Monday, April 8, 2013

Walking in New Orleans

I distinctly recall a moment from the first time I visited my friend S in New York. We'd just exited a subway station in Greenwich Village. As soon as we were able to slow our stride to a chatting pace, I said, "Dude, when we got on that escalator, I totally cut off an 80 year old man. I feel like such an asshole."

S shrugged. "That's just what you gotta do sometimes."

That memory haunted me as I wandered through the French Quarter with a 23 pound baby strapped to my chest. It was Easter weekend, the human throng was thick and I was that 80 year old man - a sluggish, hunkering, non-entity on the losing end of the kill-or-be-killed battle for limited sidewalk space. I often had to step into the street, if I didn't choose to power through with an overstuffed diaper bag hanging at my side. And when I did that, I felt like an asshole but that's just what you gotta do sometimes.

When I first visited New Orleans in 2011, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in the Marigny. In the first twenty four hours, we visited the neighboring dog-friendly gay bar twice. The bears fawned over our beagle and the bartender concocted exquisite virgin Bloody Marys for four months pregnant me. Our five minute walk to the Quarter traversed quiet residential blocks and took us past low-key taverns where the locals would hang. We did our share of the touristy stuff - Decatur Street to Jackson Square and the Cathedral, Cafe Du Monde at 1am. But mainly, we wandered along "our" side of that district. We ventured uptown and to the Bywater by car, as well, packing a great deal into a mere day and a half.

I'm glad that was the nature of my first meeting with the city, because if it resembled our second visit I may have been turned off. Don't get me wrong, I had a blast this time, too. But being stationed on the Central Business District side of the Quarter, steps away from Canal Street, exposed me to the Vegas-y part of New Orleans - the crowds, the cheesy gift shops selling polyester blend short shorts with the words "Who Dat?" emblazoned on the ass, the block long line at Cafe Du Monde at 11am. And this time, the baby was out of my belly, much bigger, and full of opinions.

Generally, her opinion was positive. She didn't appreciate my breakneck speed when I was just trying to get through the human mass. I naturally gravitated as far from the intersection of Canal and Bourbon as my tired legs could reach. By day two, I was weighed down by food exhaustion. I'd eaten like it was Christmas, and was paying for it as I do every Boxing Day. That was a tough walk. The highlight for both of us was day three, Holy Saturday. We left the hotel at 10am. It was perfect spring morning weather. She was well rested and mellow. I made my way up Canal to Burgundy. One quick glance told me what I wanted to see - it was dead. The businesses along that avenue are of a practical, non-touristy nature - hospitality services, an accountant's office, a self-storage place. As we moved further into the Quarter, the scene became more residential. The vibe I got was youthful, uncaring, like Ann Arbor's student ghetto. - pretty but dilapidated houses with ratty couches on the porches. I didn't mind the smell of piss and alcohol. When it occasionally blended with weed smoke odor, I had pleasant memories of Amsterdam.

But it was time to find a little more action. When we rounded the corner of St. Peter, I saw a familiar business district in the distance. The day prior, I'd asked a smart looking Frenchman for directions to a highly touted cafe. "I think it's just around the corner," he said. "But do you want a really good coffee? The best coffee is just down the block." He pointed to a tiny storefront with a line out the door. Bernadette was getting fussy, so I didn't bother. But on this gloriously quiet Saturday morning, when most of the good people seemed to be working off their hangovers elsewhere, I decided to take my chances. We sauntered beneath balconies teeming with freshly watered flowers. The wet street glistened in the pre-noon sunlight and she snuggled against my chest. Our timing was perfect. When we arrived the line was short. I immediately noted and admired the no-frills atmosphere - just a counter, just one chatty barista, just slinging coffee. In another town, I'd have pegged him as a sullen hipster but he seemed rather gregarious. As he foamed the milk for my cappuccino, he said, "I feel so confident today. I'm wearing my bright blue shirt, and check this out." He lifted his ankle above the counter to reveal a matching aquamarine sock. "Now I know why you people feel so good wearing your peasant skirts."

I cracked up. "Yeah, a little bright color in the springtime is very refreshing."

So was that beverage. It was exquisite. B must have absorbed my rush by osmosis. She was perky again. We wandered through an alley and landed in front of the Cathedral, which was also surprisingly quiet. I let her loose in Jackson Square, where she wandered in circles to the soundtrack of a Decatur Street brass band, waving at everyone we encountered. It's really satisfying to see even the most down-on-his-luck looking dude grin and wave back at her. She makes so many people happy. A biker couple were particularly enchanted. The lady said, in regard to Bernadette's army green peacoat, "Wow, I love her jacket!" I thanked her and hustled as my little one picked up speed. Behind me, the biker lady mimicked, "Don't worry, ma! I'm okay. I'm packin' twelve." I googled that and still don't know what it means. I like it, anyway.

As we meandered back to the hotel, I boldly embraced the growing crowd as I knew it would be the last time we'd meet, at least for this visit. It was early still and the mood was bright. Occasionally, gentlemen on the street would smile at me or say, "Hi, Mom!" Some of these men were very attractive. It was one of the first things Dan and I discussed on day one, the general hotness of people in New Orleans. We decided that looking three times constituted "ogling" and occasional ogling was totally acceptable. The funny thing is that most of these people aren't fashion model pretty, the way so many New Yorkers are (nor do they look as if they spent thousands of dollars or thousands of hours at the gym, perfecting that look). It's just a certain sexual confidence that seems inherent to the region. I credit a combination of warm weather, rich food, stunning architecture, dance-y music, a laid back attitude and, yes, trashy fun, "Who Dat?" shorts and all. New Orleans is like a Prince song in the shape of a city. Who wouldn't feel hot there?

We met Dan at our room, right after his last conference session. We partook of the hotel restaurant's breakfast buffet, where I feasted upon a highly civilized combination of matzo bread with lox and greasy bacon. I kept forgetting where I was in relation to home. Could I really be just a seven hour drive away? Is that the short distance between my everyday life and this mecca of sensual pleasure? We left town mid-day, exhausted again, yet somehow refreshed for that mundane, everyday life.

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