Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


New Orleans in Quarantine

T. R. Johnson

New Orleans is never more lovely than in April. But this year, we’ll have no Jazz Fest – and we’ll have to get by without those rolling block parties we call second-line parades too; and without crawfish boils. Of course, April is the very height of our tourist season, but that entire industry has collapsed here, and what that will mean for the wider economy of the region and, in turn, the general vibe on the street this summer is too awful to imagine.

All the jazz clubs are shuttered. I’ve yet to warm to the idea of logging onto a live-streamed performance, served up from the private home of one of my favorite players, for, without a room full of music-lovers packed closely together to inspire, conduct, and amplify the musician’s energies, I fear the performance would just end up feeling a bit anemic, and make us all even lonelier and more bored than we were before we logged on. I’m glad the musicians have a found a way to pass a virtual tip bucket, and I’m glad to help them out, but the spirit of the music – that sacred root that reaches from New Orleans all the way back to the West Coast of Africa and forward into every permutation of modern vernacular music in the U. S – needs a room full of breathing, moving bodies in order to blossom.

Like other urban centers that faced catastrophic epidemics of malaria and cholera and yellow fever in the nineteenth century, New Orleans seems know that this kind of experience is part of the broad cycle of public life. For instance, my neighbors and I in the 9th Ward have each fallen into the habit of roosting on our respective front stoops every few evenings and shouting our way through conversations. We lob bits of rumor back and forth, comparing who has heard what and what it might mean. The stoops seem made for this kind of primitive public discourse, mini-pulpits as we try to comfort each other and prophesy our way through this false spring. Who is in the hospital – who is getting out of the hospital tomorrow or got out today – who is in intensive care – who is doing better, who is doing worse — who died, who didn’t die – is the National Guard coming? No one really knows anything with any certainty, but the freedom to hurl some words back and forth across the street seems to remind us that we’re alive, and we’re grateful to have it.

My house has a rickety old balcony, and though there’s not much of a view, I’ve come to appreciate how it allows me to feel as though I’m getting out of the house, getting an angle on a patch of sky. I find myself up here most nights. During those 19th century epidemics, when this waterfront neighborhood was a bustling global crossroads, I’m sure this kind of architectural feature was deemed essential for those who could afford it, a way to get outside without risking the perils of the street below. As I look up at the empty sky and contemplate these mostly empty streets, it has come to seem essential again.

New Orleans, Edited by T. R. Johnson
New Orleans, Edited by T. R. Johnson

About The Author

T. R. Johnson

T. R. Johnson is a Professor of English and Weiss Presidential Fellow at Tulane University, Louisiana. He has written books about Lacanian psychoanalysis, the teaching of writing, ...

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