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.
Living on the Jersey Shore, surrounded by 24 hour diners, dark-haired greaseballs, and leopard print yoga pants, I couldn’t really be much further from Italy, where well-dressed people enjoy shots of expresso and kiss on street corners. I think nostalgically about my time in Italy daily, often wondering how I ended up back here surrounded by the congested parkway and the smog of the nearby city. Often, it feels like that was another world, another lifetime, and it becomes more and more difficult to remind myself that was me there and not a body double. However, during every afternoon run on the boardwalk, gazing out over the pink sky and quietly whispering winds, I sometimes forget that I’m here at all and instead, I’m taken back to being that carefree, kind-of-dirty kid one year ago.
The Jersey Shore beach doesn’t really look like any of the beaches I ever saw in Italy did. It doesn’t look like the spotted mountainside beach towns of Cinque Terre, nor does it possess the sunny winding roads of Sorrento or the wilderness-ridden cliffs of Capri. The air isn’t as light and clean here and the people aren’t as happy and slow-moving. Hell, even the water here doesn’t have the turquoise dreamy tides of the Mediterranean. However, seaside smells and salty air are the same no matter what town you’re in, and the little towns on the Shore are no different. Sometimes when running on the boardwalk, I almost want to close my eyes and, just for a second, remember my first weekend trip to Cinque Terre.
The more places that you go, the more that you realize how remarkably similar many of them are. Don’t get me wrong here – the world is a quirky place, reminiscent of a family of black sheep where each cousin is a little different from the next. There is no place in the world with the tres chic of Paris, the art splendor of Florence, or the loom of Budapest. However, they all have sister qualities within them nevertheless. New Orleans is the dirty, rogue sister of Savannah, San Francisco, the big-city hipster brother of Seattle. And when you happen to run into one of these unexpected family members, even in a place as unsexy as the Jersey Shore, it’s always a welcome reminder of the home that once was.
Being that I spend a lot of free time scourging travel blogs on the Internet, there is one phrase that I often come across that really gets under my skin…
It was the best place I’ve ever been.
Oh yeah, really? The best place you’ve ever been, huh? The most beautiful, fraught with culture and life, brimming with excitement hiding underneath the budding underbelly? Somehow, I doubt that.
Not that I don’t believe a place can be like that, because they are. And that may be the exact issue… that there are many places like this. There cannot be one best place you’ve ever been, because that’s like throwing every destination into prepackaged, nicely organized ribboned boxes, when let’s get real here, Seattle doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Sydney. More accurate phrases would be New Orleans is the craziest city I’ve ever been to. Paris is the most lovely and lacy city I can imagine. I’ve never had so much barbecue as I did in Kansas City.
I can’t really blame people though when they ask me what’s the best place you’ve ever been? because as a journalist, it is exactly these questions that must be asked, this searching for extremes, simply because we want to hear what the hell you can possibly say. On the contrary, being trained as a journalist, you learn to never yourself state these extremes, because you lose your credibility with these dramatic and overused phrases when you’re supposed to stay without a side at all times possible.
However, the way a person responds to these questions says a lot. But a quiet wonder, a shrug of the shoulders, a damnnn I really have no idea… Now it’s those responses I listen awfully closely too. Because those are the ones who have seen the world and live to tell it enough that you have to ask first.
Being from a place like the unnamed mountain range that is Northwest Jersey, you come to get pretty familiar with things like private schools and BMWs (wish I was a little more familiar with this stuff). Luckily for me, I leave my dwelling under a rock from time to time, so I have a basic idea of how the world operates. My mother, however, is not so lucky, which led her to this remark,
“God, there’s a lot of homeless people here in New Orleans.”
Well mom, hate to be the one to break it to you, but there are homeless people effing everywhere. Actually, there were approximately 636,000 in 2011, which is about 21 homeless to every 10,000 people who are… not homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Because of where we live (i.e. the Edge of Nowhere), we don’t come across too many in our day-to-day lives. That doesn’t make them any less alive.
All this brought me to thinking about an article I read recently that basically theorized that Americans were afraid of the homeless because they represent the opposite of the American Dream; the population and economy’s own failures and our inability to help one another. The article told me to basically stop being such a grouch and hey, throw a nickel in their jar and make some friends!
Um, negatory. I’m not afraid of the homeless for any of those aforementioned reasons. If you want me to be honest, I’m effing scared of the homeless because 1/3 of them have untreated psychiactric illnesses, according to mentalillnesspolicy.org. Also, I still get carded for R rated movies, I weigh less than some dogs, and I know damn well that if one of those 1/3 got pissed at me I would be up the creek without a paddle. I think this is fair reason to be a little nervous.
I have a pretty good game face. I tend to not be nervous and put my best foot forward. But like any good traveler, you too probably get a little nervous from time to time when you’re in a not so great area. So here’s a few tips that hopefully aren’t common sense. I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you how I am safe all of the time. But just try to follow a few of these, okay?
1. Wear a money belt. They’re these dopey fanny packs that (thank God) you wear under your clothes,where you keep your passport, majority of your money, credit cards, license, etc. This is so that if you get mugged and have to hand over your wallet, you’ll still make it home.
2. Look alive. Don’t look nervous or lost or be peering around like an idiot. Look like you have a plan and a destination. This won’t help you get invited on a seedy pub crawl (as I have unfortunately found) but it could save your life. And your money.
3. Keep a free hand. Always have one free hand while walking, carrying bags, etc. This is literally one way that people search for victims to mug or assault. If you don’t have a free hand, you look a little more jumbled and not in control.
4. Leave your backpack at home. Does it fit a ton of shit? Yes. Is it easy to carry? Yes. But is it easy to rob? YES. People will cut them open in large crowds and before you even realize, the jerks have taken off with your dough.
5. Don’t let yourself be easily distracted. Pickpocketers and other wonderful people have been known to work in pairs, even kids, by throwing fake babies at you, newspapers, basically anything to make you lose control and drop your bags or lose a good handle on them. DON’T FALL FOR THIS.
Today, my mother’s usual (and chronic) lateness led me to stomp off to the hotel breakfast alone, which, although I’m sure appeared pathetic to the average person, seemed perfectly fine to me as I was still half asleep (at 11:00 am).
Anyway, I think that this one waiter felt kind of bad for me, so he came out to chat since there was no one else who needed to be seated anyway. We got to chatting, and the 21 years old double major in Drama and Business turned out to be a New Orleans native.
My annoying self: “Wow! That’s so cool! Man, it must be so fun to live here. Do you go out on Bourbon a lot?”
Him (names have been forgotten): “Na, not really. It was fun when I was younger, when I had to pay a 20 to get into one of the clubs. But now it’s just like… I’ve already done it. It’s boring.”
WHAT? NEW ORLEANS BORING? was my first thought. But, when I thought about it, we all feel this way, like where we are has become too stale, whether we live in Paris or Sydney or a small tow in New Jersey.
When I moved to my current town, it actually wasn’t so bad. We drove around the dark streets at night, standing in fields and stargazing. We built forts in the backyard next to our bonfires. We swam in the neighbor’s pool till we pruned, then crept home in a spook. Then, we did it all again the next day.
But it seems to me like no matter where you live, you reach a point that, for many reasons, the romanticism fades away and cabin fever takes over from the outside in. Who knows, maybe one day that kid will come back to NOLA and I’ll go back to my mountain town. Or maybe, he will move far away and never even call. Who knows.
Sound pathetic? Maybe it would be if I was anywhere else other than Pat O’ Brien’s, the famous origin of the Hurricane drink, located on St. Louis Street, perpendicular only by a few to Bourbon. From here, it’s easy to stumble back home to Dauphine.
It’s weird to think that only a few hours ago I was hanging out in a completely different offspring of NOLA, the Garden District. Here is where the Americans settled way back when the Creoles shunned them and built their big Southern mansions which line the streets, shielded only slightly by iron fences.
Quiet, romantic, and dignified, these old plantation homes are often raised from the ground since New Orleans holds no bedrock and simply sits on a puddle of mud. Most of them are conservative colors today of beige and white, but once featured bright tropic colors. Their vastness often remains hidden by piles of trees and shrubbery.
Strolling past homes like the former place of Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, as well as current celebrity homes of Sandra Bullock, Peyton Manning, and John Goodman, it’s easy to see how this place is a muse and celebrity hotspot. Quiet fountains in front of pink plantations, iron fences with tiny horse heads, and dotted Catholic statues, the place is understated and elegant at once. But to overlook the Lafayette Cemetery…
This above ground cemetery, one of the oldest in the city, is entirely composed of above ground tombs since the frequent rain and lack of solid ground continued to bring bodies to service until tombs enacted. After a family purchased a tomb, one body’s casket would be placed until the next member died, when the bones would be pushed to the bottom and the casket would be used again. Now, the tombs sit like buildings in a small (abandoned) city, with little streets for onlookers to walk past the mass gravesides. Most of the graves have a fair amount of wear and tear, as the first bodies placed date back to the 1800’s. Tiles are cracked, names are missing, some entire tombs have shifted in the ground.
I once read this in some book or magazine. Whoever wrote this, however, was not speaking about New Orleans, because much looking is not necessary. It doesn’t matter where you are. I don’t care if you’re strolling the Mississippi, out on Bourbon on a Friday night (or any night, really), or outside the St. Louis Cathedral in 100 degree weather. It will sing to your ears, pulling you into this direction and that, leaving you yearning for this thing called jazz, something we don’t really hear much of within our bustling in the Northeast.
The music, which sifts about, can obviously be mostly found within the French Quarter. I really didn’t know much about New Orleans before my visit, but I (most ignorantly) thought of long-stemmed roses and elegant architecture. AHA. No. Don’t get me wrong, it is no less wonderful. But wandering the streets are a little more fitted to the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, which flits noisily throughout tiny streets. The brick, age-worn cafes, shops, bars, psychic lairs, and even home are cradled upon one another like old friends. Within this little homey square you will find dive bars next to art shops, voodoo dolls next to coffeeshops.
Jackson Square is a pretty little garden that overlooks St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest active cathedral in the United States and looks like it is straight out of Disneyland. It marks the spot where the Quarter sprang and behind it lies a usually locked garden that onlookers can peer through, where a statue of Jesus sits with a missing thumb, the only part of Him damaged by Katrina.
Cruising along the streets, which like many Southern places, gets hit by a torrential downpour in the afternoon (wish I knew that the first day), it’s easy to find hidden gems hiding in nooks of NOLA. After visiting an especially lame Mardi Gras museum on the upstairs of Antoine’s, a swanky restaurant on St. Louis Street, my mother and I found ourselves on the abandoned upper decks, overlooking Bourbon as the sun went down and people began (okay, already were) flooding the streets.
And then, the animal becomes unleashed. In the summer, I find it hard to drag myself out of my cozy room, get all dressed up, then drive to some lame bar in the middle of nowhere to sit on a barstool and get drunk in the dark for six bucks a drink. Nobody in New Orleans has this problem. Before the sun is even down, people are pouring out of wherever the hell they were all day and spilling onto Bourbon. The homey bars, like the Cat’s Meow, the Famous Door, and the Funky Pirate, all have their own live music seemingly fighting for air, the music pouring out of the absent doors and walls and into the party that already exists on the street. Grandparents, 21ers, kids, hookers, moms, businessmen, artists- no one is left without a drink.
At least at Bourbon, and probably all of NOLA, maybe you don’t have to look for music because it already found you.