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A final New Orleans moment from Uncle Lionel

A communal moment at Uncle Lionel's second line (Photograph by Gretchen Wheaton)

A week ago today, I parked my car in front of a tangerine-colored 24-hour food store on the edge of Treme, and walked under the Claiborne overpass to St. Philip Street. A snoball stand on wheels was parked on one corner, and a makeshift barbecue booth had been erected across the street; both were doing brisk business with the crowd milling about in front of the Charbonnet, Labat, Glapion funeral home.

It was hot, steamy, threatening rain and the second line for the late Uncle Lionel Batiste was running late.

As I scanned the surrounding faces in search of my friend Gretchen, who I was meeting there, I took stock of a moment and a scene that could only have taken place in New Orleans.

And not just because of that snoball stand. Or the ribbon-ribbed parasols. Not because of the notes of a saxophone tuning up out of sight, or even the Mardi Gras Indian decked in royal-blue feathers holding court on the concrete.

No, what resonated for me were the conversations and salutations with those disparate people, united momentarily and by happenstance on a hot, steamy Monday morning, caught in a collective pause to pay homage to a man whose music had moved us all.

In New Orleans, when we congregate, we communicate. We talk to one another in grocery lines and at bus stops, on front stoops and across bar stools. We may not agree on politics or religion, but it’s second nature for us to bond over our sense of place. You know that if you’ve ever run into a fellow New Orleanian in an airport lounge or hotel lobby far from home.

On this damp morning, those gathered on St. Philip Street ran the gamut of age and race. Black and white, old and young, male and female, we were more alike than not, and it was reflected in the easy camaraderie of the crowd.

Not long ago, I was talking to a young visitor about her experiences in New Orleans. During a tour of neighborhoods, she told me, “a group of musicians suddenly marched by playing their instruments. It was so cute.”

What to her seemed quaint to us marks the kind of spontaneous, in-the-moment mentality that differentiates our days. The things that make this place, at this time, carry the potential of being special.

Another young friend who had moved to New Orleans and found an apartment in Treme recalled his parents voicing their concerns about crime in his new neighborhood as they stood on his second-floor balcony. ”And at that moment a second line comes around the corner, and I said, ‘There, see? That’s why I live here.’ ”

A recent NolaVie article about second lines prompted a scolding email from one of our readers. New Orleans, she said, is becoming a caricature of itself. We don’t all dance at funerals, or hire brass bands.

Point taken. It’s all too easy to reduce New Orleans music or food or fests to stereotype. It’s why my friend Evan Christopher continues chiseling away at the perpetuation of the image of the New Orleans jazz musician as a lone saxophonist playing for tips on a streetcorner.

But on this particular Monday morning, at this particular second line, what I was feeling wasn’t necessarily about the horsedrawn hearse, the beat and sway of a jazz band, the pounding of feet against pavement as we sashayed along sidewalks, catching glimpses of faces pressed against doorscreens as we went by.

At this particular moment, as we congregated, we communicated. Black and white, old and young, male and female. And that was a feeling worth celebrating.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.


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