Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans is a lazy, dreamy one. He wrote of the big easy,
Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons, when an hour isn’t just an hour—but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands, and who knows what to do with it?
And yes indeed. The short time I spent in New Orleans was not short on choppy rain, languid strolls, and endless alleyways through buildings and monuments straight out of time. But there was no shortage of things to do: The open container laws (nothing says “island life” like strolling with a drink in hand) itself get you busy enough, and there seemed to be something to feast your eyes on every two steps you take.
Art for sale on sidewalk at Jackson Square
New Orleans was one of the high points on the post-grad roadtrip (from New York to Texas) I took last month. It’s a no-brainer—I love spicy food, alcohol, and live music—and voila, all were present on our first day in New Orleans: Cajun rabbit jambalaya, Sazerac (whiskey & bitters), and blues, blues, blues.
More Jackson Square: Saturated with psychic palm readers
So it goes with all things commonly loved, New Orleans comes with a list of cliches everyone is warned to be wary of—don’t linger too long on Bourbon Street, go further away from the waterfront, don’t loosen your purse strings too easily for overpriced “voodoo” trinkets, find true Po-Boys instead of what “tourists” eat, don’t eat a hot dog (said to be nasty-tasting), don’t stray on dark streets at night, and so on.
Last but not least: don’t be lazy and settle for tourist-infested cesspits – go out and find the “real” New Orleans.
Marching band sighting
I’d be the first to say that the what-to-avoid list is a valid one—but if you followed it to a T you might be missing the forest for the trees. Bourbon Street was indeed bustling with drunk tourists who were making good on the three-for-one drink deals, peddled with loud signboards and shouts. Neon Mardi Gras signs and cheesy T-shirt shops were lined up next to expensive bars and strip clubs. Litter and (the occasional) vomit completed the picture of a college campus on a Saturday night.
It wasn’t my scene—so we floated through the spectacle and went off and away—but those folks were having a damn good time, marching band and all. And I have to say: that shit was infectious. It was a strange kind of feeling—a disdain for such boisterousness, yet super psyched by the crowd’s energy. On top of it, if you do get drawn into conversation with any of the drunk/drugged passersby, much hilarity will come out of it. (As well as knowledge on devil worshipping and conjectures on night clubs in the sewers.)
Oh, I almost forgot this. Before we started the evening we’d stopped by a little hole in the wall—only to find ourselves in a book-infested haven. The place was amazing. It’s a one-man operation with an impressive inventory of books, precariously stacked from floor to almost ceiling. I was so taken I might have even asked him (I think his name is Steve) for a job, though he said he’d tried many times to have employees but failed, because at the end of the day he was the only one who knew where anything was. Steve himself had owned the store for a couple decades. Tons of Beat stuff, decent Philosophy section, contemporary fiction, and a load of Southern books as well as a neat shelf of first editions.
After spending way too much time dusting off the stacks (and me coming away with 6 books), we had to detour to the hotel to park the books.
Dauphine Street Bookshop
Before we walked out of his shop, Steve gave us a mini hand drawn map of the French Quarters (and adjacent streets), bearing the locations of other used book stores in the area. And there were many! I could, ever more so, easily live in this town.
Another charming bookstore-front – but it wasn’t open for the day
We did eventually leave the Bourbon Street/ French Quarter area, go to some cute market (along the waterfront), wander into voodoo sex shops and peeked through display glasses of psychic fortune tellers, before spending the rest of our night around the Frenchmen Street area. It’s slightly west of the French Quarters, and seemed to have Bourbon Street’s fun minus the raucousness. Some have even said this was how Bourbon Street “used to be like.”
I can’t remember the name of the handful of bars we went into, but I do remember the one we ended our night in. At a bartender’s suggestion we’d gone even further west, into a neighborhood area, and settled our saddles at Mimi’s. I remember feeling gladdened by the largely local crowd and understated live blues. The act of the night was a 30′s washboard blues band (no cover), and the place was the right blend of lighting, crowd, and grittiness. Clean enough, it seemed like the kind of place that would only age better—i.e., get more nicely scuffed up—with time.
(After the show, we even made friends with the guitarist, who turned out to be a Floyd fan and played a mean acoustic set of Dark Side of the Moon!)
Other things we did at New Orleans: See the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (which had some truly wonderful stuff), drink frozen daiquiries, eat gelato, chat with friendly boys.
Things we wanted to but did not do at New Orleans: Get a tattoo, eat a po-boy, witness a pagan ritual.
The Ogden museum
One of my favorites – Mark Messersmith’s feverish oils on canvas
Man busking with his violin and forlorn-looking dog
Po-boy shop on the western edge of town
Daiquiri store – where you can get ginormous “daiquiri” aka frozen alcoholic slushies from slushie machines for cheap
I fell quite in love with New Orleans within two short days. Left with a heavy heart. That bit of eternity Tennessee Williams was going on about? Definitely in the air, round the musty alleyways, behind beautiful French doors, floating on blues rhythms, inside everyone’s smiles—all New Orleans-smiles are the kind of smile that crinkles up your entire sun-beaten face—ahh.
It felt even more serendipitous when I befriended a guy who was in town to secure his lease, before he’d return next time with all his things from Virginia. I remember thinking, this was all it takes! You go, you find a spot, you move your things!
Also: Before rolling into New Orleans, we’d driven along the Natchez Trace Parkway, whose cypress swamps were one of the highlights:
Cypress swamp along the natchez trace parkway
Cypress in murky waters
Misunderstood: Who knew alligators aren’t actually human-hungry zombie predators? No wonder they get angsty anyway
mad cobwebs to trap the mad swamp mosquitos
And that is all, fine friends. I’ll have New Orleans bookmarked for now.