I hesitated to accept my boss’ invitation to the conference last fall, because I’d always associated New Orleans with grime and crime. And anyway, the conference was just one week after visiting my parents in Florida — and two weeks before my trip to Paris.
“It’s too much travel,” I told my husband Esteban. “But you’ll love the French Quarter,” he countered. He told me about the balconies and the hidden courtyards, about the music and food, and the friendly people. “Plus, it’s a photographer’s paradise,” he said.
I had doubts as the plane landed: All I could see was highways and swamps. The cab driver lived up to the friendliness billing, though, and I appreciated his brief history lesson and his thoughts on the city, post-Katrina.
He dropped me at the front door of my hotel, which was opulent.
But what really interested me was the gritty world outside those gilded doors.
I had two hours before the welcome dinner, so I set out to explore my neighborhood. It was just mid-afternoon but already the party was in full swing.
I tried not to eavesdrop too much as two men haggled with a pair of prostitutes. When the ladies refused to further drop their price, the guys made a creative suggestion: How about the two of them sharing one girl?
Around the corner a man wearing little more than a pink feather boa was puking in the street. And around the next corner, I came face-to-face with a voodoo dude in a black robe. His gaze was (almost theatrically) piercing and menacing. I felt momentarily unsettled, but managed a grin as I breezed past him.
I rounded the fourth corner, which brought me back to the hotel. I’d seen so much in just one block! I thought I’d seen enough, in fact, to know that New Orleans’ French Quarter was not for me.
A worn-out “working girl”
My first impression of the French Quarter reminded me of an old, worn-out lady of the night. You could still glimpse her faded beauty, but the millions of sailors and slaves and visitors who had passed through the city’s fertile delta had taken their toll. Her social fabric was frayed, and her infrastructure was sagging.
The old grande dame was still in business, though — with an extra coat or two of mascara and some neon lipstick to lure the tourists.
It wasn’t this tourist-trap that interested me, though, but what lived around its fringes. There was crushing poverty here, of course …
… but it struck me that I saw hardly any beggars. From poets and “historical” reenactors to street artists and Starbucks-swilling voodoo priests, almost everyone was doing something to scrape by.
I especially enjoyed the busker who called himself “Stoker Homebrew.” He was a tough-looking character — straight out of a Mad Max movie — but even he couldn’t resist cracking a smile when a lanky gentleman broke into dance.
Anyway … it was in talking with these people that I began to grasp the true spirit of New Orleans.
A French-ish (kind of) flavor
The view from my hotel window the next morning almost reminded me of Paris.
To a lesser extent, so did the balconies that overhung the streets of the French Quarter …
… and the leonine doorknockers …
… the above-ground cemeteries …
… and the courtyards (many of them hidden) that provided welcome oases of calm.
Some of the sidewalks even sported bollards, just like in Paris.
And — much as in Paris — most everything seemed to be in varying degrees of disrepair.
But comparing any city to another is small-minded — and unfair. Because, while New Orleans may have the French flavor my husband described, it also blends Spanish and Creole influences to create a personality all its own.
I didn’t much care for (or understand) the fascination with voodoo …
… nor did I get the ubiquitous references to “Who dat.”
But once I got past the sex shows, neon signs and rowdy tourists, the worn-out old call girl still beguiled.
I barely scratched the surface in three days. But — whether it was because of voodoo, music, the people, or the food — I’ve fallen under New Orleans’ spell.
I’ll be back.