New Orleans

Miles Davis and Robert Mitchum

Actor Harry Carey, Jr. met Robert Mitchum on the set of the movie Pursued (1947) and the encounter changed his life. Mitchum was a rising star of a singular, intimidating kind: he carried himself as if he was a force to be reckoned with, not a studio property. Mitchum embodied rebellion by example and showed Carey how to command respect on the set. Carry yourself in a relaxed, nonchalant manner, as if you can take the job or leave it. Avoid eagerness– people will take advantage of you. Ignore the director if he gives you a command – wait for a request. Treat all co-workers with respect, regardless of status or salary. Carey watched in awe as Mitchum hitched home every night from the studio – a star! -- taking rides in any kind of car with all kinds of people.

Mitchum’s lived egalitarianism was a shock to the young actor’s system. Carey was a Hollywood brat who grew up in the studios and so his testimony carries considerable weight:

It's over fifty years later ... and I still haven't met another guy like that in my life. He was just an overwhelming personality. Big. Powerful looking. I mean, I knew Duke Wayne, and Mitchum … was a much more overpowering figure than Duke Wayne was, no question. And Mitchum -- I don't know if they even had the word then -- Mitchum was cool. If they didn't have that expression he must have invented it, because he was just the coolest guy that ever lived. He had his own outlook on life and he didn't let anyone interfere with it. Totally opposite from me.[1]

Mitchum was a new and singular individual force that forced Carey, Jr. to reconsider his own mode of being-in-the-world. And Carey was right that the word “cool” did not yet exist outside of jazz culture.


Miles Davis was in the midst of a successful comeback in 1982 after a six-year self-imposed exile when Bryant Gumbel asked him on The Today Show how he chose a musician for his band. “First thing I look at in a musician is his carriage,” he said in his trademark rasp, “then what he wears, how he talks, how he walks.” To Miles, a person’s bearing, gait, voice, and phrasing were all elements of self-expression: each will tell on you. “And then when he picks up the instrument,” Davis paused, “[I watch] his approach to the instrument.” A certain kind of musician picked up the instrument “like it’s an extension of their body,” and through non-verbal gestures, “you can almost tell how he’s going to play it. 

Miles was looking for a certain relaxed intensity in an individual and his attitude to his music. This phrase – one favored by jazz musicians – remains synonymous with cool. Miles had it. Mitchum had it -- and even played a decent saxophone. Relaxed intensity: the aesthetic of American cool.

Yet no one is born cool and even Miles Davis built his from the inside out. [See Fig. 1] As an 18-year-old trumpeter apprenticing with Charlie Parker, Davis was trusting and eager: he literally carried Bird’s saxophone case and developed a heroin addiction in his wake. Between 1949-1954, Davis was taken advantage of by club-owners and drug dealers (and Bird), and he felt increasingly vulnerable. Even as was creating “cool jazz,” a subgenre with an emphasis on composition and muted tones, Davis began to develop strategies of self-defense. He took a page from Parker and turned his back on audiences or walked off-stage during the solos of other musicians. He developed an intense musical discipline by drawing on the physical regimen of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, one of his idols. In fact, his musical style – the short, melodic phrases, the impeccable timing, the feints and jabs of his entrances and exits – owes a debt to boxers. By 1954, Miles Davis had kicked heroin and re-emerged as a wiry, fierce musical bad-ass with a pimp walk and a boxer’s don’t-fuck-with-me demeanor.

In so doing, Miles extended the innovative artistic and stylistic strategies of Lester Young, the legendary saxophonist who coined the modern usage of cool. Young was a pure Romantic artist who created a new, lighter sound for the tenor saxophone: “Originality’s the thing…without originality you ain’t really nowhere,” he once said, and about soloing, “I try not to be a repeater pencil, ya dig?” Young was the first performer to wear sunglasses at night and on-stage, a gesture picked up by nearly all jazz musicians. He maintained a relaxed, unhurried attitude and offered only a blank, impassive look to anyone outside the jazz guild. When Young first said, “I’m cool,” it meant, “I’m keeping it together in here against invasive social forces.” Poet Amiri Baraka penned a praise-poem to Young, “Pres Spoke in a Language”:

In the teeming whole of us he lived

Tooting on his sideways horn ....

The slickster walking through the crowd

Surviving on a terrifying wit

It’s the jungle the jungle the jungle

We living in.  

Cool translated to living by your wits and it spoke to Young’s strategies of insulation from a racist society that had always hurt him.[2]

Cool demands a convincing performance. When James Baldwin first traveled out of Harlem in the early 1950s, he was often refused service at restaurants in nearby New Jersey or cursed just for walking in. He needed to control the intense anger he experienced in response to these Northern acts of Jim Crow and he reflected then that “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood.” His choice was either to “live with it [rage] consciously or surrender to it.” To control his rage meant to develop a subjective consciousness at odds with the self-congratulatory complacency of a then-segregated society. Baldwin would keep his consciousness secret and outwardly wear a mask of cool. Baldwin’s friend, Norman Mailer -- always a good cultural reporter -- imagined the psychological work behind the mask of jazz musicians: 

to be cool is to be in control of a situation because you have swung where the Square has not, or because you have allowed to come to consciousness a pain…  a shame or a desire which the other has not had the courage to face.

Like the jazz musicians he admired, Baldwin enacted a public mode of diffidence. African-American cool is a form of Stoicism, of quietist resistance: it was borne of bringing to consciousness emotional experiences (“a pain … shame or … desire”) that white Americans have lacked “the courage to face.”

In effect, the mask of cool represents a certain stylized suffering and compels wonder in an outside observer: Who is this person? What has he or she experienced? As Baldwin wrote of transmuting rage into action and cool: "The most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.”

In other words, cool has its costs. It is a performance of emotional self-control that demands the suppression of a range of emotions. In its stylish stoicism there is a mix of hardness and vulnerability. Without the vulnerability, it would be stone cold and unfeeling. For example, once a childhood friend of Miles Davis ran into him outside a New York jazz club where the trumpeter was surrounded by fans. Excited to see him, the friend shouted with joy and ran to embrace him. Miles cut him with his eyes as if he barely knew him. The friend pulled up short, hurt, and Davis gestured for him to wait. After the crowd dispersed, he said, “Don’t ever greet me like that in public again.” Davis needed to maintain his cool mask: it kept people at arm’s length and created an aura of intimidation. “Miles’ disguise would certainly never fool anybody with sense,” James Baldwin once said, “but it keeps a lot of people away, and that’s the point.” The jazz musician’s mask of cool was the public sign of the “truce with reality” each had made in a racist society full of demeaning stereotypes of Black men. 

American cool emerges from jazz because it is the nation’s emblematic art form of individuality: first, you must create a personalized sound; second, the jazz subculture was full of rebel artists of all ethnicities for three generations. Jack Kerouac worshiped Lester Young: he wrote a literary manifesto based on jazz improvisation and calling for “bop prosody” – fiction based on the long, flowing solos of bebop. (see Fig. 2 - Kerouac) Even Bob Dylan, for all his larger debts to Woody Guthrie, Elvis, and Robert Johnson, learned cool by watching Miles Davis:

Miles Davis is my definition of cool. I loved to see him in the small clubs playing his solo, turn his back on the crowd, put down his horn and walk off the stage, let the band keep playing, and then come back and play a few notes at the end. I did that at a couple of shows. The audience thought I was sick.[3] 

When Dylan moved to New York in 1961, jazz was still the city’s hippest subculture and the Beat-influenced readings of poetry-to-jazz changed his songwriting. “My songs were influenced not so much by poetry on the page, but by poetry being recited … with jazz bands.” In the 1980s, Dylan defined himself as “a rock 'n' roller, folk poet, gospel-blues-protestest guitar player,” and perhaps should have amended it to “folk-jazz poet.”

Bryant Gumbel asked Miles Davis in the aforementioned interview whether he wanted his audience to consider his new ‘80s phase as a comeback, a move towards pop, or a return to playing standards? 

“Don’t tell ‘em nothing,” Miles said. “Let ‘em guess: what’s he gonna do next?”

“You like the mystery,” Gumbel suggested.

They like it,” he countered. “I’m cool.” Davis didn’t mean “I’m the man,” but rather, “I’m cool with it either way.” In a lifetime on stage and in the limelight, Davis had perceived the need for audiences to project their own subjective desires onto the mythic figures of art and popular culture, the secular stars of our national pantheon.


[1] Quoted in Lee Server, "'Baby I Don't Care': The Life of Robert Mitchum (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 114-15.

[2]See Joel Dinerstein, “Lester Young and the Birth of Cool,” in Gena Caponi, ed., Signifying, Sanctifying, and Slam-dunking (Amherst: Univ. of Mass. Press, 1999), 239-76.

[3]“Bob Dylan: Not Like A Rolling Stone Interview,” Spin, December 1985, online.

Second-Lining Post-Katrina with the Prince of Wales

Pre-ramble:  There is a second-line parade every Sunday for nine months of every year in New Orleans. It is a four-hour, four-mile long rolling block party: a platform for community, music, dance, theater, self-expression, historical memory, public grievance, ethnic customs, and social bonding that speaks to every idealistic impulse we have for art and culture yet remains uncelebrated even in its own city.  

The term "second-line" often calls forth the jaunty gestures of buzzed middle-aged JazzFesters getting their New Orleans freak on: men in Hawaiian shirts and women in long skirts pointing flower-print umbrellas at the sky while half-spinning in a muddy-line dance to traditional New Orleans songs played by brass bands in military uniform. I'm still shocked at how many New Orleanians have never been on a Sunday second-line parade.

This knowledge gap is rooted in something I once called "aesthetic racism." I refer to the disrespect of African-American culture, both in and of itself, and its ethnocentric relegation to something less than art or culture, even amongst scholars and intellectuals. Euro-Americans love it, sing it, and dance to it, but consider it -- if they ever do – as fun or as funking it up. Modernist scholars remain vaguely informed of the artistic innovations of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (as historically contextualized) and such aesthetic racism is prevalent.

This is a class as well as a racial divide. As one veteran second-liner reflects, "Only certain people participated -- it was street people of a lower socioeconomic class. Middle class black people, bourgeois black folks, didn't embrace that. They were trying to emulate the white culture ... so that [second-lining] was too Africanized [for them]. Too uncouth. To see a bunch of black folks out there buck jumping, as we called it, was embarrassing to them."

My intent here is to raise consciousness while shedding light on the failures of multiculturalism, a rubric that continues to allow for the specious magical utterance of "diversity" without requiring any cultural or aesthetic work. This essay takes seriously Kenneth Burke's key phrase about the function of literature – that it is "equipment for living" – since Albert Murray appropriated it as the key objective of African-American music and ritual. Here's how I translate "equipment for living":

What is the psychological gear I put on to get out of bed in the morning? Through what aesthetic and physiological means do I enjoy and affirm my daily existence? With what frameworks do I understand my place in the community and the world? What existential resources do I depend upon? Which aspects come from my community, my ethnic group, my nation, my family, my neighborhood, my self?

So what is a second line? It's a rolling block party, a cultural institution, a community event that carnivalizes and colonizes the public sphere, a weekly celebration of neighborhood or clan, a walkabout for urbanites.

A definition, then. A second-line parade is what I call a "mobile block party" that lasts four hours (by police permit) and travels five miles into and through the streets of black New Orleans. Each one is organized and sponsored by a Social Aid & Pleasure Club (SA & PC) -- there are about sixty, each with dues-paying members – and each one has a certain Sunday reserved between Labor Day and the end of May. "Route sheets" are printed, distributed and e-mailed throughout the city, alerting people to the four or five stops to join the parade. At each, there will be tailgate grills smoking up sausage, chicken, and pork chops; make-shift bars on top of pick-up trucks with alcohol; women circulating with trays of homemade sweet potato pie and brownies. Along the way, coffin-sized coolers are dragged to provide beer, water, and wine-coolers to the weary and sweaty.

Music is provided by a hired brass band, the engine of the second-line. They are out front with the resplendent members of the SA & PC leading the parade, and in front of the band there extends a twenty-yard roped off area in which the members dance with and against each other. When parading, everyone is supposed to dance or, at the very least, roll wid it. As a phrase, this refers both to a certain physiological set of gestures and movement -- a sort of slight head-tilted rolling dance-walk – as well as the philosophical import of maintaining one's spiritual balance in the face of social and economic pressures.

Participation is the rule -- not spectating or just walking. On larger second lines, like The Revolution or Black Men of Labor, the mass of people might extends for a quarter-mile; on smaller ones, for two blocks or so. In any case if you want to near the band, you need to dance or get out of the way.

Here I sketch and analyze the role, function, and experience of second-line parades, a cultural form created by and for working-class African-American New Orleanians. Then I make a case study of a specific second-line parade: the 77th annual Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club on Dec. 18, 2005. This is an old-school essay in the participant/observer tradition.


Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)

To Face The Music

A month after I moved to New Orleans in summer 2003 for a job at Tulane, a new friend who had become my local emissary brought me to my first second line. A second line parade is a weekly celebration of life and local black culture, a platform for self- and collective expression, a walkabout for urbanites. By the end of the first hour on that beautiful sunny Sunday September afternoon I was buzzed and happy and dancing next to the tubas. I'd already heard the brass band drop into the dirge "A Closer Walk With Thee" and re-boot with "I'll Fly Away." That's what happens at jazz funerals but this was a second line:  as a jazz scholar and English professor, I had to find out how this weekly ritual had come to exist here under the radar. The answer turned out to be pretty straightforward. Despite the familiar ring of the phrase "second-line" and a century-long tradition in working-class African-American neighborhoods, most white New Orleanians have never even seen a second-line and the police chronically treat them as hostile street actions.

At that first parade, there was a sprinkling of white participants, mostly hipsters, scholars, local musicians, and a few tourists. Since Katrina, there's been an uptick in middle-class interest and a given second-line may be nearly 20% white. Still, few of the white onlookers enter the parade —chant, dance, rock their bodies, shake their booties—although participation is encouraged, if only by example.

Some people just walk along and enjoy the rolling block party as a tourist attraction, but some have a second-line conversion experience. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, had one, and that seed is currently bearing fruit as Treme, the show he's currently filming in town. "I remember stumbling into my first second-line parade maybe 20 years ago," he said. "The Treme Brass Band went up Orleans Avenue to Claiborne Avenue, then stopped under the I-10 bridge. The echo was fantastic. They went past the Lafitte projects and people came out of their homes to join in. I was all the way up in Mid-City before I realized I'd walked 30 blocks and would have to walk all the way back. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I was hooked."

And the beat goes on. Every Sunday the band lays down the jazz, funk, and hiphop rhythms for the resplendent club members inside the ropes to lead the celebration. Neighbors stand on their porches or come out onto the so-called "neutral ground" (i.e., the commons) to wave, dance, and watch the parade go by, or to roll wid it awhile. At four or five stops at bars, the band and clubbers wet their whistles while tailgate grills smoke the scene with the tender mercies of street-pork, make-shift bars on truck cabs grease the human wheels, and the Pie Lady and Fruit Guy circulate to sweeten the breaks. Then it's back to livening up the otherwise grim city streets.

Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)

Late, Late Night

Originally published in New Orleans magazine, 2006.

The lively crowd I walked into at Molly’s at the Market one Monday night at 3 a.m., after the Saints kicked dirty-bird butt, was a rare and beautiful thing. Most post-Katrina Mondays Molly’s has been more of a krewe of tew – I only know because this is a regular one-beer drop-by for me after my midnight jazz show on WWOZ (now housed by the French Market.) This night, the bar is filled with loaded fans and happy television production workers. I talk with an assistant producer at CNN and an ex-native happy to return and share the camp-meeting feeling of the Superdome revival … in a late-night world often colored by soundless ESPN, Molly’s may be the last bar in America without a TV.

 Playing pool at the Old Point Bar once with jazz drummer Calvin Weston two years ago, I heard the surprise in his voice when he said, “People think New York’s a 24-hour city. This is a 24-hour city.” Well, things ain’t what they used ta be – as Duke Ellington once swung that commonplace thought into philosophy – and we lack the tourists, the workforce, the population, and the devil-may-care (but we done forgot) spirit of that all-night time. Still, if you’re looking for food, company or trouble – or all three – check the directory for drug stores and gas stations, and come with me to where the late, late-night swamplight shines. This is still a bohemia where many joints are officially open “till” – a non-word that somehow sums up the city’s anarchical impulses.

 Start with what you know: the Thursday-night Vaughan’s Lounge ritual with Kermit. He’s often on tour these days but his replacements have been stellar – whether trombonist Corey Henry’s hellacious band or Troy Andrews’ Orleans Avenue. Located deep in the Bywater, Vaughan’s is the 1970s bar of your dreams – if you remember the ‘70s, that is, or your dreams. If you don’t, it’s a laid-back, old-school, bi-level neighborhood joint with cheap drinks, Mardi Gras tinsel and a dance floor next to the bandstand. The music runs 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (give or take), the big pot of rice & beans shows up around 11 p.m. (give or take), and the easy low-key hang runs until 5 a.m. (give or take). It gets way too hot in here, but that only increases the social circulation, sending folks onto the outside benches that wrap around the corner bar. This last visit, the Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews band pelted the room with power ballads grafted onto jam-band funk for the first set (not a good thing) then settled into a tighter, jazzier second set. There were two highlights. First, a bullfight-themed brass-blasting “St. James Infirmary,” with Cab Calloway hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hos and Andrews leading the audience in call-and-response. Then, in the midst of a generic funk groove, two black women slid off their barstools and sync’d into an Electric Slide in front of the band, one so fluid and shimmying that people burst into applause twice ... and when the band locked into the women’s moves, quoting Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” everyone gathered ‘round and the house got its collective freak on.

 Heading back toward the Quarter, the late, late-night life is down to the stalwart Markey’s Bar (winds down between 1 and 3 a.m.) and the Mardi Gras Zone, a former bead warehouse that’s in the process of morphing into a 24/7 super-grocery. Down the left side of the bunker my female companion drifted, fingering beads, wigs, boas, hardware and paintball supplies, and then we came down the right side to stare incomprehendingly at the full line of dairy products, the fruits and vegetables, the bread and cheese. The Zone’s owner hopes to fill the gap left by the loss of neighborhood supermarkets (e.g., Robert’s on St. Claude), and as Bill and Ginger told us, every week a rack of masks goes out and a new cooler comes in. Wine, beer, fish and cheese are all on the way. Along with the Walgreen’s on St. Charles, the Zone’s all there is now for that late beer-groceries-and-Advil run.

 Besides, it’s down the block from Mimi’s, where the boho spirit reigns at 3 a.m. over food industry workers just off-shift, E/R medical personnel, subculturalists of all kinds, and of course, artists and slackers. There’s a jazzed calm in the room, people simply talking to – not performing at – each other. At the tables along the wall, candles rise into mirrors that reflect a certain Spanish-mission quality the room has only on late weeknights, given the weekend crowds for Soul Sister’s DJ parties. Just as important is the excellent selection of tapas (hot and cold) until 3 a.m. If it gets too mellow, hit Big Daddy’s across the street – a 24/7 gay bar where someone will always dance with you. If it’s too social, there’s the R Bar, where nearly everyone will allow you to hunker down in a corner with a beer or a companion. Now let’s head down Frenchman since about half of the city’s all-night action probably takes place in a half-mile radius of the corner of Esplanade and Decatur streets.

 Frenchman & Its Environs
One Sunday night ramble began with Tim Green’s sax solo at Snug Harbor, as he pealed off a bent, descending riff so soulful he lifted his leg like a flamingo to hold it, then stomped his foot down to free up the melody; then, after a deep penguin dip to the floor, he came up powerful and straight and honked his way to glory – literally marching back into the theme, right leg then left, until the band took it away. I rode the solo’s arc over to the new (24/7) Zotz – a high-ceilinged gray bohemia with comfortable chairs, pastries and sandwiches, and the graveyard shift’s java priestess, Emily of the blood-red dreadlocks. Readers, sleepers, writers and re-fuelers drape across the chairs, but (Emily says) business falls off after 3 or 4 a.m. A few months back, recent robberies and violence forced some early closings, but recent arrests have helped bring some confidence back. On weekends, the blasting shows of the refurbished Dragon’s Den upstairs, create an upstairs/downstairs circuit of the loud and the restless.

Crowds on Frenchman remain thin compared to pre-Katrina levels, but weekends still bump until 3:30 a.m. or so, as d.b.a., Cafe Brazil, and Ray’s Boom Boom Room wind down. The last man standing (or lying down) will be swept out of the Apple Barrel, a place no bigger than its name, where anytime of night a gaggle of drunkards wave liquid wisdom from the rusted chairs outside – and yet, I’ve never heard a smart cracker-barrel word from this Greek chorus. It was hard to squeeze into this joint in pre-Katrina days but now you can just grab a space at the bar and absorb the distorted, snake-crawling bluesiana for which it is famous, especially if Coco Robicheaux’s playing.

 When it’s time to grease the drunken beast, head over to 13, the best late-night food on the post-Katrina partyscape. The kitchen’s open until 4 a.m., but it’s not just the food: the place has character, a sharp-witted staff and a wakeful level of hubbub. There are slow-cooked sandwiches, custom pizzas, good appetizers and overhead, a flat-screen TV shows movies as if from God’s third eye. In the thick, humid, early-October soup, I was cooled off by a frozen Irish coffee while watching Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and refusing the bruschetta temptations of Kim the Bartender. Didn’t matter that Gus Van Sant didn’t quite capture Sissy Hankshaw’s hijacking the ‘60s vortex; Uma Thurman sure looked the part and besides, at 13, after half an hour, you’re usually trading jokes with the cook or a fellow sot at the bar. The place is level-on-the-level (to quote John Prine) and every neighborhood should have one.

 It’s true that the grill at Checkpoint Charlie’s is open 24/7, but you can only get something to eat if the bartender has time to cook, and if he can cook (i.e., there’s no cook). At 4 a.m., everyone here leans to one side. The pure slapstick of watching the smashed leaners try to eat chicken wings sent me and my companion away from the bar and up the steps to the pool tables, where a tall, black man in white pants sat sleeping, head in hand. The pool tables were level – as opposed to the customers – and thankfully, someone fed the jukebox all Dylan songs. Then the man awoke. He watched us while drinking a Coke and eating peanut butter out of a jar. I was trying to give my friend some tips on lining up shots and then on my turn, the man – call him Nestor – showed her how to hold the cue. Turns out he’s a singer of what he calls “country gospel,” and asked us to come see him that Tuesday. When we left I learned that Nestor had told my companion she was beautiful (true), asked her to have his children (wacked), and managed to slip his number into her purse (impressive). I must admit her pool game has improved.

 A hard-partying old girlfriend used to tell new arrivals, “If you’re at Snake & Jake’s at 5 a.m. – and that’s a conscious thought – you need to go home.” That probably holds for The John as well, a cavernous bar a few blocks down Frenchman named for the row of painted silver-and-black toilets along the back wall. It’s worth a stop to relish the wondrous variety of ‘70s album covers checker boarding two entire walls – and to get a drink in a mason jar. Soon you’ll notice how the bar’s meager light vanishes into the dark high ceilings and then The John starts to feel like the roadhouse from Twin Peaks. Without Angelo Badalamenti to score the scene, I played Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine” on the jukebox. However, two minutes into its cool muted meditation, the chunky lesbian bartender ordered a heavy-metallica couple out of the bar and ruined the mood.

 That drove us over to Iggy’s, a great bar to sit out a domestic squabble. It’s cozy (the bar fills the small room), bright (but not too), mildly distracting (ESPN flickers soundlessly, women’s fingernails clack the video poker), and there’s solid drunken story swapping. I was eavesdropping on a low-watt conversation between the bartender (an older white woman,) a well-dressed middle-aged white guy and a 30-year-old black woman in a shower cap when “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” came on the jukebox, and without warning, the woman hit the chorus in full voice. At the turn of the next verse, she simply rejoined the conversation as if she hadn’t blasted us with karaoke. From our sponsor: Opportunity to play Tom Waits’ “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” at 4:30 a.m. in a place like Iggy’s? Priceless.

 The Quarter
Mojo Lounge is the new welcome-mat as you head into the Quarter from Frenchman, and you could make a day of it here: there’s outside tables, free wi-fi, a pool table, a few video games and (always) a few workers killing time at the bar on cigarette breaks. The kitchen’s open until 2 a.m. (pizzas, quesadillas, salads, even steak sandwiches) and it winds down two hours later. A few blocks down this lively stretch of Decatur is Angeli, which in pre-Katrina days was the only restaurant open until 4 a.m. down this way (currently, until 2 a.m.). Mojo feels like a good bar; Angeli, like a late-night diner. You make the call.

 If your kid dresses like a Dickensian guttersnipe in that sort of layered Cat-in-the-Hat bricolage – and he’s not home by 3 a.m.? – you’ll find him at The Abbey. Serving skater punk insomniacs, blasted dancing fools and random drop-ins, The Abbey’s not for tourists, slummers or Sunday adventurers, so just go down to Molly’s at the Market where you belong. One of my ex-students calls it “the 40s and pit bull bar,” and it is apparently a den of iniquity where cops harass the patrons on a regular basis. In addition, don’t even look in next door at The Dervish – unless your kid’s a Goth who’s into techno, and then really don’t look in. (They’re both 24/7.)

 The Clover Grill has returned to its 24/7 glory from Thurs.-Mon., so go for the burgers and burlesque, and look away from the pink tiles if you’ve been drinking huge ass beers. Cabaret music pumps in, the tall black cook flips fries and bumps butts with the waiter, and “the joint is (generally) jumpin’.” The Fats Waller tune was actually playing when I walked in last week. Ask the way to the bathroom before you go, because through the tiny diner’s kitchen you step into a courtyard that might have been a stage set for Streetcar – with its Escherian maze of balconies, shadows and cellars, and always just out of earshot, some couple barking at one another. If you want to go a bit further back in time – like to the 18th century – you can drink by candlelight at Lafitte’s till 3 a.m.

 Still the only true 24/7 food options in the Quarter are the Quartermaster grocery and Deja Vu, a haven for cops and cabbies. The walk from one to the other goes right down the middle of a sad shuttered Bourbon St. (by 2:15 am). The bartender at Deja Vu, Elisa, was a Bronx-raised spitfire dressed in black and tattooed from here to see-ya-next-Tuesday, and after serving us beers, cursed some bad tipper after tallying his check. The conversation then turned to celebrity bad tippers – “JLo,” someone yelled, “Vanna White,” “Halle Berry” – and then a massive cop tossed in (former Chicago Bull) “Scottie Pippen ... they used to call ‘im ‘No-Tippin’ Pippen.’” With a few cops, a few alcoholics, a few video-poker addicts, decent food and one entertaining halfwit, it felt like a cable sitcom about an all-night diner.

 All this late-night debauchery works up quite an appetite. “The chicken wings good?” I asked Elisa. “You from New York?” I nodded, my Brooklyn accent never quite tamed. “Then they’re not that good.” (My crush on her grows.) My evening’s companion ordered the vegetarian omelet; I punched him in the shoulder because, well, c’mon. “The bacon cheeseburger then,” he said; “‘Atta boy,” I said. It was a damned good burger: all flame-broiled greasy, grilled goodness. We left nourished, stopped for a drink next door at Rio (24/7) and then again at Erin Rose down the block (open 22/7). Quarter conclusion: Conti between Bourbon and Dauphine is the go-to place for the late, late-night show at its slummingly safest.

 For a homier destination at the more ambient edges of the Quarter, try Cosimo’s – a lively two-room den awash in golden-red light and bonhomie, with a great jukebox and a few pool tables in a separate alcove. Quality respite until 5 a.m, Thurs.-Sat. (and until 2 a.m., otherwise.)

 Heading Uptown
My first year in town I stopped my car and walked into Igor’s Bar/Grill/Game Room/Laundromat just to confirm that sign’s neon truth. Sure enough, squeezed in the back corner beyond the pool tables were two washers and two dryers. Similar neon claims at Lucky’s and Avenue Pub were upheld upon further inquiry. If you’ve ever wondered how three 24-hour bars survive in a quarter-mile stretch of St. Charles in Central City (i.e., below Jackson), here’s my theory: The Uptown strip serves collegetown (Grit’s, F&M, the Balcony, Miss Mae’s, Le Bon Temps) whereas the St. Charles strip harbors the young working stiffs. At 2 a.m. at Avenue Pub, bored young workers – black and white, male and female – played pool and listened to Al Green and The Clash. Good music, kids, I thought, so Godspeed, enjoy the tacos, and may you outwit your boredom. If not, they’re likely to wind up as the cynical characters at Lucky’s – too smart for their fate – or nodding at tourists at Igor’s who think they have a clue about New Orleans … Or worse, doing your laundry at one of these places while drinking the night away.

 Heading up from the St. Charles to the Uptown strip, there’s a smattering of joints open till and not till dawn: The Saint is for hipsters and fugitives; Rendezvous has been re-imagined as a sports bar and is slowly becoming a Parasol’s-style neighborhood joint for post-college singles; Shiloh is a DJ-powered living-room space where the hip-hop and techno soundtrack is the path to altered states; and Kingpin is a fine neighborhood dive in the grand tradition. The only true 24/7 joint is Miss Mae’s, which may have the cheapest top-shelf drink prices in these United States – a fact that fosters a rare intergenerational mix of senior citizens, sports fans, working-class men and female undergrads. Le Bon Temps needs no introduction as a music venue or as a premium dive, but in its 24/7 weekend mode, it also generates testimonials such as this one from a beautiful 40-year-old Loyola professor: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen daybreak through the windows of the Bon Temps.”

 A few blocks up, Uptown finally has a 24/7 java joint – Urban Cup – with real food: wraps and panini, salads and red beans. Lively with students most of the time, it also attracts the sort of young professionals who seem to be running mail-order businesses off their laptops. Before, Uptown folk had to go to the Zotz on Oak St., a claustrophobic oasis that keeps the Riverbend from sinking into a pre-dawn slough of despair.

 From 2-6 a.m. Uptown, the all-night action moves to the nitty-gritty of Uptown undergraduates, F&M and Grit’s. (Until then, they’re both neighborhood joints.) The liveliest places on weeknights in collegetown, they’re also packed to the gills on weekends. Unless you’re desperate for crowd noise or looking for spectacle (or your kid), pick on some joint your own size.

 Finally, if you’re hungry and it’s passed 4 a.m. – closing out The Balcony Bar (kitchen open until 3 a.m.) and Le Bon Temps (about the same) – you can either wait in a line 10 cars deep at the 24-hour drive-thru McDonald’s on St. Charles and Louisiana, or drive on and show your stomach some self-respect. There’s Dot’s Diner in Kenner, with its kitschy decor, working-girl wait-staff, and old-school carbo-loading. Better yet, there’s Betsy’s Pancake House (opens at 5:30 a.m.), with its cheap, plentiful food, iconic back-talking waitresses and eclectic clientele (male construction workers at dawn, downtown workers at lunch, church-going families through the weekends). If you can stand the bright lights and the tourists at the end of a dark night of the soul, there’s always Harrah’s “Midnight Buffet.” In addition, if you can no longer face the world outside your car, there’s a surprisingly satisfying breakfast buffet at the Sav-A-Center at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon streets.

Personally? I’m waiting for Betsy’s to open. 

39 Sundays: Rollin' Wid It

This essay originally appeared in the book Unfathomable City (University of California Press, 2013)

The day starts at 10 am at Spring Hill Missionary, a white stucco four-square Uptown Baptist church crowned with an all-watching steeple. Inside, we spread our tropical peach sleeves across the double rows of wooden pews, dark olive alligator shoes sticking out in the aisle. The pastor wears a pink power suit and reads from Corinthians about how Jesus might be anywhere, might even be on today's second line (so I guess we should watch for him). We're all mostly bored until one of our own, 72-year-old Sidney "Lil Bruh" Morris, stands up to act as a deacon and brings the message home with quiet dignity, asking the Lord for a good parade and a peaceful day of celebration and we all say Amen.

  In New Orleans, the second Sunday of each October belongs to the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club and has for a very long time. Founded in 1928 by dockworkers and railroad men, there is some disagreement about the origin of the club name. Most members believed it was named for the love of the club ancestors for J&B scotch (it says "dedicated to the Prince of Wales" on the label) while a few believe it was named for the actual Prince of Wales, a renowned jazz hound who made his first visit that year to the source of the cultural river. Mostly in our 40s and 50s, many Walers are second- and third-generation paraders who recall watching second-lines as kids or remember when clubs sewed their own colorful suits every year. On our day, by police permit and with police escort, all traffic is stopped and cleared out a quarter-mile section at a time as the Prince of Wales and Lady Walers -- and more than a thousand second-liners from all around -- funk up four miles of bad New Orleans road.

  After church, we drive over to take the annual club photo on the neutral ground across from Tipitina's, the famous club and shrine to Professor Longhair on Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. We line up all in the unity of our finery half-facing the photographer. Standing proud in the year's colors -- peach suits, dark olive accessories -- we hold aloft two oval so-called "fans" upon which the club's lion symbol roars from a field of velvet. Then we move on up the street a quarter-mile to our home base where there's an hour until we launch ourselves onto the streets.

  The Rockbottom Lounge is the staging ground for coming out the door, the parade's kick-off at 1 pm. The core of the current club met here in the 1990s, many of them friends or relatives of Alonzo Landry, the President for most of that decade, while "White Boy Joe" Stern, our most veteran member, was adopted into Landry's extended family. Here we start getting the spirit, talk to former members, watch mothers dress their kids, take pride in being told by past generations that this year's peach three-piece with matching dark-olive hat and alligator shoes, has again made the grade: "Y'all look clean, ya look pretty," the men tell us. We each pin up a long streamer that flows across our torsos and down to our knees, full of bows and ribbons with a nickname on the shoulder-strap. All the while we're spiking our Sunday-go-to-second-line spirit with Heineken, Seagram's 7, weed, Grey Goose -- don't forget the wine coolers for Phyllis -- except for Miss Betty, a church-going woman soberly surviving with style at 65. Coming out in single file, we each by each hit the threshold, strike a pose and present this year's model of our selves. It is a serious celebratory matter. As Betty says, "All I know is when I come out I want to look like the baddest motherfucker there is."

  We come out rocking Soul-Train style between the ropes held by our prop men and descend onto Tchoupitoulas Street powered by The Stooges brass band: kids first, girls skipping and mugging with their green hats, boys next, a twelve-year-old already with a quick hip-dip and touch of the hat, then the Lady Walers saunter out, cool and low-flowin', Terina’s star-time smile followed by Phyllis' slow boogie and Desiree crossdressed in a Prince's suit working the glory of a threshold till its hers. Then the gents: Noland comes out lean and mean, a cool hustler as if with money to burn, White Boy Joe faces West and side-steps, sporting a matching dark olive bandanna under his olive Stetson, Bruce waves his booty round and round and covers the most ground, switching back through the ropes and up Peniston, Alvin does his gangster strut and runs his hand along his hat brim. Then Lil Bruh comes out holding his fans high and kicks his knees up higher than you'd imagine a 72-year-old man can, the very incarnation of the original "Grand Marshal," the strutting dancer who led the second-lines back when Black New Orleanians first "made up the parades just for the pleasure of it," as recalled by jazz legend Sidney Bechet from his childhood.

  After only two blocks we slow the parade roll to honor the dead. The band downshifts into a dirge in front of the late Jimmy Parker's house on Annunciation and The Walers fall into a halting step with a syncopated slip: we strut in two lines with a slight diagonal step, shaping the air into chords of ancestor worship. Maybe we pick up his spirit, maybe he's satisfied we're all still dancing for him. Once past, the tuba and snare drum pick up the groove and down the block we pick up the Queen and her Court. Elected from outside the club, she rides with her maids and throws a few beads, honorary royal figureheads in the ritual. While waiting, Paul and I buckjump together, his thrashing kicks set off my deep-knee corkscrewing, and the Walers gather around, throw their fans down and get busy with The Stooges. The tuba-man slows his beat and a pride of princesses and their children dance down the steps and ascend a half-sawn off Mardi Gras float with their children. Then the Queen comes down the steps in white taffeta approaching a vehicle that has to be seen to be believed: an open-air bare-bones stagecoach woven of wire and drawn by two stallion-sized white mules. The Queen steps in as if she's a relief pitcher from Heaven. The driver flicks his switch and she is driven half a block to the awaiting float for a day of regal waves and champagne riding.

   We set in to serious second-lining through the 12th Ward, a seamless sunny brassy carpet-ride of strolling, drinking, talking, and strutting, tuba-&-drum call and community response, until the parade turns onto Magazine Street and the Walers hit this commercial strip like a holiday: Alvin throws down his fans and we make a circle around him as he zigs back and forth with zip starts and stops, Desiree turns her palms up and damn near limbos, and everyone digs making the rich white folks wait and wonder as they stare from their cars with culture shock-and-awe. Second-lines run four hours over five-mile routes almost entirely through African-American neighborhoods -- Treme, Central City, Carrollton -- so many locals have never seen one due to residential segregation. Until recently, New Orleans culture was racially coded for locals: white and black Mardi Gras, white Krewes and Black Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, white touristy second-lines and these black-cultural rolling block parties.

  The Prince of Wales is a rare Uptown second-line and this ain't no First Friday: it's a community getting its collective freak on, working off the weekly tension so at some point everybody is a star (to riff on Sly Stone). The parade belongs as much to the second liners as to the first line: that's why it's named for them. As Louis Armstrong testified about his childhood: "The Second Line is a bunch of Guys who follows the parade. They're not the members of the … Club. Anybody can be a Second Liner, whether they are Raggedy or dressed up. They seemed to have more fun than anybody." This weekly ritual is named for the celebrants and not the sponsors, and at this point we all swing together onto the broad expanse of Louisiana Avenue and head up to The Sandpiper, a bar whose '50s neon martini sign is a beacon in the late unholy NOLA night. This is the first scheduled ten-minute stop of the parade: we rest for a drink and momentarily de-compress.

  Once we re-emerge we're in the thick of it, between the dancers and the deep heat and the strolling crowd. Sometimes you look up from getting down and don't even know where you're at even in your own neighborhood. The music shapes the air, the band torques up our internal gyroscopes, the tuba syncs our bodies together. We're getting the street into our system and putting our energy into the street. Like any good ritual, second-lines suspend everyday industrial time. And then it's out LaSalle to Washington and on around to the stop at Charley Wright's place, and we’re lettin’ the good times roll on, Walers out front.

  On your club's parade day, the suit is your club uniform and the band is your motorcade. "Shut that street down… I'm coming through here. That's what it feel like," Noland once said, having driven a cab and a truck and run assorted hustles as well as a home-repair business in his fifty-odd years. "You feel like, [there's] nothing they can do [to stop you]… Eleven months they [we] slave, for one day out of the year." Miss Betty distills this feeling: "That’s my day. I feel like a star. Everything's got to stop for me." On this day, the second-liners bask in refracted glory off our colorful shoulders and bad-ass shoes: our tropical blaze of body and soul lights up the community. "It’s your day, you the one shining," Betty says.

  If a city is a circulatory system of its residents' energy -- with streets like arteries and airwaves -- then New Orleans is the city as dancing body, a place whose spirit is stomped into existence every Sunday. Every day musicians inhale the city and on Sundays, they exhale it through valves and pistons and put the music on the wind for dancers to make the city's rhythms visible. There's a third line, too -- the platoon of photographers and tourists who think the main action is the first line when it's more along the sidewalks, where two people lock eyes and drop into a dance-off full of fluid shimmies, spins, and pelvic pops, where an impromptu drum unit rings time on cowbells and pint bottles, where every surface becomes a platform of celebration -- church steps, flatbeds, low rooftops, billboards -- and I watch seven young men from the community pace the Prince of Wales single-file each with his own move (leap, hurdle, split, cartwheel) while a few women lean forward on a parked car and booty-pop their pleasure since it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.

  "There's no place like this place," Stan smiles at me as we swing onto St. Charles and hold up a streetcar, tourists' eyes popping wide as their camera lenses. The Stooges shift into "Billie Jean" and pump up the volume, honoring the recently deceased Michael Jackson and blowing up the prized quiet real estate with brassy antagonism. "The tourists … be trying to see what's going on, they taking pictures," Phyllis says with pride, "but we own the streets that day." Stan is originally from San Antonio and joined the club post-Katrina for one reason: "It became imperative [for me] to step up because they were trying to take the culture away." In the immediate aftermath of "the Storm" (as it's called here), the city doubled the cost of a police permit and spread the lie that violence was endemic to second-lines. The clubs sued to rescind the increase and the Walers' own Joe Stern testified to the lack of parade violence over a generation. "They don't help us at all," Phyllis once said about the city, "if it was up to them, we wouldn't even be second lining… That's why we have the [Second-Line] Task Force…because we're trying to fight for our culture… Any kind of commercial dealing with New Orleans, the first thing you see is a second line. But they don’t support us."

  We have looped back around into the Garden District and arrive at our last stop, Commander’s Palace, the city's #1 restaurant as rated by Zagat's: this was a prestigious coup engineered by Bruce and Noland and represents very recent attempts by local businesses to embrace local Black culture for its spectacle value. Five feet from the door, Adrian, the youngest Waler, throws her hat to the ground and she dip-bam-double-skips and spins into a quick routine that The Stooges support with sustained, escalating riffs, and Adrian does a stutter-kick, a half-split and then a slight backbend from which she rolls her head back in to place, gives the band an appreciative side-eye, then bends gracefully to pick up her hat and sashays on in. It is her way of claiming this new terrain and honoring its prestige. We swirl into the restaurant, human birds of paradise swooping low past shocked faces in the midst of quiet mid-afternoon lunches. I toss back a gimlet with Alvin and Terina's goldened smile spurs us back on out to Tchoupitoulas and the wide-open homestretch along the river that takes us home to the Rockbottom.

 A second-line parade is an annual house party that moves lightly like the feathers on our fans yet inexorably like a tank through the streets. Gotta roll wid it or get the hell on outta the way.