While I was in Louisiana, I met up with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years. I even reduced the Friends’ Kids I’ve Never Met list by four! I saw Gene and Brittany in Lafayette, I saw Sean, Joanna, and their trio in Baton Rouge, and I met up with Jenny L. and Dave H. in New Orleans. It was great seeing all these folks after all these years, and I look forward to seeing them again next time I’m down there.
When I went to New Orleans, I arrived several hours early so I could drive around. I’m not talking about post-Katrina disaster tourism, I meant driving past my old hangouts and haunts. I hadn’t really set foot in the place in about fifteen years or so.
I say I’m from New Orleans, but this isn’t really true. The suburbs of River Ridge, Harahan, Kenner, and especially Metairie were where I grew up. For me, visiting the “New Orleans” of my youth is less to do with the French Quarter, Canal Street, or St. Charles Avenue than the parallel lines of Airline Highway/West Metairie/West Napoleon/Veteran’s Boulevard/West Esplanade.
I of course went past the house I grew up in. Since I’ve been away, Southdown Lane was shrunk by about two-thirds and all the houses shoved closer together; I remember it being much longer than that. The drainage canal at the end is now fenced off, so how do the kids who live there today go play in it? And while my old house was never anything beautiful, I’m not sure yellow-painted brick is a good look.
I drove past the houses of friends…I scarcely knew any street addresses, but muscle memory and unchanged landscaping usually helped me spot my targets. I bought a street map and found I could usually locate on it the approximate area I wanted, which often provided a street name that rang a bell.
I went past old schools, old stores (long gone), the streets I’d traveled on my bike. In addition to my old street, everything seemed closer together now, and I came to realize that I really didn’t have that big a footprint back then. The most extreme example of this was when I braced myself for the trek from Clearview Parkway all the way to Elysian Fields Avenue, and got there in about ten minutes. Really? That’s all?
(While on the north end of Elysian Fields I went by the University of New Orleans campus, and found that it was still just as effective at instilling a feeling of anxiety and disgust in me as it was many years ago.)
What delighted me the most was the fact that although many of the large landmarks were unrecognizable or just plain gone, small ones remained. I would go past strip malls that had been built over whatever had been there in my days and then see a house just past them that had a fence I recognized for some reason.
I would also happen across streets that, when I saw their names, instantly reminded me, “Oh yeah, so-and-so lived there.” Or sometimes I wasn’t sure who lived on that street, but I knew someone did.
It was a strange experience, and of course the entire time I had that visceral nostalgic feeling in my gut. Had I been listening to Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward album at the time I’m sure I could have piloted the car straight back to 1986.