have a stack of Polaroids of colorful people and beautiful buildings to take me back. Jackson Square was full of musicians and artists and psychics. My mom wouldn't let me get my palm read in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral but did allow an artist to draw our family for a nominal fee.

New Orleans is probably the most alive place I have ever been. I would never pretend that it is without its problems (all cities have problems and New Orleans seems to have many of them) but there is still something more vital and more spirited about New Orleans despite those problems.

One of my father's favorite albums is Fire On The Bayou the 1975 release from The Meters. I was obsessed with the song "They All Ask'd For You" as a child. We used to dance around the living room every time it would come on. If you don't know The Meters, I suggest you go out and find some of their music...STAT. The band has not appeared with its origin lineup in decades but as fate would have it, they are reuniting for this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I have never been to Jazz Fest. This is my year.

My friend, Marilee, picked me up from the airport with the greatest news. "I got us free tickets for Saturday when The Meters are playing." No hello or how was your flight; just this little nugget of wonderful. I was expecting to pay for tickets but Marilee being Marilee had figured it all out. "I know a guy," she continued. "All we have to do is rendezvous on Mystery Street."

I did a bit of a double take as I gave her a hug. "Could you repeat what you just said?"

Marilee made a face at me and repeated, "All we have to do is rendezvous on Mystery Street."

"You're using the word "rendezvous" like it's something one says casually like 'meet' or 'connect with'."

"Well, it's what we're doing and it's more fun than just saying, 'We have to meet George on Mystery Street.' A rendezvous with a musician is what you need on this trip so we're rendezvousing." Marilee pushed past other arrivals and led the way to the car.

Now before you get all excited for me and envision my running off with a New Orleans musician, you should know that George is 70 and has been happily married to his wife, Dorothy for 45 years. I know, I know it was too good to be true. However, George plays in a jazz band that is on the lineup for the Economy Jazz Tent the same day as The Meters reunion and he has passes for us. We just have to drive into the festival with him as are the rules (or so I'm told). So we are rendezvousing on Mystery Street in two days.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was born in 1970 as a way to celebrate the unique musical culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. The first festival drew a crowd of about 400 people but would grow in popularity to attract hundreds of thousands by the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to the Louisiana musicians prominently featured on the multiple stages, international artists from around the world make up many of the main stage acts. Marilee's been going since she was a baby; there's a photo of her as an infant sleeping in her mother's arms as her mom sways to the whatever she was listening to. That photo is the reason she and I became friends in college.

The morning of our day at Jazz Fest dawned beautifully. I was up early despite a late night, drinking coffee on Marliee's porch with her cat, Tchoupsy, watching people walk through her neighborhood to the Fair Grounds. They would have to wait in the long line. I would not. Jazz Fest, like any music festival, has a packed, multi-stage lineup each day. Marliee presented me with two options for enjoying our day: schedule ourselves within an inch of our musical lives or wander the Fair Grounds, stopping when we felt like it with the goal of ending up at Sprint/Sanyo stage for the 5:30 Meters show. I selected the latter option. Normally I'm a planner but planning seems wrong for this event. I want to experience a little bit of every type of music I could from gospel to jazz to Cajun to rock and whatever else the festival could offer me.

After a liberal application of sunscreen and a borrowed hat, we set off to our rendezvous on Mystery Street. Marilee lives about six blocks from the edge of the Fair Grounds so it wasn't a long walk. Mystery Street borders the Fair Grounds and is an incredibly unassuming street. There are some lovely shady oak trees on the corner and that is where we found George. He was standing in the shade near his Jeep. He seemed to know everyone or was possibly just very friendly. He saw us approach and started towards us. After introductions were made, we climbed into the car and ventured into the Fair Grounds. George plays the trumpet but since he has the largest car of any of his band members, he was also bringing two trombones, another trumpet, and a tuba in with him. I sat next to the tuba.

George spent the short drive into the festival catching up with Marliee on her family (he went to high school with her grandfather) and recommending a few bands we should check out during the day. We made sure to get the time for his set so we could at least stop by. And then we were in.

What I love about music festivals is the access to so many different types of music and performers in one place. Jazz Fest does not disappoint in this regard; you can't help but be drawn in by the sights and sounds of each area of the fairgrounds. There is so much to see and hear and experience once you make it past the gates and onto the fairgrounds. Stages are arranged around the loop of the racetrack for optimal ground seating. The food booths are easily accessible in two main locations with others sprinkled throughout. I could have stayed all day at the Fais Do-Do stage. There's something addicting about zydeco music; I don't know what it is but it just drew me in. Watching the dancers took me back to my family's living room and dancing around with my parents and siblings (before they got too cool). It's both old-fashioned and modern just like New Orleans.

We did as "planned" and wandered the fairgrounds. Marilee pointed out interesting things (of which there was an abundance), gave me directions to the cleanest bathrooms (back by where they do cooking demonstrations), and outlined her plan of attack for food. Marilee takes Jazz Fest food very seriously. She goes both weekends so as not to miss anything. This weekend the focus would be on crawfish: Monica, bread, pies, fried,etoufee, and boiled. Mango Freeze, iced tea, and beer were also on the list. It seemed excessive but Marilee assured me that it would be just fine; she has this down to a science. By the time we stopped for our first food break, I was starving. I could eat crawfish Monica every day for the rest of my life. I would weigh 700 pounds but I'd probably be very happy.

Time flies when you're having fun and eating your weight in crawfish dishes. Before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the Sprint/Sanyo Stage (what a name) to find a spot for The Meters. It wasn't too crowded yet and we were able to find a place with a good view of the stage. By 5:20 the crowd had grown and people were ready. Since I don't write concert reviews, I'll just say that it was an amazing set. I challenge anyone to sit still when this band plays.Once they got to "Welcome to New Orleans" I had made up my mind not to leave the fairgrounds. I figured I could just live here for the rest of the festival and possibly forever. Totally realistic life goal.

The Meters finished the set with another favorite of mine "Hey, Pocky Way." People danced themselves to the gates and exited to Mystery Street. Jazz Fest is one of those experiences that you have to actually experience. Words don't do it justice. I feel the same way about New Orleans. Do yourself a favor and get there and enjoy it for yourself.

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