What It Means To Miss New Orleans
September 1, 2005
All week we’ve been watching the death of a great old city. We imagine another city, newer and less peculiar, will arise in its place. The new city may be great, but I have this sinking drowning feeling it will never be quite the same non-toxic gumbo again.
For people from outside, it was a great place to party and eat food that is way too rich. For the folks who live there, it’s more complicated than that – it’s home. Eighty-five percent of them were born there, and they’re not going anywhere, so the newscasters might as well get over this idea they’re going to move the city somewhere else.
It’s not going to happen. New Orleans is the opposite of America, and we must hold onto places that are the opposite of us. New Orleans is not fast or energetic or efficient, not a go-get-‘em town, not a Calvinist, well-ordered, well-designed city at all. It’s slow, lazy, sleepy, sweaty, hot, wet, lazy, and exotic. It’s Catholic, Protestant, hedonist, black, white, and Creole, and several other things besides. Decay is embraced and admired. It’s the tropics, the Caribbean, a stew of Africa and Spain and France and the Cajun country. It’s the least stereotypically American of all our cities, and for many of us, the most lovely.
I’m not the only one who has conducted a love affair with that city. Sieur de Bienville thought it was a swell place too, when he named it the capital of French America. He had the sense to build his town on the high ground where the French Quarter stands today.
Here are 22 reasons America needs New Orleans, our national capital of eccentricity:
1. The turtle soup at Galatoire’s is presented in a white porcelain tureen, then ladled into your bowl by a waiter who reveals with a wicked smile that the turtle’s name was “Fred.”
2. The hats in Fleur de Paris Hat Shop on Royal Street are perfectly frivolous and ridiculous, beautiful visions of silk and lace.
3. Nowhere else in the country do so many Catholic churches co-exist peacefully with so many voodoo shops.
4. If you are a grown man, this is the only place in America where you can step off an airplane, and be guaranteed that within thirty minutes a respectable woman unknown to you will call you “baby.” As in, “how you doin’, baby!” If you are a grown woman, you will be called “darlin,” whether you are the least bit darlin or not.
5. The beads of sweat on the unlined face of the conductor on the St. Charles streetcar.
6. Mardi Gras beads, but only the ones you catch yourself, thrown by an actual masker on a float. The ones that hit the ground don’t count unless they bounced off your hand or arm first.
7. There’s a wonderful bike path that winds along the top of the levee from near Audubon Park, a long way towards Baton Rouge. You can ride along feeling the moist breeze in your face while you speculate on the curious fact that the city is actually below the level of the mighty Mississippi.
8. The Lucky Dog is a venerated local frankfurter that has come a long way, culinarily speaking, from the days when Ignatius J. Reilly peddled them to tourists in “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Now they are really good, especially if it is four a.m. and you are really hungry.
9. I once met Thelma Toole, mother of John Kennedy Toole, author of “A Confederacy of Dunces,” who asked if I would buy her a “very expensive meal at the finest restaurant.” This lady rolled her R’s like an 1860's stage actress to indicate her intellectual superiority to the rest of us. I took her to the restaurant of her choice, and by evening’s end she had all the waiters gathered at our table, spellbound by stories of “Kenny.” “My son was a genius, with a large and oddly-shaped head!” she boomed. Imagine what other great books Kenny might have written, she said, had he not killed himself in a car on that beach in Biloxi!
10. Every Twelfth Night, local historian and Mardi Gras curator Henri Schindler holds a magnificent masked ball on the second floor of the Napoleon House, at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis. White curtains blow in and out of the large empty rooms as masked figures glide past on a cushion of mystery.
11. Locals go to Maple Leaf and Tipitina’s to hear music. Also to Frenchmen Street - a cluster of ten or twelve small bars and clubs featuring, on any given night, ten or twelve kinds of music, about eight of which will be dependably funky. (The other four will be too loud). Usually at the better places there’s a Neville involved, or a Marsalis.
12. My friend and real estate agent, Martha Ann Samuels, revealed to me the actual location of Stanley and Blanche’s house on Elysian Fields Avenue, a secret she learned from Tennessee Williams himself when she helped him buy a condo in the Quarter. (I’m not telling.)
13. Oyster loaf at Casamento’s on Magazine Street. The crunchy local French bread showers crumbs down upon your hands. Each bite contains bread, a thick spread of mayo, and the delectable local bivalve, breaded and brilliantly fried. Casamento’s closes down for the summer, because oysters are better other times of the year.
14. At JazzFest, citizens happily stand in long lines in the hot blazing sun for a chance to eat crawfish bread, white boudin sausage, and alligator gumbo, to the thump of Rockin’ Dopsy from the Congo Square stage. (Could someone please put the JazzFest committee in charge of the Superdome?)
15. Stand at the foot of Ursulines Street and watch a huge oceangoing ship slide by, above the level of your head. Ponder the difference in relative elevations.
16. Along the promenade where the river passes Jackson Square, tourists still fall for one of the oldest New Orleans scams. A friendly fellow proposes that for a dollar he can tell you where you got them shoes. When you agree to the bet, he says, “You got them shoes on your feet!” He gets to keep the dollar.
17. The only airport named for a jazz trumpeter, the indelible Louis Armstrong.
18. In the Confederate Museum near Lee Circle is a crown of thorns said to have been woven by Pope Pius IX himself, and sent as a gift to Jefferson Davis while he was imprisoned shortly after the Civil War. For me, this artifact represents the high-water mark of Southern absurdity, and must be preserved for those future generations who simply will not believe it.
19. Every Thursday night at Donna’s on Rampart Street, Tom McDermott plays the fastest, wildest ragtime and Brazilian and stride piano you’ve ever heard. It’s scary how fast his fingers move when he gets going. His feet come up off the floor.
20. Rich people live on the high ground. Poorer people live on the low ground. This week, some of the rich folks’ houses got wet, too.
21. Piety Street is one block over from Desire. Not a long walk at all.
22. On a foggy night the moon grows fat and full, and hangs in the sky above the big old river. It pours light on the water and makes a magical brown glitter that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The water is the reason the city is there. The full moon pulls the tides into Lake Pontchartrain.
23. The sanitation department of New Orleans is among the finest in the nation. Their work at Mardi Gras is legendary. Can we please get this water out of here so they can get to work on this mess? The sooner, the better.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Mark Childress. This article first appeared in the New York Times. All Rights Reserved.