When I was a teenage girl, one of my favorite songs was a song called New Orleans Ladies by Louisiana’s LeRoux band. I was a senior in high school, and I remember being entranced by a mysterious romantic city next door to me that I had never experienced . My parents thought New Orleans was too dangerous even back then, and we never went with the exception of going to a museum or two on field trips. I was to get my first personal visits with New Orleans in college, and the city … and the song .. became real to me.
I went to a college that drew most of its students from Baton Rouge and New Orleans and small towns all over the Deep South. But, there were lots of New Orleans students, and I had many girlfriends from there. Being a country bumpkin redneck, I had no idea what it would be like to live in a city, and I remember distinctly feeling that they were exotic, worldly people from a world that I could only imagine in my girlish dreams. They were sophisticated with their knowledge of bars and bus routes. They had experienced gender-specific Catholic schools where they wore uniforms and mingling with the opposite sex was an opportunity not a given. They had these beautiful Bronx-like accents that were loud and fun and full of stories that painted pictures of places and things so different from my girlhood home. I was quite enamored with them and their mysterious lives. Names of towns like Metairie, Algiers, Chalmette, Kenner and areas like the West Bank and East Bank peppered their conversations, and I couldn’t wait to see some of these places. They called grocery shopping “making groceries”, and their drinking stories far surpassed my sloe gin experiences with exotic drinks like Hurricanes from Pat O’Brien’s and dancing on Bourbon Street. They didn’t hang in automotive repair shops’ parking lots. They hung out and partied in the Quarter … the Vieux Carre’ … and on magical, mysterious, haunted Bourbon Street.
My first best friend in college was Angel. She was a gymnast from New Orleans and she had an attitude that was feisty, loud and wild. She’d get up grumpy in the morning making no bones about it and not even trying to be nice. For this country girl, that was so attractive. She seemed to know who she was and liked even her shortcomings. We became fast friends. Her boyfriend proposed to her one night in the middle of Bourbon Street while my date and I munched on chicken on a stick from Takee-Outee. It was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen as a young college gal. He got down on one knee in the middle of the street and asked. I don’t really remember what my saucy friend said, but I’m sure she gave him hell. She always did. I loved her for that. I went on to have numerous Crescent City gal pals, and they were all like Angel in that way. Ann … Valerie … Keri …. I love them … I take that back... I adore them. They taught me spicy, feisty and fun. They taught me how to party like I meant it, and they taught me that boys were not a necessity – they are an accessory. They were my first mentors without even knowing it.
I, of course, have been back to New Orleans over the years. As a tourist, I spent most of my time in the French Quarter eating beignets and walking around looking at art and occasionally getting a tarot reading. In college we went after the bars closed in Hammond to take advantage of the late night party on Bourbon Street less than an hour away. But, after I stopped drinking, Bourbon Street lost its draw, and I became more enamored with the food, the culture and the architecture. It’s a lovely ancient city.
New Orleans feels like a European city to me. It’s roots come from Spain and France, and it looks and feels like I imagine those cities in my limited imagination. But, it also has its mysterious dark side. VooDoo has strong roots there, and there are haunted dwellings all over the city. The cemeteries seem spooky with their above ground opulence providing places for ghosts and goblins to hide. A New Orleans cemetery tour is on my list of things to do this year. I was in the Crescent City last weekend, and it was the first time in a long time I was able to walk the French Quarter in the early morning hours. I had the gift of experiencing it in deep fog. New Orleans is beautiful when the sun is out, but it is magical when the fog sets in. The wet of the air hangs on the bricks and cement in shiny droplets and dark, murky puddles. The city that never quits partying rests in the early morning hours. It is quiet. There are a few late night alcoholics sitting on bar stools with whiskey in their hands, but, for the most part the clubs are empty. The street sweepers go about their business cleaning up cups, cigarette butts and Mardi Gras beads off the streets and sidewalks. I walked down Royal Street past Bourbon toward Jackson Square taking in the colorful flowers and Mardi Gras decorations which hung amid the ironwork that adorns most buildings. The broken streets and sidewalks appear to have been disregarded as more importance is placed on the parties and the celebrations that dance upon them. The fog thickened as I got closer to the Mississippi River.
Jessica and Erin were my companions on this trip. They ran the Rock N Roll Half Marathon. Jessica’s Take on New Orleans … Her Pics Below … Her blog here.
Cafe du Monde sat empty. I was really early. Chairs were stacked up on tables except for a couple near the front corner. They weren’t serving yet, so several of us picked up “to go” coffee and beignets in a bag to wait for the half marathon to start. We sat and talked as the city woke up. Gradually, more and more people started to pass by. The manager of Cafe du Monde apologized that many of their servers couldn’t get there because the marathon road closings were getting in their way. But, nobody cares in New Orleans. There is this feeling that there is all the time in the world, and there’s no place to go. Just have some more coffee and another beignet, will ya?
By the time the marathoners started to pass by, the French Quarter was coming to life. Cafe du Monde was serving heavenly beignets and cafe au lait in their traditional thick white mugs. I finished mine and my visit with some folks from Ohio and walked out to the curb to catch my friends as they ran by. I saw all three of my friends in about a 15 minute span, and I walked down the block to stand in front of Jackson Square. The fog was so thick that you couldn’t see the Cathedral at all. The runners approached me from in a fog bank. I would see them emerge one by one as if they were running ghosts passing through the veil. Just as quickly they ran back through the veil on the other side never to be seen again. We were all soaking wet from the fog and the humidity that hung in the air. And, I heard afterwards that many marathoners struggled with the humidity by the end of the race. I was so jealous that I couldn’t be among them, running in a city of fog. The last time I ran the New Orleans race was the year that Katrina hit, destroying much of the race route and changing the landscape of the city. I had hoped to experience it again this year. But, the French Quarter remains. Through all of God’s grace, the enduring romantic character of the French Quarter remains.
I visited New Orleans the December after Katrina hit. Even though the Quarter was not physically damaged, it was devastated. Jackson Square was empty of artists and psychics. Cafe du Monde was only a quarter full. There was very little music from street musicians. I hoped one day it would be back, and, indeed the next year it was. It didn’t take long. The city has a draw. Last weekend, I got to mark off two more Bucket List Louisianne items. I had a muffaletta at Central Grocery, and I walked the French Quarter in the morning. They were both better than I had remembered. It’s Mardi Gras season now. The parades roll. It is a time of celebration. But, honestly, it’s always a time of celebration in New Orleans. I think it is a place where we can all pass through the veil – whether its foggy or not. It’s a place where spirits and psychics and creative folks of all sorts congregate to mingle with earthly souls in the dark of the night and the cover of the mist. You are magical, New Orleans…. I always knew you were.