Freedom And Dreadlocks In New Orleans

Flickr / Chiara Baldassarri
Flickr / Chiara Baldassarri

“Saturday, April 4, 2015. 10:48 a.m. End of an era.” My hands trembled slightly as I entered the words into my phone, documenting the moment. I was rattled, I was unnerved, standing there in front of my hotel. After all, I’d begun viewing the world through dreadlock goggles back in 1998. Then, as now, and every moment in between, I’d scanned public spaces for dreadlock-spottings with the same relentless, infra-red intensity of the Terminator scanning for Sarah Connor:

It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever….

The key difference, of course, is that I didn’t want to kill dreadlock-wearers, but I did pay heart-pounding, minute, stereoscopic attention to anyone, anywhere, that I saw wearing dreadlocks. I’d take copious mental notes of every strand that coiled out of his or her head, as well as scrutinizing the clothing and style of the dread-in-question. Nobody wears dreadlocks in public without any clothes, after all, so I liked to gauge how dreadlocks “fit”—or didn’t fit—the wearer’s overall “look.” The vast difference between 1998, when I got twisted, and the present day, is that there are many more dreaded heads now than there were back then. And I’m fine with that. That just gives me more dread to ogle. But on that midmorning Saturday, while standing outside a New Orleans hotel, my dread-goggles somehow slipped a little bit.

My previous visit to Southern Louisiana was in October of 1999. My dread-lenses were screwed on tight, and the trip was a stark reminder how comparatively rare dreadlocks were back then: On travel day I sat on my bed, and then I stood up, picked up my suitcase off the bed, walked out of my house in Worcester, Massachusetts, drove to an airport in Providence, had a lay-over in Atlanta, arrived in New Orleans, sat in a window seat for the hotel shuttle, mistakenly got off at the wrong hotel, walked ten blocks down Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans, checked in at the correct hotel, threw my bag on the bed of my hotel room, and sat down. And not once—from sitting-on-bed in New England to sitting-on-bed in the South—did I see anyone other than myself in dreadlocks. All told, I saw a total of four people in dreadlocks the entire weekend I was there. Four. For the entire visit.

Ah, that was so 1999. Times have indeed changed. There were countless people with dreads over the course of the five recent days I spent in town: kids as young as seven or eight. Middle-schoolers. High schoolers. College kids. Thirty-to-fiftysomethings, and beyond. But here’s what’s interesting: while there has been a massive uptick in the sheer volume of people wearing the style, dreadlocks still stand out in a crowd. The style still announces itself; more, after all, doesn’t necessarily equal normal. And through it all, my dreadlock-goggles remained firmly in place, increased volume notwithstanding. I happily treated every lock-sighting as unique. Until I didn’t.

My wife and I emerged from the hotel that fateful morning, on Saturday, April fourth, headed for the museum district. We instantly realized the weather was a little chillier than we expected, so I stood in front of the hotel, people-watching, while my wife went back in to change.

And that’s when I saw My Man. The first thing that caught my attention was his Los Angeles Lakers shirt, with its familiar purple-and-gold. The second thing I noticed was that he was wearing a matching Los Angeles Lakers ball cap with, obviously, a similar color scheme. I peered at his face. He looked a lot like Snoop Dogg, actually, except well over a foot shorter. Similar aristocratic bearing. Same faintly-amused expression, even. My Man was headed down the crowded street, quite alone, carrying himself like royalty; I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Ghetto Celebrity of some sort. He walked like a man who got respect, but didn’t have to demand it. There were lots of people walking on that sidewalk, and nobody was an interesting as he was. Nobody even came close.

As he passed directly in front of me, I noticed his bright Timberlands that mirrored the gold tone of his shirt and his cap, and it instantly felt intentional to me—as if he’d made sure his clothing was tight and coordinated that day. He was wearing sagging jeans that he needed to hitch up, and as he did so, he carefully dropped the back of his shirt over his belted dark jeans.

Once he was seven-to-eight yards away I realized that he held in his swinging left hand a nearly-completely-smoked Cigarillo. I wasn’t surprised. And even though I never saw My Man raise the Cigarillo to his lips, when he did he’d probably shrewdly narrow his eyes and inhale in a particularly elegant manner. He was pretty far away from me by now, and I’d nearly lost him in the crowd when, at last, I looked at the back of his head and realized: Oh my God, he’s got dreadlocks!

I was devastated. I suddenly felt queasy; I felt naked and exposed. How could I have so minutely unpacked his sartorial style, and after everything I’d seen about him the last thing I noticed was that he was wearing dreadlocks?! He finally stepped completely out of view, and I, on that bustling sidewalk, was left alone with my thoughts. I pulled out my phone and grimly punched the words into the screen: “Saturday, April 4, 2015. 10:48 a.m. End of an era.”

I can’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t figure out how it happened. Maybe it’s just a slight irregularity. Maybe it’s not the new normal, but a tiny alteration, a minor blip on my usually-fully-engaged dread radar screen. I don’t know for sure. But I have to deal with the possibility that because of the proliferation of dreadlocked heads in the world, my observation of My Man was the first of many moments-to-come when dreadlocks are simply not the first (or third, or ninth) thing I notice about an interesting-looking person. Could this locks-watching disaster merely be an anomaly, and I’ll be right back to executing a proper dreadlock scan like I’ve been doing for years? It’s too soon to tell. I can hope against hope that this isn’t the end of an era. What I can’t do is pretend it didn’t happen. It did.

And so my two most recent visits to New Orleans, sixteen years apart, have emerged as significant, sign-post moments in my ongoing, apparently life-long, in-depth, participant-observer study of the dreadlocks hairstyle. I’ll come back to the Crescent City in sixteen years, in 2031. Maybe my dreadlock goggles will be as firmly attached to my face as they, ahem, usually are. Maybe, by then, I’ll only be wearing them occasionally. Maybe I won’t have any at all. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. TC mark

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