Sometimes I feel like I take New Orleans for granted.
But I really shouldn’t, because it’s one of the greatest things to ever happen to me.
I remember the first time I came here I was a kid, and as we drove up and down St Charles Avenue all I could think was how haunted this city is. My sister had just gotten into Loyola University and we were all there for her orientation. Mom took us to eat beignets, have baked ham and roast beef po’ boys at Mothers, and watch the streetcar roll down past the huge mansions that lined the oak peppered streets of the Avenue. And I was completely enchanted, but worried for my older sister.
I was not worried that she would get mugged, or hit by a massive Hurricane (Katrina hit one week after she moved into her dorm), or even that she would just simply get diabetes from all the crawfish bread and gumbo and fried green tomatoes. No, I was worried she would get murdered by a ghost or a vampire, which I was more sure existed here than I had ever been of anything.
That was in 2005. The year the storm hit and washed away some of New Olreans’ memories. But nothing can take the spirit of the Big Easy, and so it was only a matter of time, and a few too many lemondrop martinis on the porch of the Columns Hotel before I, too, became as enchanted with this city as my mother had been living here in the 70s, and now, as enraptured as my older sister was at her apartment on Dante and Freret.
I longed to be a local. I brought my friends from college for Mardi Gras. I navigated them around the French Quarter, I fed them beignets and hurricanes and daiquris. And just a year later, I could no longer keep myself from this beautiful city, and so I packed up my car and drove here, and moved into a shotgun double right next to my sister. And New Orleans was suddenly mine. And I had never felt more magic in my life.
Some mornings I would put on a sweater, grab my coffee and bagel, and walk down underneath the oak trees to class. The streetcar would roll by with its familiar dull roar and I had never felt more at home. Some nights I would sit on my back porch in the balmy air, letting my hair frizz with the humidity, smelling the smoke lingering on my clothes from a late night out the previous evening, and drink a glass of wine and just feel more enchanted by just the smell of the air here than I had by anything I’d known before. New Orleans is magic.
Of course, a lot of cities have magic. Paris has a haunting beauty that mirrors that of my NOLA. Mumbai’s smells and sounds and energy are glorious and confusing and scary and beautiful. London and Dublin and Glasgow have old school bars and bookshops and teahouses that take you back in time. And even Los Angeles has it’s own mysterious glamour.
The magic of New Orleans comes from its age. It is old. It is worn down. It is haunted and unfortunate and wracked by America’s rampant need for consumerism and modernity. But despite Canal Street’s T Shirt shops and Bourbon Street’s sugar stained streets New Orleans maintains it’s soul. It’s like a grandma who hops on the dance floor to do the Cupid Shuffle with the kids. It’s got heart. It’s not going anywhere. It’s kicking.
Recently I was in Charleston and every time I mentioned that I was from New Orleans I was met with a strange undercurrent of hostility. Of course Southern manners and charm decree that no one may actually outwardly express hate toward another’s town, but the constant comparisons I was met with were unnerving. Charleston is older, more historical, has more soul, a better food scene, kinder people, less crime, etc. etc. Part of me was angry, part of me was hurt, but none of me believed a word they said.
Don’t challenge this city. We are resilient. Still we rise, y’all. Ain’t nobody gonna take New Orleans down. Whether it’s floods, or winds, or bullets- we rebuild. Every single time. We come back. And we come back better than ever.
I feel for the tourists who don’t know better. They come to New Orleans, stay on Bourbon Street and then tell the locals they had a good time and all, but it smells like piss and it’s so dirty. Well, I’ll tell you something- nobody that actually lives in New Orleans is drinking a hand grenade, throwing their cup into the street, and pissing on a wall. We’re at oyster happy hour talking with friends over Chenin Blanc and hot sauce. We’re at a neighbor’s boil drinking Abitas and listening to a marching band practice for Mardi Gras. I hate to be that local- the one that tells you how to be more like a local. Hey, it’s your vacation- if you want to spend all of it eating pizza and drinking sugary vodka that’s your journey, man.
And I know New Orleans is dirty- you try cleaning the dirt out of 200 year old cobblestones. You try pulling all the beads off of the power lines and tree branches and out of gutters. We’re doing the best we can. But sometimes, you gotta understand, we have to drop everything to grab our parasols and jump into the second line. Sometimes we don’t have time between rolling in a parade, sitting in traffic on the Westbank Expressway, and you know, occasionally day drinking all day on Sunday in our Saints jerseys. But you don’t need to cut us any slack. This is the way we like to do things. This is how it is. And this is why we have so much soul. So much beauty and tragedy and history. Because we preserve it and we even though we’ll make tweaks here and there, for the most part, we New Orleaneans don’t change. And it’s not because we don’t like change, or that we’re afraid of it. It’s simply cuz things have been pretty great here for awhile. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
We have voodoo, vampires, witches, and cemeteries. We have donkeys pulling carriages, drinking in the streets, homeless people masquerading as fortune-tellers (and a few legitimate ones), and parades all year. We have Voodoo Fest, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, Creole Tomato Fest, Oyster Fest, Strawberry Fest, Po Boy Fest, and alligator cheesecakes. We have the Camellia Grille, magnolia trees, Laurel Street, and Spanish Moss.
Living in New Orleans has been the best decision I could have made. I’m an old soul. I like a place with a heartbeat. I like a place where I can drink in the street. I like a place where the seafood is fried and comes with a side of more fried. I love New Orleans. And New Orleans loves me back. And I think we’re going to be happy together for a very long time. And even though sometimes I forget to love her and give her the respect she deserves, something always wakes me back up and brings me back to this love affair. The hum the steamboats on the Mississippi, the street musicians or street performers or Miss Ashley Traffic Tranny directing tourists in her whistle and thong. The houses, the statues, the petals of the Japanese Magnolias making me slip all over the sidewalk. The potholes and crawfish and parades. I love you, New Orleans. Don’t you ever change.