It was the first time I ever felt sadness while driving toward New Orleans. As I crossed the Pearl River into St. Tammany Parish, the realization that Gail was not with me settled into my mind and my heart. It was as heavy as the hot, moist, South Louisiana air. Like the heat and humidity, that prospect became more burdensome with each moment. There had been times when I was in New Orleans without her over the last twenty-four years but I always knew that we would be there together again. That’s not so anymore.
After I crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the city I love so much came into view, I wondered if I could stand being there without her. The reason I made the trip was to prove to myself that I could. New Orleans has been a part of my life since I can remember and I didn’t want to stop going there because Gail had died. The closer I got to the French Quarter, where I would perform on a radio show and then spend the night, the more doubtful I became.
About 2:00 p.m. I set my suitcase and guitar down on the hardwood floor of a second story apartment on St. Phillip Street. I couldn’t bear to unpack the bag or open the guitar case. The sun beamed through the tall windows across the parlor onto the old brick wall that had the personality only a French Quarter brick wall can have. “Gail would have loved this,” I thought. Tears began to flow and led to heavy sobbing. The same kind of vocal crying that, when I’m at home, causes me to try to reassure the dog that I’m not yelling at her.
The radio interview was scheduled for 6:15 p.m. in the WWOZ FM studio, just a few blocks away near the French Market. I looked forward to visiting with host Kathleen Lee on the air but dreaded the hours before and after. In my three long months of grief, professional obligations have lifted me from depressing depths and I was confident I could do the show with no problem. Playing for people makes me happy. But the anticipation of spending even one night without Gail in New Orleans prompted me to call a hotel in Hattiesburg to see if I would need a reservation if I chose to head toward Nashville when the interview was over. I didn’t reserve a room and decided to take my chances if my emotions caused me to leave.
With a couple of hours to ponder my situation and my life before the radio show, I left the unopened suitcase and locked guitar case to walk around the Quarter. I thought that might clear my head. By then, the sun was beating down as I made my way to Bourbon, Royal and Chartres Streets amid shuffling throngs of happy tourists. Lines I wrote in a song about New Orleans years ago rattled through my mind with new, unwelcome clarity. “You can’t escape this sticky heat no matter what you do. And I can’t escape the way I’m missing you.”
Strolling the French Quarter served to make me sadder. Realizing that was no good, I remembered that whether I spent the night or not, I would perform on WWOZ. So I headed back to the apartment to tune my guitar, go over songs and think about what I might say on the air. When I opened the guitar case, the sight of my six-string friend brought comfort to me. Tuning it gave me purpose and soon I was concentrating on my voice and remembering lyrics. I went over a few songs I don’t play very often and a few I’ve been singing for years. The old standbys, my “comfort music,” did their job and began to lift my spirits, as they always do.
I finally opened my suitcase to get out my toothbrush and at that moment, I thought, “Well, that’s a good sign.” I washed my face, made it smile in the mirror, picked up the guitar and headed downstairs. As I walked toward the radio station, the feelings of foreboding those same streets had produced just an hour and a half before gave way to the pleasant anticipation I usually have before a show. By the time I got to the station, I remembered what I am about and why I wrote all those songs about New Orleans. Kathleen was the gracious host she consistently is and I smiled through the entire show, sincerely, even when she mentioned Gail.
One of the last times I was Kathleen’s in-studio guest, Gail was in our room at the Le Richelieu Hotel listening. I mentioned that on the air and as I left after the interview, I thought about how much Gail had always encouraged me. It dawned on me that she wouldn’t have wanted me to have a bad time in a city that had meant so much to both of us. Her absence still hangs about me as strongly as her presence did. But my attitude had been adjusted enough for me to decide to take the guitar back to the apartment, unpack the suitcase, and enjoy the rest of my time in the Quarter.
Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Visit www.leskerr.com