Twenty-eight years ago I came to New Orleans for my birthday weekend, and my life changed completely. Earlier that month I had already taken a cold, hard, long look at my life and I didn’t like what I saw. I had been wrapped in misery for years, wallowing in it, and diving so deep into the misery that I allowed it to erase my dreams and any hopes I had for the future. It was, after all, very easy to blame outside forces for my miserable life, and when you dig deep down into the misery, well, it’s a lot easier to just wrap yourself up in self-pity than take any responsibility for your own happiness; making excuses not to try rather than reasons to better myself. I worked for Continental Airlines at the Tampa airport–most times not a bad job for the most part, but the bad days were horrible–and didn’t make much money. I was broke all the time and yes, I wasted a lot of money treating myself to things–like buying lots and lots of books every payday–in an effort to make me feel better about myself and my miserable life. I was horribly lonely.
A bad experience with someone I was romantically interested in was the impetus for the changes I made to my life, because for whatever reason that night everything just bubbled up to the surface; I hated everything about my life, I hated where I was at, I felt trapped and like nothing good was ever going to happen to me. I stayed up the entire night, feeling sorry for myself and unable to sleep, tossing and turning and occasionally crying. At seven o’clock the next morning (it was a day off) I went into my bathroom and took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror. I never want to feel this way ever again, I thought as I looked at red swollen eyes, the unshaved face. the dark purplish circles under my eyes. I then repeated it out loud. I went back to my desk, sat down and opened my latest journal and wrote the words: I hate my life. I stared at the words for a few moments, and then added, I have no one to blame for this but myself. I am the only person who can change things for me. I want to be a writer. I want to be published, and I don’t want to work for Continental for the rest of my life in this job that makes me miserable. I am lonely and it’s probably too late for me to find a life partner. But I have to stop being afraid of everything, and I can’t go the rest of my life NOT living because I am afraid of dying. Other men are not attracted to me because I am overweight–no one ever looks at me twice when I go to bars. I cannot change my face but I can change my body. I will eat healthy. I will drop some of this extra weight. I will do crunches and push-ups every day from now on, and if by January I have been consistent with the workouts and the diet, I will join a gym. I need to start figuring out who I am and how to get what I want because no one is going to knock on my door and just give it to me. The only person who can change the things in my life is me, and I am going to work on being the best possible me that I can. And that means taking the steps necessary to change who I am and what my life is so I can become a writer.
Three weeks later, my birthday weekend rolled around and I flew to New Orleans with a friend for the weekend. We were staying with his on-again off-again boyfriend–who turned out to be one of the nicest gay men I’ve ever known. I really liked him. thought he was a good person–but once they broke up for good that was the end of that; I guess he associated me with his ex and so couldn’t be bothered anymore (or he did a great job of acting the part of the generous host; I am not sure how the invitation to stay with him came about; all I knew was we were going to New Orleans for my birthday and staying with this guy), which was always a shame. I was always grateful to him–have been for twenty-eight years–because coming to New Orleans that weekend was yet another key piece to the puzzle of Greg’s future, a piece I didn’t even now I needed.
I think at that point I may have lost five pounds or so. My friend was gorgeous; one of those perfect gay men with golden skin and very little–if any–body fat; his boyfriend was his counterpart, only with much bigger muscles, bluish-black hair, and that gorgeous gorgeous olive toned skin darker Italians have. They looked beautiful together, too, and I was in some sense a third wheel that weekend, but it was okay with me. They were totally into each other which left me with time on my own to think and reflect. He picked us up at the airport and took us to his apartment (which was in a complex on Sophie Wright Place that Paul and I eventually moved into when we returned from DC in August 2001), we showered and cleaned up, and headed to the Quarter.
I had been to New Orleans before that particular trip, and while I had always felt drawn in some ways to this city since I was a child, I’d never before felt the sense of belonging I felt that weekend. When we stepped out of the cab that night at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann, I felt this enormous emotional release, as though tension I didn’t know I. had in my shoulders and brain were suddenly gone and a big burden had been lifted from my shoulders. It was as though my soul was saying at last you’ve come home, and I knew then, before we paid the cover charge to go into the bars there at the corner–Oz and the Pub/Parade–that I was going to someday live in New Orleans…and all of my dreams would come true once I did.
I have never been sure what was different about that trip than previous ones. On my brief, previouos visits to the city before, I’d never gotten a real sense of the city before–we stayed in motels by the airport or on the West Bank–and so it wasn’t really possible to get a sense of New Orleans. Waking up in the spare bedroom in the morning, walking out onto the balcony and looking around at the roofs and unique architecture of the lower Garden District, I felt like I was at home. It was also the first time I’d ever come to New Orleans to hang out with other gay people and in the gay section of the Quarter, and maybe that was the difference? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that was the magical trip when everything coalesced in my head on that trip here. I knew New Orleans was my home, and I needed to live there, and my dreams would finally all come true once I’d moved there.
My friend’s boyfriend was a great host. He made sure to take me to see Anne Rice’s home at First and Chestnut (which was also the home of the Mayfair witches in The Witching Hour, a book I’d loved that had only heightened my sense of need to come to New Orleans), and showed me (us) around the entire weekend; we went to Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, ate amazing food, and then at night we’d head down to the Quarter to the bars and danced the night away.
That was also the weekend I did Ecstasy for the first time, but that’s a story for a different time.
The entire weekend was a whirl; I have pictures somewhere (or lost many years ago during the course of a move or something) of all the places we went and things we did; the amazing food, dancing all night and going to the Clover Grill in the morning (or La Peniche, over in the Marigny) and then sleeping before going roaming again throughout the city. I fell for New Orleans hard that weekend, and have never really fallen out of love for the city, really, since. We broke up once (that dreadful year Paul and I spent in DC), but we came back and New Orleans forgave us for our desertion and welcomed us back home.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard about New Orleans, but I do remember Nancy Drew came to Carnival (called “the Mardi Gras” in the book, eye roll to infinity) in The Haunted Showboat (she also visited briefly during The Ghost of Blackwood Hall), but I don’t really remember much else. I think everyone in the country has a sense of Carnival/Mardi Gras, and always associates that with New Orleans–but New Orleans, obviously, is so much more than that. I was a kid when I watched the James Bond movie Live and Let Die–which whetted my interest in New Orleans and Louisiana–later movies like The Big Easy and Angel Heart and Tightrope expanded that interest, as did Anne Rice’s novels and the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith. Whenever I had been to New Orleans previously I hadn’t felt anything but a sense that the city was different than everywhere else, and that difference felt alien to me.
But that entire weekend was different. That weekend in the city changed me and changed my life. I’d never felt like I’d belonged anywhere before–I always had felt out of place wherever I lived; part of it was being gay, part of it was being a creative, and the rest had everything to do with being raised by Southern parents with a Southern mentality but not living in the South (not a complaint, I am very grateful to have not been raised down here)–so New Orleans felt special to me; I’d finally found my place or, to quote Pippin, I’d finally found my corner of the sky.
Within a year I’d met the love of my life–who also was in love with New Orleans and wanted to live there–and on August 1, 1996, I drove the U-haul truck with all of our stuff and towing my old car into the city to start the rest of my life. I had already started dipping into the waters of writing–I got a gig with a gay paper in Minneapolis that actually paid me, and had started writing the book that would eventually become Murder in the Rue Dauphine. Within three years of moving to New Orleans I had a book contract and had sold my first ever short stories. Twenty-eight years to the day of that most important visit to New Orleans, and look at me now.
I live in the city I love with the man I love doing the work I love. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time how important that weekend was going to prove to be; that it was, indeed, really the first day of the rest of my real life, when I finally stopped just enduring my life and actively started living it. It’s not always been easy to live here and love the city; New Orleans can be a hard place a lot of the time. We’ve endured hurricanes and floods, disease and injury, poverty and horror. But even the bad things are made bearable because we live in New Orleans.
I’ve written millions of words about New Orleans. One of the best compliments I can receive is being told that I’ve depicted the city so vividly and lovingly that it’s a character. I do laugh when people call me a “New Orleans expert”–I am anything but an expert; you could fill the Great Library of Alexandria with what I don’t know about New Orleans; every day I discover something new about this wondrous and bizarre place, the only place on earth I’ve ever felt at home. I will never run out of material to write about this magical city, and every day, more ideas and thoughts for stories and characters and essays about New Orleans comes to me.
So, my favorite part of my birthday is the fact that it is also the anniversary of me finding, at long last, where I belong.
And thank you, New Orleans, for always, no matter what, being New Orleans.