Much like the deep south, New Orleans has always glittered for me with an inexplicable allure. When I sat down to write my masters thesis, I was immediately drawn to the topic of Cajun dialect – partly influenced by John Fogerty singing “Proud Mary” in a Cajun accent – and found myself pleasantly overwhelmed by the great amalgam that is New Orleans. Research led me to hundreds of fascinating topics, like the evolution of Mardi Gras songs over the years and their relation to identity; the 1920s laws banning French in schoolyards that led to the subsequent language gap between children and their grandparents; the Acadian migration and social exclusion of Cajuns and their retreat into the bayous; the vibrant convergence of French, Canadian, Spanish, African, Haitian, Acadian (often referred to as Cajun), and Creole culture, food, art, religion, language, and customs.
What makes it more difficult to resist the allure is the fact that New Orleans is a city built on improbability. Its stubborn perseverance through Hurricane Katrina and the fact that it thrives despite being located about two feet below sea level – on average – suggests that it’s not going to be around forever. According to The Lonely Planet, it is sinking. And after Katrina, it’s even more vulnerable to flooding and devastation caused by hurricanes. This is because the flooding caused by Katrina liquified the natural land “buffers” that protect the city. Since hurricanes gather strength over water and water is more prevalent around New Orleans post-Katrina, this creates the possibility that future storms could cause even more damage.
The idea of a permanently damaged New Orleans is hard to bear.
Its allure, compounded with its proximity to Birmingham – five hours is nothing, especially after you’ve driven sixteen -, secured it as a must-see destination on this roadtrip. And it did not disappoint.
If my description of New Orleans hasn’t painted much of a picture for you, I’ll quote The Lonely Planet by saying that New Orleans is “the most un-American city in America.” And it’s true. There were many moments throughout the trip where Alana and I would be strolling through the French Quarter and suddenly – and mutually – feel that we weren’t in the US anymore. At one point, the phrase “When I get back to the States” was uttered, followed by slight embarrassment. Oops.
But the fact is, it’s hard to remember you’re in the US when you’re enveloped by New Orleans’ French Quarter. New York is distinctly American. Boston is distinctly American. Philadelphia. Los Angeles. New Orleans? Not so much. But in a very good way.
We drove into New Orleans after 9pm, and at first I was slightly dismayed. Before us rose a city like any other: tiny, luminous windows soared up into the darkness, suggesting a skyscraper; five-lane highways pushed throngs of taillights into the city; billboards sprung up along the roadside advertising – what else? – McDonalds, Walgreens, Office Max. The GPS informed us that we were three minutes from our destination. Disappointment was on the horizon.
And then you veer off the five-lane highway and suddenly you’ve gone back in time. You’re surrounded by short, crouching homes ringed with wrought-iron fences, hanging plants dangling foliage over the balcony rails. Streets are constricting and often one-way with no available parking. Pedestrians crowd the streets, sipping Dixie from plastic cups. Glance at a lamppost and you’ll think you’ve arrived in the 1700s. The towering shadows of skyscrapers that greeted us on our way in somehow disappear in the background, only rising occasionally at the end of a long, bumpy road. It was spectacular.
It took us some time to get settled – if you stay in the French Quarter, you’ll wind up paying for parking at a lot or stuffing your last quarters into a gluttonous meter -, but the moment we did, we hit the road. We had about two days in the Crescent City and a seemingly infinite list of food to try, places to see, music to hear.
Bourbon Street was first on our list, even though we knew it would be more of a tourist venture. We fueled up on beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde before bracing ourselves for the debauchery that would follow. (Fun Fact: Cafe du Monde is the place to go for both beignets and cafe au lait. During wartime, when coffee beans were scarce, they used chicory to add flavor and strength to the coffee and they still do, to this day. Yum.)
Here’s what you need to know about Bourbon Street: It’s worth checking out, and if you enjoy the thrill of intoxication and lament the ol’ college days when sober moments were few and far between and frat boys tickled your fancy, then Bourbon Street might be the place for you. Older males – I hesitate to call them men – congregate on balconies and hurl Mardi Gras beads down onto the streets below when a girl lifts her shirt or gives them some form of attention. I’ve never been to a strip club, but I imagine its a more socially acceptable version of that with the added bonus of beads, and alcohol that can be legally consumed in the street.
Apparently the chasm between this group of people and the pernickety old women that we were was large enough to mar our enjoyment of the street. I touched many a sweaty shoulder as we pushed through the slow-moving crowds of individuals, many sporting beaded necks, toting Hurricanes, or shouting nonsense simply because. At one point, I was prodded with a balloon penis.
There is some fun to be had on Bourbon Street, though. If the street is a worm, it’s the seedy midsection that needs to be avoided. The ends of the street – the anterior and posterior, we can say – are slightly less crowded and actually boast a few good bars.
We’d had our fill of nightlife thanks to Birmingham and were more focused on finding the thing New Orleans is probably the most famous for: its music. I could delve into the countless songs that are written about New Orleans or list the myriad artists and musical styles that have been birthed here, but I’ll spare you all of that. Let’s just say the panoply of music in New Orleans is unrivaled anywhere else in the US.
That said, it wasn’t long after we’d stumbled onto a lucky patch of almost-sober Bourbon Street that we were greeted by the blaring sounds of jazz music coming from Fritzel’s. It was brilliant. It’s not jazz in the sense that Coltrane might have been jazz, that Chicago and Harlem might be jazz; it’s a different, persistently upbeat, impossible to resist type of jaunty, horn-bellowing stuff. We spent quite some time in that bar and regretted the fact that we moved at all.
There were a few other jazz bars on the street and a joint vibrating with the rattle of zydeco that lured us in, and that was probably the highlight of Bourbon Street.
The characters of Bourbon Street came in at a close second. Alana and I were exiting Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – a supposedly haunted tavern cradling a piano in its dimly lit back room, the pianist chanting some Cab Calloway – when a crazed-looking woman grabbed my wrist.
“Excuse me, are you two gay?”
“OK, they’re not gay!” she shouted to four men standing behind her on the sidewalk, one with gauged ears.
“Come on, can’t you count?” one of them yelled back at her. “Two girls and four guys? Come on!”
But the pinnacle of my pedestrian excursion on Bourbon Street came later in the night, when we were just about exhausted. We’d transitioned to quietly observing the eccentric folk around us with a sliver of amusement when I noticed a lone man on my left walking in the direction we were coming from. He donned a leather jacket and top hat and was suspiciously tan.
“How strange,” I thought to myself. “He is very tan.”
Then he opened his mouth, and I saw that he had fangs. They were not the plastic kind you shove onto your incisors with bitter paste. They were either real or implanted. I gawked and watched as he passed me by, opening his mouth again as if his fangs were silent little beacons inviting other fangers in the vicinity to unite.
“Alana!” I hissed excitedly. “A vampire! There’s a vampire!”
Unfortunately, Alana didn’t hear me in time, and it’s probably for the better. I worried his super sense of hearing might have alerted him to our our presence and I didn’t want him to bite me.
Needless to say, I was thrilled. I’d always heard about vampire bars in New Orleans and that the city had a strange “history” involving vampires, but I had no desire to visit a vampire bar – unless it was owned by Alexander Skarsgard. So to see a vampire on Bourbon Street rounded the night off nicely for me, and I went to bed a happy – and unbitten – gal.
Categories: United States (USA)