I visited New Orleans for a conference two years after Katrina. When I arrived in the city, I felt a little star-struck at first. My friends and I shared a room at the Monteleone hotel, an old stately hotel in the French Quarter with a carousel bar that turns round and round. 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 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 many years, 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 the City – 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 on the heated streets, parts body odor, 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/mule-drawn carriages and the carriage masters’ tales, music that is jazz blues rock stripper-sleaze country. The sights—half-dressed women and men, faces slack with drunken stupors and lust and greed for the 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 the huge-eyed tourists who can’t snap it all up in one eye-bulging gulp. 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! For 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, I felt that energy, that want, that hope on that visit: they want You to come, or 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. The Love-Hate now has turned to 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. Folks, respect this Grand City, for though, like her people, she is strong and capable and prideful, she is also wary and a little weakened, but make no mistake, she will never give up.
Yet, there is a New Orleans in the early morning. 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 urine and spills away, when the morning sun is peeking over the city’s history…that is when I loved New Orleans the best. That is the New Orleans that stays nestled in my memory, quiet and lovely.
(this post was written right after the trip and posted to my former blog)