Waiting on the Train at St. Claude and Homer Plessy Way

A train stalled on the tracks in the dark.

Ok, so this isn’t what I saw riding my bike around today, but I’ve been in a writing funk that I’m climbing out of, so I’m going to write about some past bike rides as I get back in the habit of biking and writing about it. This picture is from a ride I took back in early November. I was in New Orleans for the American Studies Association annual conference, the first in person since my last trip in November 2019. It was so, so good to be there, to see so many old friends, to be all sweaty and hot in November. I was going for the intellectual community, the colleagues and friends, but if I’m being real, I was going there for the biking.

New Orleans is where I learned to ride a bike. I rode a bike as a kid sometimes, and I vividly remember my first bike–Miss GTO, a white an purple bike with a banana seat. Sounds cool, but I was incredibly jealous of my twin sister’s yellow Schwinn with the black triangle of a seat. Nothing girly about it–just straight up bike.

Our dad got us ten speeds at some point, and I remember one of them getting stolen by a kid in the neighborhood. Dad tracked it down, gave the kid a lecture I’m glad I didn’t get, and we got the bike back. But that’s pretty much my memory of bikes as a kid.

I got one when my ex and I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I thought I’d stay forever. Yes, I still have the 503 area code even though I was only there for nine months. To live in Portland was to bike, I assumed, so my dad helped me pick out a hybrid at Idaho Mountain Touring. I rode it a little, but it didn’t catch me. And then I left the bike there and moved to New Orleans for work. My relationship ended, and that bike ended up in my mom’s garage. It’s probably still there.

And then I got a bike in New Orleans. S. gave me her old pink cruiser when she got a new shiny Bianchi, and maybe it was the year round bikeable weather, the utter lack of elevation, or that it came into my life when I felt like I didn’t have a lot else going on, but I was hooked. I have been riding a bike ever since, and it is always the place I feel most at home, on my bike, pedaling away.

So biking in New Orleans, like eating at Felipe’s or boozing at the Saint, is partly nostalgia. These are the streets where I first rode regularly, the city where I was on the board of the Metro Bicycle Coalition before it became Bike Easy, where I put on a Bicycle Film Festival. And where I spent untold hours riding out the levee path, riding over the Industrial Canal, riding along and away from the river. Sometimes when the air is just thick enough I will be viscerally back there, where I first felt at home.

My dear friend S. offered her bike for the weekend, the one I helped her pick out over a decade ago. I stopped by her place, dropped my suitcase, and pedaled Uptown from Gentilly to meet an old friend for lunch at Tulane. I couldn’t stop smiling. After a quick turn around that campus with A. and a stop to see E., I was off to the Mississippi River levee path to the Huey P. Long bridge. I turned up the music on my little bluetooth speaker and just pedaled and pedaled. I’m as happy as I have ever been I said to myself, feeling my smile and feeling myself. What a gift to be home.

And then it was back downtown to the hotel, where I rolled the bike right up to check in to get my room key. Someone asked me recently if you can take a bike into a hotel room. Yes, yes you can.

The bike hung out there as I did some walking with friends and some conference attending, too. And then it was time for a ride around the Quarter to meet friends, and then a trip out to the Bywater for tacos. I snapped this picture as we waited for the train to move. It was doing that thing where it rolls back and forth, stops, moves again, you think it’s going but it stops again, and you just wait. My friends who have not spent much time in New Orleans were looking for a way out. Should we crawl between cars to the other side? Walk over a car? No, absolutely not. We should wait, because that’s a lot of what living in New Orleans is–waiting. Can’t rush the train, can’t rush the parade, can’t rush the weather, and there’s certainly no rushing any justice.

New Orleans is a complicated place where the results of disinvestment and organized abandonment are just so stark. Here we are on Homer Plessy Way, just a few blocks from where he boarded the train and forced a court case that ultimately formalized the “separate but equal” doctrine. That was 1896, and though separate but equal is no longer legal, you’d never know it from riding a bike around New Orleans.

Eventually the train moved, as it always does, and we got our tacos before heading back to what used to be Mimi’s in the Marigny for the big queer conference party. It was jam packed and sweaty, and I saw so many familiar faces of folks I know from work and also from when we lived in the city together. Pure joy. And then I got to ride back to the hotel by myself. Riding alone in the dark is its own discreet pleasure (yes, I brought lights and rode defensively, as always, MOM), and it felt so good to be that younger version of myself that set me up for a wonderful life riding a bike around. Gratitude, New Orleans. I’ll be back to ride all the rides I didn’t get to go on this trip, soon, soon.

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