It’s been 23 years since I left New Orleans, and still, to quote the Eddie De Lange and Louis Alter song of half a century ago, I know what it means to miss “New Orleens.” Oh yeah, I know.
|This old postcard view captures the Pontalba Apartments, built by Baroness Michaela Pontalba, who also convinced city officials to turn Jackson Square into a European-style pleasure garden|
Louis Armstrong sang it more soulfully than I can tell it:
“I know I’m not wrong… this feeling’s gettin’ stronger / The longer, I stay away.”
As have others across the generations who have dashed under the block-long balcony of the Pontalba, North America’s oldest apartment building (1850), to skirt a Jackson Square downpour, I was smitten beyond redemption by languid, decadent New Orleans. Even one-time tourists commonly fall in love with the Crescent City – so named because the Mississippi River wraps so outrageously around it that the sun actually rises on the west bank, and South Rampart Street finds itself upriver of North Rampart.
Those downpours – which can be a mere block long while the sun shines brightly down the street – have carried sorrows ever since, in a death roar, the breached levees of Hurricane Katrina drowned the city two Augusts ago.
|Strip-club lights illuminate Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. In the distance, Hibernia Bank tower lights approximate the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.
But sorrow was no stranger even then. New Orleans knew it well from yellow fever epidemics and Civil War occupation and mournful “jazz funeral” processions, when brass bands en route to the cemetery would play the St. James Infirmary Blues, then cut loose with joyful, high-stepping riffs on the way back home.
On the streets of the French Quarter, and in a few clubs like Preservation Hall, they still play Dixieland jazz, but, to my ear, with not quite the conviction of old. The musicians, and the wounded city, are going through the motions for the tourist trade.
|Legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain is not a national landmark, but comes close. Now 78, he still performs but no longer leads his “Half-Fast Marching Band” in parades|
The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, one of only two U.S. National Landmarks that moves – San Francisco’s cable cars are the other – is running again, and visitors mill anew among the cemetery mausoleums in the New Orleans’s creepy, above-ground “cities of the dead.” Habitués of Gallatoire’s Restaurant (founded 1897) are busy buttering crunchy French bread to dip into their sauce rémoulade over shrimp. Others agreeably wait their turn for a table at Antoine’s (1840), gaily sprinkle Tabasco sauce onto eggs à la hussarde and sip brandy milk punch during breakfast at Brennan’s (1946), guzzle sweet and potent “hurricane” drinks in plastic souvenir glasses at Pat O’Brien’s bar (1933), and warily check out gris-gris dolls on Dumaine Street at New Orleans’s Historic Voodoo Museum. (I’m not sure when that place opened; I’ll let you go in and ask.)
|This was what the floodwaters loosed by broken levees during Hurricane Katrina left behind in the Lower Ninth Ward|
But sadness hovers still. A third of the people who fled in a hurry after Katrina remain elsewhere and are not likely to be back. Businesses by the hundreds, large and small, are gone as well, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward – the city’s poorest district – which Katrina floodwaters obliterated down to cinder blocks and a few staircases that lead to nowhere.
As my middle daughter, Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, wrote in an article about “the Forgotten People of New Orleans” in the December 2007 Journal of American History, “As the weeks passed and the water drained away, rotting corpses, shattered houses, and muck-caked tricycles rested in the silence.” A Tulane University graduate in history, Juliette, like the rest of the family, had lived in and loved New Orleans, which we all likened to America’s Paris, or at least Marseilles.
The Lower Ninth Ward is a wasteland still. Relief tents remain all over town, and you see kindhearted volunteers from across America still hammering and drywalling and whistling optimistic tunes. New Orleanians parade and stage festivals again, but not more of them than there are days in the year as they once did. But the City That Care Forgot may never again be the place where laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll! – was a way of life. Cares blew in with Katrina and stayed.
|Ronnie Virgets prepares to indulge in a favorite New Orleans activity – eating, in this case oysters (he pronounces it “ER-sters”) on the half shell – at Casamento’s Seafood Restaurant
Nor, any longer, does New Orleans “simmer in its isolation” as my friend, the legendary New Orleans raconteur and racetrack regular Ronnie Virgets, once put it. Ronnie lost everything in Katrina, most poignantly a lifetime of wonderful essay scripts and TV commentary tapes, and barely escaped with his life. He was among those rescued from the Interstate-10 highway overpass above the deluge.
New Orleans has been changed in other, subtle ways. The arrival of northern transplants like me, the imposition of syndicated radio formats and TV anchorpeople from Illinois and Oklahoma and the like, and the influx of contractors and aid workers – including many Latinos into a city that had known very few of them – have overwhelmed many of the city’s cherished idiosyncrasies, including these:
- Nicknames like “Moon” (Landrieu, a mayor), “Pud” (Jones a legendary jazz musician), and “Ruthie the Duck Girl,” (a French Quarter wanderer). In New Orleans, “You don’t want your friends’ children to call you by your first name, but ‘Mr. Marrero’ or “Mrs. Schexsnaidre’ seems too formal,” writes S. Frederick Starr in a book I will describe later. “So you become ‘Mr. Pud’ or ‘Mrs. Banana.’”
- Strong coffee laced with chicory – an herb so bitter that New Orleans’s brew must be served with frothy milk to be palatable.
|The elegant Garden District, where many sugar plantation owners built homes in the 1800s, came through Katrina with relatively minor damage|
“Yat” accents (as in “Where Y’at?) that sound more Brooklyn, New Yorky, than French or deep southern. In the blue-collar West Bank across the Mississippi from New Orleans’s elegant Garden District, people “woik” rather than work, change the “earl” in their automobiles, and “make groceries” at the Piggly Wiggly store, sometimes on the day that they pronounce as “Sundi.” They don’t call it New ORR-lee-uns, as does the Uptown crowd, or New ORR-lins the way tourists and I do, or N’Awlins, as many black folks in town prefer. In Harvey and Gretna and Marrero on the West Bank, it’s “New-WALL-yunz.” And by the way, nobody anywhere in town, save for some executive chefs and university dandies, speaks French any more. Nor is New Orleans “Cajun” French. Acadian French is spoken well to the west, cher, in the bayou country of Southwest Louisiana.
|The long causeway between New Orleans and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain used to be more of a commuter route than it is today.|
Those streets that wind so crazily with the curve of the river that, try as you might, you can’t go east or south or north or west. You can get somewhere only by heading river-bound or lake-bound – the lake being Pontchartrain, a brackish body second in size among America’s saltwater lakes to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The world’s longest causeway over water runs 38.5 kilometers from New Orleans to Pontchartrain’s woodsy North Shore, to which thousands of people from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes scrambled ahead of Katrina. Many, many stayed put, congesting highways and shopping centers and schools.
|Spearmint is one of the best-selling flavors of New Orleans sno-balls, not to be confused with sno-cones. Sno-cones are made with crushed ice; special machines shave the ice for sno-ball|
A cardiac disaster of a diet, including fried-oyster “po-boy” sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise; praline candy that is little more than crystallized sugar, and “sno-ball” shaved ice cones doused in sticky-sweet flavored syrups.
(Gastronomic aside: Elsewhere in America, people talk about the weather. In New Orleans, people talk about food. There’s an old saying in town: “When you go to breakfast, you talk about lunch and think about dinner.” Even basic peasant food like slow-cooked red beans and sausage over rice is so delectable that people travel hundreds of kilometers to taste it. I know that I do, every chance I get. Ask me about muffulettas sometime.)
And as long as I’m interrupting myself, I should note that that jaunty chapeaux that you see in my photo is no “cowboy hat.” Having stuck a fleur-de-lis, the lily-flower symbol of New Orleans, smack in the front of it, I prefer to think of it as my “Louisiana swamp hat.”
But bruised, diminished, and dejected though it is, New Orleans is still seductive, still a mélange of international backgrounds and tastes and sounds, still a “checkerboard city” where blacks and whites and now Hispanics live cheek by jowl, often eying each other warily but mixing like long-lost relatives at a family reunion any time there’s a festival or parade.
The Queen City of the South seemed destined to be colorful. Peaceful Choctaw Indians eked out a living on the little high ground they could find above steamy, mosquito- and gator-infested swamps until the remnants of a Spanish expedition passed by in retreat from the upper Mississippi in the 1500s. More than a century later, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed the length of the river from the Great Lakes, came upon the fertile land near the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed it – and all the territory drained by the Mississippi clear to Canada – for France. He named it all “Louisiana” in honor of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Two other sieurs (sirs), Bienville and Iberville, founded and named the first settlement, La Nouvelle Orléans – New Orleans – for which they are remembered with street names in the French Quarter.
|Fire destroyed much of the French Quarter during the 38 years of Spanish rule in the late 1700s. Rebuilding ushered in the Spanish style, including ornate wrought-iron balconies
That little quadrant of narrow streets; lacy, wrought-iron balconies; beer halls and imitation-jazz joints; fine-art galleries as well as topless/bottomless tourist traps is less French today than Spanish in architecture, owing to the days when Spain ran the town in the 1700s before turning it back to France. Then in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte gave up on his colonial Louisiana outpost as well. For a territory that instantly doubled the size of their young country, Americans paid $11 million in U.S. bonds.
So you see, New Orleans drips with history as well as plump drops of tropical rain. And a lot has transpired since rowdy Americans moved in: the rise to prominence and wealth of mixed-race “Creoles of color” despite the thriving trade in black African slaves at Congo Square; Yankee occupation during our civil war; the growth of brazenly corrupt political machines – white and black; an oil boom more than 160 kilometers downriver, out in the Gulf of Mexico, for which Orleans and surrounding parishes supplied most of the boats and crews and gear.
|Cotton was king in the Deep South in the 19th century, and New Orleans was a boom port. In the first half of that century, one of the imports was human beings during the slave trade
Eventually someone figured a way to sink pilings into the city’s soupy soil. That made possible office towers and chain hotels and the mega-enormous Superdome stadium, whose squalor as the Hurricane Katrina evacuation site in 2006 earned the city worldwide disdain.
Jazz was a back-o’-town New Orleans creation, too, though most artists had to go to New York or Chicago or Nashville to find someone with the money and studio to record it. Jazz began as music of the streets and small clubs. The first sensational personas of the sound were Buddy Bolden and his African-American ensemble in 1895. But plenty of white musicians, especially Italian and Sicilian immigrants, also played “ratty music,” “gut bucket,” and “ragtime,” as they called it, with flair and distinction.
|New Orleans Dixieland-style jazz used to be a fixture in clubs through the French Quarter. But as tastes change, one can find everything from country to heavy metal there as well|
This improvisational, unscripted style of music, where musicians often do not read from a sheet but memorize their parts and embellish them in wild solos, was quite different from the intricately scripted ragtime of W.C. Handy up the Mississippi. Many Dixieland-jazz musicians were and are superb readers of music, but the “faking” style became so popular that some skilled players had to “unskill” themselves and learn to improvise.
And let us not dare to omit Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of New Orleans’s month-long Carnival, a phantasmic celebration unmatched in North America. That Tuesday is “fat” because it’s the last day before the forty-day Christian Lent, with a thin tie to the ancient times when a fatted calf was slaughtered and everyone feasted while the feasting was good.
In New Orleans (and Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, which stage smaller Mardi Gras fests), this thin pretext for a party morphed into amazing pageantries and spectacular overindulgences that end precisely at Mardi Gras midnight, upon which the city turns magically somber – and clean – for the Catholic Ash Wednesday holiday.
|This photo gives you a good idea of the time and expense involved in preparing Mardi Gras floats and costumes. Some floats become crowd favorites and reappear almost unchanged every year
Anyone who has absorbed America’s greatest free show will describe the elaborate New Orleans Carnival parades and floats – some of them three decks high and blindingly illuminated – with fanciful themes such as “Gypsy Revelers”; masked riders throwing cheap beads and doubloons and other trifles; elegant coronation balls; several degrees of naughty and flamboyant displays of French Quarter nudity; a separate “gay Mardi Gras,” also in the French Quarter, where it’s not unusual to see such creative triumphs as a marching box of Crayola crayons; and “truck parades, where ordinary folk deck out flatbed vehicles in their neighborhoods, putter along behind the official processions, and toss out used beads and trinkets from yesteryear.
The organizations, called “krewes,” including Bacchus, Endymion, Zeus, and Orpheus, that sponsor the most lavish Carnival processions, love to flaunt Homeric symbolism. They fund every shred of their extravaganzas, down to paying the marching bands and flambeaux carriers whose torches brighten the path for the nighttime parades.
|Masked riders prepare to toss trinkets to the crowd from an elaborate Carnival float. In the early days, mules pulled the floats. Now, tractors or small trucks do|
My particular fascination with Mardi Gras stems from the make-believe aspect of it all – the suspension of ordinary mature reason and refinement, and the eagerness of grown adults to engage in dress-up childs’ play. Almost from the moment that next year’s Mardi Gras ends, at midnight February 24, krewes will set to planning, building and redecorating floats, and picking their fantasy kings, queens, dukes, and masked parade captains and riders for the 2010 month-long Carnival season. And every detail will be eagerly recorded in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper and in broadcast reports. Recession? Foreign wars? Who cares?! Muses – one of the few all-female Krewes – is announcing its parade theme! (It would be hard to top “Muses Reach the Terrible Twos” from 2002).
One prominent citizen, usually a wealthy businessman, gladly slips into tights and a crown and a bejeweled jacket to ride the streets of New Orleans as Rex, King of Mardi Gras. The exact date moves around between early February – when even a rare snowflake is possible in New Orleans – and springlike early March. The fluctuation is due to the wanderings of Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before the ever-moving Easter Holiday.
|A New Orleans business leader may be a reserved and private person. But if he’s – and it’s always a man – chosen to be Rex, King of Carnival, he leads the city in revelry for a day
“Hail, Rex!,” the masses will shout. And, more cravenly and often, “Throw me somethin’, mistuh,” with arms held high in hopes of snagging beads, doubloons, a cheap plastic cup, or a prized Krewe of Zulu painted coconut. The time-honored best strategy for bringing home booty is to plant an adorable toddler or a busty beauty on a ladder along the parade route.
If you thought you had business in New Orleans, Louisiana, next February 24th, you don’t. Half the city will be out on the streets in colorful masks and bizarre costumes, parading and picnicking and drinking – it’s allowed from plastic containers, any day of the year – and hollering for beads. The other half will be out of town, avoiding the tumult.
“Mardi Gras is the best thing for the psyche since the long defunct but now partially resurrected local soft drink, Dr. Nut,” wrote Frederick Starr in New Orleans Unmasqued, a series of insightful vignettes that is one of my treasured possessions. Already a fine clarinetist in Cincinnati, Ohio, Starr was riding the riverboats and playing his horn at age 16, all the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. He ended up there and was writing New Orleans Unmasqued as a Tulane University vice president when I was there in the early 1980s.
Check out the rest of his paragraph about Mardi Gras:
“Is it not vulgar and tasteless nonetheless? Some learned professors of revelry answer yes, yes, a thousand times yes. They wallow in the sleaziness of the streets, the tawdry masques, the drunkenness. All vulgarity is not equal, they say. Mardi Gras is the genuine article, true-life vulgarity rather than the fake and sanitized version dished up to American homes by television. It’s real, and therefore good.”
Or if not good, still a useful release from the daily woe in a city that care forgot but has lately visited too often.
Have you seen a street spectacle comparable to Mardi Gras? Carnival in Rio, perhaps? Tell me about it.
Gris-gris. Voodoo charms or talismans. They are usually small cloth bags, sometimes made in Voodoo rituals when the bags are filled with herbs and spooky stuff like hair and bone bits. Louisiana Voodoo is a folk religion, steeped in the traditions of Africa and French Haiti, and full of mysterious rituals. Having a gris-gris handy is supposed to keep evil spirits and bad luck away. However, “putting on the gris-gris” is said to have just the opposite effect. It casts a spell on the unsuspecting.
Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.
Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.
Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.