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New Orleans, 1996

By Michael Walker

"hello again, it's me - your shoulder's where I sit, the half nobody sees of the silent partnership . . ."

-Basia Trzetrzelewska

The 737 lifted itself with more grace than something of its considerable tonnage should be able to produce, its massive thrust feeling like little more than the inertia of a city bus coasting to a gliding stop. The man next to me was reading a hefty magazine -Acta Tropica- apparently a medical journal of some sort. The passengers in our immediate vicinity all seemed engrossed in their own affairs, no one was talking save a light whisper from a young mother to her well-behaved baby. The sky -typical for Buffalo in the early fall- was gray and overcast, allowing just a meager play of light into the cabin. This was a temporal atmosphere for sleep, and sleep I did, probably the full duration of the flight right until we were some fift -y miles north of New Orleans, passing over this densely dark green and whitish-tan land of swamp and lakes that under a still overcast sky appeared more chalky gray than blue or clear. When you wake on a plane and realize that you've had the good fortune to sleep through most of a boring flight, it's something of a relief, to be sure, but there's something pretty damn disjointing about waking up hundreds of miles south of where you fell asleep and seeing very similar yet intrinsically different conditions of environment. Soon we would begin our descent.

Moisant International Airport is something of a disappointment if you had visited any of Florida's newer airports recently prior to your arrival in New Orleans, as I had. Not that there's anything really wrong with the airport, it is functional enough, spacious, and well laid out for the traffic it deals with on a daily basis, but it lacks the overall brightness and enthusiastic conviction of assurance that airpo rts dedicated to tourist trade such as MCO in Orlando and Tampa's sunny TPA proffer. Again, there seemed to be an overwhelming (perhaps underwhelming is a more fitting term) amount of gray, accented by festive Mardi Gras colors and dutiful fluorescent lighting. It was, more than anything else, the sort of place I wanted to transverse as quickly as possible, not because it was all that unpleasant but because it was simply a continuation of what I had already seen, already felt and thought about over the course of the day and all the days that had preceded this one. I caught the airport shuttle and bounced along on the lengthy drive into downtown New Orleans. Our driver was around fifty, eager to share his life-long knowledge of this city with the conventioneers and tourists in his blue and gold van, telling us about Mardi Gras which was not in the near future, and many things that were in the very distant -and to me- uninteresting past.

I was glad n ot to be here for a convention, not that I attend conventions anyway, but the thought of having the amount of luggage most of my fellow new arrivals in New Orleans were toting with them was not too welcome to me. I did not need several business suits, but instead had a compact shoulder bag filled with enough clothes -and hopefully warm enough clothes- for this trip plus another, slightly larger, bag holding my camera, four lenses (these stacked cleverly atop of one and the other, to maximize the space), and a flash the size of Rhode Island. Bringing the larger of my two flashes had been necessitated by my ex-boyfriend's current possession of the other, smaller, flash unit. It was easier to haul around a slightly unwieldy device than to call Eric up and ask him to bring the swift little Canon speedlight home. The shuttle stopped with no fanfare in front of my hotel, the vertically impressive Monteleon, a majestic thing even in this dismal weather, the sort of building that would look tiny in New York City or slightly eccentric in Buffalo but seemed quite stately here in its rightful home. The bus driver had stressed the age of New Orleans more than anything and that factor was driven well into my mind walking up to the registration desk. This place was old, simply old. I found the elevator easily enough, getting in and holding the door for a woman with a large rolling suitcase who looked a little like Oprah Winfrey.

"Oh, thanks. I'm not going to bring this old thing again - too much to deal with," she said, pointing at her cart of a suitcase.

"Are you here for a convention?", I asked, not sure what else to say because you can't exactly say "well, stupid, you should have known that massive suitcase would give you hell".

"I'm here on business, but not a convention. Most of the conventioneers stay in the larger Central Business District hotels down on Canal Street. You don't get many of them right in the Quarter. My firm -I'm with a public relations firm out of Boston- tends to put its people in those hotels, too, but this one isn't any higher and I like it much better, since it's smaller and you don't have so many people milling around."

"Yeah, I've never been here before, but my aunt lived in New Orleans before I was born -when she was in college, I think- and she recommended this hotel, because it's small and in such a good location."

"Are you from Buffalo, or just a fan?", she said, motioning towards my Sabres NHL baseball cap.

"Yeah, I'm kinda from there. I grew up in Ithaca but moved up to Buffalo a couple years ago to go to SUNY there."

"You know, I've only been to Buffalo once, and I'll admit that it was even colder when I was there than it is most of the time in Boston, but everyone I talked to really liked living there and that says something about the place. What are you majoring in at S UNY?"

"Well, I started out in English lit., but I'm planning to transfer into photography and get a B.F.A. in that, I guess. I think photography is what I want to do, maybe teach it or something, but I want to be involved in it. That's actually what brought me down here, I really needed some time away from school and stuff and was trying to think of a place to go, and decided to come here. I went down to Miami to see my aunt there a couple of weeks ago, but I just didn't find anything that was inspiring; it's like whatever I saw I could imagine someone else photographing before I even saw it, like I figured there was a picture just like the one I was making but better in some magazine already out there."

"Oh, I think photography's really exciting. I majored undergraduate in English myself, and then had to wonder what I would do with it, I had no desire to teach because that's what both my parents did - were schoolteachers. I was dating this guy at the time who was a graduate student in communications and that seemed like a good field so I ended up going into it and can't say that I've ever regretted the choice at all. I get to travel a fair amount and meet a lot of different people, help them think of ways of presenting their corporations to the public or within their respective trades - I enjoy all that. You know, we actually work with photographers and other advertising people quite a bit too, because we're involved in overall corporate identity and then you have these guys called in to prepare annual reports or what have you, so I get to see a lot of their work, and it's pretty interesting. I even got to go out on a photo shoot for one hospital client we had in California last year; it amazed me just how much time it takes for them to get their the lighting and everything set up just for one or two pictures. I had always thought of photography -I mean, real, professional photography- kind of in a retrospective sense up un til then. I would think of photos in a gallery, as the work of someone, as art work, but I didn't think of photography as a process. But I guess it is, very much like what I do, in that people who are photographers go out and actually shoot this stuff - it starts somewhere."

"That's true, I guess I never thought of it like that either, but yeah, photographers have to get up and go out and shoot their assignments just like anyone else goes to work and does whatever their job happens to be." The elevator stopped at my floor with a shudder well-befitting an elevator in an older hotel. Seeing that I was getting out, this pleasant lady extended her hand and introduced herself as Anita Journey. I shook her hand and wished her a pleasant stay, with her wishing me the same.

"And take pictures, I mean, don't worry about whether someone else has photographed it before or not, just do it, kid. You'll never know what you've missed if . . . well, if you miss it."

I don't quite consider my self a typical gay male, whatever that might be. I don't like techno or house music, I don't go to drag shows, I play sports -soccer and hockey and always have- and I don't find myself attracted to superficial glamour, which may be the root of the profound inability I discovered in Miami to take pictures of anything as everything was to a degree glamorous. Yet something appealed to me about this lady, appealed in the sense that I was thinking "damn, somehow I want to be like that". I can't explain it: I guess it was the idea of someone being confident in their life, their professional life, whatever, and being so outgoing. I was always popular enough in school, had enough friends, whatever, but there's a difference in being outgoing in high school and being like this lady, taking a genuine if by default cursory interest in people that you meet in an elevator or on a plane or whatever. I didn't want to be a woman, but I found an appreciation for what she had going on, and it was defin itely linked to being a woman somehow. Like her last comment -which almost now rested as a mandate with me- would have seemed downright condescending coming from a man her age, like it was none of his business, but from her it sounded welcoming though authoritative at the same time.

The room was really larger than what I would have needed; had anything cheaper and not as elaborate been available in the French Quarter, I would have taken it, but the prospects were not all that hot. This place wasn't too expensive for the three nights I would spend here, so it was all good - just strange to be in a room larger than my dorm room with no one else around. Like the plane, the hotel was relatively quiet, without any noise except what sounded like water running somewhere far off in the building. I've always liked hotels for those types of sounds: hearing such noises muted by the walls and their respective distances from me, like when Eric and I were in Albany a year ago visiting his cousin and " hearing water running somewhere below us in that small hotel. There's something limiting about it, something that alerts you to being snug in your own little corner of the world but comforting in that you know there's so many other little corners around you - a whole compartmentalized world. But I couldn't stay here right now as I wasn't tired, I was in fact, very restless, ready to get out and see things.

Taking my camera I bolted down the fire stairs, not waiting for the ancient elevator to reappear. I walked out of the lobby, finding myself on Royal Street amid the antique stores and numerous tourists, most of whom were carrying around their cameras, just like I was. Walking further and cutting down towards the river, I saw more and more tourists with their cameras, either clutching them to their sides or allowing them to dangle from their necks. The cameras became something of a touristy badge, not only in signifying these people as visitors to the city, but also showing how serious they were about their photo-taking. The vast majority, no matter their tastes in clothes or other accouterments, nor their gender or age, had simple point-and-shoot cameras, plastic bodies, some disposable. A few had SLRs, mostly older retired-military-looking men. I spotted one young Asian woman with a Nikon F4 and later, an middle-aged man with a Contax. In a way, the hoards of the camera-bearing devalued my own status - as a boy with a complex camera slung over his left shoulder I thought I wasn't just a kid wearing Adidas and three earrings. Now I was also a tourist, and not even marked as a serious photographer like the girl with her F4.

That girl was ahead of me for about a block near Jackson Square; she only stopped once to take a picture, but that was an event. She waited for the sidewalk to clear as much as the passing crowds would allow, giving her a better view of the façade of an old building now inhabited by a Mexican resta "urant and some kind of small shop. I guess she was shooting the façade. There was little light due to an overhanging canopy, but she was working with it, pulling a light meter (I was delighted to recognize the device from afar) from her purse while balancing her admittedly heavy camera with her right hand. Once she had things to her satisfaction, she appeared to take her picture, and then pack the meter away again and toss the camera to her chest. It looked so easy, and so appealing: she had just done something so obvious to everyone around her that it left no question of what she was up to, yet my mind interrogated the situation nonetheless. What film speed did she use in that darkened space? What if she walked down to the river and wanted to take some pictures there, what would she do about the brighter light then? Did she always meter the scene like that? Was it really necessary? Most importantly, what had she seen there? Why did she stop in front of a nondescri pt building to begin with and would she be pleased with her pictures?

My own film was a roll of one hundred speed black-and-white, something that I felt moderately prestigious about using. It was more difficult to use and get the desired results than some of the faster films I had encountered in my first photo class at Buffalo. I had decided that I had graduated to more esoteric films, but in reality I wondered if anyone -myself certainly included- would notice any difference in the quality of my prints, either positive or negative. People continued to walk to and fro around me, taking pictures if only occasionally. Taking pictures of each other, or of the street scene in general. There was no great monument or landmark of note right here, with Jackson Square about a block over. I'm sure, given the lengthy description of that location in the guide book my aunt had given me, there would be three-fold as many people over there taking pictures. I didn't want to be among them , so I dodged down an alley filled with fish and produce delivery trucks and lots of trash cans and garden hoses. I emerged at the other end, walked around another block, then made my way down another alley. Everything was interesting, but ran together, feeling more like the opportunity for a video than any sort of still photograph. Each view I took in seemed to reference something else, to cite the view I had procured only two or four minutes prior.

I went into a small bar that was playing Donna Summer, which quickly segued into the latest Mariah Carey single. I wanted to get something to eat -it seemed like the sort of place that was a bar but had sandwiches and stuff, too- and ended up with a turkey sandwich, a cup of French onion soup, and a drink called an "eye opener". They didn't card me, either, which is true to what everyone at SUNY had said about New Orleans in general. I sat at the bar, a bar occupied in what was becoming early even ing by more tourists and a businessman who might have been local, this I determined only by his familiarity with the bar's long and unusual list of cocktail specials. The bar's television was turned to the NBC affiliate's news report, which could not be heard for Mariah. All I know is that something important happened in the local oil industry, with shots of Texaco executives and long oil tankers. An attractive young anchorwoman identified by the name "Amy Kern" in white bold Helvetica beneath her waist moved from the oil story into another segment. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the news except the aforementioned businessman.

A boy -probably around sixteen, maybe seventeen, but no older- walked into the bar. Again, not carded, no attention paid to his apparent youthfulness. He looked to be Latino, black hair bowl-cut but not long enough to yet shade his eyes or otherwise obscure a face that was round though still well-proportioned in i ts shape and perfect in its symmetry. He wore a simple metal necklace like you can buy at any Pacific Sunwear in nearly any mall, a white World Industries T-shirt, jeans, and skateboarding shoes. He was short, about the same height as the young Asian woman in fact, but carried himself in a way that was both disinterested and a little cocky. He went over to the bar and ordered a sandwich and a beer, gazing directly into the bartender's eyes and not pausing for a single derelict moment in his litany of what he wanted. He spoke with what might have been a Manhattan accent - definitely not encumbered by any trace of Spanish, so I assumed him to be of Hispanic descent, but born in the States. He captivated me -and that's not too strong a word, either- at once, standing until his food came, then sitting two seats down the bar towards the television and the watching business-dude. This kid, he was a lot like guys I grew up with in Ithaca, those movements, the ec onomy of motion and directness of nonchalant words and phrasing. He spoke to me, literally:

"You're a Sabres fan?", he said, leaning about the length of his arm towards me, holding his beer in his other hand.

"Hell, yeah . . . you from New York, dude?", I asked back, shouting over the combination of Mariah and Amy Kern, the later having just been increased in volume at the businessman's request.

"No . . . I'm from Providence, well, I grew up in Watchung, New Jersey. My dad and sister and I just moved to Providence and my mom lives down here. I'm Pete."

"I'm Brent, good to meet you, man." But he wasn't a man, he was as much a boy as anyone could be a boy. He was right in the middle of that moment when you're an adolescent and have every reason to enjoy it. That was only a few years ago for me, but I envied it already, seeing it in this kid. And he was smart, I had to grant him that, he was knowing of the vernacular: my cap, the lack of need to say "Rhode Island" after saying "Providence", the kind of shit you take for granted in the North-Atlantic states and New England. We started talking, talking about the Sabres and rival teams, talking about New Orleans -his mother was a nurse-practitioner who lived in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, it seemed- just talking in general. I was careful not to hit on him, until I realized that first of all, the kid had finished three beers already and I had downed another eye-opening concoction, and second, he was nearly hitting on me. The boy was trade, no doubt. He knew he was more attractive to boys and young men (probably older ones too, but forget them) than to girls. He would wind up attracting the tubby girls among the skater and goth chicks, but with boys he would fare much better. This was me when I was his age too, yet he brought so many other dimensions into the fray. I was enchanted.

"So why are you here . . . to party?", he asked, form ing an ephemeral invitation of sorts with those words.

"Yeah, if it happens, I guess . . . I wanted to take some pictures. I'm a photo student, so . . ."

"Phat, so what do you shoot? My ex . . . is a photo student at RISD."

I thought to myself, "ex what?" Come on and say, dude. Don't fear saying it to me. But said instead that I was looking to photograph whatever interested me, and had to admit with a degree of embarrassment that nothing had yet interested me. He suggested the architecture maybe, the river, the Crescent City Connection, which I took to be a rather impressive bridge over the river. There was, Pete informed me, a ferry across the river that was free of charge and the best way to see what the city looked like from the Mississippi. I thought this would be a good idea, save the lack of light at the current time. Pete was thoughtful about this, suggesting walking down Bourbon Street instead. I hadn't see n it yet, so that worked; keeping him with me definitely worked. He seemed a bit taller when he was next to me, and I no longer seemed like I was really six feet tall. We balanced each other out well, making everything seem coordinated and totally equivalent.

Bourbon Street was fun, but that's about all I can say for it. The camera grew heavier as we moved from one bar to the next and had to dodge drunk college students from as far afield as Cal Berkeley and as near as Tulane in the process. At one point I removed the unshot roll of black-and-white film and substituted it with a roll of color negative film, which I mistakenly thought was faster than it actually turned out to be, so it wasn't of any use at all. I considered the flash but that would have drawn a good deal of perhaps unwanted attention to us not to mention creating something of a barrier between Pete and myself: photography is personal, and becomes more so when you start fussing with things like large speedlights. So no photos were taken on Bourbon Street, no photos of Pete and I drinking far more than either should have. No photos of me trying to discern the way back along Royal to my hotel, a hotel whose name had by then escaped me. It seemed natural for Pete to walk back with me; I had not even bothered to ask if he had a car parked somewhere or what because he obviously had not walked in from Kenner. We both walked along Royal street around two in the morning, brushing past conventioneers with their loosened ties and sports coats thrown over their shoulders. The hotel lobby was bright, but serene and a few members of the staff going to and fro from reception desk back towards their offices while some guests paused to talk by a large potted palm before heading upstairs. Pete and I waited for the elevator, which was mercifully prompt in its arrival.

Strange. My hall was as quiet as before with the except ion of the room next door, from which I could hear Kylie Mingogue remixes being played at a pretty loud volume. It was quieter once we were in my room, which no longer seemed so large. We had two final beers from the mini-bar - why, I don't know. Pete took his shirt off, dropping down to the bed quickly and rolled over its considerable expanse. I felt dizzy, pleasantly dizzy but not at all delusionary. I was confident, just as Pete was confident, though his adolescent silliness had come forth in a gushing, frothing, way, with Pete playing with the oddly-shaped table lamp and eventually knocking it off its end-table. His body was incredible: sleek, lean, and warm - warm beyond belief to me. He still had all the angular aspects of boyhood as well as the exponential growth of adolescence. He was as delicate in his own way as he was confident, delicate enough to brush his hair repeatedly away from his forehead and away from my mouth.

Morning sunlight came slowly, withheld s uccessfully until nearly noon by the dense buttercup yellow drapes and the fortunate angle of the exterior wall of the building itself. We stayed there, a little too hot, in fact, with sweat forming in the small of my back and on Pete's neck. Pete got out of bed first, nearly spinning to the window, glancing outside and downward then pouncing back on to the side of the bed. I propped myself up on my elbows and watched with slight interest as Pete rummaged through a stack of room service menus and other hotel literature before idly chewing the corner off of one of these tracts. His eyes were red, bloodshot, and appropriately tired in their clever gaze. I stretched, though still in bed and naked. My left hand ran into something soft but firmly resistant: the camera bag, perched on the other end-table, fortunately not having suffered the fate of the lamp. I grabbed the bag and with some difficulty managed to remove the camera, change the lens from the wide-angle to a short telephoto, and aim it at Pete, who was still chewing on the brochure aimlessly. That became my first photograph of New Orleans, a moment that was so very anywhere, so very much the same as if it had been Buffalo or New Jersey. But this was New Orleans, this was a quick little bit of it before I had to worry how I was going to get Pete back to where he belonged and how I would deal with him (or the lack thereof) for the rest of my brief stay. Too brief, I would have extended the trip and that moment of it indefinitely if I but could, but you can't . I think Ms. Journey would be pleased, at least, that I was not worrying about photographing what might have already been photographed before. Pete, no matter the trajectory of his life -perhaps New Orleans, Providence, and beyond- would accompany me back to Buffalo, would be there secure on a tiny acreage of film as the returning jet took a sharp right over the Marine Midlands Arena. Far away, but at the same time by my shoulder he would still sit.

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MICHAEL WALKER is the Science Editor of Oasis Magazine, and has also contributed short fiction and poetry to Oasis. Additionally, Mike has contributed scientific articles to a variety of academic and trade publications. He is also a photographer and visual artist. His homepage is: www.geocities.com/Athens/1277 His e-mail: MCWalker@hotmail.com


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