Last week, the site’s Professor Fury took a trip to New Orleans, and wrote prose snapshots of the experience. On 2 July, I drove down to the Crescent City for my first multi-day excursion there since pre-Katrina times, and stayed—for the first time—in a French Quarter hotel.
Not only did Fury stay in the same hotel I stayed in, he also visited the same high-ceilinged, close-quarters bookstore I loitered in to escape the humidity. Our footprints probably crisscrossed on Bourbon Street—the Prince Conti Hotel’s a half-block from the madness—on several occasions.
So, I’m beginning to feel like the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, who is trying to catch up with his impostor.
It’s worth noting that the protagonist’s name is Philip Roth, because I often felt that weekend that I was trying to keep up with an earlier, less world-weary version of myself. Two nights before driving down, I made a detailed itinerary, with careful driving directions to each place from my hotel. Although I drew up plans to dine at Galatoire’s and Jacques-Imo’s for the first time, the list featured more retreads than new experiences—a return to Longue Vue, my favorite garden in North America; a sushi joint on Bienville that I’d last eaten at on December 31, 1999, when Jorge and I surveyed the Y2K craziness with silly, whiskey-smeared smiles; daily beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde on Decatur; the Audubon Zoo, last visited with an old girlfriend; the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, which I visit every time I go to the city.
The one real difference was that I’d be staying at the Prince Conti Hotel, smack dab in the Quarter. Usually, I go to the Quarter for specific things—a concert at Preservation Hall, a mid-afternoon stroll through the French Market, the aforementioned breakfast of pure, luxurious joy—and then get out. I naively thought of it as a site primarily for drunken frat boys and the girls that love them.
So, I planned a nostalgia fest. Nature had other plans.
The lightning strikes and sheets of rain started just as I merged from I-55 South to I-10 East, about 45 minutes from New Orleans. A good number of the things I’d planned to do were outdoors, and the thunderclouds proceeded to make these things impossible. I arrived at NOMA to find that the power has gone out in the building, and that they were closing the sculpture garden early that day as a result. Longue Vue seemed like a lot less fun with torrential rain involved. The zoo was out, too, if the rain didn’t stop.
It did stop, intermittently. Just not enough for me to seriously consider doing half of what was on my list.
I understood, after watching the Weather Channel in the hotel room’s TV, that I’d better get used to rain if I was going to enjoy the city that weekend. That dampened my spirits. Walking past Galatoire’s that afternoon, and discovering that the restaurant was closed for the 4th of July weekend, made me sulk even further. (I should have called ahead of time, but still…) Realizing that the ever-present rain didn’t actually cool things off, but instead made the humidity more noticeable, made me grind my teeth.
Terrific. Well, if I couldn’t beat the rain, I could at least walk through it in a place that had lots of awnings, balconies, and other coverings. So, that’s how I ended up spending my time almost entirely in the Vieux Carré.
Every morning started at Café du Monde. Always crowded, always serenaded by blues guitarists on the sidewalk, always waitstaffed by Korean and Vietnamese immigrants with sassy mouths, always protected from the rain, it’s the perfect place to people-watch. Monday after breakfast, I watched the ships and barges hover past—from Decatur Street, you’re looking up at the ships, which is slightly unsettling—and followed the riverwalk until I came to the Audubon’s Aquarium. I had never been to it, so I went. I quickly found that it’s one of the airiest, most open, and most colorful aquariums I had visited, and wondered why I’d never bothered to check it out before.
This wondering/wandering continued all weekend. I heard a seven-piece horn section hold forth in front of St. Louis Cathedral on Chartres, and decided, what the hell, I’ll go inside to hear the full concert. The music was mostly patriotic scores—the band was part of the New Orleans Navy Band—so I chalked that up as a loss. But the interior, golden, arched, modern without being cold, was gorgeous; I’d never bothered to actually enter the church. I stumbled into Kaboom Books, a used bookstore where I found a rare Stephen Dixon novel (Quite Contrary) that I hadn’t read. The conversation between the bookstore owner and a regular was lively, concerned with the fate of the city and all the outsiders snapping up cheap post-Katrina real estate who “basically think this is Houston.”
The locals discussed the hurricane, the city’s political maneuvers, and arrivistes in equally contemptuous terms. It’s hard to blame them—the Ninth Ward still looks dreadful, with full houses’ worth of trash still on the streets (not the sidewalks, but the streets) a full ten months after Katrina; outsiders buy up real estate but seem blissfully ignorant of the city’s culture—but the city needs outsiders at this point. I enjoyed the Quarter so much this time because it wasn’t as packed as I found it pre-Katrina but, since tourism has been central to the New Orleans economy for decades, the lack of flesh isn’t a good thing. There’s anxiety in the voices of shop owners, fortune tellers, and sidewalk philosophers that I haven’t heard before.
Still, I think the Quarter—if not the whole city—is recovering. Its flirty, flinty friendliness still thrives. On Sunday afternoon, I strolled past a roly-poly man grilling hamburgers on the sidewalk. “Hey sweetie,” he said, “you hungry? Want a burger?”
“Um, sure,” I said.
“Good. I’m cooking up cheeseburgers for anyone who buys a drink. It can be a coke or a water; it don’t have to be alcoholic.”
And that’s how I ended up in a gay bar—ahem, a “leather/Levi bar”—ordering a soda on a hot, muggy afternoon. I should’ve known; the name of the place is Rawhide. Dressed in schlumpy blue t-shirt, black sneakers, and baggy jeans, and with more flab than abs, there’s no way I could have passed as gay, and the griller had to know I was straight. But that’s the New Orleans way—entice ‘em with food, and maybe they’ll shape-shift for you, if only for a night.
It didn’t work. Still, I’m so glad to know that loose, sexy, weird mentality is still alive and well.