“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place. Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short. It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of South Louisiana in words and try to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is. It is home.” –Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic
There is a magic to New Orleans that cannot be put down in words–it must be lived. On Saturday, R and I woke up a little later than planned and got dressed to go see the mythic French Quarter. As we walked down the street to catch the Street Car, the sun was warm and a cool breeze sifted through our hair. We climbed onto the full car and rattled down St. Charles. As my curls tangled through the open window, whipped in the sun, I drank in more of the beautiful architecture. R, being the girl she is, struck up a conversation with a lost couple next to us. They asked where to get off for Lafayette Square and she directed them, asking what they were up to. They told us there was a festival, so we decided to get off with them and see what was out there. We wandered through booths and heard a little music. R told me “I love a good festival!” and that summarizes New Orleans well. We got breakfast–a beer for R and the best pina colada on earth for me–and walked on. (One of the strangest, and most enjoyable aspects of New Orleans was the ability to drink on the streets. It never felt normal to get a drink to go, but it was wonderful!)
R wanted me to see a Second Line, so we walked to City Hall for the Occupy NOLA protest, listening for the band. As we sipped and watched, R saw some of her friends from school, who stopped to chat for a moment. They told us that the band could not be booked, and no Second Line was coming, but they were heading our direction, so we joined them. We were accidental protestors. “This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants!” she said with a wide grin. Walking with the protestors was surreal and we were glad to have alcohol on our side. A young girl rode on her parent’s shoulders on the outskirts, taking in the scene. Signs were everywhere, all angry about something different. A woman marched in front of us with a sign on her backpack reading, “3 degrees, 2 jobs, and I can’t sell my house. I’m tired and angry.” A drummer walked next to us for a block, flanked by a saxophone player, as people shouted “This is what democracy looks like.” As we entered the Quarter, we broke free and left behind the shouts of unrest.
We stopped in a stately hotel, cool behind its white pillars, and glimpsed the slowly turning Carousel that made up the bar. After the pit stop, we strolled the streets, passing galleries and shops and a cat in a window. We wandered the historic streets, older than the stars and stripes. The corners bore tiled signs, proclaiming the names the streets were known as under Spanish rule. Stone and brick sidewalks turn into cobbled alleys, old shuttered doors bright and warm. We wound down to Jackson Square, arriving just as horns began to echo. We were surprised by a Second Line! We stopped to watch, as the band approached, and clapped as the bride and groom followed. We walked past the artists, work strewn on tables and pinned on fence bars, and the fortune tellers, browning in the autumn sun. Skinny streets with beautifully old names crisscrossed through history and we wound up next to the mule-drawn carriages. Promised a cheap ride if we joined strangers, we toured the Quarter by carriage, listening to tidbits of history and lore, seeing the oldest bar in America (Jean Lafittes Black Smith Shop), the only business open during Katrina (Johnny White’s), and an elementary school just off Bourbon Street. Back at Jackson Square, we admired Saint Louis Cathedral, popping in for a look around and a homily about economic justice. We walked back past the art vendors, enamored with a collection of bird paintings, and then headed for lunch.
We entered an almost empty dining room at the Gumbo Shop, which I would have walked right past if R hadn’t stopped me. We entered the cool restaurant, seated next to the window where we watched a large woman, dressed all in red, clean up her keyboard and seat for the day. R ordered gumbo and I enjoyed my first po’ boy after we shared an order of alligator sausage. It was all new, steps away from all that I know and have ever experienced, and it was delicious–just like the city itself. Full, hydrated, and content, we left our first real meal of the day for more walking. Our feet had grown tired and we had not drunk nearly enough for a day in the Quarter, so we made our way down Bourbon in and into Pat O’Brien’s, where we would stay for much longer than we intended.
In the dark, smoky piano bar, we found an empty table near the stage and sat down with my first hurricane. Sipping and singing, we watched tables fill and empty and fill again. We heard some songs three or four times, and grew excited when a new one was requested. We were mesmerized by their fingers, pounding and flying, effortlessly creating every song we threw at them. The players cycled through, as did our drinks, and we sang on. Finally R’s roommate joined us, which called for another round of drinks, and shouted our day’s journey to her over the music. Eventually we tottered our way out, squeezing between crowded tables, and found that it had grown dark outside as well. We walked to the car, taking Bourbon just to say that I did, and slowly drove away from the Quarter, just beginning to pick up for the night. We listened to her roommate’s day, filled in details of ours, and decided some food was in order. We drove through Rally’s, another new taste, though much more familiar than alligator. We limped home, tired and hungry, and snuggled in for a little television before sleep.
At the end of the day, it felt like we had live a week. It felt forever ago that we climbed onto the Street Car, and we crammed as much into a day in the French Quarter as possible. I got to see and taste the city, breathe in the pounding heart of New Orleans. It is a place of history, rich in humanity. The streets ring, sing right along with the brass bands marching. People come to perform, to dance and play, to paint and predict. People come to where the life is. For one day, I was one of the people who came to the Quarter, one of the pulses creating the beat of the street.
“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.” –John Updike