Say "New Orleans" to people and you sure do get some responses. One Memphis friend wondered why I'd go down there when I could "slosh through puke on Beale Street." A sobered-up drinker I know in Oregon said, "Good God, I'd need a few more years under my belt before I could face that place!" Everybody wanted to know if I was going for Mardi Gras. People talked about hanging out with the Cajuns. And everybody wanted to call it the Big Easy, a phrase no one knows the origins of and no one in New Orleans ever says.
New Orleans occupies a certain corner of the American psyche, like no other city does. New York is impressive, San Francisco is beautiful, Los Angeles is filled with beautiful people, and New Orleans is Party Town. It's the place everybody runs off to and loses themselves in, for better or worse.
I was there for an old-fashioned family wedding, my first trip to the city in years and the first that would last more than a weekend and focus on something other than whooping it up. I was more excited about the food and a chance to see a swamp than I was about Bourbon Street.
At the airport, I jumped into a van heading for the French Quarter and found myself surrounded by conventioneers. Judging from their conversations, they ranged from Iowa Christians too scared to set foot outside the hotel to a Miami couple who couldn't wait to start stomping the streets.
The driver started hamming it up right away. "Dis here van is bound fo de French Quottah," he said. "Our first stop will be de hotel Andrew Jack-sawn." He pointed out Mother's, which he said had "de bes po'boy sanwich in Nawlins -- and therefore de wurl." He showed us the Superdome and informed us it was built on an old cemetery "and dat right dere tells you how come dem Saints don't do so good."
No telling whether he actually talks this way, but the Iowans were eating it up, which is the whole point, really. When you go to Texas, you expect somebody in a cowboy hat to say "howdy," and when you roll into New Orleans you want somebody with a goofy accent to start talking about po'boys and football.
Arriving at my hotel, I found a tour group outside, all holding drinks, hearing about the place being haunted. I considered this really cool and said so to the hotel clerk. He looked as impressed as a visitor to The Peabody saying, "Dude, I heard somebody playing the blues outside!" The clerk handed me my key and said, "Every place in the French Quarter is haunted -- or so they say." My brother and I made a note that the next time we saw a "ghost tour," we'd run out the door screaming and waving our arms.
We hit the streets and started taking in sights. Yep, Paul Prudhomme really does have a place here, and the line really is long. Ditto for Emeril. Yep, they've got little gas lanterns all over the place, serving no function except to fill the French Quarter with little gas lanterns. Yep, they've got horse carriages and wrought-iron balconies and Lucky Dog stands and signs saying booze on the street has to be in a plastic container. We wandered over to Bourbon Street, and yep, drunks are drunks, and they still can't sing. Everything was checking out just fine.
When I saw the Napoleon House, I remembered that a friend had said it was the greatest bar in the world. So we ducked in, and immediately my outlook changed. Here was a bar, a wonderful bar: quiet, calm, filled with people eating and drinking. There wasn't a yahoo in sight. And it's been there since 1797. We ordered jambalaya, gumbo, and tea, and I let out a long sigh.
The realization would grow on me over the next several days, but it first hit me in the Napoleon House. New Orleans simply does what it does, what it's been doing for almost 300 years. Its lifestyle, attitude, and culture are unique -- not fully Southern or even American -- and the fact that the rest of the world insists on coming to partake is, well, fine. It doesn't hurt that their interest runs the economy.
But there's a difference between having fun and just partying, and folks in New Orleans -- the ones who live there, I mean -- seem to have a lot of fun. They eat, they celebrate, they relax, they try to stay cool in the summer. But it's just a city. The French Quarter is only about 10 blocks each way. Even Bourbon Street, that monument to the things that drunks think are cool, hosts at least one of the city's finest restaurants.
I would find this to be a soothing thought over the next few days: that underneath the false Cajun front, beyond the boozers, after the ghost tours and horse carriages have gone by, there's a sophisticated groove to be tapped into in New Orleans, with just the right edge of pure freakiness. I suspect one could spend a lifetime exploring it.