A low-stakes Saints game on an unseasonably hot December day leads to thoughts of the future in this Chartres Street bar.
- by Layth Sihan
- photos by Ellis Anderson
With my blue bike locked to a side street bollard, I round the corner to Backspace Bar on Chartres Street. Perspiration slips down my temples. It is late December, but let the record show that on this day in the human history of the French Quarter the weather is seasonless and balmy. I ask myself if the weather has always been this way.
As the years pass, these moments are more and more common. In the middle of a breeze in the summer, when there usually isn’t one, or as I stand under a tree in full bloom in the heart of winter, I ask myself if this is how things were when I was younger, when I was a kid. I can’t remember, and it’s a hard question to pose to another person, and I’m often alone with it.
The foreboding sense that the earth, and by extension humanity, is heading towards irreversible catastrophic change colors most of my considerations of the weather. And yet, it appears no matter how utterly gigantic the question of losing our climate becomes, it is relegated to the arena of individual suffering. I’m not sure if it’s simple neuroticism, a misinterpretation of the prevailing data around climate change, or if I’m dead-on to feel that things are awry.
Whatever the truth, the question feels personal and not political. It doesn’t feel like a problem to be solved. It feels like a sort of ennui, the analysis of which is just a one-way ticket to depression.
In other words, it’s something to avoid thinking about.
Backspace Bar is a craft cocktail bar slap in the middle of a neighborhood known for well-curated convention. “Kinky Baptist” and “Dear Science” are the names of two of the establishment’s cocktails. The names and ingredients are illustrated on a chalkboard that hangs behind the bar. Both names feel appropriate to my current mood, torn between the pleasance of a Saints game on a Sunday and a sense of futility and powerlessness in the face of all the demands of my life. The environment is just a small part of it.
A back wall of brick is lined with leather-cushioned furniture and tables. Today, the seats are mostly empty. This game, like last week’s game, and the game before that one, is a low-stakes affair. At least for Saints fans, the business of Sunday football won’t be reignited until the playoffs start next month
Today is all about deciding final seedings, a convoluted affair to decipher. Windows with all the various scenarios come on screen, but they are not displayed long enough for me to figure what needs to happen for an optimal Saints outcome. The bartender, David, serves me a whiskey soda with a lemon wedge and a Miller High Life. I take a seat on the leather bench in the bar’s back corner.
A painting of a woman posed nude next to a bowl of fruit hangs over my head. In the moment, she feels like a painterly manifestation of thought and feeling swirling in my brain about the original nude, Mother Earth.
I’m taking notes in my phone near the end of the first quarter when the Saints are up by a touchdown, and the score is 7-0. When I pick my head up, before the end of the quarter, they’ve added another touchdown. The Saints are 12-3 with a playoff lock, and the Panthers are 5-10 and have just fired their head coach. The two teams are squaring off in the last game of the regular season. For one the future is bright. For the other the future is a time for new decisions. What unites them is not only the moment, but a sense of the moment’s futility.
Ellis and Larry, today’s companions, arrive at the top of the second quarter. Ellis orders a cocktail from the bartender. It’s something he’s made up on the spot for her. She asks him if it has a name, if she wants another what should she order.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says with a smile, his hands occupied.
Back at the table, under Mother Earth, we all try the drink and agree it's delicious. It tastes something like a negroni. Negronis are made with gin, vermouth and campari. Normally, I despise campari.
“Campari tastes like somebody made a cocktail,” I say, “and then put their cigarette out in it.”
I’m beginning to loosen up even if I’m still in a rotten mood.
The three of us order a plate of poutine from Backspace’s Kitchen. The Saints are driving up the score, and the defense delivers a shut-out late into the second quarter. The poutine is delicious.
Christmas and a return trip home are fresh on my mind, so by way of conversation, I tell the table about my mother’s land in Avoyelles Parish, which in central Louisiana is hours north of New Orleans. I tell them her ideal weekend day is taking the dog out for a three-hour romp while she picks flowers from the empty pastures and wooded patches she’s been buying up for the better part of the last two decades.
“It used to bore me to tears, being out there,” I say, “but it’s what she’s always wanted, and I’m happy for her.”
My mother created a future for herself up there in the sticks with her dogs and her flowers, and she’s made herself happy seizing it. My real mother’s happiness is with her land, with the earth itself. It reads like a metaphor for all of us alive, going about our business, inhabiting the earth now.
Sure, we’re happy, but it’s reasonable to assume climate change won’t have much of an impact on her retirement’s future. She, as most of us alive now, is fortunate enough to exist slap in the middle of an existential window. Impending collapse won’t arrive before we’re dead. Maybe we’re the lucky ones, but to feel that certain of the death of the future is a much bigger statement about the present than the future.
It’s hard to say what the future holds. In fact, it’s impossible. It is so impossible that the only question that really matters is when does the present become the future. It is the only question we can answer because the answer is that it starts now. After all, our dread and sorrow, though they may be projected at the future, is a now thing, a right now thing. It starts with intuitive inklings under a blossoming mayhaw tree, or walking into a bodega in stifled August.
The weather, and by extension, life, is not what it used to be. The future is fucked we tell ourselves. But the present - because of the way we allow that sentiment to defeat us - is equally fucked. The true and compelling hope is that even when things are shit, life will go on. That is also the great discomfort, of course. How do you go on when things feel undeniably out to sea?
The Saints win. It feels inevitable, or it feels more correct to say the Panthers’ loss feels inevitable. The final score is 42-10. The Saints D lets off the gas by the second half. It could have been a lot worse for the Panthers, but I know that however well the Saints are playing now making it through the playoffs is fate’s spellbinder. It can end up in complete heartbreak or not; but if it does, it won’t be the first time.
On our way out of Backspace, its long bar now clamoring with patrons arrived after the event for a bite or a quick drink, Ellis points out the Lillian Hellman poster in the bar’s window. Hellman, she explains, is a New Orleans born dramatist who after success in both Hollywood and Broadway was brought in to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Board during the McCarthy era. She refused to rat out fellow radical writers.
“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” reads the poster’s accompanying quote.
As the three of us part ways under a low, gray New Orleans sky, the word “conscience” follows me. Hellman meant that inside of her were vital things: emotions, intuitions, a conscience. As I walk home under the low sky, and I sense the past, present and future dread bounce around in me, I don’t dread the dread. I trust my feet to guide me home, and I trust the sky to hold its rain in until I arrive, and I trust my conscience when it tells me to worry.
The Saints are in the playoffs, and the climate is headed towards catastrophe. In my worry-riddled brain, the two are nearly one in the same. As football fans and as a species, we’ve come this far, but how far can we reasonably expect to go?
The rain starts. It falls in a sheet of harmless drops, and it feels like a breather, but I know if I stay out here long enough, I’ll be soaked even by a drizzle. As is usually the case, the thing I was worried about has arrived, and it’s not so bad.
It’s not so bad right now.