December 23, 1998
Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail.
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail...
Arlo Guthrie, "The City of New Orleans"
I don't know how many times I've repeated parts of those lyrics to Arlo Guthrie's 1971 song, "The City of New Orleans" and sung them in my head as I listened to the radio. My clearest memory of that song, was, of course, in New Orleans. It was right after finishing work on a boat on the Mississippi River in the summer of that year, before starting my junior year of college. It was a blistering, sweltering, humid New Orleans afternoon, and I was glad to be off from a grimy day's work chipping and painting. The window in my car was down, and a semblance of cooler air was streaming in. And that song was playing on my car radio. I never forgot it.
Whenever I get sort of homesick for New Orleans, or at least start to miss it a little, I think of that song and "Walkin' to New Orleans" by the great, and inimitable, Fats Domino:
This time I'm walkin' to New Orleans.
I'm walking to New Orleans.
I'm gonna need two pair of shoes,
When I get through walking those blues,
When I get back to New Orleans.
I've got my suitcase in my hand.
Now ain't that a shame?
I'm leavin' here today.
Yes, I'm going back home to stay.
Yes, I'm walking to New Orleans.
Now that song I remember from way back to when I was nine years old and my father, brother and I went swimming during summer vacations at Second Mill Pond in Sumter. There was a bandstand of sorts, with a jukebox on it next to the water's edge, and I can just hear the music coming out of it now. "Blueberry Hill" would also play on that jukebox. I've loved old Fats Domino ever since I heard his records on the jukebox at the millpond. Those were wonderful, summer-drenched times of carefree youth that I never wanted to see end. Out of school. Swimming every day. Big Southern dinners at midday. Part of what I consider my all-too-brief childhood.
I do miss New Orleans, more than I care to admit. When you are born and raised in a place, it can't help but be home, at least home in the sense of where you grew up, not necessarily where your family roots are. My roots are in South Carolina which is why I'm here today.
I did a little research, looking up what some other songwriters have written about New Orleans in songs that have New Orleans in the title. Joan Jett, J.J. Cale, Tom Waits, Vince Gill, Dire Straits, the Dave Lewis Band, Bon Jovi -- they all sang about New Orleans. But what a collection of cliches and sterotypes, except for Dire Strait's "Planet of New Orleans." It's hard to believe they knew anything much about New Orleans, other than what casual visitors know. For example, Have you ever been down to New Orleans? Lord, Lord them crazy queens, Crying the blues is what they do down there.Boy, is that awful. What do you do in New Orleans, according to these troubadors? Why, you drink booze on Bourbon Street, eat gumbo, and stay out in the French Quarter all night. There are Cajun queens and "dancing in the streets of New Orleans." Well, okay. Everyone's got their own take on the place. Who am I to say? I don't even live there anymore.
I'm going to get back there, though, before too much longer, for a visit. I'll take the streetcar up St. Charles to Carrollton. I'll walk down Decatur Street in the Quarter and to to the Moon Walk where I'll look out over the Mississippi to the other bank and old Algiers where I went to high school. I'll probably get an oyster po-boy and drive to the lakefront and come back down Elysian Fields Avenue, stopping at a McKenzie's Pastry Shop for a butterfly roll (cinnamon with raisin roll). In the meantime, I can read the five-part series in the local paper on the Intenet titled, "Home wreckers: How the Formosan termite is devastating New Orleans." The city has survived yelow fever, floods, buck moth caterpillar invasions, and hurricanes, and I guesss it's survive this latest plague, too. It's a resilient place, and it'll be around for a long time.
Should I say it? "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"