WEDNESDAY, JUNE 16.
Left my house ungodly early this morning to fly to N E W O R L E A N S!!!
I was up too late packing to be awake during my 7 am flight, but I was pretty alert by the time we stopped in Birmingham for about half an hour to let more passengers on board. Two steel magnolias sat next to me and were excited to hear I was going to the Big Easy for the first time; one of them tried to recommend bars for me but was admonished by the other: “Now, she is too young!” “Oh, but Gary would take good care of her!”… and then they dissolved into laughter.
I was crazy excited to start the “frontier” leg of my summer journey, and had no idea what to expect from New Orleans. But with my trusty travel buddy Andy I knew for sure that it would be a blast, and these blonde ladies only stirred my anticipation.
We landed and I hurried off the plane to find Bigger Pink, a suitcase even larger and pinker than my other one, which I had checked because, with Southwest, Bags Fly Free! I tried not to die of excitement while I waited for Andy’s plane from St. Louis to land, and then he ARRIVED and it was a grand reunion!!!
If I thought it was hot walking out of the hotel in Boston, I was wrong. That was like warm, soothing bath water. Walking out into New Orleans was like entering Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace with no hope that faith would save us. The humidity was at 90%. It was bad.
We took a cab to the hotel, which was located right in the heart of the French Quarter. It was really nice, even if the lobby was trying a little too hard to be lounge-tastic, and our floor was dedicated to jazz legend and clarinet god Benny Goodman.
Andy and I dove right into the city by walking down infamous Bourbon Street. We were silent for a bit, taking in the fact that our surroundings looked and felt like nowhere else either of us had ever been. It was sun-drenched and quiet, with dulled neon signs advertising liquor and ladies below wrought iron balconies. Every few steps we’d pass a bar with music blaring, though no one was inside. There was a cluster of sex shops with very busty mannequins lined up in the windows.
Andy turned to me.
“It’s like a hangover out here.”
That was it, precisely. There were hints of the previous evening’s debauchery, but the street looked feeble in the bright afternoon. Bourbon Street is meant to be seen at night; like one of its heavily made-up stripers, it’s much less enticing up-close in the daylight.
It still managed to intimidate, however. The blatancy of the establishments was breath-taking: This is where tourists get very drunk, this is where they watch people take their clothes off, this is where they buy very small souvenir underwear. Bourbon Street’s attitude was best expressed by one of its own neon signs, which read, not especially reassuringly, “Relax. It’s Just Sex.”
Simultaneously under- and overwhelmed, we ducked into an alley leading to a guidebook-recommended restaurant, The Gumbo Shop. The heat led us to pass on the lovely outdoor seating, and we slid into a corner table in the high-ceilinged dining room. The place felt lushly tropical, with plant-frond fans turning lazily overhead as waiters refilled water glasses beaded with sweat. It felt like Havana. I started to relax.
We went creole authentic with our orders, with a catfish po’boy for me and gumbo for Andy. Our food was preceded by a crusty baguette wrapped in wax paper and simply laid on the table, which, paired with the décor, made me feel like a French colonial on a Caribbean plantation. It was a great meal, and it was with some reluctance that I stepped back into surreality.
Andy and I threaded through the Quarter, down to Jackson Square. The park was a lovely arrangement of big-leafed plants and benches surrounding a statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The gleaming white St. Louis Cathedral across the street looked a little like Cinderella’s Castle. Outside the park, artists were selling their paintings next to donkey-drawn carriages awaiting passengers. There were lots of tourists milling about, sweating, and nearly as many street musicians seeking their spare change. Outside the Café du Monde there was a man strutting with a tuba, which he was playing badly. It was all very charming, and I began to feel more comfortable.
We toured the Pontalba apartment museum, the 1850 House. Afterward, we walked along the Mississippi River; it was wide and brown and beautiful. We stood on the dock and dipped toes in the famous waterway, looking upriver toward Andy’s home in St. Louis. A very affectionate couple cuddled nearby. Andy successfully fended off a man seeking to shine his shoes, and we headed back to the air conditioned hotel, passing the bright red paddle wheel boats.
There’s a free ferry that crosses the river from the base of Canal Street, and I had wanted to ride it during the sunset. I mistimed it, though, and poor Andy ended up following me at a break-neck speed down the road only to discover that the boat had already left. I pouted, sweating, for a few minutes, until Andy rightly convinced me that the ride would be just as nice as the light was fading. (He’s very patient with me.) The view of the skyline was beautiful as we pulled away, and I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a breeze so much.
The city was waking up during the return trip, one pinprick of light at a time. We disembarked, passed Harrah’s casino, and headed to the source of the neon glow: Bourbon Street.
It was a different world. Throngs of people illuminated by bar signs streamed up and down the road, which was closed to car traffic. Overhead, people leaned over balcony railings, catcalling to passersby and rewarding some – the lucky? the unlucky? – by flinging plastic beaded necklaces at their feet. One balcony, above a strip club, was outfitted with a disco-ball and bra-clad dancers.
The bars and “nude girls” establishments that were sad and empty in the day had turned into frenetic hives of activity, their promoters aggressively trying to draw in customers. One of the more baffling techniques they used was to simply stare down a passing tourist and gesture with to him or her with an index finger to come inside; it seemed to have a hypnotic effect. Live bands were trying to drown each other out from their respective bars. We passed blasts of country music, jazz, and zydeco, and stood outside of each for a few minutes to listen. [wpvideo 8gCYFvUr]
Despite the loose atmosphere, most places required customers to be 21 years old to enter, and bouncers were carding. I felt bad that I was holding us back and that we couldn’t pop inside to hear any of the music. But the real experience, I think, is just walking along the street and soaking in the fun madness. [wpvideo ZgTd2DbX]
Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the city’s liberal open-container policy, which permits alcohol consumption on the streets as long as it’s not out of glass bottles. Nearly every bar advertised drinks “To-Go,” each one promoting its own specialty. One New Orleans specialty is called the Hurricane. It’s a bright pink frozen slushy drink full of unidentified alcohol; Andy picked one up for $5 from a dimly-lit stand in the wall. It was sickly sweet and alcohol-bitter at the same time, and probably pretty strong!
I was infuriated when we passed a group of young children in church t-shirts handing out evangelical literature; a group of them was standing in the center of the street, supporting a large wooden cross. Their adult handlers were standing a little ways off. The kids called out asking about the state of our souls, and it took all my self control not to go over there and point out the incongruity of manipulating children while exposing them to the stripers parading the streets. *Sigh.*
Andy and I ducked into Remoulade, a casual little brother restaurant to Arnaud’s, one of the oldest and fanciest restaurants in the Quarter. It was so cold and peaceful inside compared to the sweaty ruckus on the street; it was WONDERFUL. It 10 pm and fairly empty, unlike the rowdier bars, but it was so nice to just sit in the air conditioning and survey the creole menu. Andy ordered these DELICIOUS crawfish pies, and I ate really good stuffed crabs. Great place!
Back on Bourbon, and we really started to enjoy the scene. Basically, you just have to take the crazy and run with it. We noticed that it seemed to be mostly 30 and 40-year-olds milling about; where do the younger people hang out? I saw a middle-aged woman flash a balcony, much to everyone’s delight.
We turned back toward the hotel, but not before picking up another New Orleans favorite, the Hand Grenade. Sold in a green plastic glass with a little knobby end shaped to look like a bomb attached to a long funny tube with a straw, it was another sweet, liquor-y frozen mess. Perfect way to end our first day in the chaos that is the Crescent City.
Recommended Eating: Gumbo Shop, Remoulade
Recommended Walking: Jackson Square, Mississippi River front, Bourbon Street at night
Recommended Activities: Canal Street-Algiers Ferry