Right now I’m sat in bed drinking coffee and scarfing down the complimentary croissants Dominique brings to my room. There’s a pitter-patter of rain on the exterior corridor and a leak that drops down from the vent above my bed. I’m wondering how to describe New Orleans.
I’m here for a week before I get the train down to Houston to reunite with my American roommates before they get married. Flying to the USA ain’t cheap, and I’m not sure how many opportunities like this remain in my lifetime. So I decided to follow up my April solo trip to Budapest with another city I’ve always wanted to see- Louisiana’s New Orleans.
I’ve been lucky over the years to visit several interesting and beautiful cities in this country. My favorites are Savannah, GA, Galveston, TX, San Francisco, CA, and Kansas City, MO. Each of these cities inflame my creativity. They are all places I’d like to return to, just to do some writing, photography, people-watching, and to connect with local artists.
After spending a few days in the Big Easy however, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no place even remotely like it. I’m not saying it’s the best or the most beautiful, and I’m not sure I could live here- but nothing comes close to approaching the sheer uniqueness of New Orleans. It is without a doubt the strangest place I have ever visited. It’s flamboyant, vibrant, expressive, surreal, crazy, and outrageously decadent. But reducing the city to a mere string of adjectives would be to do it a great disservice.
I’m still thinking of how best to sum up this city on the basis of my visit. I want to get as close as possible to the heartbeat of the Big Easy and its people; I want to refine it as best as I can and say “This! This is what makes it tick!”. So I’m going to do a series of short blog posts, that will be like diary entries chronicling my search for these nascent truths. I think that’s the best way to do it, to give a running narration of my impressions as they are in flux.
The first New Orleanian I met was Leroy- the night shift receptionist on the hotel’s front desk. He was slouched back in his chair, his tie hanging loose, in a pose I immediately started to think quintessentially representative of the French Quarter. He asked what brought me to the Big Easy and I said I just always wanted to see it. He chuckled and said “You just wanted to join the party, yes boss.”
That’s it. It’s one big never-ending party. It’s a city that probably shouldn’t exist, that perseveres in the wake of relentless tragedy, and which will probably be underwater by the end of the century. And the response is fascinating. The party only gets louder and more wild. The roads of the French Quarter are covered in potholes, and the whole place seems in a constant state of repair. It’s like a big ocean liner slowly sinking, and the response, as I said, of its occupants, is to get out the trombones and the saxophanes. The city will keep the party going until it’s vanquished forever, and I can’t help but think there is a poetry to that; I’m inclined to believe that the city’s artistry is in some way related to its expiry date.
It’s a place that’s stranger still for someone like me that’s shy and socially anxious. It’s a place that’s bursting with color and overflowing with artistic talent. Everyone here is dancing to a beat of some kind. And I never know quite how to act when I’m at a party. I’m the guy that stands in the corner watching the other guy take home the girl I didn’t have the courage to talk to. So I’m unsure of what to do with myself in a place like Bourbon Street- a location so rowdy and bizarre that it makes the Mos Eisley cantina look like a data entry office floor in Swindon.
The hotel I’m at has a lot of character. It’s old and wooden and rickety. It’s not neat and fancy. But it gets endless personality from its creaky floorboards and Creole-style courtyard. The walls aren’t soundproof at all. At about 3am on my first night I woke up due to some Bourbon Street revelers congregated in the courtyard below. Their conversation died down, and I heard a woman say “Wait…what’s that?”
Then she started screaming hysterically. I was bolt upright at this point. She screamed in such a way that you can only associate it with visceral trauma. It was a scream that was in response to something witnessed. I didn’t know what, but I honestly expected to hear gunshots. My heart stopped and- it seems silly to admit this now- I was honestly weighing up where to hide. However no mad gunman emerged. The silence was followed by raucous laughter, and I heard a guy outside my door say “Are y’all going around as ghosts?”
The woman said “Oh my God, I HATE you.”
More laughter. New Orleans has a thing for the freakish and the macabre. I’m guessing these folks were returning from one of the popular haunted tours. I’m not even trying to be dramatic, but it took a while for my breathing to cool down. Before I was able to get back to sleep, an altogether different sound entered my room. Moaning. It came from the room beneath me. The woman’s moans grew louder, so loud that the cause was unmistakable. Whoever she was, she didn’t give a dang who was listening. The sound of her pleasure was so emphatic that I couldn’t have been given a clearer impression of her lovemaking session unless I was taking part. I kid you not, this lasted for 30 minutes. I checked my phone to see how long I was being kept awake. I was so close to this raunchy liaison that I felt embarrassed. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I should perhaps leave. I was hearing something I wasn’t supposed to.
But that might just be my Church of England upbringing. I then started to add this experience to my impression of the French Quarter as a place. Carefree. Passionate. Wild. Uninhibited. Like I said, it’s one big party here. Everyone just lets it out and lays bare their desires. And so the lovemaking just stands alongside the trumpets of the jazz bands, the singing of the buskers, the gyrating legs and hips of the burlesque dancers, the painters’ brush strokes, the museum curators’ stories, the poetry slams, the mime artists, and all the rest of it. It really is no different. So I said to myself, “Welcome to New Orleans!” and drifted off to sleep.