What I Want Every Out-of-Towner to Understand About New Orleans
New Orleans is piss, pride, poverty, prosperity, and po-boys. I mean that with love -- but a love I came by honestly. I was born here. I've lived here for 30 years. This city still crawls with secrets, the neighborhoods, affluent societies, and places I've heard of only as whispers. I haven't been invited, and to some I never will. But I'm inviting you into parts of New Orleans now. Because this city, and its people, are your passport to worlds you haven't yet imagined.
Your oyster shucker might be a big chief in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, who sews beautiful suits that are rich with historical bearing but financially unappreciated by our city's tourism peddlers. Or you could run into another culture bearer who has played in second-lines since he could walk, even while earning his PhD. Your bartender might be one of the foremost authorities in the field, traveling the world to educate others on proper drinks.
We have head-busters and soul-savers on the same block. We celebrate the old-line opulence of Walker Percy's Moviegoer New Orleans, as well as the boys with bottle caps on the bottoms of their tennis shoes, tap dancing in the French Quarter for quarters, dimes, and dollars. The genius of our sons and daughters has shaped the world. New Orleans is a city apart from any other in America. And yet there is no one single New Orleans.
Take the chance on the place no one's noticing. Great adventures, outside your comfort zone, always ride tandem with risks.
You'll have to explore, read up, and talk to the right people to garner a rich experience. The biggest tourist magnet in the American South, our French Quarter, will try to trap you with her huge-ass beers, strip clubs, and pizza shops with frozen daiquiris. But too often the Quarter is not New Orleans at all. For me, in the French Quarter, the more neon a place has, the less confidence it inspires. My favorite spot there, Cane & Table, doesn't even have a sign. You have to walk around the line of people who are waiting to eat at the spot next door.
Take the chance on the place no one's noticing. Great adventures, outside your comfort zone, always ride tandem with risks. Measured risks. Don’t walk down dark alleys. Don't overindulge with your open container and fall into the Mississippi River. Use your grown-up judgment while you're here. But do take a chance.
This city offers the unforgettable
I took a gamble 21 years ago and headed to a jam session after the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was 1995 at Little People's Place, a quaint living room-sized watering hole in Treme. Locals went there for their browns, whites, and cold beers. I was a high school trumpet player, with enough skill to eke out a soulful note, maybe, across a 12-bar blues. Then I watched as an older player took my horn. Instantly, greatness reverberated from every surface of the room. Genius was present. I stood next to him, just beside the audience. A man tugged my arm.
He said: "Hey, I betcha didn't know your horn could sound like that."
"No sir," I said. "I didn't."
You never forget when Wynton Marsalis borrows your trumpet. Such excellence hasn't come from it since. But that night affirmed that moments like that can happen here. That's New Orleans for you. It's the same horn, with different results -- forgettable or iconic -- for different people.
In the French Quarter, the more neon a place has, the less confidence it inspires.
If New Orleans is the instrument, you are the musician. Don't play solo. So many folk here, tied to the city for generations, have an unwavering devotion to this place and never tire in showing it to the world. And there are locals who are fully uninterested in being your tour guide. We have some people who haven't been here as long, but who are also devoted, having caught the ethos of this city mid-tune. We also have a breed of newcomers who don't know much -- while seeking to change everything. Some people want to show the city that was, the city that is, and a city that might not be. So among those groups, your curiosity is your in.
"For me, it's about their personality and appreciation," Nicole Collins, 30, a research producer assistant for the T.D. Jakes Show, says about tourists. A few years ago, while moonlighting as a cocktail waitress, she constantly met people whose go-to restaurants were always in the Quarter. They would complain -- and she would occasionally take pity on them. Whether she offered them her insights depended on the conversation, the tips. On rare occasions, Collins personally showed patrons around to her spots, once they'd forged a real relationship. "If I feel like they really want to enjoy the city and they aren't assholes," she says, "I let them in on what I believe to be the jewels of the city."
Two questions to ask -- and one not to
Unlocking the city is contingent on your ability to connect with locals. There's no secret password, but being vulnerable and genuine is vital. The easiest opening questions are: Where should I eat? and Where can I find good music? Without fail, the answer to both, for so many of us, was Frenchmen Street. Free from the feral college-student crowds and the bright lights of Bourbon Street, it wasn't trying to be the shit -- it just was. I still head to Snug Harbor for jazz and enjoyment, often while mourning Frenchmen's Bourbon-like transformation.
Engage with New Orleanians. Talk long enough with locals about the city, and your questions will be addressed organically.
But that's me. Everyone's feelings and experiences carry them through the city differently. What's important to realize is that you can do it wrong. For one, don't let your curiosity about the city's disasters get the better of you. In this town, you can still trespass on people's grief.
When visitors ask Terri Coleman, 30, a public humanities scholar and writer, about Hurricane Katrina, she usually refuses the subject. Occasionally, though, she will answer "just to point out how fucked up that is as a question in the first place." For a decade, she says, people have asked about the storm casually, "like you're some trauma Google."
Instead: Just engage with New Orleanians. Talk long enough with locals about the city, and your questions will be addressed organically.
"We move through spaces constantly reconciling the before and the after," Coleman says. "Moving through memory and present. And lots of us do it out loud. We talk about how 'this used to be' yadda yadda yadda. Or 'so and so used to live here.' The answers come up. But WE should be the ones opening the door and inviting questioners in."
In this city, invitations are paramount. So stay open, to anything. Here, a lot of us will talk to strangers while waiting in line. Folks offer you food, grab your hands, and pull you on the dance floor. And instead of giving you directions, they might just take you there.
Appreciate New Orleans -- but please don't move here
I've long suffered with a double consciousness: keeping this nearly 300-year-old city a secret while, conversely, wanting everyone to know its brilliance and importance.
Know that I hope this city will be great in your hands. It's my desire that you'll have positive experiences you remember forever. Some of me wants you to discover those tucked-away haunts, where an internationally renowned musician might sit in with the band. But it just won't be at Little People's Place. Since 1952, the same family has run that neighborhood spot. Photos of past patrons and musicians line the wall. To the right you can find two photos of a teenaged me, by Michael P. Smith, with members of the Mingus Big Band, Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, and Wynton Marsalis. But now, in the "New New Orleans," it can't have live music there anymore -- it's considered a nuisance. There, even selling alcohol is in jeopardy.
And that's why I also want you to go home. Don't mistake your weekend lust with being truly in love. Please don't move here. Nope. For far too long, outsiders have thought a three-day fling is their sign of a readiness to be committed to New Orleans. Nope. The live music, like at Little People's Place, was cool until they moved here. Now, as residents, they’ll take legal action to stop it.
I'm not saying you can never come back -- or even stay, if you decide to tie the knot with NOLA. But if you ever do, you have to accept the forgettable notes with the iconic. You have to be inconvenienced, pissed off with just how different this place is and how frustrating it can be. You have to see all sides, because New Orleans is beautiful. This city keeps fighting to change, fighting to stay the same, and just fighting to fight.
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