Stomaching the City
Mardi Gras never defined my image of New Orleans. To me Mardi Gras was a cliché that was not quite rooted in a city so steeped in two things above all else: food and jazz. Whereas jazz and the Delta blues were fertilized in the humid air, gestated in the bars and streets, Mardi Gras was to New Orleans like a Carnivale mask, worn on one night and then discarded. Most sacred of all was food; when my father introduced me to the food of New Orleans, he showed me, by extension, the city as well. How he loves it there, following the jazz from Chicago down the Mississippi, and then tasting, eating, and gorging at restaurants that seem to be in some grand conversation with one another. New Orleans was not a vacation but an event, one that my father would plan for weeks in advance, making reservations for every brunch and dinner as we traipsed around restaurants in the ultimate treasure hunt. He first brought me along when I was eight, where my conception of the city remains arrested. To a Jewish Yankee boy, New Orleans food is foreign, exotic, seductive. New Orleans was temptation, where I could try forbidden fruits de mer, the mercurial mussels and the crayfish that seemed to crawl out of every steaming pot of gumbo. Between digestions I can recall sitting deep into a low-slung couch, my hair radiated with static charge against the warm brick wall behind. I remember staring out over a balcony at the city beyond and wondering if I might ever live in a place like New Orleans. Smoky, loud bars, restaurants open long after midnight, lampposts lining the streets, sidewalks bathed in perpetual sunlight, keeping the nightfall at bay like the levees that once held back Lake Ponchatrain.
– Rob Buerki
The Most Interesting Place in the World
I saw a woman’s breast for the first time when my father took me to Bourbon Street when I was ten. Still, it wasn’t the debauchery that made me fall in love with New Orleans: it was the fact that two blocks away Stevie Wonder had just finished singing on a brilliantly decorated Mardi Gras float. The people I met in New Orleans were from so many different walks of life (from bayous and parishes and other wonderfully exotic-sounding locales) that I’d often stare at them in wonder for minutes on end. Growing up in New York, I’d seen many tourists look upon my city – and its people – with similar incredulity. But in all my travels, I’ve never felt the awe I felt on that first visit to New Orleans.
– Justin P.B. Gerald
It is 1990 and my second visit to the city of New Orleans. My parents are still sort of bohemian types: my father’s gone down to do some research for an upcoming book, and my mother, a literary agent, is visiting one of her clients, a New Orleanian by the name of Joseph Crevalle. Crevalle – a wild character, a sort of hard-drinking Faulkner type with considerably less talent – has just finished writing a book about the Chicago Cubs’ Class A Peoria farm team (it will be called “The Boys Who Would be Cubs”) and perhaps to prove the merits of his project, he takes us to a minor league game. It’s A Streetcar Named Desire sort of night, hot and muggy with fog and mosquitoes everywhere. The New Orleans Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League play in a grand old stadium built sometime in the 1930’s, and the magic of baseball and Huey Long has never really left the place. Still, it doesn’t take long for my six-year-old self to get a little bored. I head out toward the bullpen with a couple of local kids to play catch. For a moment I look away – I may have been distracted by someone stealing second – and I am beaned in the nose. I start to bleed profusely. In the heat and humidity I ignore the pain; I want to keep on playing, keep on watching. In New Orleans, the blood doesn’t hurt. Later, after the game is over and my nose has been bandaged up, I hike onto the field with my father. My dad steps behind home plate to catch, and for the first time in my life I throw a pitch from a major-league distance: it’s right in there, a strike. I’ve held onto that ball – the strike, the bloody nose, the very essence of New Orleans along with it. When Katrina hit, when that old stadium was most likely underwater, I took the ball out of my desk and examined it. The ball, like the city, is weathered and beaten, a rusted piece of Americana, but when I look at it I somehow believe that New Orleans will make it out alright.
– Jacob Savage
Down and Out in New Orleans
In the spring of my senior year of high school, I accompanied my mother on a business trip to New Orleans. I told her I wanted to visit the city because of a newfound love of Walker Percy. I wanted to roam the same streets that Binx Bolling tread in his cloud of malaise, I explained. My real reason for flying down to New Orleans was far less cerebral: I was in love with a freshman at Tulane.
I had met Will Morang that summer on a month-long backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains. He was the first person from the South that I had ever known well, and he thrilled me for his complete unfamiliarity. He had strange political views (he believed in the death penalty), eating habits (he loved cheesy grits and had never consumed a bagel), and notions for how the sexes should interact (men and women should not be friends, he said, yet he treated all the females on our trip with more respect than any New Yorker I had ever encountered). Will seemed equally fascinated with my Northern-ness; he marveled at my unmasked love of reading and my refusal to bring him snacks when he asked.
When my mother announced that her law firm’s annual retreat would be held in New Orleans, then, I jumped at the chance to see Will. I loved the thought of spending a weekend with him in the exotic, spicy, jazzy city of New Orleans. Sadly, Will wasn’t quite as excited to see me as I was to see him. I sent him an e-mail a few weeks before my visit telling him that I would be coming. He didn’t respond. I called him the night before I left. Much to my relief, he seemed thrilled to see me. I nearly floated onto the airplane, high on thoughts of wandering past stately old Southern homes with Will, chatting and teasing and enjoying his company. I deflated considerably when I phoned Will again upon my arrival in New Orleans. He told me he had a regatta that would take up most of the weekend. So much for my visions of long, romantic ramblings. He would be free on Saturday night, though, and he had bought us tickets to a concert on the Tulane campus.
So, I had Saturday to myself while my mother sat in meetings and Will sailed in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the week after Mardi Gras, and downtown New Orleans was hung-over. Beads were everywhere: in the gutters, on statues, in trees. Even though it was a sunny, springy Saturday, the streets were empty. The only people I saw were staggering around, enjoying the city’s relaxed open container laws.
Seeking reprieve from all this unseemliness, I escaped to the Garden District, home of the beautiful, white columned houses of New Orleans’ heyday. Even in this idyllic neighborhood there was no relief from the city’s underside. A man with no white in his eyes—only red— approached me, sputtering out a request for money. I was so unsettled by the contrast between the opulent homes and the desperate junkie that I immediately returned to my hotel. I slept until it was time to meet Will for dinner.
Seeing Will was, of course, disappointing. Since the summer, he had sheared his hair into an unflattering buzzcut, and he had acquired a sunglasses tan from all that sailing on the Gulf. We ate at a mediocre Mexican restaurant with his two friends, who both lamented the passing of high school – they called it “the best time of their lives.” After a dinner of tacos and my first tequila shot, we took a taxi to the Tulane campus, where we attended the concert for which Will had purchased tickets: OAR. It was the first, but unfortunately not the last, time I heard “Crazy Game of Poker.”
After the concert, Will and I walked around the dark Tulane campus for a while, making awkward conversation. When it soon became clear that we had nothing more to say to each other, Will put me in a taxi. The next day I flew back to New York.