Out of so many places in the world, seen and unseen, my heart has settled without reservation in New Orleans. It sits in a broken state of perfection, collecting stories within the faded walls and crumbling streets, fluid with all the grace of southern charm and corrupt with timeless fascination.
Each visit reveals new perspective into this place I intuitively understand but can only hope to fully know. My champagne haze takes in steeples, parapets and cupolas rising only so high above me. To my right a man sweeps water off the sidewalk. Behind me, a riverboat calliope whistles off-pitch ditties that stretch for miles.
Jackson Square bristles with the slow current of morning. Lazy light creeps over the Cathedral and its bells ring out eleven. Nothing in New Orleans really sleeps; there is only rest and waiting for the right impetus to propel you into its self-contained jazz.
Carriages pulled by donkeys donning crepe flowers and garland clip clop down the streets, their barkers calling out ages-old stories and lore with practiced melodic tempo. At any time, the most amazing things can happen. A second line in celebratory pursuit of a brass band will parade down St. Ann Street, waving napkins and twirling umbrellas even before the sun is high enough to illuminate the street. Swarms of naked bicycle riders, men in extravagant red dresses, or foot-racing bartenders may pass you in joyous abandon and the site is no more shocking or unusual than that of café au lait and beignets.
My guy and I detour down Chartres Street to Napoleon House. 200 years of alcohol soaked conversation cakes its walls. The bar is slick from the condensation of cocktails being raised and lowered in the swell of summer. My own drink clings to its napkin. As in most Quarter establishments, air conditioning serves only to rearrange the dust on picture frames.
We fall into pleasant exchange with a man and his father. They’re from Balta, travelling through New Orleans on a culinary tour of the United States. As I sip my Pimm’s Cup, I know what it is to miss New Orleans. Funny I should miss it as I sit there, encouraging its temptations, but the enigmatic spice of Pimm’s sifts over my tongue and reminds me just how localized this sensation is. There is nothing like it in the world, this mash-up of indiscernible yet distinct flavors, in my drink and in the air around me.
The man’s father takes my hand. He is kind-eyed and at home here while his son jumbles maps and books. “I should never leave a place like this,” he says.
Later in the day we’re carried toward a small café somewhere between streets. A large tub teems with live crawfish at the entrance. The season is ripe for this dirty delicacy. I nod at my guy, eyes bright with shameful decadence. It does not matter that we’ve already eaten; we will eat again because we can, because it is blissful and because we are in love.
The night rolls in sultry waves. As the moon rises we follow the Mississippi River down, out of the French Quarter and into the Bywater. In this hodgepodge neighborhood of tradition and rebirth, the streets are uneven and uncertain. Swales collect bourbon water, which isn’t water at all but remnants of what washes off the streets. It smells of turpentine and rain, and on Thursday nights, it smells of sweat, too.
Vaughan’s sits among the shotgun houses. Christmas lights filtered through cigarette smoke wash the front porch in unrefined color. We enter to find the band, or, more precisely, Treme Funktet, assembling for a singular late-night performance. There is no stage, just a creaking wood floor that holds both band and crowd. We merge into a sweaty jumble when the music starts. The trombone juts dangerously into the throng to dance with us, in and out as we all improvise a kinetic melody.
Red beans and rice are dished from a giant pot in a back room. The warm hug of Creole food fuels our night. It extends back into the Quarter, where we resume our ceaseless instinctive journey, enveloped into a city of endless dimension.
I should never leave a place like this.