October 20th, 2006
I visited New Orleans once, three weeks after 9/11. Getting off the plane and dumped on to Bourbon Street with its hordes of testosteronies slurping Hurricanes from football-shaped and sized containers was heart-stopping in its “how will we survive three whole days here?!” factor.
Eventually we found something of the old Nawlins: the Spanish moss wrought-iron balconies, and worn velvet everything…
After the Vieux Carre Pharmacy Museum, with its gorgeous rusty blood-letting instruments, mercury bottles, and porcelain leech containers, we went on a “Voo-Doo Tour”—one of the most ridiculous tourist activities I have volunteered for (excluding getting corn-row braids in Jamaica, which is indeed a story for another time).
As was to be expected, we were taken to a couple Voo-Doo hot spots, probably the grave of Marie Laveau, and to a house with the prerequisite loose chickens and an altar with everything you can imagine on it, even a piece of dusty birthday cake tucked between the effigies.
Back in the undergrad days I read Maya Deren’s book Divine Horsemen, on Haitian Vodoun, and saw footage from the film she never finished, of people going into trance. It was a little uncomfortable, the feeling of voyeurism, the white woman with the Guggenheim and peasant blouses and Bolex camera, kind of like watching Disney do VooDoo. But still, the idea of trance was fascinating to me.
In pursuit of altered states of mind did my time in sweat lodges, fasted, dreamt my lucid dreams, and, of course, accidentally ingested a few psychoactive substances. Perhaps there was even a little accidental psychosis, who knows? (also to be found at Lafitte’s Blacksmith, a scary-fun piano bar in an old pirate hide-out, where we imbibed our first and only Hurricanes.)
In all that early experimentation, what I hadn’t realized is this: the high holy day of the Voodoo calendar, Saint John’s Eve–when a huge bonfire is built and people dance with skulls and baby coffins and everything else seemingly morbid to acknowledge the darkness within and without until they drop from exhaustion–is the same day as my birthday, June 23rd. Cowinkie-dink? Me thinks not….