New Orleans is a city of famous streets, whose names carry with them the immortal weight of myth. Bourbon. Canal. Royal. Frenchman. St Charles. Et cetera. I began to think about them in the same way I think about great novels. The ones whose names alone instill a kind of awe; Crime & Punishment, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Grapes of Wrath. And like those great novels you hear so much about and have yet to read, you become aware in that first moment of contact- the first step on the sidewalk, the first sentence- that the truth of its living essence might very well be buried underneath all that myth, waiting to be discovered by you the way so many others have unearthed it before.
Before coming to the Big Easy I had Bourbon Street confused with Memphis’ Beale Street in my head. I checked my little New Orleans guide book and sure enough Bourbon Street is the first aspect of the city it covered. How long would I spend on historic Bourbon Street? What would I do there? I figured the main attraction would warrant at least half a day. The answer is I didn’t spend much time there at all, which I wonder might sound akin to saying I visited Cairo and only saw the Pyramids of Giza from the shuttle-bus window.
This uncertainty on my part, and my present lack of regret in not doing Bourbon Street justice, are important lessons I think I’ve learned about solo-traveling. My trip to New Orleans stands alongside Budapest as being my first forays into solo-traveling as a lifestyle, and therefore it doesn’t stand in isolation. The various missteps, overestimations, underestimations, surprises, and regrets are all softened by the fact that they are contributing to something larger- this whole “Tumbleweed business” we have here.
Bourbon Street can best be summed up by the t-shirts they have for sale hanging in the windows of Decatur’s tourist shops: “I got Bourbon-faced on Shit Street.”
It’s almost exclusively bars and strip clubs. At first that was kind of intimidating to me. It’s one thing if you’re with your friends, but wandering alone amongst screaming drunks and loud music triggers my fight or flight instinct, which 99% of the time results in flight from the given (or perceived) threat. I walked through it a few times, hands deep in my pockets and gripped around my phone and wallet, and after peering into several dingy saloon interiors, decided against pretending to be confident. I flirted with the idea of channeling Don Draper, sitting at the bar stirring a neat scotch and waiting for someone to ask me why I was so mysterious. But that’s just not me. I’ve never been mysterious, and the path that would make me an interesting person is often too hard for me to take. It’s easier to walk past, and try and act like you’ve got somewhere to be, injecting some rhythm and purpose into my frantic steps.
The street I would come to know best was Royal, which runs parallel to Bourbon. It’s one block over from the neon signs, the bachelor parties, and the brass instruments, and yet the atmosphere is so different. Royal Street is characterized by beautiful Creole townhouses with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with greenery. Almost every door leads to an art gallery, and those that don’t are museums, historic restaurants, and antique shops. The first thing I did in New Orleans, on my first morning, was just stroll down Royal hopping from gallery to gallery. With the rain beating the asphalt in a suitably artsy mood, I relished the work in front of me in a way I haven’t really appreciated art before. The paintings, by and large, were so colorful and expressive, that it was like the people of New Orleans were laying their souls on the canvas. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. It was the soul of the city that was already revealing itself to me to be a commune of extroverts and partygoers and artists and aesthetes. I stared into the enormous face of a rainbow-colored tiger, and the wild beast of the Big Easy stared back.