“This is a great place to be poor,” explained my friend Josh, who had moved to New Orleans several months earlier. Say no more, my friend. You have my ear. I listened as he listed all of the fun things there are to do in the Big Easy for little or no money, smiling as I paid the bartender $3.50 for a couple of beers. Deciding there were better things to behold than the contents of the seedy Marigny bar in which we were slouched, we drained the remainder of our beers into plastic cups and wandered outside to listen to a few of the street bands gathered at various corners around the neighborhood. This couldn’t be real. The police in most other places I’d been to generally frowned upon people enjoying libations out-of-doors.
New Orleans possesses an allure similar to the rest of Louisiana, with the distinction of being highly concentrated within a patchwork of streets that alternate between grimy and resplendent. It is bright, bawdy, and colorful, but with a dark, seething spirit. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Louisiana is the only bastion of Catholicism in the region — most of the rest of the Deep South being part of the relatively austere Protestant Bible Belt — but the Creole, Caribbean, and Cajun influences give the area a brand of mystique that can’t be found anywhere else. With its accompaniment of raucous laughter and dixieland jazz, the city defies you to find fault with its many shortcomings, thinly disguising the shady secrets that you probably already know about. There’s no choice but to love the place, though, making it possible to walk past fragrant piles of trash, stately Victorian mansions, and ancient, above-ground cemeteries with near equal enthusiasm.
Conversations in New Orleans all revolve around “the storm” — Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing disaster response debacle — a turning point in the region’s history usually referred to with a downward casting of the eyes. Although the demographic has changed a bit since 2005 — reconstruction in the Lower Ninth Ward and other impoverished areas of the city has been slow, and many of the people displaced by the floods caused when the Mississippi River levee breached have remained in Houston, Atlanta, and other arbitrary evacuation debarkation points — the city maintains a vibrance that has been kept in check by a diverse population celebrating rich traditions. A strong, albeit largely poor African-American community is still the backbone of the city’s life, but there seem to be a lot more hipsters hanging around these days as well. Quite a few people look like they either got lost on the way to San Francisco after leaving Brooklyn (or vice versa), or they watched Easy Rider at some point, figuring the Big Easy for a crazy place to get caught up in for a while.
It is just that, in fact, and as luck would have it, a couple of old friends — one from my undergrad days at Mary Washington College and the other a guy I’d met through the first friend when we were all living in California — had moved to New Orleans to indulge in the unique life it has to offer. Paying no more than four or five hundred dollars a month for a nice apartment (sorry if that sounds like a lot, but in California, that’s unheard of unless you live in a bad part of town), these guys spend their days going to free music shows and other random events, winding though ancient streets from party to bar to party and back on bicycles, drinks suspended in homemade, handlebar-mounted cup holders.
The muggy paradise is not without its drawbacks, though. Recently, a few stuck-up stickybeats have taken it upon themselves to hassle New Orleans’ City Council into enforcing a hitherto little-known ordinance regulating street musicians. The city’s nighttime street music scene is world renowned, and the ordinance — prohibiting the playing of musical instruments from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. — hasn’t been enforced. Perhaps some gentrification has occurred in the French Quarter and Marigny — the neighborhoods where the lively shows can be seen most nights — but my stance is that if you buy a house in a place like the French Quarter, you ought to know that you signed an invisible contract saying that you are OK with debauchery outside your window on a nightly basis. For example, after living in Isla Vista, California — a Mardi Gras-esque college town adjacent to UC Santa Barbara (often one of the nation’s top-ranked party schools) — I got really good at reading and sleeping through thunderous bass riffs and drunken screeches. So it seems silly to me that these people would expect everything around them to change just for the sake of self entitlement.
At any rate, I saw the enforcement go down before my very eyes. A crowd of people was assembled in front of the Young Fellaz Brass Band, and they were wailin’! Unfortunately, halfway through one of their livelier songs, a policeman rolled by in his cruiser, making the “wrap it up” sign with his finger. It was a party Thursday night there (maybe I’m a lush, but Thursday is a party night, right?), but the clock had already struck nine and that was that. A few nearby clubs, although virtually empty, were blasting electronic music and hip hop into the night air. Oh the irony.
Although I’ve been to them many times before, I never tire of visiting St. Charles, Carrollton, the Magazine, and Audubon Park. The stately Victorian mansions lining St. Charles Avenue near Audubon Park are almost too perfect to believe. Once, years ago, I managed to sneak into one of these titan homes, as it had been under renovation at the time and a workman had left a gap in the fence just wide enough for me to wriggle through. Although gutted in anticipation of what was sure to be a lavish refurbishment, the sheer expanse of its voluminous interior itself was mind-blowing. All of that for one family, I thought. A marble bathtub poked out from beneath a sheet of heavy plastic, and I knocked on it, verifying that it was indeed made from real marble. Stepping onto a balcony outside the house’s towering attic gable, I beheld the length of St. Charles Avenue from as commanding a perch as any oil tycoon could ever have had.
This time around, however, none of the old homes appeared so easily penetrable, so I contented myself with riding a bicycle around on side streets I’d never checked out until I reached Carrollton Avenue, where there are quite a few amazing restaurants.
So let’s talk about food. One can’t blather on about other facets of New Orleans culture without covering the fabulous, and often reasonably priced cuisine available in the city. One of my personal favorites is Cafe Nino, an almost shabby-looking Italian joint on Carrollton Avenue. I had stumbled upon it almost by accident, while taking a quality control training course at the nearby Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters a few blocks away. I don’t remember much about quality control, but I’ll never forget stuffing my face with a hearty portion of catfish parmesan, eaten off a styrofoam plate as Frank Sinatra songs played cheerily in the background on a battered stereo. Nino, it turns out, is from Sicily, and had a successful restaurant in New York before moving to New Orleans, where he’s become a fixture. After you enjoy one of his delicious creations, he’ll chat with you for a few minutes before pouring you a healthy slug of red wine into a styrofoam cup.
“Take it witha you,” he’ll say in his classic Italian accent. “It’sa good for the digestion!” It’s a good thing the company truck I was driving at the time had cup holders, or the wine would have sloshed all over the place as I drove back to the Corps building.
On this trip, however, I was dismayed to find that Nino was on vacation for the summer, and wouldn’t be back until the next week. The Lebanese place next door was actually very good, too (although in my heart of hearts, Nino’s joint is the spot), with a delicious citrus tea garnished with sugared pine nuts to wash down a very tasty spicy falafel dish.
A few blocks away stands a legendary Creole restaurant — the French-sounding name of which escapes me — which I had the pleasure of eating at with a friend mere weeks before Hurricane Katrina meted its destructive fury upon the Crescent City. It was during Jazz Fest, and as we were seated, my friend nudged me.
“Psst! Look! The Neville Brothers are sitting right next to us!” he said with a giddy smile. They saw us gawking at them, so there was nothing to do but engage in some small talk. Nice guys. A few moments later, the waiter ushered in a familiar-looking man with long, scraggly, dark hair, along with his date, who could have been any number of recent playboy bunnies. It was none other than Tommy Lee, and the wait staff wasted no time seating him at a table that was slightly elevated, and in full view of the rest. In hindsight, they probably should have put him at a more private table — less for his sake than everyone else’s — because it wasn’t long before his silicone-bosomed companion was giggling as she leaned over and not-so-subtly slid her hand into his pants. Classic Tommy Lee, I thought.
The star of the night however, was not the famous blues duo, nor was it the glam rock drummer turned amateur porn star seated in the room’s spotlight. The crown jewel of my experience at that restaurant was none other than the bouillabaisse I had ordered, at the waiter’s recommendation. Having been distracted by the Motley Crue of interesting people in the room (c’mon, I had to), I didn’t even see the waiter bring it in. As he set the steaming dish of fish stew upon the table before me, the eyes of a group of rather portly diners the next aisle over locked onto it, and their conversation halted.
“Bouillabaisse…” they whispered to one another, as if speaking some sacred name. The largest man in the group, a napkin tucked into his shirt collar, lifted his eyes from my plate, his gaze meeting mine. “Bouillabaisse,” he whispered again, beckoning gently with his chin, as if inviting me to partake in the holy communion of boiled fish and crustaceans gleaming amidst its tomato base. Slowly, I skewered one of the choicest morsels, and brought it up to my lips. My chubby friends seemed to be holding their collective breath in anticipation. Their napkin bib-clad leader tipped his large head forward slightly, giving me the OK to take a bite.
As I bit into it, delicious juices flooded my mouth with a tempest of flavor. I closed my eyes slightly and let the feeling that only perfectly prepared food can bring take over. When I looked up, my new friends were all smiling, each adding their own, more emphatic, “Bouillabaisse!” as they returned to their own respective repasts.
While the current trip had been more focused upon cheap bars and street music than on the city’s smorgasbord of restaurants, I did manage to make time for one last brush with good New Orleans cooking on my way out of town the day after my extended bicycle tour around the city. I hadn’t even been sure where I was going to eat, I just knew that it needed to be a cheap, dirty hole in the wall serving up great food. The Big Easy didn’t disappoint, and as I piloted my belongings-laden Subaru toward the freeway on Elysian Fields, I was rewarded with just such a place; Gene’s Po Boys (also a great place to get a ridiculously stiff, but delicious frozen daiquiri to go on hot summer nights). After forking over seven or eight bucks, I had the perfect hangover food to enjoy in the car as I drove through the sweltering flat hell of Mississippi and Alabama: A Louisiana hot links and American cheese po boy loaded up with lettuce and mayonnaise, replete with a huge styrofoam cup brimming with ice cold Pepsi.
I headed east on I-10, and a cool breeze wafted across Lake Ponchartrain as I bit into the sandwich. I was in heaven — at least until I crossed the state line.