Phones In Hand, Busy Mourners Miss The Story

Cell phone cameras and digital tablets can turn just about any consumer into an amateur journalist. Writer Gwen Thompkins wonders when the amateurs will realize what the professionals already know: Recording an event often stops reporters from experiencing what's right in front of them.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gadgets, like cell phone cameras and digital tablets, can turn almost anybody into some kind of amateur journalist. But writer Gwen Thompkins wonders when the amateurs will realize that what the professionals already know - recording an event often stops people from experiencing what's right in front of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Forget the fancy theologians and the philosophers, musician Dr. John says it best: Life is made up of the spirit world and the meat world. We humans are just passing through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "JUST A CLOSE WALK WITH THEE")

THOMPKINS: This week, both worlds were in full focus on Frenchman Street in New Orleans, just outside the French Quarter. We had gathered there to honor an artist. Coco Robicheaux, that swaggering and otherworldly blues musician, had crossed some days before to full-time status among the spirits. Robicheaux died at the age of 64, collapsing at a club on this very street.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

THOMPKINS: As the parade came together, most of us were taking photographs or collecting video or recording sound, including Darryl Young, the guy everybody knows as Dancing Man 504.

DARRYL YOUNG: Coco, everybody here today is here to send you to the Gates of Heaven. Letting them know that not only were you loved in life, you are loved in the afterlife. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

THOMPKINS: In our defense, the street scene was as phantasmic as a Fellini film. Four grand marshals, brass bands, aging courtesans, a toothless hobo, cabaret performers, a dead ringer for Teddy Roosevelt, babies, incense, reefers, whiskey, a television star and a man wearing a onesie and a dog leash led by a ponytailed impresario.

But all of our digital recording made it hard for the second line to move forward. Robicheaux's friends admonished us to focus on Coco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING, "I'LL FLY AWAY)

SONALI FERNANDO: (Singing) I'll fly away...

Don't be fragile, sing for Coco.

THOMPKINS: That's Sonali Fernando singing over everybody else. She's a music promoter, but all she was carrying that day was a cigarette. Fernando wasn't just on Frenchman Street she was in the moment, half-way between the meat world and the spirit world.

I envied her. For a second, I remembered a time years ago when as a young newspaper reporter, I was trampled by paparazzi. We were in France. And we were clamoring for a shot of then-President Clinton walking on a beach at Normandy. I missed seeing the president. So I limped back to see some of the graves of the soldiers who'd died in the allied invasion.

For a brief spell, I didn't worry about deadline. I was in the moment. And the graves and the wildflowers are what I remember best about Normandy, which is probably a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "IT AIN'T MY FAULT")

THOMPKINS: Nobody got trampled in the second line for Coco Robicheaux. But I wondered how many of us were actually - and yes, I mean in the metaphysical sense - there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "IT AIN'T MY FAULT")

THOMPKINS: By the middle of this song, I was dancing. I wanted to be part of what was happening in my headphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "IT AIN'T MY FAULT")

THOMPKINS: As the sun set the second line moved away and fog settled over the neighborhood. One of Coco Robicheaux's many admirers, now tired and a little drunk, walked away smiling. Suddenly, she boasted to no one in particular: We said goodbye real pretty, don't you think?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURN MY BONES")

COCO ROBICHEAUX: (Singing) When I die, burn my body. Don't you dare put it in the ground. Throw my ashes on the water. Let the Mississippi River chase it down...

SIMON: That's Coco Robicheaux singing "Burn My Bones." The equally fabulous Gwen Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BURN MY BONES")

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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