We were giving our poor feet a break, having traversed New Orleans in pursuit of a sci-fi themed Carnival parade called Chewbacchus, when an Army Ranger named Josh adopted us. My partner and I were taking advantage of a business trip to take a subsidized vacation in New Orleans.
Sitting on some tall stools near the billiards table at the back of a cheerful, divey, boxy bar festooned with chandeliers and buntings of purple, gold, and green tinsel and party lights, we nursed our beers as the tall, muscled blond with tattooed arms and a backwards baseball cap racked the balls, tore into them, and efficiently dispatched them into their pockets. As he sauntered around the table, he drew us out: Did we shoot pool? Were we in town for Mardi Gras?
But it wasn’t Mardi Gras just yet. As with any good holiday, Mardi Gras is not just a day; it is a season. Carnival season. Parade routes take over the streetscape. Even the famous trolley cars are put on hold—their long, straight tracks down St. Charles Street through the Garden District become a spectator zone and pedestrian thoroughfare. (And if you did not grow up in New Orleans, this is thrilling: We’re walking on the train tracks! We’re walking down the middle of the street!)
We had arrived with a hypothesis to test, born of brief prior visits we’d each made separately. The hypothesis was that New Orleans was a magical city unlike anywhere else in America, where all of mankind could feel as one.
The Army Ranger, Josh, told us of experience that covered a lot of the human drama: his mother was a champion billiards player known to ESPN viewers as “the black widow.” His girlfriend of seven years had been killed by a drunk driver. His kid brother was a genius, an eleven-year-old, short-haired Willie Nelson whom he flew to Texas regularly to visit. He’d been to Iraq and Afghanistan, re-enlisting. He’d been shot twice. He could trace his lineage in New Orleans back two hundred years. He managed two Hustler Clubs, and lived right around the corner from them in his condo off Bourbon Street. He tells us he needs the chaos to handle life after the army. He needs pain meds to handle his knee. He earns $6,000 a month from his pension and another $2,000 from bartending. The biggest tip he ever made bartending was fifteen thousand dollars, after he taught an oil executive to make a carnation out of a bar straw and napkin to impress his wife.
New York had been snowy and cold, but New Orleans was mild, and the humid breeze reminded me of tropical places I’d been. I ate like I was in a medieval painting at a farm-to-table, local-focused restaurant, and drank sazeracs, the classy classic of New Orleans (as opposed to the Hurricanes served in giant neon plastic vessels), then bar-hopped along Frenchman Street in the Marigny, where there is music club after music club, getting wasted on beer. Did you know that in New Orleans you can ask for a “go cup,” and your drink will be poured into a plastic cup for you to carry with you down the street like the remains of an oversized pasta dinner?
Picking a bar at random, we were treated to a group of incredible musicians <playing a> kind of jazz-funk cover of Drake’s new “Hotline Bling.” I insisted we stop where there had been a cluster of poets for hire, with typewriters on rickety little tables and handmade signs. The twenty-something ones had packed it in for the night, but a more grizzled bohemian had yet to leave. I commissioned him, and he typed out a long poem, which was delightful to hear aloud in the moment but will have no literary staying power, and as an afterthought, an actually charming haiku. Feeling like the world was a place of connection, beauty, and abundance, I handed the poet a twenty-dollar bill.
I want to write about New Orleans with reverence. I want to talk about how nice it is that everybody calls each other baby, that people say Happy Mardi Gras. I want to talk about how the first time I visited, my mother and sister and I lost ourselves un-self-consciously in an exuberant second-line parade in which local and tourist, white and black, rich and poor, shimmied and swung in a teeming, joyous musical mass, pouring through the plainest streets and down the trolley tracks, drinking and barbecuing and joking all while in motion, past the historic mansions, all the way to the cemetery where young men danced thirty feet over our heads on the wall that circled the tombs.
But New Orleans, too, is a city with a past. It’s a slave trade city. A pirate city. A garbage city. A city where “fancy girls” were sold as mistresses—sex slaves—at elaborate quadroon balls. Lee Sandlin describes, in Wicked River, how the multicolored parades and streets were very disturbing to earlier generations who visited the city, as was the presence of African culture—voodoo. Once anathema to the white people who bought slaves, they are now enticements to the white people who come to drink up the wildness, the borderless-ness of the floodplain region, the pirate land.
Josh suggested we go to another bar. Wasted and excited, we said yes. Once outside, walking down the street with him felt strange. He must have felt the magic fading, too: he decided to go somewhere else, hailed a cab, handed the driver a twenty and told him to take us to the Clover Grill.
We were like yesterday’s parade beads, cast off and repurposed. I had expected, of course, to see people wearing the bead necklaces. But I was surprised to see them scattered on sidewalks, caught in tree branches, and piled atop fenceposts, sad and beautiful at once, catching the streetlight and shining.
We nursed our rejection for a few minutes, until we saw the glowing pink interior of the diner. While we waited for our burgers we made new friends, two young, wasted men who told us we looked like Steven Spielberg and Amy Irving.
The magic was back.