Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Where did the Locals Go?

Saturday nights in the deep New Orleans June summer stick to the skin like the juice from the Rue Des Orangers, or the city’s municipal street “orange” – Satsuma – that sticks to your fingers. It’s “bar in the car” night as down and almost out Lightfoot and I head with a few dollars in hand to Rouses Supermarket in Midcity to buy a bottle of NOLA rum and coke to put in an ice-filled cooler in the back of his car. We invented “bar in a car” years ago to compensate for the costs involved in our nights on the town, (only back then it was, to confess, Red Bull and raspberry vodka along with a few choice enhancements). New Orleans provides a prime setting where those lacking money can provide their own drinks pouring cheap cocktails, wine, or straight hard liquor into plastic cups from the back of their car with a self-supplied bar. Most drinking venues along Decatur Street between Ursulines Street and Esplanade Avenue in the Vieux Carré allow people to enter their establishment with drinks purchased elsewhere.

We still buy drinks in these bars, just fewer of them to offset the costs of a long night of ruffian debauchery. We also don’t need to purchase plastic cups; every bar in New Orleans gives them away for free. “To-go” cups sit near the doorway or on the bar for customers to simply take when they leave. Transferring your remaining drink from glass to plastic is part of the normal process of barhopping in this city. And, of course, all this is made possible since it’s legal to drink on the streets of New Orleans. Most other places with Puritan sticks up their asses fail to see the civility of outside drinking. As a result, some people in Somewhere Else America, like Wisconsin, don’t know how to drink outside and occasionally, one or more of them will inevitably fall into the Mississippi River. Strange.

We smack it up at Molly’s Market on Decatur Street, take a whirl and twirl at the former Whirling Dervish where blond-haired goth wannabes awkwardly dance to Nuevo-punk and-goth music. We discuss how the Hi-Ho Lounge in nearby Faubourg Marigny once catered to all the punks, goths, anarchists, and otherwise underground culture freaks of New Orleans before the storm. Let’s do it, see what it’s like post-Katrina; to the Hi-Ho we go.

Deep funking and rare grooving to the beats of DJ Soul “the queen of rare groove” Sister spinning underground disco, funk and boogie, and hip hop and 70s jazz, all night long at the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue near Elysian Fields. DJ Soul Sister, who also hosts the “Soul Power” show on New Orleans local radio station WWOZ, deejayed her first live “Hustle” dance party to locals at Leo’s in Faubourg Bywater back in 2004, before moving the show to Mimi’s in the Marigny, and – due to a noise dispute with new neighborhood residents – now hosts the free event at the Hi-Ho Lounge in Faubourg Marigny. But the people don’t look like locals anymore.

We walk through the door to a crazy packed space of mainly white faces moving their bodies without any cultured grace to the soulful sounds of the spinning funk. We walk through the venue listening to the loud voices, inspecting the pale faces, watching the generic movements, sensing the lack of something otherwise known as culture and wonder, “What the fuck happened in here?” We walk to the back courtyard where a former pop-up chef with parents from Cuba now sells Cuban-inspired food to, well, who are these people he’s selling it to? Milquetoast Cleveland is in the house!

Hi-ho, hi-ho, where did the locals go? Time to investigate and devise a strategy to find where, oh where, did the New Orleaneans go? Some timid scrawny light-skinned black guy wearing a goofy as can be “artist” hat entertains two women. It becomes clear, after a painful ten minutes, that this poser advertises himself as a Hollywood director now in New Orleans to make it “big” while looking for local talent. One woman hails from Brooklyn while another equally blond woman is from Maine. The Cuban selling what smells like damn good pork sandwiches was born in Miami, and the others sitting at tables and smoking cigarettes arrived from Milwaukee, Mississippi, California, Long island, Ohio and Montana.

The big sweet but ornery black woman outside checking I.D’s maintains a blasé countenance with every patron entering the venue; no matter what clever thing they try to say. She’s from New Orleans East just west of Gentilly. A local girl. Good. The I.D’s read: Wisconsin, Wisconsin, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Alabama, Alabama, a bunch from Mississippi, Missouri, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan, god knows how many from Texas, two European passports from England, Iowa, Iowa and two more from Iowa, Virginia, Virginia, and must have been about five or six New Yorks. Louisiana! Finally. “Yo,” I say, “you from here, bay?” She asks, “What?” and replies, “No, I moved from New Jersey.” Candice from New Orleans East checking I.D’s says, “None of dese people from here. Dey all from Somewhere Else, though some of dem live here now.” After an hour of looking at the identification cards with Candice, and asking those with Louisiana I.D.’s where they from, it becomes clear, as Candice said, none of ‘dem hail from here.

Inside, we watch two young black guys compete robot dance to an impressed audience that now circle them. We found them! Locals entertaining tourists! Close, but no. They come from Mississippi and Alabama along the southern coast along the great Gulf of Mexico. Moving through the crowd, we bounce to the beats, smile at the frenzied dancing crowd digging the Soul Sister’s mix. “You from here.” “No,” “no,” and “no.” Everyone says “no.”

It’s gentrification station, gentrification station here at the Hi-Ho where the locals once lounged, and where did the locals go? We just don’t know. “Do you know that it means to miss New Orleans,” even when you’re in it?

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