Have you ever visited a place and felt like you were home? So completely at home that the very air you breathed just felt right when it entered your lungs? New Orleans is like that for me. It’s been that way since my first visit at age fifteen. With each visit the passion I felt for the place and the people would only intensify. I suffered in silence for a long time because it took me years to find another soul who felt the same way. I knew they were out there somewhere–but I just never found them until we got our first computer (thank you, God, for internet).
As I prepare for yet another visit, I wanted to share some of the things that make the place so special to me. Over the years, many people have asked. Five years ago as I was searching for missing friends in the days after Katrina and the man-made disaster, I wrote this love letter to the city. All but one of my friends mentioned in this writing lost their homes and almost all of their possessions. Even though I have a brand new storehouse of memories made in these last five years Post-Katrina, the memories contained in this love letter are still some of my favorites. Sometimes when all is lost, memory is all that’s left. A portion of the writing was published in “Louisiana In Words”. I hope you enjoy.
Heart, Soul, and Zydeco
The month is March. The place, The Hideout. I am not here for any particular event. Mardi Gras is one week past. The streets are clean, but never quiet.
Festivity always fills the air.
I sit in the late New Orleans afternoon sipping an Abita Amber at this hole-in-the-wall on Decatur Street only steps away from Central Grocery. Engaging me in conversation is a college professor from Loyola wearing a do-rag fashioned from a faded, blue bandana. A red-headed Verdi Marte delivery boy has joined our conversation. No one is excluded. But this is not a typical place where you are likely to find college professors meeting at the end of a workday for happy hour. It simply is not a typical place.
The lovely brunette bartender calls out to a young Gothic regular wearing combat boots with his long, plaid shorts, “Paul! Run outside and tell those garbage men to hold on a minute.”
She quickly pours three large go-cups of ice-cold Coke and hands them to a young girl with dreadlocks. “Darlin’,” she tells the girl, “would ya mind runnin’ these out for me? And find out if they need more.”
I ask her if she extends this kindness often. “Oh, yeah. We try to take care of ‘em everyday. I don’t know what we’d do without our garbage men.”
Lagniappe. It never goes out of style.
I finish my Abita and stand up to leave this place filled with diverse people from all walks of life. Conventional and Unconventional. Dreadlocks and Mohawks. Teachers and Students. Goth, Black, White. The Street Kids who look out for one another and the Eccentric Old Man sitting by the jukebox. I know as I leave that these people would have embraced me even if I didn’t wear this tiny, ruby-studded ring in my pierced eyebrow.
Those who feel the true essence of the city recognize a kindred spirit.
The college professor says goodbye and lets me know that he is here every afternoon at five. Out the door just a few steps down the banquette, a street boy plays a melancholy tune on his guitar. I kneel beside him and listen to his song. He smiles a sweet smile of thanks when it is over; pure gratefulness that someone would listen and he tells me that he wrote this song a few days ago. I put money in his battered guitar case, tell him goodbye, and continue toward my next destination. The red-headed Verdi Marte delivery boy runs to catch up and walks with me until I reach the street where my friends live. He says of his street acquaintance, “Thank you for listening to his song.”
This is not my first experience with Southern Hospitality in this steamy, dreamy place, but it is the thing that calls me back, time and time again. This is my favorite city. The air I breathe is thick and sultry. Quirky is the norm here. Eccentricity is simply a given.
And people ask me why I love it.
I love introducing people to the place I call my home-away-from-home, just as my father introduced it to me. I love taking them first to the river, feasting our senses every step along the say. I say to them, “Did you notice that we are walking up a hill to get to the river?” We’d look at the Steamboats, high above our heads, and listen to the sound of the Calliope.
“Wow.” There was no more appropriate response for such a sight that defied nature, if only for 278 years.
Two hundred and seventy-eight years. I am impressed, yes, but mostly in awe.
Miss Mary Lou, my seventy-year old pen pal, was the first native to take me out of my French Quarter comfort zone so many years ago. She picked me up from the Bourbon Orleans and brought me to her home in St. Bernard Parish, pointing out the home of Fats Domino along the way. She fed me a lunch of Popeye’s Fried Chicken, dirty rice, biscuits, and Barq’s Rootbeer. A middle class feast. My kind of food. Afterwards, we sat on the huge covered porch of her 150 year old home and had a slice of her favorite Blackout Cake from Gambino’s Bakery. The heavens opened up and poured summer rain all afternoon and we talked and laughed for hours. This was my favorite summer day in New Orleans.
Thank you, Miss Mary Lou.
Or maybe my favorite summer memory was early August, the weekend of Paula & Tom’s wedding. Mary Anne graciously invited me to be a houseguest at her beautiful apartment that overlooked the corner of Royal & St. Peter Streets. We’d sip iced tea with orange slices on her gorgeous balcony, lush with blossoms, and listen to the a cappella singers that serenaded the diners across the street at Royal Café.
I don’t know if she knows how much that meant to me. Mary Anne is Southern Hospitality at it’s finest.
One December afternoon, I picked up the pay phone in the Memphis airport to call my friend, Jerry. “My plane got stuck in the snow, so I’ll be flying into New Orleans about four hours late.”
“That’s ok,” he assured me. “I’m making chicken stew. It will be ready by the time you get here.”
Along with his family, Jerry ran Fig Street Guest House. I had the honor of being their first guest. Jerry picked me up from MSY, drove me to the Fig Street house where he fixed me a late supper of home-made chicken stew, served over a bed of rice with a side of hot, buttered French bread. After I put my things away, we drove all through the beautiful city still glittering with Holiday lights and he gave me the most memorable tour I’ve ever had. No one gives a tour like a New Orleans’ native. We ended the night at Café du Monde, sipping chicory-laced Café au lait. I’ll never forget how sweet it was to breathe the familiar air into my lungs after we parked the car on Decatur. “I am home,” I thought. That was my favorite winter memory in New Orleans.
Thank you, Jerry. Thanks to your gracious kids, too.
But wait. There was also the time my favorite local, Michael, took me to Jacques-Imo’s for dinner on a cold, rainy December night. Once inside the front door, my eyes immediately landed on a tiny Christmas tree with twinkling lights. It was in the hand of a vertically-challenged man wearing tropical shirt and shorts, skipping through the front room and singing Jingle Bells at the top of his lungs. “…in a one-horse open sleigh, HEY!…” he ended his song and landed with a big jump in front of my tall friend. With one head tilted upward and the other looking down, they exchanged a greeting. Michael turned to me and made introductions: “I’d like you to meet Jack. He owns this place.”
Have you ever smelled Nag Champa incense burning in the cool December air? It smells just like the open-air market where the Indians first traded goods with the French settlers.
Autumn in New Orleans is a favorite season for those who can’t take the heat. I hold tight to my storehouse of autumn memories.
There was the visit in late September when I arrived for Velvet’s 40th birthday party. A three-day birthday party. She had gift bags waiting for all of her guests, overflowing with Zapp’s Crawtators, miniature bottles of booze, and a different hat for each night bearing the nicknames she had given us for the occasion. You can throw yourself a birthday party there. It is allowed. Maybe even expected. One thing is certain: Celebration is a requirement.
Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez..
I loved the October visit with my younger sister, still in college, her first time to return since our own father brought us so many years ago. Her broken heart, compliments of a guy named Darren, was greatly diminished when she first laid eyes on the Vieux Carre. It was love at first sight. The Creole Seasoning that scented the air and the music that poured from every door became her miracle cure. She arrived with a broken heart, but she went home healed.
Who’s Darren? A Dr. John prescription, indeed.
Of course, there was the Halloween Ball, hosted by the Krewe of Mystic Orphans and Misfits, where entrance was gained by full-nudity or costume. We saw plenty of both with the countless body-painted costumes. Not me, of course. I was an Angel. I was the only Angel in a party dominated by devils and naked people. Sometimes in life, it is necessary to “represent.”
I love the smell of Jambalaya cooking on a cool autumn day. It just takes me there.
I’ll never forget the day in April when my best friend from home first set foot in the Quarter. I apologized to Christie for the hamburger we were about to have for lunch, but I assured her that she would fantasize about the food after the fact. Michael met us at Port o’Call on Esplanade and Ninth Ward Fred poured the Monsoons. Afterwards, we walked through the Vieux Carre where Michael gave Christie her first guided walking tour, pointing out the former home of Tennessee Williams along the way. We ended up at our gorgeous antique-filled apartment, sitting on the balcony that overlooked the Gumbo Shop. We spent the late night hours celebrating life at Rock ‘n Bowl Mid City Lanes, sipping cold beverages and dancing to the music of a live Zydeco band.
The following night, we had a dinner invitation from Dwayne. Born in a famous musical family, he played a regular gig on Bourbon Street. He got his start in Lafayette when, at the age of seven, he tried to play his father’s accordian while his unsuspecting parents slept. The heavy instrument landed on the floor with a loud crash and his father realized that the best way to protect the investment of his costly instruments was to buy his youngest son an instrument of his own. Dwayne has been making music since. He introduced himself to me a few years after his father, Rockin’ Dopsie, passed away… about the time he traded high school football practice for band practice so he could make his own way in life. Only a few years older than my own son, his friendship has been long-lasting. I loved the down-home soul food of pork chops and mashed potatoes he would cook for me and my friends on our frequent visits to his home.
In spring of this year, Michael introduced me to his massage therapist and left me in her nurturing hands for a belated birthday gift. She rubbed pressure points I never knew I had while I dozed the afternoon away on her table. Later that day, my local friends, Paula & Tom, came over to visit. We pulled every available chair onto the substantial front porch of the double shotgun house on Dauphine Street. We sipped cocktails, and felt the entire vibe change from late New Orleans afternoon to a sultry French Quarter evening. The blue sky turned deep indigo and the sounds of jazz drifted throughout the neighborhood, interrupted only by the sound of disco blasting from the car stereos of the Queens in Training who entertained us with their song and dance while stuck in traffic in front of our house. Everyone who walked the banquette, both human and canine, stopped to visit along the way.
Only in New Orleans.
Did I ever say thank you, Paula, Tom, Michael, Dwayne? You made my visits most memorable.
It isn’t the energy of Bourbon Street that I remember most. It is the little things. The sound of children on the Cabrini playground, jumping rope in their white button-down shirts and plaid pinafores, chanting rhymes to the rhythm of their feet:
“Alligator Pie, Alligator Pie,
If I don’t get some, I think I’m gonna cry.”
I often think about the two little boys who walked through the Quarter with us in the early evening, munching pralines purchased with their tap-dancing tips. I’m glad I snapped the picture of the little hand in mid-air as he stopped in front of a window display where a saucy mannequin wore only the tiniest bit of satin and lace. Only a pane of glass prevented him from caressing her decolletage, but it really wasn’t his pose or intentions that give me such joy each time I see the image. It was the big, beautiful smile on his face. The perfect smile of a little boy who needed to hurry back to the home he shared with his mother in the projects before the night grew too dark.
The people lucky enough to have been born there consider an incredible meal their birthright. The smell of a crawfish boil is more of an aphrodisiac than Chanel No.5. They know a po-boy isn’t a social status label, but a feast enclosed in fresh-baked French bread and best judged by the number of napkins one must use while devouring a well-dressed one…. and the brown paper bag they carry into a Saints game most definitely ain’t their lunch. These things, I learned from them. I like to call it “hands-on-history.”
Each neighborhood has its own accent. Uptown, Downtown, Ninth Ward, Projects. All of them are music to my ears. Their home addresses contain street names like none in my own neighborhood. One is named for a religious saint while the another is named Desire. They are both, a spiritual and amorous people.
I wish I could turn the dial on my radio and find a WWOZ, but nothing even comes close. I suppose it only makes sense that the greatest radio station in the world is found in the very place where such incredible musical talent is conceived and born. Wearing a high school band jacket in New Orleans is as cool as wearing a football letter jacket. Probably even more cool.
Musicians thrive there. Artists and writers thrive there. The city is their Muse.
She is mine, as well.
Katrina was not her first hurricane, nor was the resulting flood a first. It wasn’t the first disaster to wipe out so many of her people, though I hope it will be the last. The very character of the place is to live and to learn. To live and to love. To live and to celebrate. To not be a spectator, but a participant. You can feel this unspoken agreement in the air, but only if you breathe enough of it.
She has always bounced back.
The Civil War did not kill her spirit and neither did racism. The Yellow Fever and Cholera epidemics of the 1800’s that wiped out thousands by the day didn’t stop her, either. Neither will Katrina and the aftereffects.
There will be Jazz Funerals, though. Far too many.
So be it.
Generations of people have fallen in love with the city of New Orleans and when it comes to her, there are two extremes with no happy medium. People either love her or they don’t. When she embraces you, you know it and there is no escape. Not that you’d want one. You become homesick when you are away too long and the only people who understand are those who, like you, can see beyond the superficial, uncover her intricate layers, and feel her true essence.
She seduced Jean Baptisite LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville in 1699. He wed her in 1718. Even so, she continued to captivate others with her seductive spirit from then until now.
Maybe she embraced us for such a time as this. Maybe she knew there were those would never betray her. As I listen to people who question the wisdom of rebuilding, I am unaffected. I don’t waste my breath or my energy debating the politics. There are more than enough people who thrive on dirty politics. I’d rather have a generous serving of dirty rice.
Of all her indulgences, being a victim is not one of them. She has mastered the art of turning tragedy into triumph. She gives meaning to her suffering, yet nothing about her is pathetic.
She may be battered, but she will never be beaten. That is my kind of girl.
Even at her age, she has never lost her touch. Her seduction of me is complete.
Long live Queen New Orleans.