The Vanity Fair and Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Steve Garbarino profiles his alma mater, the city of New Orleans, where he began his career working for the now greatly diminished Times-Picayune. He reminds us that America’s weirdest, sultriest, sometimes hottest, and most murderous city isn’t definable in the conventional travel-story sense; you can only get a feel for it by living there.
photography by ALEXIS DAHAN
text by STEVE GARBARINO
As a state of mind and a natural fact, you do not so much land as sink into New Orleans. While much of the loamy, paddle-fanned, Spanish-mossy, French-architecture-inspired turf of this relatively small city is just below sea level, it is also a subtle, subtropical oasis that is well beneath anyone’s (that goes for Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, too) ability to accurately capture in its multitudinous nuances, its blatancies so banally extreme they only act to shroud the stuff that matters.
It hits hard, the whiff of it all, as you do truly “land” at Louis B. Armstrong Airport and step into the summer heat (my unlikely favorite season), its wall of Haiti-on-the-Bayou air — briny, balmy, decaying, sugary sweet — an opaque wave of nostalgia as pungent as the Kodachrome memories that brown-bottle Coppertone suntan lotion evokes. I have history here, even as recent as this past summer (“1860s-era 3-bedroom, 3-bath, Creole cottage, 3,500-plus square feet, swimming pool, Gov. Claibourne’s old mansion: $1,500 per month”), having worked as a features reporter at its once-daily newspaper, as well as having waited tables (The Upperline, Sbisa’s) from Uptown to Downtown, always trying (but not succeeding) to eschew the touristy Quarter, until finding a place a summer ago on Pirates Alley, at the corner of the antiques row of Royal Street and the bishop-burying cemetery that backs St. Louis Cathedral. I lived — well — on nearly nothing, comparatively speaking.
The typecast trappings, of course, are legion: garish, donkey-braying, hee-haw Bourbon Street, with its alkie “living” statues, its swollen-bellied strippers with g-strings of heart-shaped gold, its bad saxophone art and comedy-tragedy masks, its busted-ass unofficial mayors telling you just exactly what’s wrong with the city, its braying cat-callers shouting “Show us your TITS!” aimed at visiting State-U. Sorority girls, who boozily oblige, then get abused, “The Accused”-style, over the glass of a pinball machine. All the laughter dying in sorrow, all yesterday’s parties.
Amateurs, it divines them into its Key West-like anything goes-ness and then, for the ones who stick around and succumb to the city’s deceptively laissez-faire air (people WORK here), they become, within two years, 21-going-on-68, a poet and a songstress, lifetime lovers, after a few brutal brain-cell-percolating summers and multiple failures, “the walking-dead.”
As Sinatra sang, “If you can make it here, you’ll make it” … well … A-whaaaaht?
It’s slow-sand, New Orleans, not quick, like the hourglass wielded by the Wicked Witch of the West, an arithmetic of time ill-spent-well, less of an uproarious second-line march than a sluggish walking catfish crawl, trudging forward, primordially-dumb, seemingly, but with more wile and intent than it’s going to give you “face,” until you have earned it. There is wit, go find it. Example: Homemade sign, nailed to a telephone pole, in the suddenly Hopping-John downtown Marigny neighborhood, spoofing the city’s clichéd slang line, “Yeah you right”:
“I THOUGHT ABOUT IT YEA IM RIGHT.”
“Colored Only: No Whites Allowed.” Another favorite bit of bar signage, this one found at the rustic tin-awning-framed jazz-and-blues club Vaughan’s Lounge, in Bywater, an upcoming but still rebel-yelly enclave between the Lower Ninth Ward and the Faubourg Marigny. Seeing the placard you can’t but help laugh.
Sweeping like a street-cleaning Zamboni through the high-blood-pressure breadth of it all is a nearly insurmountable task. There is its sacred and profane history and culture, its bizarre-o city law ordinances (don’t dare “toss” a crustacean during a street parade), its culinary, musical and religious traditions, and ceaselessly entertaining notoriety (a large part of its charm in an increasingly blah-dern society). There are the tales of the founding French “cannibals” in 1718 (as one moronic vampire tour guide described them), the marauding Spanish arrivistes (in 1763), the thugly Americans (with the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803), and in-between and forward-backward the charismatic warehouse-overseeing pirate Jean Lafitte (1805 and on), the yellow fever plague of 1853 (which wiped out 8,000 of the population), the voodoo (overplayed), the vampires (real and Goth, red beans, Anne Rice), the aboveground mausoleums (spurting neon blossoms from zephyr-fallen seeds), the specters that often feel all too real, the Grand Guignol-costumed krewes, the cocaine-adrenalized, grass-hopping horn players, the demagogic “All the Kings Men” and their shoeshine constituents, the garlic-clove-nosed cops on the take (never so corrupt as depicted on TV), taking advantage of their understaffed dilemma (less is less).
And, more up to date: the levee-negligent apathy of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina (RIP, roughly 2,000), the oyster-suffocating, shrimp-dwindling BP oil spill, and now, as we march shakily toward the Super Bowl, held this year in New Orleans’ Super Dome (not to mention February 12’s binge-before-Lent’s-purge climax called Fat Tuesday), in light of the fall of the redemptive empire known as the New Orleans Saints, those hometown-saviors, now wrongfully relegated to the status of thugs, mercenaries, in the NFL’s Bounty-gate: “Breesus Saves” (the slogan on the popular T-shirt hailing quarterback Drew Brees), he felt abandoned.
When the Saints won the Super Bowl (in 2010), a game I watched in epiphanic disbelief at a French Quarter swillery named Cosimo’s, crime temporarily vanished in a city that regularly boasts the nation’s highest point-scores for murder. Such is the power of a town that is forever the underdog, despite being the single most spectacularly exotic city in the United States. When the mercury rises, so do the crimes: You, too, would beat your wife or husband if you had no AC in the crippling heat. (You thought about it, you did.)
Confounding, thy name is New Orleans. Newcomers love the place for all that’s wrong with it, and the town itself doesn’t get what it’s got. But like a protective ex-husband, don’t dare slam the ex-wife: You didn’t live through that bitch. Nonetheless, it is magical, a loathsome word in all its triteness, but never better defining the modifier. Saint Louis Cathedral — on the French Quarter’s donkey-diapered ground zero, Jackson Square — looks like something Walt Disney might have commissioned. He did not; it works. Looks, like the true meaning of it all, are deceiving in New Orleans.
Catholic to its core, shamelessly cavalier in its indulgences, a place where a grand 1830s plantation can be saddled with a red-brick 1970s crackshack, a world where straight men call each other “dawlin’” (but gay men “butch up” for appearance), where a flickering gas-lit street, lined with rocking chair porches, chiaroscuro-shaded secret gardens and wrought-iron balconies (appearing as Olde World-wholesome as a Rockwell or a Hopper), is actually as lethally dangerous as a gas chamber; where A-list restaurants (that’s you, Casamento’s and Patois) are only open sometime-of-the-year three-days-a-week (well, greed isn’t part of the program), where a surprisingly small populace — 350,000 or so — often do their damndest to block well-meaning newcomers with indigenous-respecting ideas, from “gentrifying,” say, a decrepit gasoline station with a new face), in the name of “historic preservation.” Old queens do that everywhere. The town bites off its nose despite its many masks.
The Quarter Rat, a locally alternative staple-rag the size of an expired passport, ran a headline called, “It Ain’t the Heat, It’s the Stupidity.” That may be cruel in its overall weight of what New Orleans’ problem is. But, one wonders, “What the fuck?” sometimes.
Stupidity and dignity snuggle like Teletubbies, one of many contradictions and enigmas of the city. There is no in-between. Downtown (the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater, the Lower Ninth Ward) and Uptown (the sort-of Warehouse District, the Irish Channel, the Lower and Upper Garden Districts, the University Area, the Riverbend) have no real Mid-City crossing. It’s akin — and there are many attributes it shares with Manhattan — to how dyed-in-the-wool downtown New Yorkers refuse to venture up past the “nosebleed” section.
As elitist as it may seem, if you ride a bicycle — and do rent one if you are visiting (for about $30 dollars a day if you’re not a simp) — you must, to any respectable Uptowner, be too poor to own a car, making you a “Quarter Rat” (despite a sudden Bloomberg-ian penchant for bicycle lanes in New Orleans). The various tribes don’t mix much. “Quarter Masters” similarly pooh-pooh going “Uptown,” making it sound like some kind of sellout, when in fact to not traverse magisterial streets such as Camp, Coliseum or Walnut is to commit blasphemy. “What, we got all we need right here.”
One thing that the more-proud-than-they-let-on New Orleanians aren’t: “earnest,” despite the tone of HBO’s well-meaning Treme, named for the city’s downtown enclave, where jazz music got its first solo act. (When I first watched the show, I just sat there and thought, Are you kidding me? If during Katrina a cop actually arrested a jazz performer for smoking weed, he’d be shot on the spot by the multiple guns pointing out the Frenchmen Street windows). The ad campaign read: “Won’t Bow, Don’t Know How.”
They bow and they blow all the time. But what they all have in common is the fact that — after the hurricanes, oil spills, murderously high crime stats and mayors-gone-bad (not to mention truly confusing residential zoning laws) — they all have to live together in something close to harmony. Blacks and whites here are friendlier and more understanding of each other, palms down, than they are in a limousine-liberal-dominated place such as Manhattan. It may be one of the true misconceptions about New Orleans, a town where everyone says hi or heydie (or “awww-right”) to each other if they are passing by a street porch.
An affinity for “local color” is another common bond they can’t even try not to abide. It’s part of the fabric of a culture accustomed to things not being normal, ever. The daily Times-Picayune — where I used to work and which was a once-lackluster, high-society-minded newspaper that got its dick on during and in the wake of Katrina (then, this summer, was circumcised into a three-day-a-week printed kitty litter liner) — was where you could find the news of the day. Sensationalistic reportorial findings are so common that the paper seldom embellishes with witty headlines. When the body of an infant was mysteriously discovered in an abandoned Canal Street fleabag joint inhabited by squatters who were all mimes — some of them of the silver-robot variety — no one thought to run the story under the heading: “Baby Found in Mime Hotel: Mimes Not Talking.”
Here’s one that got it right: “Beating with gold lame boot brings five-year term,” The Times-Picayune, Saturday June 20, 2009.
“The weapon was one gold lame boot. The victim: An early-morning patron at a French Quarter bar known for welcoming drag queens and their paramours. The perpetrator: Walter Black, 41, of Belle Chasse, who had already racked up convictions for robbery and extorting some $10,000 from a priest he was having sex with and blackmailing in 2001.”
Estimated value of the boot: $10. Goose-bump-inducing to its core — even in limb-useless 100-degree August weather under a gunpowder-gray sky, blackened on the edges as you like it — elation and dread (see: Beasts of the Southern Wild) sleep together with no mosquito itchiness in a big brass bed, its springs shot like a Nova’s shocks.
The sensory overload of it all — the aroma of wild roses and magnolias, steaming crawfish and blue crabs and RBR (that is, red beans and rice, simmering in every residential and otherwise kitchen, every Monday); the hiding in plain sight of all those wild birds (egrets, monk parrots, pelicans) a New Yorker does not ever see (alligator-turtles snapping at said birds in Audubon Park); the chills of a spontaneously organized second-line or a nude-biker brigade (led by envious motorcycle cops) — do not culminate in a complete picture, and beg a hatchet-wielding editor.
Herewith, a short-list of great, dubious, and euphoric moments I have experienced while doing about a dozen years of time down there, from Uptown to the Irish Channel, the Marigny through more recent outings in the French Quarter and its reaches:
1/ Attending this year the mid-summer funeral of one “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, a fabled and natty Treme brass band drummer, whose body was embalmed, upright and leaning on a lamppost (as he did), placed on display at his wake at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home. After a marginal storm had put a rain check on his funeral march, his body was laid in a casket and carried through the Treme streets, where thousands attended.
2/ Having a well-endowed dwarf at the Oz nightclub, dressed in a g-string and New Balance running shoes, smack me “by accident” in the head with his andouille-sausage-sized schlong, while he go-go-ed on the bar to ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” Then dwarf apologizing, then, flirting, lulling in my ear: “I heard you’re a real cowboy!”
3/ Being invited to a swanky dinner party at the French Quarter compound of the Rasputin-like painter George Dureau, only to find I’m the only normal-sized attendee. It was a dwarf dinner, Little People being very “big” there.
4/ Urinating, one stinking drunk night, from my Pirates Alley balcony upon an unwitting ghost-tour group, who were wielding fan paddles shaped like skeleton heads. Their top-hatted guide, talking in faux-Cockney, no concept of place, explained to them, “Malevolent spirits.”
5/ Discovering along the Riverbend’s manicured levee a perfectly laid out set of men’s clothing, from the top of the straw hat down to the prison slides. It looked as if a UFO had extracted the man’s body from his material shell and carried him off to somewhere stranger than this. The life-sized paper doll of attire remained there, as such, for most of the summer, hardening like starch.
6/ Broke and pining for that Christmas spirit, pilfering a yuletide tree on the holiest of eves from an unmanned French Market lot, tossing it in the back of my Pontiac Grandville ragtop and tearing on gas fumes Uptown to my humble abode. To decorate with what was there.
7/ Driving, during Hurricane Elena (1985), into an open manhole, breaking the car’s axle, then leaving said vehicle on the street to go have a Bloody Mary in the electricity-deprived Igor’s Bar. Returning next day to find a 4-foot snake in the back seat. 8/ As a participant-victim in the city’s alternative version of Pamploma’s Running of the Bulls, being walloped on the tush, repeatedly, by a Whiffle-bat-wielding Big Easy Rollergirl wearing skates, fishnets and a makeshift Viking helmet.
9/ During yet another of the city’s summer diversions, donning a frilly red shift — along with about a 1,000 other like-dressed gentlemen — and jogging the wet-dawn streets of the Vieux Carre.
10/ Bar-hopping on galloping horses alongside formally attired friends who kept the steeds in the Audubon Park stables. Stopping at any saloon that still had rungs to tie them to for such stop-ins.
11/ Standing by and watching, agog, as a friend’s collie leapt from my Irish Channel townhouse window, plummeting to its death. The house — which featured as a highlight a Vreeland-red room that turned inexplicably freezing in the dog days of summer — was later deemed dangerously haunted by resident poltergeists (of which there are more than a few).
12/ Witnessing James Booker, the late-great barrelhouse piano player, throw himself backward through the front window of the Maple Leaf Bar, Uptown fixture, during one particularly rapturous moment. Wiping the glass off his three-piece suit, Booker went back inside and played until dawn.
13/ Watching a nightly dusk display of little brown bats fly from the chimney of a deserted house across the street from my loft: the bats then turning in formation toward my balcony’s palm tree and settling busily into its weighted-down bows. 14/ Losing, then finding, my cat Mau — a rescue I saved from the banks of the Mississippi — hiding in the once-notorious St. Joseph’s Housing Projects. Amid gunshots, I was ushered through an open door by a female stranger for an early supper (with her entire stupefied family) to wait out “the trouble” outside.
You never really understand a city until you’ve stayed there during its most undesirable time. And there is no city — and I am prejudiced but correct in this assertion — this maxim holds true for more than New Orleans, the United States’s singularly strange-but-truly-mysterious port. That time is during the summer months, which the locals — turning up their noses at the flotsam-and-jetsam of the soggy 100-degree-plus weather commingling with the neon-drink-chugging, low-rent tourists that flood the city — refer to as “Red Tide,” a literal-figural menstruation of the Elements mixed with mankind at the lower reaches of the map.
Truth is, the summers are spectacular, a time to detox — all that sweating — and take in the brooding morning and early evening storms that roll in off the river. You can read books on your balcony or front porch, pop a cold one and silently cruise the empty streets shirtless on a Schwinn. The rain brings out the smells of the city, particularly its jungles of flora. My favorite route was a No Trespassing roll of sun-buckled sidewalk on the Esplanade Wharf, framed by train tracks and the Mighty Mississippi. Listen: All at once, you can hear calliopes, thunder, steamboat horns, train whistles, a tuba playing from someone’s shotgun, the clanging of streetcars. It’s an indigenous orchestra, discernable only in New Orleans.
The city isn’t definable in the conventional travel-story sense. An old 1940s song, rife with references to sweet-smelling magnolias and squeezebox-lilting Creole music in the air (the Louis Armstrong-Billie Holiday version is most familiar), is called: “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” The “meaning” can only truly be found in living there.
The French Quarter has been compared to the Magic Kingdom (so deceptive are its Greek Revival, Creole cottage and Victorian facades). There’s The Ruby Slipper, the tin men everywhere, posing mime-style frozen, making me wonder how they don’t suffocate with all that paint in the oppressive summer months. And there is the inane rasta-haired douche, who, morning after morning, strummed the lilts of “If I Only Had a Brain” on a fiddle… and me, the “noive” to be offended.
There’s a history lesson in the names and cadences of the streets. But do not presume you know how to pronounce them. While most words sound French, natives do their best to fuck with you: Perrier Street is “Per-E-err,” Milan Street (like the Italian city) is “MI-lan,” Burgundy is “Bur-GUN-dee,” Carondelet is “Cah-ron-del-LET,” not “LAY.” “Calliope” is Cal-E-OPE.” Then, you got your streets named after the Muses, from Melpomene to Terpischore, Euterpe to Erato. And more streets, both literal and what-the-fuh, such as the silent “T” and “chop” of Tchoupitoulas and Thalia, Humanity and Abundance, Press Street and Freret (emphasize the “RET”), Flounder and Flamingo, Bamboo and Babylon, Piety and Mystery, Music and Religious, and all those Generals, from Pershing to Ogden.
Etch it all in your memory, own it; don’t black it out like a one-weekend stand. I thought about it. Yeah I’m right.
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