Every city is difficult to write about because every city is many cities, creating an MC Escher maze of contradiction and repetition that will drive anyone foolish enough to try it, mad. Think of Joyce trying to capture Dublin. Johnson explaining London. Lebowitz kvetching about New York. And yet New Orleans somehow manages to dial this difficulty up to 11. Lean too far one way and you romanticize a history of horrors. Lean too far another and you ignore the magic, myth and alchemy of the place’s fundamental improbability. Focus too much on the past and you overlook the bright shiny mania of the present. Ignore the past, and the present devolves into an unintelligible attention deficit gumbo. Indeed, the more precisely you put your finger on one part of it, the increasingly doubtful your assertions about almost any other part of it become. Heisenberg would have loved it, because New Orleans is ALL uncertainty principle.
And yet, somehow, Emma Fick, an artist from nearby Covington, Louisiana (visit the general store or the Arbita brewery) has managed to do it in her wonderful book Snippets of New Orleans. Less a traditional book and more an artist’s notebook of illustrations of the city and its inhabitants, in which her observations are woven into the drawings themselves, Fick has managed to make this a New Orleans book everyone can appreciate and that everyone should own.
Never been to the Crescent City? Fick starts by covering the essentials, helping novices understand everything from how to properly pronounce “Tchoupitoulas” Street, to the importance of Camellia red beans to how to decode cemetery symbols to what the neutral ground is to what Schwegmann’s was (and in the process giving arguably the best advice about Bourbon Street ever articulated: “See it. Smell it. Move along.”)
Been there, done that, coming back for more? Fick has the nuggets that will make the places you love more meaningful and will reveal things about the city that really only a native knows. Like the backstory on John Taylor’s walking sticks. Or why Arnaud’s kept the original refined tile floors in the bars & dining rooms it has spread across 11 buildings. Or what Maria’s Magic House used to be and what it is. Or even what that big mound of whatever on the neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards is. (Okay, that one, I’ll tell you: It’s an abandoned fallout shelter, capable of holding thousands of folks, built during the Cold War. Because apparently America thought the commies were gonna come for our beignets.)
Or maybe you’re an old-timer who turns up her nose at all these damn newcomers, people who call it “Nola” – people who haven’t been coming down since the first Archie Manning was wowing the locals? Then her wry portraits of “the 7 people you see at Jazz fest” or “the 7 people you see at Mardi Gras” will no doubt raise a sardonic smile to your lips.
Or perhaps you’re just looking for some new metaphor that will somehow explain to your friends who’ve never been, the unreasonable nature of New Orleans. So read Fick’s notes on the Baroness Micaela de Pontalba, who built (and oversaw the design of) the row houses that flank Jackson Square (which was no mean feat in 19th century America) – but whose story is so strange and so unlikely that you’re bound to say “well that’s about the most New Orleans thing there is”. Until you read about the colorful history of the Marigny Opera House and think “well, okay, maybe that is…”
This smart arrangement of the past and the present, people and buildings, the obscure and the obvious, creates a unique cadence to the book that Fick is to be commended for as well. Not only does it make it more interesting, and not only does the fact that every page turn promises the kind of random surprise that New Orleans herself promises on nearly every street corner, but it recognizes that a slavish spreadsheeted sense of order would be entirely antithetical to the nature of this place. Not a “randomness” per se, but a reliable unpredictability that can leave you gobsmacked. Whether we’re talking about Louis Armstong or the holy trinity, or of course, Katrina – which is never very far from anything in New Orleans:
We stayed in our two-story raised basement Broodmoor home during Katrina. We thought we’d be okay – we weren’t. A tree hit us about 6am and the wall fell in. We went to our neighbor’s house then the levee broke and the water came. All was underwater. It felt like we were in a swamp. After 5 days we were rescued by helicopter. We lived in Vegas for a year and half then came back – this is home.
Because Fick never lets you forget that this is – despite it being a performing city that takes its weirdness very seriously – a place of people. People who are not necessarily living the life you’re living where you are – but who are also not not living that life either. So she takes us on a side trip to feature the artists she admires at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (Benny Andrews and Clementine Hunter in particular). And tells us about the genius of Ruppert Kohlmaeir. And introduces us to Pat and Shirley at Mothers. People, not cartoon characters. Which takes her portrait of New Orleans to a whole ‘nother level.
As we said, a masterful telling of this city, a tale told that is so enjoyable and is so insightful that you wish she’d make one for every city you wish to know more about. Because she makes us feel like we’re a part of the city she’s writing about. A part of the lives of these people she’s introducing us to. Connecting us across cultures, eras and differences.
Which is all we really want out of every city, isn’t it?
Snippets of New Orleans by Emma Fick was published by University of Louisiana at Lafayette on 06/05/2017 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).