Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Escape from New Orleans

firewater (at Pat O'Brien's) (17 August 2013)

My thought tonight is to begin to remember a little of New Orleans, specifically the Society of American Archivists' conference there last week, and to begin to stitch together a story. I begin with the night before leaving New Orleans because a story told in the proper order is not a story at all.

I found myself, at a point that night that was almost late, walking down Bourbon Street, a street known for rowdiness--and this was a Friday night. When I asked why we were walking down Bourbon Street, the answer was, "Because everyone wanted to," yet no-one expressed that want in such a way that I could hear it, which is understandable. The noise at Pat O'Brien's was huge and wavelike, surging at me, trapped as I was against a metal fence, pinned in by chairs to either side of me, the table--everything was metal--preventing my escape forward, if I'd wanted to escape.

Strangely, I'd found myself at Pat O'Brien's in much the same way. I had just started reviewing the beer selection* at Ralph & Kacoo's again with my friend Scott Goodine, the provincial archivist of Manitoba, when suddenly Rachel Vagts told me we were leaving. The "we" was not exactly clear at the time, but it ended up being much of the steering committee and both of the staff from the Archives Leadership Institute (@ Luther). I still ordered my beer and stood at the bar talking to Scott, but soon "we" were indeed leaving, so I had the bartender dump my remaining beer in a styrofoam cup and I hit the streets of New Orleans with my first open container of alcohol.†

Walking the Streets of New Orleans with a Styrofoam Cup of Beer (17 August 2013)

Pat O'Brien's was wild with the noise of talking and music and waterfirefountains, and we were there (I learned during the walk) for hurricanes, a common New Orleanian drink that consists of lots of sweet juice and some alcohol--the latter which appears to always be imperceptible through the sweetness. Once there, we sat at a round metal table and talked. About anything. Sometimes archives. Sometimes the fact that I never slept and never have had a hangover. Sometimes about where we were. Always about anything.

The reason I go to SAA each year‡ is to learn, and much of what I want to learn is about people I know or don't yet know. Archivists may be a strange and ruly-unruly breed, but there is something exhilarating about being together with 1650+ of one's closest colleagues and friends and talking in a language not many people know. I go to SAA to have a great time, to learn as much as I can, to help others learn whatever it is that I know, and to make jokes. (The last may be related to having a great time.)

And I go there to make sure SAA thrives. I've been a member continuously since October 1988, when I was in graduate school beginning my life as an archivist, and I do what I can to make SAA thrive so that I can help archivists thrive. And maybe it's because some of them are my friends, and because I am somehow free at SAA to feel the power of humanity, the power of friendship, but also that of the purpose and passion of archivist, of the drive to do good well.

In what seemed like almost no time at all, we were finished with our work at Pat O'Brien's, the massmind of my friends having decided (again, outside the range of my perception) that it was time to leave, and we left the facility from the other side of its majuscule L, foot-tall hurricane glasses in hand (courtesy of Rachel--and I had two, since I took the one Terry Baxter left behind). Suddenly, we were on Bourbon Street's riot of noise and light and flesh, watching people vomit as they walked, watching people take their three-year-old children by the hand through the throng, watching the sign blinking "LIVE LOVE ACTS."‡‡ In the accordioning mass of people, which we snaked through as well as we could, we occasionally broke into individual pearls of humanity, separate from our friends, but we would soon pull back into a line of limbs curving through the crowd.

Eventually, we exited Bourbon Street, where people barely made room for a police car, lights rolling, that was trying to inch its way through the humanity. So what did we do first? Look for food for the next morning's meeting, something happening on Sunday, my last session of the conference, even if post conference, the Archives Leadership Institute's Practices Workshop, another round of connection, another attempt to bring ourselves together, another venue for linking, our final chance at building more relationships between us as we try to unravel the mystery of making and keeping the light of archives burning at the start of the twenty-first century. (But that's another story, if maybe not the next.)

Later, back at the hotel, I packed my suitcase, and lay in bed watching the middle of a poor comedy, wanting to see how it ended even though it was clear what the ending would be. But I gave up, I relented, I poured myself into my weariness. And I dreamed of connections, of people, of how archives is always about people, about relationships, about the blurry boundaries between ideas, about how we are all one in our multiplicity of differences, about intertwingularity, about arrangement and description.

Only connect.


* NB: Do not visit New Orleans for the beer. The beer in and near the state of New Orleans is never much good. But if you must go to New Orleans for the beer, go to the Avenue Pub on St Charles, which has an excellent selection of fine brews, because they almost entirely ignore nearby beers. I provide you this information as a beer aficionado.

† Hint #2: Do not carry a glass container of alcohol on the streets of New Orleans, not even an empty glass made of glass. The fine for that is $500, which explains all the broken glass on Bourbon Street.

‡ At what I too too often note is at grave personal expense (the pocketbook variety here, not physical). 

‡ As I explained to Terry, "love" means "sex" in this context, but I wasn't sure it was an accurate description of what might have awaited us.

archivity furthers