Something on Twitter caught my eye–someone said that leaving New Orleans was like leaving Oz for Kansas, that entering the world outside of New Orleans was like leaving technicolor behind and entering a bleak world of sepia.
An apt analogy. Each morning that I woke up in my long (possibly haunted) shotgun, I was greeted by vibrant purple walls. I slow-cooked cayenne-peppered red beans on rainy Mondays in my lime-green kitchen. When I stepped out onto Constance, I would look to my left and admire the crooked sidewalk that swayed from side to side, the abundant greenery on the verge of taking it over, held back only by the human life that frequently tread there.
Everything about New Orleans embraces the imperfection of life. It finds beauty in the chaos–la beaute d’entropie. Life is guided by seeking pleasure, by accepting that your skin will forever be covered by a sheen of sweat, by sharing the sidewalk with flying roaches, by cracking through the wet heaviness of the air with the triumphant blast of a brass horn.
And the food. My god, the food. And drink! Is there anywhere else in the world where it’s perfectly okay to be drunk by 10am? And with coworkers, no less? Sipping a Bloody Mary rimmed with Tony’s, soaking up the flavor of pickled okra; going on a 2-hour lunch break at Liuzzas, washing a garlic oyster-and-shrimp po-boy slathered in tabasco-laced mayonnaise down with an ice-cold goblet of Abita Amber; sobering up at 3am with a cup of cafe au lait and several pillowy, powdery-sweet beignets; and the king of it all, the crawfish boil.
Spring in New Orleans is the crawfish spawning season. The tiny swamp lobsters are scooped up and boiled every day for months. Every weekend the patio of The Bulldog is crammed full of friends, drinking pint after pint of sweet strawberry Abita with the spicy crustaceans brought over from across the street at Big Fisherman. Parks, backyards, front yards, parking lots and neutral grounds are all fair game for laying down newspaper and savoring hot red potatoes smeared with soft, boiled garlic, gnawing on juicy, buttery ears of corn, and telling a story to the others in your circle as you take your time peeling, pulling, and sucking.
Food aside, there is much about the culture that I could never take part in. It is a place where authority is more important than information. Where it is still respectable for a girl’s main priority to have a rock on her finger before 25. Where white and black translates into us vs. them. Where you are more likely to hear the word fag than queer. Where the wetlands and the Not-So-Mighty-Mississippi are raped and pillaged and everyone, not just those in power, turns a blind eye.
Despite all this, New Orleans is and shall always be a haven for the joyously rebellious. You’ll run into the old southern money, those who are proud that their ancestors owned slaves. But they’re relatively easy to ignore, so long as you try not to care too much about local politics (something I could never quite achieve, unfortunately.)
This is the place where life is lived more fully than in other places, and, perhaps as a result, or perhaps as a catalyst, death is always near and present. The dead are not buried. Their crypts are vast, cheerless neighborhoods in their own right. You can wander their small, poorly tended alleys and peer inside the rotting tombs, read the inscribed prayers and curses, but it is always there in the foreground of city life.
When I first arrived in New Orleans 7 years ago, it was not by choice. For that reason, I was determined to dislike it from the outset, though I could not help but immediately marvel at the Old World architecture and wild beauty of Mardi Gras. Over time, the city won my reluctant heart. A slight but important shift in my perspective of the world altered my original impression. As I lay beneath the shade of banana leaves in the sweltering heat, I allowed myself to be intoxicated by the heavy air, to trace my fingers along the broken concrete, to listen to the cicadas shriek in shrouds of greenery. I learned not to fuck with mother nature. I learned to let mother nature fuck with me.
The water is powerful. It giveth and it taketh away. Hurricanes sweep people away. And sometimes it is just a heavy rain, and you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is the wet, pulsing, breathing sense of humanity that I loved the most. You could feel it listening to the Soul Rebels in a crowded bar; you could feel it as you sipped a sweaty beer on a balcony loud with conversation; you could feel it as you competed with your friends and neighbors for the attention of masked men and their useless trinkets; you could feel it when the earth shook with thunder and living things retreated for cover; you could feel it in a stranger’s embrace when the Saints won the Superbowl.
When we won, I chased a trombone player through the French Quarter, singing along as he played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The two of us created a trail of followers which swelled into a second line–an impromptu parade. I hugged everyone in sight, many of whom were grown men with tears streaming down their faces. It was not just a triumph of sport. It was a triumph of culture. It was a celebration of New Orleans. As we chanted Who Dat, we were not just saying it to our foes on the field. We were saying it to the foes of our city, to the naysayers who said we should not be rebuilt, that we could not be rebuilt, that we were lost forever. Well, who the fuck dat.
And so I left New Orleans as I arrived–not by choice. It has been a journey of love. I felt relentlessly wooed by the place. She eventually wore down my defenses and I acquiesced to her charms. I allowed her colorful, mysterious beauty to wash over me. But the romance ended abruptly, as they sometimes do. It is a love I will never quite recover from. Whether I like it or not, New Orleans will live in my heart until my body rots into the soft earth like the rest.
New York is no Kansas. It has its own charms, but after emerging from the languid malaise of NOLA they all seem too clean, cold, straight, and real. My favorite thing about New York is the thing it shares in common with New Orleans–the vibrant sense of humanity.
So raise your Sazerac and cheers to the chaos. Laissez les bon temps roulez.