New Orleans, and the way I pronounce it in my head makes me a true hillbilly now and no longer a South Louisianian, makes me a Tourist now. I am a tourist now. I’m saying it in my head like this: “New Or-Leens.” South Louisianians don’t say it like that; there is no “leens” in New Orleans. I digress (I love saying “I digress”…). I visited New Orleans for the Pen to Press Writer’s Retreat end of May, first of June (and more on that conference later, for it was damn awesome). It was my first time back to the Crescent city, The “Big Easy” (and there I go again…who in So Louisiana calls New Orleans “The Big Easy?”) since 2003—that’s pre-Katrina, of course. When I arrived in the city, I felt a little star-struck at first. It was early afternoon, and my friends and I were sharing a room at the Monteleone hotel, an old stately hotel with a carousel bar that turns round and round. Early afternoon, in the not yet as hot as it’s going to get heat, in the French Quarter. There is a smell and feel and energy to New Orleans that you have to experience, it can’t quite be explained, even by the most brilliant of writers who have tried—writers can only hint of it, tease you on.
When evening came on and my friend and I walked the Quarter, including Bourbon Street, I then experienced the seedy loud drunken debauched side of New Orleans. From living in So Louisiana, and visiting New Orleans often in my adult years, I know there is much more to N.O. than the French Quarter, but that is what most people think of when they hear “New Or-leens” – Mardi Gras, French Quarter, Debauchery. And there it all was, coming at me in a locomotion roar of people, lights, sound, smells. You haven’t lived until you have smelled Bourbon street—an odor that repels and fascinates—parts horse or mule excrement, parts human piss and sweat and vomit, parts old city mold, parts spicy food wafting, parts spilled beer fermenting even more on the heated streets, parts body odor, parts rotting garbage. The noise is In Your Face—drunken calls, men shouting lewd comments, scantily-clad women (or men who look like women) enticing tourists inside their lair, clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and the carriage masters tales, music that is parts jazz blues rock stripper-sleaze country. The sights—half-dressed women and men, faces slack with drunken stupors and lust and greed for this City’s offerings, neon lights buzzing, restaurant waiters standing in the doorways hoping to lure you in, derelicts wandering with vacant eyes or hungry eyes or desperate eyes, people with no good in their irises who stare with malcontented ill intention, and huge-eyed tourists who can’t snap it all up in one eye-bulging gulp. The Feel—this energy, this feel, this New Orleans, how can I tell you in such a short post that is ever-growing? I can’t! I need more time and space! And some of it will ever remain a mystery, unless you go there yourself.
And know this: if you do go, the New Orleanians will be appreciative. I’ve never seen a peoples so damned happy to have you eat at their restaurants, drink coffee in their cafes, buy trinkets at their shops, stay in their hotels—more than any time I’ve been in the Great Madam City of New Orleans, this I felt on this recent visit: they want us to come back. With any tourist city, and I know this from living in the Smokies, there is a Love-Hate relationship with tourists—we need your money, we hate how you change our towns into something anamorphically weird and monstrous. But, New Orleans had a taste of what it felt like to lose the tourists, the people who make New Orleans bulge like that crawfish sack, and it wasn’t a nice feeling at all, to understate. Right now, the Love-Hate is more like Love—visit visit and spend your money…the appreciation is in their eyes, their smiles, the way they say, “Thank you for coming, thank you,” and you know they mean it.
I want to say more, but I best stop here and maybe say more later if I’m a mind to. Yet, there is a New Orleans in the early morning, which I captured in some of my photos above. The New Orleans before tourists and hawkers and traffic and horse/mule carriages are about. When the street sweepers are sweeping, when the owners of establishments have washed the tourists vomit and pee and spills away, when the morning sun is peeking over the cities history…that is when I loved New Orleans the best (other than the food-oh, the food is a post all on its own). I’ll be back…