The Big, Easy Surrender (the Thing About New Orleans)

I am a Northern Californian.  Berkeley is in my bones.  I like fecund, overgrown gardens and fog slinking under the Golden Gate.  I like funky cafes, musty bookstores, and trails under redwood trees.  I like people who care enough to recycle, who vote to pay more taxes to help public schools and cover their cars with pithy bumper stickers, people who might put their feelings on placards and chant them until their faces turn red.  I like that guy wearing a yarmulke waving a rainbow flag and that veiled woman of Rwandan-Maori-Norwegian descent.  If I found myself at the grocery wearing paint-splattered jeans and no make-up–hell, if stopped brushing my hair or tattooed my face or dressed like a man, even– I’d probably feel right at home, so I’ll probably always live here in our neighborhood of eclectic characters and friends.  I wouldn’t feel right anywhere else.  

Except, perhaps, New Orleans.  

I say “perhaps” because I can’t quite believe it.  How could I be drawn to such a depressed and classically segregated American city, where some non-rapping white people still use the n-word in casual conversation? What sane person would move to the a place that still hasn’t recovered from or done much to avoid a Katrina redux?  All I can say is that the attraction is not logical. The appeal is visceral, paradoxical, and completely irrational.  In his novel Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins expressed it well when he wrote,

The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week–yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.

I just returned from my fifth trip to the Big Easy.  Somehow I didn’t gain any weight–perhaps because I let that something, that wild, humping je ne sais quoi, have its way. Laissez les bon temps roulez, as they say: Let the good times roll.  In Berkeley, it’s your consciousness knocking but in New Orleans, the shape lurking on the other side of the door is a big wet swampy thing, something dredged from the subconscious, a dream that wants to have its way with you tonight.   

Of course, it did: and when that thing about New Orleans came to get me, I went along willingly.  At first, we took it slow with visits to a few art galleries because sometimes looking at pictures gets you in the mood, if you know what I mean. At a vampire store, I saw a row of mason jars sealed with wax; inside were the bones of fairies (made of real bones and real wings).

At Antieau Gallery (at 927 Royal Street) I loved  Chris Roberts Antieau’s delightfully clever quilted comics, especially this one:

(the collectors)

and this one, here:

(ghosts of birds)

The Shop was another gallery that took me, especially Dave Hind’s landscapes made of recycled aluminum.Want, want, want.

That thing about New Orleans was not exactly humping my leg yet, but it was shooting come-hither looks, so we wandered (that’s the best thing to do in NOLA) and stumbled across Dawn DeDeaux’s perverted (in all senses of the word), artistic interpretation of  John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, an installation that occupies an entire courtyard and several rooms so that when I stumbled in, it was as if I was physically inhabiting the mind of the novel’s protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, where his fantasies and projections were animated and literally projected with sculpture and digital media. There, in the center of the courtyard, was Ignatius’s bed on wagon wheels and the reflection of a digital goddess grinding and bumping at its foot.  A fountain gushed up from the center of the twisted sheets. 

By then, that thing about New Orleans, that swamp creature and Ignatius’s wet dream had cast their spell on me.  We decided to have a drink, found a gaslit bar, and ordered a round, then another, then moved on to the gothic red velvet in One Eyed Jack’s but it was too quiet and we wanted to dance and so (although I didn’t plan on it, had planned to avoid it) we somehow end up on Bourbon Street, against all better judgment (like I said, rationality becomes immaterial), where jewel-toned lights pulses a heartbeat and the black pavement glistens wet and the crowd is always hooting and I found myself bouncing up and down on a dance floor in front of a stage where a young punk screamed Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (hello, hello, hello, how low) and a girl pulled a test tube full of neon red liquid from her cleavage hello and so on, hello, hello, but it was all completely consensual. Con-sensual, you know?  Oh, do it with a southern accent.  Can-sense-you-all.  Don’t you love that word?  I love that word!  Hahahahahah!

Ahem.  Not that I didn’t eat; I overindulged that way too, like everybody else.  Food is always a safe topic.  In NOLA, the first thing you say about a meal was the size of its portion (size does matter). You make plans for lunch at breakfast and at lunch, you make dinner reservations.  It’s all about the flesh: Carnal pleasures. They’re big on creatures in buttery sauce, so it’s no place to go if you’re vegetarian.  Yes, I had alligator (it’s better than chicken).  I had jalepeno grits and shrimp.  I had Antoine’s oysters rockefeller, eggs sardou, escargot, and café brûlot diabolique, brussel sprout salad at Sylvain, Galatoire’s crabmeat sardou and banana bread pudding, Pierre Maspero’s hash and poached eggs.  We went to the Po’Boy festival (where else do they hold a festival for a sandwich?) for deep fried oysters and shrimp remoulade and while we ate, everyone talked about what they had for Thanksgiving–deep-fried turkeys, turducken (chicken stuffed in a duck in a turkey), angels on horseback (a shrimp stuffed in an oyster wrapped in bacon and deep fried) and something my daughter called a “buttacookiecake,” an oreo and a Reese’s peanut butter cup baked inside a chocolate cupcake.  It was wanton and gross but good: it was wantogrossgoo.  I don’t know which is worse, the hangover from the drinks or from the sweet ‘n salty grease.  I feel like a pregnant teenager stuffed inside an old lady fried in lard.  

But in New Orleans, you’re only allowed to lose yourself while you’re chewing, when it’s dark, during Mardi Gras, or when nobody’s looking.  It’s supposed to be temporary; you’re expected to get up, tighten your belt, put on a pressed shirt, and carry on like nothing happened. You’re not supposed to shack up with that hungry humping thing forever.  It’s  just a one-night stand, a wild fling, hazy as a dream, and you’re left, if not with psychological scars, with something like a psychic tattoo, but tomorrow they’ll hose off the sidewalks and paint it all over with a fresh coat of white.

*

Post script:  

Wait!  I didn’t include anything about music!  Click here to hear the real thing,  a spectacular radio station I found when I was up in New Roads.  KPCP plays mostly from the 40′s and 50′s because, according to music man Corey Meyer, “anything older is going to be a scratchy 78–OK once in a while but hard on the ears when we are all accustomed to CD quality.” They don’t play music on Sunday (church?) or Tuesday nights (they air the local school board meetings) and on December 26 they’ll stop playing xmas tunes and go “back to the blues… and a little Zydeco to make it interesting…until Mardi Gras.”)

Annie Had a Baby (Hank Ballard & The Midnights): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psASD3tTCgo&feature=related

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

40 comments

  1. This all sounds deliciously debauched: just the right side of out of control where you come back feeling relaxed and sated, rather than regretful. What a fabulous travel post, and just general post about enjoying life. :)

  2. Now I’m hungry. For all the food you listed here, for travel, for people watching, for life in a city. What a contrast to my humble cabin in the woods where the nearest town boasts 150 people. The way you describe life here is why sometimes I lust for a crowd and have to drive to the city. Of course I then get on ‘people overload’ pretty quick and retreat to the trees. But I enjoy vicariously, here.

    • I will have to poke around some more on your blog to see what you’ve written about where you are. It sounds lovely. Funny thing is I am slightly agoraphobic. Can’t stand large crowds, start to panic. But for some reason, it was all good, even the mosh pit on the dance floor– NOLA must be good medicine for agoraphobia. (But I must admit, I’m having a whole lot of fun sitting here in my chair in my quiet house with a cup of tea!)

  3. This deserves so much attention. You’ve captured New Orleans perfectly. I lived there for a summer and though I was under age for drinking (and thus felt as if I missed half the fun) it was still an amazing place. I want to go back for a week, a month, and just soak the place up, understand it’s heat and rhythm better than before.

    *starry eyed sigh goes here*

  4. elma

    I like your general description of New Orleans and especially the irrational side. Often we travel and we discover wonderful things and landscapes etc. …. but suddenly find ourselves in a world where everything seems different can disconnect from the known world and opens the door to all fantasies and maybe a little sweet madness: one that allows to recharge and regain with pleasure the world we left for a while but no longer quite the same as our view has changed as well. Anyway, I think I’ll change my plane ticket and make a stop over there.
    Thank you for this free trip for us.

    • You’re right– I’m sure part of it is just being out of one’s element, with the chores and the unfinished business out of sight, we can reconnect with fun. But NOLA is something really magical– I do hope you’ll go see! (I didn’t even mention the architecture, the churches, the river boat on the Mississippi, the mule-and-carriage rides, etc.)

  5. I’ve been to New Orleans once and it was unlike anyplace I’d ever been. Excellent post!

  6. Great post! Your descriptions bring the city to life – and make me eager for a road trip. :)

  7. New Orleans flows. Mysterious, Mischievous, Hauntingly addictive. Lived there for a while. Sounds like New Orleans has seeped into you. Nice post

  8. Pingback: The Best of New Orleans Online This Week — GoNOLA.com

  9. Dana

    So amazing what you do with words! It was crazy, good fun! The other gallery was http://www.theshopnola.com

  10. I think the NOLA tourist board should be paying you in liquor and jambalaya, you are certainly making converts out of all of us…

    I’ve wanted to go to New Orleans for ages, wanted to go the summer I went to America for the first time. 2004. But I missed my chance. The vivid darkness is a big draw. The theme of my first book was all about a brush up with the ambiguous world of the spirits. Set in Scotland so less dancing, more glowering and drinking (yes, likely more drinking. Probably about the same amount of fried food, though not as good I’m sure), One of these days I’ll get myself to New Orleans, though I’ll likely enough faint from the humidity.

    • Yes! Free something! The tourist board’s online magazine linked to this essay but alas, I got nothing but readers (which is nothing to cough at, really). I like that “vivid darkness.” I’ll have to go poke around your blog to see what I can find of your first book– I’m intrigued.

  11. You make me want to visit even more than I did before. My daughter and I talked about planning a trip and just never got around to going. I think I’ll have to bring it up again.

    Wonderful, descriptive and alluring post.

  12. Wow Anna, thanks for the revisit to New Orleans (it is now 2 weeks and counting). My girlfriend lived near Berkeley and in New Orleans and now we live in the Asheville NC area. Both Berkeley and Asheville are very similiar in the description you noted. But yes NOLA (French Quarter) is a different tone altogether. We sensed that humping beast following us, as we noted that it felt and looked like Soho in NYC (a city I love). We liked it, but was ready to get back to the mountains and space (much more outdoor adventure that suits us). Maybe being in your mid-fifties, some of the dark, distracted, adventure has left. But we would like to think of ourselves as still being “hip enough” to know its cool to do NOLA. (And yes I had the alligator, but could not get my girl to eat it ):)

    By the way I am still posting images of New Orleans, in my city series. Will probably do so for a while as I go through the many photos taken there.

    • I guess places are like tastes– sounds like you and I and your girlfriends have the same taste in places. (She probably would have liked that alligator, too, if she’d tried it, don’t you think? ;) ) I loved the photos I saw on your blog– I’ll have to go see the new ones!

  13. Azathoth

    Anyone can love a city, and many cities are beloved, but only New Orleans loves you back. She plies you with delectable food, seduces you with music that fills your soul, and fills your eyes with a city that is an art form all on it’s own.

    Come visit. And be prepared if you think you have the stregth to leave–you’ll find yourself stretching it out…another minute here, an hour there….why not take another day…..

    And if you get out, she’ll lurk in your thoughts…..a stray bit of music will suddenly plop you at a table at Cafe du Monse at about two in the morning, with a stray musician wandering by playing aimlessly to himself, utterly oblivious to the fact that anyone’s listening……a meal out will suddenly seem plain and tasteless as you remember a choice morsel…a grand gallery opening will pale in comparison to some random art stuck on the fence at Jackson square….

    And you’ll know that eventually she’ll have you. Eventually, you won’t have to think about what’s going on in New Orleans…..

    Because you’ll live there.

  14. As native of south Louisana I never
    could quite understand what people
    saw in any of it. I suppose they are
    slumming – one of those once in a
    lifetime one night stands, you never
    mention again, and don’t like to
    admit you enjoyed.

    I went once to a writer’s conference
    and stuck around to “enjoy” the city.
    Can’t figure out if I loved it or hated
    it. But one thing is certin. They know
    how to make bloody Maries! The in-
    stant I saw a goth bartender whip
    out a jar of pickled string beans
    and pour in the juice dregs I knew
    these were my kind on people.
    I honestly thought I was the
    only one who did that.

  15. PS. Why is it snowing? I thought I
    was seeing things. Are there holes
    in the ceiling of your Blog or what?

  16. Alice

    For some reason I feel the need to tell everyone I meet about “turducken”: it seems like the last orgiastic gasps of a Collapsing Empire. Great post!

  17. This post made me hungry…and evoked a great deal of wanderlust! Loved the descriptions :)

  18. Oh my GOD, I’m starving now! I’ve never been to New Orleans and in theory I’m a vegetarian, but good grief could I go for some beast in butter sauce right now.

    And it’s 7:48am!

    Your voodoo is strong, my friend.

  19. Oh Anna! You’ve done it again! I’m left panting and craving a cigarette… Such an excellent post. You really have a way with words.

  20. ooooh…jaques-imo’s, uglesich’s, cochon, willie mae’s scotch house, domilise’s, central grocery, bayona, the acme, etc etc etc…i’m drooling. LOVE this city, love this post. continue…

  21. There are few cities in North America which interest me. New York. And New Orleans. Thanks for the tour.

  22. Pingback: riveted « Optic Nervy

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