New Orleans is busted with so much twisted personality that it’s hard to believe that it all fits within the city’s 350 square miles. Although I got a taste of this last time I visited the jazzy little city, when you’re vacationing with your mother for a week and hopping on the most educational tours in town, you’re not going to get the full effect of the crazy that’s swirling around the rogue destination of the south.
When I finally hit Checkout on that Southwest ticket headed for for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, I was actually a little anxious because I had already been there. Doing something more than once bores me irreparably. I like to go to new restaurants, meet new people, wear new clothes, and, of course, visit new places. I wondered if I would find enough to entertain me during four more days running rampant around New Orleans.
Who was I kidding.
Part of the devilish charm that is New Orleans is that it is wildly obvious that even though it is a prime tourist destination, people live there. It’s clear when you spot the same character, day after day, walking their dachshund around the French Quarter, chatting up gypsies. It’s clear when you stop to tap your foot to the friendly neighborhood ragged folk band, settled nicely on their street corner and bumming cigarettes off passer-bys. It’s charming when you stop by the ostentatious Garden District and watch kids in little suits running up the steps to their two hundred-year-old house.
It’s these characters that make the city different every round.
There are cities, arguably, that don’t have this peculiar little feature. Their populations are made up of seasonal tourists who want to strap on their sneakers and fanny packs, make sure they brought enough sunscreen and hop on the best all-day tours in town. There are cities where the locals stay snuggled indoors, stuffing their noses up at the thought of tourists bumbling about their town.
This is not New Orleans, because many of the city’s tourists have simply turned into locals.
There was Spock, or Taylin by birth, one of the many community nomads who sold jewelry but spoke in circles. With a bandanna wrapped around his head, he told stories that didn’t make sense together but were amusing one-by-one. In his typical flat voice, he told us how he broke into one particularly rude tourist’s Mercedes in western Florida, cut a rather large square of leather, and fashioned it into a rough wallet that was now for sale on his little table along Decatur Street.
Or Chilly, a name tailored onto his leather jacket, who told us about how he told his (former) wife that he had a new car awaiting her in the driveway and when she emerged, was greeted by a broom. She proceeded to chuck the broom directly at Chilly, making for an obscene absence of his left front tooth. He left the wife, left the tooth, and he and his tiny dog, Maximus, headed south to New Orleans, where they settled in by wandering the streets and talking to anyone who would listen.
And we can’t forget the rambunctious owner of Jimmy J’s, who’s name is not Jimmy. Amongst delivering coffee and making roses out of napkins for pretty patrons, he also performed magic tricks and told diners about his haunted house in the heart of the Garden District. Another man who talked in circles, he halfheartedly explained how he, a California man, ended up in NYC, then various other cities, and finally settled in N’awlins.
I am not alone in my encounters with personalities in the Big Easy. Before setting off, I was encouraged to seek out a dreadlocked jazz player on Frenchman’s Street by my dentist, a theatrical phantom guide at the Voodoo Lounge by a lonely neighbor and a grayed lost fisherman in Pirate’s Alley. It’s a mystery how these eccentrics found their way to the city, but it’s no surprise as to why.
Characters flock to New Orleans because they know they have found a place to belong. Los Angeles is too blonde, New York City too expensive, D.C. too active and Phoenix too quiet. But New Orleans – New Orleans is the perfect hodgepodge of crazy, embedded within the cheesy disgust of Bourbon Street, the subtle elegance of the Garden District, the haunted history of the French Quarter and the cultural mass of Jackson Square to make even the dirtiest nomads feel at home.