Day Three. I’m eating breakfast in a little café across from my hotel on Royal Street. The waitress brings me a cup of joe and a hard bagel filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I eat ravenously. I’m still riding high from the excitement of the day before. At this point, I’ve fallen wholeheartedly in love with the French Quarter. I’ve shed any doubts I had about whether I ought to be here, whether I could fit in, whether I could be happy here. I’m moving with more purpose. In short- I’m enjoying myself in New Orleans.
I had planned on getting the Greyhound to Biloxi, Mississippi for a shrimping expedition, and then another one to Mobile, Alabama, where I’d spend the night and come home late the following day. I decided against this course of action at the last minute. Instead, I would double-down on the Big Easy. I booked a couple more tours and chose to spend the intervening time getting to know this beautiful city as best as I could.
My third day in NOLA was going to be at a slower pace. I savored my breakfast and walked at a leisurely pace down to Canal Street. It was time to discover the city’s famous streetcars. I took a red streetcar north toward City Park- the final stop. The seats can be a little uncomfortable, but on the plus side it’s nice and cool once you’re onboard. The streetcars here are a lot different to the ones I encountered in Budapest. They function much in the same way as a bus; you get on at the front, pay the driver, and when you want to get off you pull a cord. In Budapest however, you just hop on and hop off with no questions asked.
I watched the driver do his thing. No pedals, just a lever. You push the lever forward and the streetcar goes forward. Pull it back and it stops. It struck me as an extremely interesting profession, because it’s not one you can take with you anywhere. You’re tied to the city. The streetcars and their drivers are as much a part of New Orleans as the Spanish Moss and the abandoned warehouses. I began to see them in a romantic light; the city was alive, and these streetcar operators were its spirit guardians. They depended on the magic of the Big Easy, and as such they were its anthropomorphic incarnations.
The passengers were a mix of tourists and locals. The tourists on the streetcar were going to the same place I was- City Park, and stayed onboard the length of the journey. The locals got on and off at various points along the way. We went up a long boulevard lined with palm trees. A man got on and I saw that he was moving very gingerly, as though he were in a constant state of pain and agony. I figured he must be really old, but when I looked closer I saw that he was middle-aged. He was wearing these thin, brightly-colored pants not unlike pajamas, and when he turned around to pay the driver I saw that there was a circular hole cut into them by the anus. I could feel some of the tourists near me tense up. The man seemed to be in a dispute with the driver about his ticket, but not an angry one. The man seemed confused and the driver, while being very firm with him, nonetheless seemed like he had encountered this situation before. The man eventually found the right amount of quarters and took his seat near the front of the streetcar, sitting down very slowly. He appeared to be spaced out, or in a trance-like state, and kept mumbling to himself. Everyone kept an eye on him. After a few blocks he got off near a building called Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinic, somewhere in Midtown.
I thought about the man limping off towards the clinic and our streetcar continuing north without him. Sonder is defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” and I think that’s what I experienced in that moment. Sometimes I do this thing where I think about how every memory in my life doesn’t exist anymore, like I’m walking in a constant linear path across a rope bridge and the planks behind me fall away one after the other with every step I take. I think about how nothing exists except the moment I’m in- the present- and how this moment is the latest point in my life so far. I don’t know why I do it, but I’ve done it ever since I was in school, when I thought about how far away adult life was. So far away that it seemed like it would never come. But now here I am, at the age of 25, and I’m starting to look back at the past instead of dreaming of the future.
I wondered about all the little moments that brought that man to limping across the street. I probably ought to have been worrying about his future, given that he was obviously injured and heading towards a clinic. But I couldn’t resist dwelling on his past. The past doesn’t exist, and yet the present is the total culmination of it; every moment we’re in is everything that came before it. The anxiousness of the people around me faded and the tourists started talking cheerfully again. The man was forgotten, an extra in each of our lives, as each of us were in his own story. The streetcar approached the vast green expanses of City Park and we got off, maps in hand, excited for a day of exploring. A few girls took selfies with the streetcar in the background. A couple of women asked me if I had any idea where we were. I pointed them in the right direction and looked at the immensity of the park in front of me. The sheer vastness of the place separated us quickly, and we each continued forward, on our own respective pathways.