Time and the City

In New Orleans, hours bend with the topography

by Craig Damrauer


If you stand on a rooftop along the East River in Brooklyn in the evening and look down past Governor’s Island, down toward the Verrazano Bridge, you can see time. Time as a dimension. Up above your head are lights that seem to be hovering. There’s one close, one a bit further behind, one behind that. They twinkle in the distance and you know, because you know, they’re planes. These planes are lined up for landing at LaGuardia. The space between them is about five minutes, I’ve noticed, which must be the amount of time between landings on whatever runway they’re headed for. And so if there are three planes hovering patiently in the air down the river, you’re looking at a perfect vector that consists of fifteen minutes. If there are five twinkling dots in the sky, you’re seeing twenty five minutes unfurling just above.

What catches me when I look at this is how inevitable these stretches of time are. The planes must move at a certain rate. The line cannot, for the most part, stop and therefore this is a fairly true representation of time. And what catches me as well is that there is diminishment in the size of the planes. The one three back is smaller than the one in the front. The fifth is a distant dot. Visually, it appears quite far away, a small blip on the horizon. Twenty five minutes, from the looks of it, is a good ways away.

Time is a dimension. Einstein gave us this thinking in General Relativity. This is apparent when one is wading through the blinding murk of grief. It initially feels like an impossibility, something so large, so heavy that it might be impassible. But then you’ll notice that the pain gradually lifts in an almost linear fashion. Day by day the feeling gets smaller as if you’re viewing it from a moving vehicle headed the opposite direction. What was once a monument turns into a mere signpost as time drives us away.

But the other thing Einstein gave us was Special Relativity. Time is relative. Verlyn Klinkenborg describes this beautifully in The Rural Life, saying that from a distance ‘summer looks as capacious as hope” and yet it contracts the closer we get. Time’s relativity is completely clear in New Orleans. Something strange happens to your clock the moment you arrive, as I did a few years back. It is as if your rigid time piece has melted.

When I describe this to northerners, they immediately equate it with far off ideas about southern heat and slowness. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I actually think I perceive time differently in New Orleans. A New York minute feels a good bit different here. Same with a Denver minute, a Tucson minute and a minute in Maine, all places I’ve also lived.

It’s easy to dismiss this. Even as I type the words I worry that Rod Serling is outside my door, hands clasped, head tilted slightly, talking to a camera. But this isn’t Twilight Zone shit, I swear.

New Orleans is a city perfectly designed to warp time.

Time is an unusual concept for the human being. We don’t have any senses that directly perceive it. It can’t be seen or felt or tasted or heard. It has to be noticed. And therefore time requires a certain kind of thinking. In his essay Symbolic Representation of Time the noted anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach explains, “We recognize repetition. Drops of water falling from the roof; they are not all the same drop, but different. Yet to recognize them as being different we must first distinguish, and hence define, time-intervals.” A day is accepted as following the previous day because we have noticed and noted the night between. Years and longer periods are denoted by tracking the rise and fall of seasons. The moon helps, too.

It goes relatively unmentioned but one of the firmest demarcations of human progression is the way we’ve dealt with time. Agriculture is time based. Science begins only when we have an appropriate measure for time. The development and transmission of ideas, the organization of people, all of this happens when we can place ourselves within time’s dimension. The built world folds around time, whether it’s the clock tower, bus schedules or that number you called for the atomic clock every time the power went out and you needed to reset your stove. The more sharply we can position ourselves, the more precise our thinking and actions are. Consider meeting someone at sundown versus, say, 7:22. Consider an assembly line where things are put together, oh, whenever they get there. Technology progresses with our ability to accurately subdivide units of time. Processor speed is a good example of this.

And though it’s critical to our existence, our understanding of time is based on systems humans have imposed. Imagine what you’d know of a given day, month or year if all your traditional time marking were stripped away. No watch, no computer, no meetings, no classes, no train departures, no appointments, no picking up the kids, no evening news, no bedtime. The rigidity of our systems is what helps us understand our clock. These systems fold together to reinforce how we actually perceive time.

In New Orleans, the city itself has responded to an unusual ecology, geography and relationship with randomness. What’s come out on the other side is something more akin to cobbling than calculation. And it has the effect of accordioning the way a given minute feels here.

Geologically, New Orleans is a newborn. There are churches in Europe older than the land underfoot the French Quarter, “whose crust dates to the Mississippi’s last shift in course. . . around 1400 C.E.,” according to Lawrence Powell’s excellent history, The Accidental City. It’s a place that doesn’t have geologic inevitability. While most other port cities were founded in obvious places, their address with a river and surrounding body of water clear from the get go, New Orleans was a discussion. The elevation drop for the river’s last 70 or so miles is so slim that the river never really gave itself a carved place. Instead it slithered whimsically, choosing one course then another the way water might flow across your kitchen counter. “Why Bienville selected the river crescent as the place to build the principal town of a revamped colony is really a matter of conjecture. It wasn’t a choice he had been mulling over for months or years. It feels more like a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Powell writes.

When you look at a map of New Orleans you’ll see an extreme bend in the Mississippi River that defines the city. And while the river makes many significant curves as it snakes its way through the continent, it never does this quite as dramatically around another metropolitan city. In Memphis, for example, the Mississippi lays itself fairly flat and then gently nudges alongside. It’s a kiss rather than a wrestling move. In St. Louis the river is half as wide and its curve twice as open. As an aside, do at some point follow the river on a map. You’ll find this incredible point where Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee all meet each other and the river makes a sharp arch that carves land for Kentucky that logically would fall Tennessee’s way. A little Kentucky island nestled between Missouri and Tennessee.

What the Mississippi gives most of New Orleans is its city plan. In places, the streets and avenues make slow, graceful arcs that parallel the bend. Incidentally, we don’t use compass directions here, we use the river and the lake. We’ve chosen water over René Descartes. Therefore, to ride the Saint Charles streetcar from the west toward downtown is to head “downriver.” There is a “lake side” of New Orleans and a “river side.” On the river side, as you pull up and around the French Quarter, according to John M. Berry’s Rising Tide, the Mississippi’s “turn is so sharp that the water surface on the outside of the bend rises a foot higher than on the inside, as if banking around a racetrack.” A container ship coming the other direction will slide itself sideways, seemingly headed straight sidelong into the bank, and then gun it the second the bow is pointed upriver, its back end fishtailing away like Jim Rockford’s Firebird. The first time I saw this I assumed I was just about to witness a major accident. Every time after this it sends my heart soaring, the lithe mass and near catastrophe.

Because the streetplan is as undulating as the river itself, A to B in New Orleans includes a few other stops as well. You’re either traversing a curve, traveling a street that radiates outward or dipping up onto the highway. This makes it difficult to intuit how long it’ll take to get somewhere. One route is not necessarily better than another. Often there is a series of best ways that can suit your particular mood. Do I want to travel along the river? Would it be fun to go through the French Quarter? Should I just hit the highway? That’s structural. It gets further complex when you sift in people. I’ve been caught by impromptu parades. I’ve been zigged and zagged by pop-up one-ways, or blocked streets due to sewer repair, a moving truck, two old friends chewing the fat, tree trimmers or any other unpredictable-yet-wholly-unsurprising surprises. The time it takes to travel from one place to another in New Orleans wears the guise of approximation not assurance. And this does something to our minds. Since humans don’t sense time directly, we use our daily life to align our internal clocks. Psychologist John Michon explains in Implicit and Explicit Representations of Time, “humans normally have access to a large repertoire of temporal standards for concrete, everyday, “natural” events, associated with scenarios, not only in order to efficiently execute routine activities, but also in order to explain and communicate.” Remember, this is a place where water is our compass. And while nothing in New Orleans is terribly far physically, the one thing you can expect is that it’ll be a journey to get there no matter how routine.

To walk any given sidewalk in New Orleans is an exercise in navigating tectonic shifts, fissures, crevasses. Sidewalks are less slabs than puzzle pieces. They undulate and wind. The same holds true for streets which are just the asphalt side of dirt with gaping holes in random places. The other day I was barreling up a street in Uptown New Orleans — and by barreling I mean driving about 17 miles an hour — when I had to come to a complete stop because there was a large, square hole in the middle. I advanced gingerly. My car rocked, it bottomed out, it scraped a side and somehow managed to get through the pit. I’ve seen cars that weren’t so lucky. Not far from there I once saw a fancy pants German wagon tilted as if it’d slipped precariously off the side of a cliff’s edge, its remaining two tires in the air and its owner scratching her head.

The roads subside because the ground underneath is constantly settling and shifting. We don’t have a lot of structure in our infrastructure. Look up any telephone pole and you’ll see a winding mass of vine. Wisteria has engulfed one a few blocks from my house, a torrent of soaring fingers that split and head both directions down the wire. It reminds me of an abstract crucifixion painting. I once asked the telephone repairman who had his ladder propped against this mass and was half buried by it, “How’s it going?” He took so long to respond that I doubted he’d heard me. Finally, he said from inside the bramble, “it’s going.” Across the street from there the one-way sign barely peeks above a beard of jasmine. A stop sign not far from my favorite cafe has been bolted to shorter pole segments and canted to the side so that it can see around the oak that stands in front of it. I am thrilled in a BMX way when pavement rises sharply over roots. And it’s impossible for my thoughts not to change course when a sidewalk, or even a street, veers off path and around a tree.

To navigate the city is to be guided, shaped and somewhat bossed around by nature. One cannot escape it. And we all know that nature doesn’t wear a watch. Or at least not the same watch we do. Its pacing and concerns are different. “Ecological time narrows the present to the utmost,” the sociologist Georges Gurvitch says in The Spectrum of Social Time. Nature is in the now and so it forces our perception into the present as well. Consider how you feel when you’re in the middle of a forest or laying on your back staring at clouds overhead — that heightened awareness and partial surrender: that’s what it feels like everyday in New Orleans.

A friend here who spent time living in Hawaii and on various Asian archipelagos says he thinks of New Orleans as an island. And when it was founded in 1718 it was an island. L’Isle de la Nouvelle Orléans. On one side lake, on another river and the rest was swamp. Access to the city was by boat alone. This is still ostensibly true. It would be very dangerous to try to walk out of the city. You’d spend an enormous amount of time on the shoulder of an elevated highway or wading through alligator homeland.

Being surrounded by water creates a special relationship with randomness, different than, say, snowbound Maine or high Rockies, it’s less about building shelter than about bending if and when the storm comes. Laissez le bon temps rouler is a statement of values but it’s also the state of the union between humans and nature here, our power and ability to control. We’ve been lashed by hurricanes, we’ve been underwater, we’ve been nearly wiped out by yellow fever. The future feels uncertain, we have a past that confirms this, and so our clocks are deeply synchronized to the present. Our brains are set to slow down time and open our perception because we’re inevitably faced with new things. In Models of Psychological Time Richard Block says, “If a person encodes more stimuli during a time period, or if the person encodes the stimuli in a more complex way, the experience of duration lengthens.” This is why the trip out usually feels longer than the trip back. Your mind is absorbing and recording more. On the way back your brain slips into a been-there-done-that mode. In New Orleans, everything feels painted with a random brush. A man crossing the street in a royal-purple, three-piece suit complete with tophat. A cobweb stretching from a stop sign all the way to a house. A man riding a weed-wacker powered bicycle. A gold medal worthy sunset.

It could be argued that in some ways the built environment is an attempt to take command over ecological time. Gurvitch says we’re constantly struggling to master time and submit “it to human control.”

What this gives most cities is a very specific and predictable meter, from rush hour to the timing of lights to the distribution of services to the layout of street trees. What’s attractive about New Orleans is that here the opposite is largely true. Predictability in New Orleans comes in very small sections and for brief moments during the year. The city lives in a precarious balance between solidity and shift, between improvisation and planning, between magic and logic. All of this with its attendant effect on how we perceive time here.

Not long after I got to New Orleans we found out that a power outage at the plant where they treat our water made it inadvisable for us to drink from the taps. Babies, old people, school children were all at risk and we were told to boil any drinking water. We found this out five hours after the power outage. Five prime water drinking hours. I cannot tell you how many times this sort of civic breakdown scenario has happened since, I’ve lost count, it doesn’t surprise or register. And while my shift in mindset represents a certain shift in expectations for what a city and a government are supposed to do, it also represents a shift in how I deal with emergencies and the unexpected. I was told, not long after this happened, that I shouldn’t consider New Orleans a third class American city but rather a first class Caribbean one.

One way to read this statement is a kind of fatalistic optimism of the grin-and-bear-it genre. I prefer to think of it as highly instructive cultural information. New Orleans is a city whose sympathies lie with being as opposed to doing. It’s no wonder Old Bull Lee in On the Road lived here. After all, Old Bull Lee “had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore with prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free.” Writing about New Orleans, the photographer Richard Sexton says, “There are places like it; it’s just that none of them are in the United States. Rather, they are the places I first saw as a twenty-year-old traveling through Latin America and the Caribbean.” He explains the link this way, “Creole history and identity — despite their permutations and nuances over time — contribute to New Orleans’s “otherness” in the United States while connecting it to Caribbean and Latin American cities with similar colonial histories.”

One doesn’t come to New Orleans to claw oneself up the ladder. There is no dog eat dog here. Instead there’s that blue sky feeling where one might rather roll up the pants and wade into the water on a given Thursday afternoon as opposed to, say, building an industry.

The Martinican writer Edouard Glissant notes that Caribbeans and other “composite peoples” persist “in considering time in terms of a natural experience.” This means that built environment time controls haven’t embedded themselves into the culture or that the build environment and the natural one have found a balance. Glissant has a gorgeous way of talking about the A to B that I was describing above. “Ask a Martinican peasant or native, I suppose, the way: the directions he will provide will have nothing to do with the precise and objective nature of the location that is at stake. He will play with it. You will also find that he will not attempt to impose on you any set notion of time. He will offer a version parallel to your own.” This is a wonderful way to move through the day because it focuses more on the quality of the moment than its drive forward. It can take a while to settle into the mind when you first get here, but it inevitably occurs.

During the colonial period New Orleans was used for raw materials, mainly “tobacco, indigo and lumber.” We were severed from the lands upriver by the “customary three months it took keelboats to pole or pull their way to the Illinois Country.” This, along with climate, gave us more in common with the Caribbean than folks a bit north. And west. And east. Our colonial relationship was with Spain and France who took raw materials and sold us finished goods. Manufacturing, in other words, took place elsewhere.

This continued and was even complained about in a history of the city written in 1900: “But it was not until late in the [eighteen] forties when Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and other Western cities began to enjoy prosperity as manufacturing centers, that the political economists of New Orleans realized that for sound and substantial business their city ought to have factories to supplement its active commerce. An agitation then began, which, however, was productive of few important results.” This is seen today as well. According to a 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New Orleans’ “employment shares were significantly below their national representation in nine groups, including production.” We are, however, “highly concentrated” in “food preparation and serving” which, as you might know, has the same meter as hunger pangs.

When a city is devoid of major industry, it’s also missing industrial strength time-marking. Georges Gurvitch says, “the groupings involved in economic activity have a tendency to be conscious of the time which they produce. . .[this] is realized in such terms as delivery date, productivity, value, salary-price.”

Time is money, then, and an entire ecosystem of time-based supports for industry crop up that help synchronize our collective clocks.

Trains, trucking, shipping, time management consultants, meetings, market bells, time-cards, fast food, even happy hour. Happy hour at the bar on Magazine Street near my house is from 11 am — 8 pm, a full hour more than a union work day. Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue on a train to Boston, energized by what he called, “its steely rhythms.” Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924 as the roaring twenties hit its stride. It’s no wonder those staccato rhythms are still considered symbolic of industriousness. If Gershwin had been on a barstool in New Orleans, we’d have had a completely different tune.

What does synchronize our clocks are festivals and the New Orleans Saints. There are dozens of festivals and holidays throughout the year. There’s even a festival season. This is a city of costume closets, tailgaters and expert party goers. Halloween is for the adults arguably more than the kids. And the festivals that really drive the city are Mardi Gras and Jazzfest.

It is impossible not to participate in Mardi Gras here. Even those folks who choose not to and head for ski vacations during the school break are, in essence, coordinating their rhythms. For the rest of us Mardi Gras parks itself over the city like a massive storm system and rains beads, trinkets, king cakes and excuses to hang out. And it’s not just Tuesday. It stretches long before that, long enough that you have to pace yourself and find just the right balance of participation, attention, inconvenience and, well, drinking so that when Fat Tuesday does roll around you’re alive and kicking. Work, as you define it, doesn’t happen during Mardi Gras and, in fact, tends to be scheduled around. My wife, who arrived in this city to assist in the rebuilding, found this out the hard way. What do you mean you can’t come to work? What do you mean the project will be delayed? And the amazing thing is that she’s from here. Born and raised in southern Louisiana, she knew what she was getting into when she came back. But once outside it’s easy to forget the unusually strong pull.

A similar thing happens during the football season but on a smaller scale. When the Saints play a weekday night game it’s not uncommon for people to take the afternoon off. On the Friday before a Sunday game one can assume the bank teller, the streetcar driver, the elderly lady walking her dog will be wearing a Saints jersey, even during preseason. Parents will quietly root against their kids in soccer tournaments if the championship game happens to coincide with kickoff. Gametime is the quietest moment in the city and, I’m told, the best time to go to the emergency room. Jazzfest is really no different, though it only lasts for two weeks. A friend’s company gives its employees one Jazzfest Friday off so they don’t have to call in sick.

In the essay Festival: Definition and Morphology, Alessandro Falassi says, “At festival times, people do something they normally do not; they abstain from something they normally do; they carry to the extreme behaviors that are usually regulated by measure; they invert patterns of daily social life.” This is quite clear if you know nothing of Mardi Gras except its reputation from afar, Bourbon Street, breasts, etc.; I cannot exaggerate some of the things my kids and I have seen. That said, Mardi Gras is also a deeply family focused festival where every single participant has some version of a yearly ritual, whether it’s red beans and rice at the house, meeting along the parade route, the hosting of a party on a given night, barbecue under the viaduct, the display of the Mardi Gras Indians, old-money balls or the family table at Galatoire’s.

This has a really specific annual effect. “Among the various functions which the holding of festivals may fulfill,” Sir Edmund Leach notes, “one very important function is the ordering of time.” Festivals act much like the hand of a clock, tick, ticking away. Repetitions tell us another cycle has begun or ended. This is one of the functions of synagogue, Thanksgiving, Diwali, the yearly family picnic. It’s a way of lining a culture up.

And therefore to stray from a culture’s clock is to be a non believer. Church bells, the muezzin’s call, while completely beautiful also serve a serious function for that culture. I’m fairly convinced you would not recognize a New Orleans that doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras. There is a lot of vested interest in Mardi Gras here. It’s a boon for the city, it’s our identity, it’s even a way of maintaining some of the harsh racial and economic norms. “Without the festivals, such periods would not exist, and all order would go out of social life,” Leach says.

It is impossible to separate the culture from the calendar. One begets the other much like the chicken and the egg. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist who did a lot of thinking around social organization says, “The divisions into days, weeks, months, years, etc., correspond to the periodical recurrence of rites, feasts and public ceremonies. A calendar expresses the rhythm of collective activities, while at the same time its function is to assure their regularity.”

And so, then, to be in New Orleans is to be on New Orleans time.

Speaking about Durkheim’s findings, the anthropologist Alfred Gell excitedly put it this way, “collective representations of time do not passively reflect time, but actually create time as a phenomenon apprehended by sentient human beings.” And the thing is Mardi Gras has no set length. It lasts from 12 days after Christmas until the day before Lent. This could be early February. It could be March. It could be somewhere in between. The celebration has no specific meter and so it tumbles us every year leaving no fixed grounding in time.

The first Mardi Gras the kids and I witnessed, we landed on Lundi Gras, the night before Fat Tuesday. My wife had been living in New Orleans for some time before this and picked us up from the airport at about five in the evening. We then drove a backroad route carefully choreographed to avoid parades and parade traffic — no easy feat — to a house within a few blocks walk of the big Uptown parades. There, a very coveted parking spot waited, the product of much planning, generosity and multiple texts.

We ate red beans and rice, I drank a little rum and then we walked to Saint Charles where a big parade was expected at any minute. When we got there it had just started and I was immediately hit by the colors on the floats, beautiful yellow and purple and pink crepe paper flowers with streaming and gleaming centers that seemed to vibrate in the night air. My kids reflexively reached for beads, flashing things and toys tossed from the floats, delighted each and every time they were rewarded. And the night seemed to swirl from then on, people in costume, marching bands, flames, dancing. It was as if nothing else existed.

At some point a friend of ours, another transplant to the city, leaned down to my children and said this: “Just imagine, kids, everywhere else this is just a Monday night.

And that’s right. When you’re in the middle of it all, you really can’t imagine what it’s like somewhere else because you’re so deeply here. Year after year. What this does is separate New Orleans from the rest of the United States. Not only is it an island physically but culturally and metaphorically. Yes, Mardi Gras is celebrated in other places but here it is universally agreed upon. You have no choice. You’re either going to celebrate or you’re going to be caught in the traffic. And so it’s easier, and quite a bit more joyous, to simply surrender.

I was in a store the other day talking to its owner. He’d moved, after twenty something years, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, chased out by changes he wasn’t super happy about. And he worried aloud about the same thing happening in New Orleans. It’s wild here, wild around edges in ways that are attractive. Impromptu bonfires in backyards, random street parades. You can park on the sidewalk. We lit an incredible array of fireworks on New Years, some exploding overhead so loudly that they’d draw a squadron of police in any other city I’ve lived. One really does get Old Bull Lee’s attraction. Things feel possible. Good and bad. Optimistic and its half-empty other. Not to mention that almost every day is bright, with warm light that settles on all the things in bloom. And there is always something in bloom. The coldest months seem to bring out the best ones, camellias and Japanese magnolias. So it’s a place that very much recommends itself.

The question, then, is whether too many people will come down to New Orleans, like me, and settle here. Enough people that New Orleans ceases to be what it is. Or was. Enough people that the attractive things (again, good and bad) seem to fall away the way they tend to when loads of new people move into the neighborhood — with their own expectations, desires and comforts — and muscle whatever was there before aside. That, essentially, was what chased the store owner from Williamsburg.

My answer to that question is: I doubt it. I think the construction of the city, its address with the land and the environment shapes time. And that’s a potent, almost undetectable force. If you find, after two years here, that you simply cannot think and act the same way you did back in L.A. or Brooklyn or Washington D.C., because something fundamental inside your head has shifted, no amount of will can change that. You’ve been shaped, in other words. Your meter is now adjusted and the streetplan, the moisture, the plantlife, the randomness have made their case.

If you stand at the Mississippi’s edge on the levee right next to the French Quarter and look the direction the river flows, you can see time.

It’s the same time that Louis Armstrong describes in his first few, luscious bars of ‘Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” from the 1947 movie New Orleans. The song itself was written by a guy from Long Island (which explains the cornball rhymes), but Louis Armstrong, because he’s from here, takes the material and pulls it, milking it out, twisting it, making it his own. His meter is the meter you sense as boats float slowly by. Or clouds roll overhead. This is time all right. And you’ll notice, as you watch the Mississippi flow, that the time you’re looking at bends sharply and moves ever so gently out of your grasp.


Photography by Dorka Hegedus

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