What it Means to Miss New Orleans
You forget how much you love a place until you've been away. I hadn't seen springtime in New Orleans for nearly a decade...
What it Means to Miss New Orleans
by Rebecca Bruns
You forget how much you love a place until you've been away. I hadn't seen springtime in New Orleans for nearly a decade when I went back last April. The city is at its best then, almost in a state of grace, so cool and fresh, with a halo-like light, tender greenery in mad bud everywhere and a sudden froth of azaleas in pinks and purples bursting from the neutral grounds (elsewhere known as median strips). I missed the azaleas but arrived in time to see petunias and impatiens rioting on the French Quarter balconies and to smell the big, ivory magnolia trees sending forth their boudoir scent uptown. Lavender wisteria was humming with bumblebees, willows draped their supple heads along Bayou St. John, and moss crept between the lumpy brick sidewalks in fat emerald seams. Stands of live oaks were spreading their loving black arms over St. Charles Avenue and Napoleon to shelter the mansions with their glittering leaded-glass doors from the oncoming heat of summer. And down by the river, a "Roach X-ing" sign made me smile, a reminder that flying demons secretly own this Garden of Eden, that all this haunting lushness coexists with rot.
I drank it all in and felt dazzled by the color and beauty and exoticism I had left behind for a saner, more disciplined life years before.
There are a handful of cities in the world that elevate sensuality to a religious experience. New Orleans is one of them. It's a high temple of the appetites, with a streak of lunacy that constantly pushes life to the edge. Tennessee Williams compared New Orleans with the moon, writing that they had "the intimacy of sisters grown old together." He added, "This lunar atmosphere of the city draws me back whenever the waves of energy which moved me to more vital towns have spent themselves and a time of recession is called for." Perhaps I, too, went back not just for springtime but to take a break from my workaholic routine, to renew myself and relearn the art of savoring life.
I was born and raised in New Orleans -- a fabulous gift of fate -- and lived there until 14 years ago. I adore it even more now that I live someplace else. When Louis Armstrong sings "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" I sometimes feel a little heartache and wonder why I left my native town for San Francisco -- like leaving a wonderful lover for another who you hope will make you happier.
Most people think San Francisco is loose and liberated, but having lived in both places I can tell you New Orleans is really a leaky faucet. San Francisco swings, but New Orleans drips -- it oozes, sweats, hisses, ripples, purrs, pounces -- it's the difference between a party animal and a panther. San Francisco serves up its pleasures with bold panache, verve, wit. New Orleans simply sucks you in.
That's why so few natives ever get away. I never realized how lucky I was to grow up surrounded by Mardi Gras and voodoo and jazz, to learn at a young age that life is a party, reality is fantasy, and eccentricity is normal. One of my first visions of womanhood was of six-foot-tall beings in massive wigs and stiletto heels teetering down Bourbon Street: they were ultra-women yet I knew in my five-year-old heart they weren't female. My childhood was peopled with all sorts of offbeat, even slightly deranged, characters: Sister Gemma Marie, the skinny Catholic nun who slapped little boys' faces with severe relish in grammar school; our godfather Uncle Sam, whose nose was always red from drinking; my Uncle Cecil, a pig farmer down in Cajun country who could shift his false front teeth back and forth; and a whole slew of more cultured uptown relatives, including my great aunt and grandmother, who lived together in symbiotic angst in a Garden District house near the rather spooky nineteenth-century orphanage novelist Anne Rice just bought for a million bucks to turn into her new home.
I met Anne Rice at a party once when she still lived in San Francisco. There's a reason she moved to New Orleans, along with writers like Richard Ford (whose wife Kristina is executive director of the City Planning Commission), and Hollywood types like Taylor Hackford and Brandon Tartikoff. It's precisely because New Orleans is not the least bit Hollywood but is as real as red beans and rice, yet has a surrealism and mystery found in the best Gothic novels.
Though I grew up in a modest suburban neighborhood, I remember all sorts of moody Gone With the Wind images from my Southern upbringing. Moss-draped estates steaming in summer rain, blue jays cawing amid the dripping boughs, martinis on a fan-cooled porch, the creak of a hammock, the comforting yet melancholy hoot of tugboats on the Mississippi.
New Orleans was called "The City That Care Forgot" back then. Bars never closed and nearly everyone drank, maybe to get through the sticky-hot days and nights when the hum of cicadas was louder than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. No town ever had a greater genius for enjoying itself. But I got scared I might end up with a drink in my hand, listening to cicadas, so I made a dash for the West to push the envelope of whoever I was -- not something New Orleans seemed to aspire to.
The very things that drove me away now coax me back: that luscious heat, the womb of old family ties, that Southern down-to-earthiness that is so warmly, congenially self-indulgent and fascinated with sin. "New Orleans is a place created for and by voluptuousness, the abaseless and unabased senses," said William Faulkner.
And where better to sink into that swamp of the senses than the French Quarter? New Orleans started down here in the Vieux Carre (Old Square), as the Quarter was originally called, 272 years ago. Today it's America's ultimate bohemian neighborhood -- North Beach, San Francisco's old beat district, doesn't even come close. Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Hemingway, Faulkner, all drew artistic sap from the Quarter's moldy crannies, its dank bars and quivering gaslamps, the sultry nearness of the river. I still get high just wandering around studying old chipped walls and sniffing out ghosts.
For me, the past first came enchantingly alive when I lived in a pink Creole cottage on St. Peter Street in the mid-1970s. It had crumbling shutters and a sunny dining room that I turned into a little art studio. My next door neighbor's flat was smothered floor to ceiling in old junk, with just a trail where she managed to get in and out, like a mouse hole. And on the corner was a transvestite bar where guys more beautiful than me lip-synched torch songs with such raw feeling it ripped my heart out. Before that I lived in an ex-cathouse near Rampart with a view of the city's oldest cemetery and the rickety housing projects where Storyville, the turn-of-century redlight district, once stood. A friend, new in town, said of those crime-ridden red brick projects, "Gee, I thought they were just nice old historic buildings." To outsiders, even New Orleans' flaws look romantic.
I still dream of having a pied-a-terre in the Quarter where I could laze away the days on my balcony writing erotic vignettes and gossiping with neighbors. People are easy to meet in New Orleans, especially the Quarter. I had a lovely taste of the kindness of strangers on Royal Street one day. A friend and I, out for a walk, paused at a house with a "For Sale" sign and asked the owner, who was on her porch, if we could take a look inside. She gave us a tour, then sat with us on her front veranda chatting straight through dinnertime (Southerners would rather talk than eat) and invited us to a party that weekend at the nearby home of a Cajun balladeer. What a great way to kick off the first weekend of the annual Jazz Fest -- the party was a sort of mini-fest with a steady stream of musicians flowing in and out, plucking the bass, strumming the washboard, and singing duets like the local hit, "Pinching Tails and Sucking Heads" (referring, of course, to crawfish).
Later, we hung out in the Gospel tent at the Jazz Fest, where I imagined coming back in my next life as a soul-searing, Tina Turner-like spiritual singer hollering out "Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!" to the tent-top, with a tapdancing backup choir -- a big improvement over the Catholic martyr fantasy I used to have in second grade.
New Orleans releases all sorts of wild hallucinations within the human breast.
Another afternoon, wanting to escape the hubbub of Bourbon Street, I slipped over to Dauphine Street and met a couple sitting on their doorstep in the cool of evening, taking a break from renovating a dilapidated duplex. Bill and Andrea had just moved down from New York, by way of an island off the coast of Africa. They had specifically chosen New Orleans, they said, because "This is the closest we could come to a French African colony. It's hot, it's cheap, it's a backward-looking place with a historical tradition. And it has potential as a creative center. There's excellence in music, food, writing. You can get space here with light and room to paint."
Louisiana has been compared to a banana republic more than once for its political decadence, and New Orleans is as close to a Third World tropical town as anyplace in the United States. Even the city's recent embrace of gambling fits the mold of seamy intrigues, dubious legalities and scandal.
In the early 1980s, the bottom fell out of the oil and natural gas industry -- Louisiana's lifeblood -- and the economy went into a long trombone slide. Hoping to bolster the city's fortunes, and perhaps their own, state politicians legalized gambling in Louisiana in mid-1992. Ever since then, New Orleans -- poised to become one of the major gambling centers in America -- has been mired in controversy. The huge casino planned for the riverfront has been stalled on the drawing board by endless infighting over contracts, operators, developers, leases, rules and regulations. The whole mess is classic New Orleans.
I'm not terribly sorry the Big Easy may never become the Big Sleazy, though the city's reluctance to change, its tendency to bog down and fester, was one of the frustrations that made me decide to move on. New Orleans is about five years behind most American towns. I remember the hippie movement didn't hit here until it was almost finished everywhere else. Dope was something evil jazz musicians did, the same way gambling is that chimerical thing they're doing next door in Mississippi.
This Brigadoon syndrome -- the town in a time warp -- is partly an uptown phenomenon. Uptowners are a distinctly traditional breed who cherish the legendary New Orleans, the land of sleepy dreams. They represent the city's high society, its Old World monarchy, in which I had one tentative toe while growing up.
My mother came from Cajun country, but my father's side of the family lived in genteel, gingerbread-laced homes in the uptown Garden District. Tante Thea, a gregarious sometime opera singer who insisted we use the French term instead of "aunt," lived with her surgeon husband Duncan in a high-ceilinged flat on St. Charles Avenue when she wasn't dragging him off to Paris to study music. Tante Thea's blood ran very blue. My Aunt Bland, who was anything but bland, owned an antique shop in the Quarter and served on the Louisiana legislature for several years. She used to graciously open her big house on Jackson Avenue to the whole Bruns clan during Mardi Gras, where we'd watch the Comus parade from the gallery. Uncle Logan, her curmudgeon of a husband, would sit drinking and making barbed comments while people flowed in and out in pajamas, clown outfits and evening gowns en route to the big carnival balls -- to which only the social elite were invited.
Uptowners are status conscious. Some relatives of mine even added a "De" to their names for a frisson of Old World breeding. Being comfortable, uptowners resist change. But they're ace preservationists, protecting all that's sacred about old New Orleans, even as they've managed to live side by side with all the taints of vice that pass for recreation here.
I sometimes have a sense of New Orleans being divided into uptown style and downtown sin: the Garden District and the French Quarter. The Quarter is bacchanalian mischief -- Bourbon Street, rowdies with plastic cups of beer, topless joints, gay parties. The Garden District is European charm and serenity, debutantes and propriety. New Orleans percolates with that enticing conflict between style and sin. Part of what gives the city its juice is this wrestling match, this mating dance between gracious appearances and down-and-dirty impulses.
Nowhere did I explore the converging of these opposites with more dedication than in the epicurean arena. I am thinking of the meals at Commander's Palace, Bayona, Brigtsen's, Emeril's -- lovely environments with wickedly tempting menus. Even nursing a drink in the decrepit shadows of the Napoleon House, where classical music lilted among the groaning timbers, I felt that blend of the civilized and the depraved. But perhaps the best example of graciousness with an undercurrent of debauchery was lunch at Galatoire's.
On the surface, Galatoire's is everybody's idea of old New Orleans gallantry. Men have to wear a jacket. No shorts are allowed. The ceiling fans spin at a soothing, polished pace. Vintage waiters meet and greet regular customers with open arms: "Judge! So good to see you, how long has it been?" And the tables are packed with the prosperous privileged -- well-fed businessmen on cellular phones and well-stacked blondes on parade up and down the aisles. The floor show is as good as the food. And everybody lingers over their oysters and crab for at least two hours.
I was reminded of a description I'd read of early Creole culture. Creoles were marked by "a love of ease, exaggerated self-esteem, prodigious self-indulgence, lavish hospitality, a refined and lively interest in the arts."
This is still what it means to be Southern. I may just have to keep going back to New Orleans at every opportunity so I never forget it..