Whenever people ask me where I live, I say “Las Vegas,” and pause a beat, and add “Not near the strip.” It elicits opposing reactions; a blank stare, a sneer or downright hostility.
Las Vegas once the wild west was intended for cowboys, and if you have ever been to a city social event, the chaos and lack of organization still musters a dog and pony show. Then came the Mob and the casinos and nightclub scene gave rise to a little city with dirt roads. Those who lived here at the time reminisce about those good old days- how the Mobsters generously provided locals with free food and drinks and there was one schoolhouse where everyone rubbed elbows. Decades later, with the arrival of Howard Hughes came the corporations and federal money outlaying master-planned communities that became suburban bland.
The worse thing about being in the desert is not the heat, I can live with temperatures rising but I can’t live in a intellectual and cultural void where the days have such a sameness to them, a hypnotic placidity, like a pool where nothing ever changes. I float on this pool. The quiet rhythms of existence would have driven me to desperation a few years ago and the only way to combat the missing and necessary stimulation for my mental survival is to break away to places where culture, beauty and nature thrives.
Having been asked to go to New Orleans over a decade ago, I declined but two years ago when Steven and I planned a business trip to Biloxi, my mental fantasies conjured images about steamboats going down the Mississippi carrying Scarlett and Rhett on their honeymoon. After Katrina the French Quarter was still in tact and despite all the rhetoric about danger, I vocalized my idea to my husband and a week later-presto!
New Orleans, is nothing but festive. Just as I had been told, it is like being in the 19th century, because the French Quarter or, the “Vieux Carre,” is in both the geographical and the chronological sense a different place within the larger entity of New Orleans, which is not really part of America. The architecture isn’t necessarily French either, it’s actually Spanish.
But like everything about New Orleans, is a layering of clashing histories like a Napoleon (still served fresh at the Croissant d’Or Cafe on Ursulines Street). And I find two new cliches rush to complicate its jelling reputation: vampires and writers. Anne Rice bought mansions in New Orleans from the riches the Vampire Lestat brought her, and her presence drew the Vampire wing of the Goth-tide to her Halloween Balls.
Every time I walk out my door I am blocked by mobs of tourists on vampire-tours led by unlicensed tour guides who sometimes come to blows with each other when their rival crowds intersect.
Writers drawn to the mystique of other writers who had lived on the ill-lit streets of the Vieux Carre, flock to New Orleans; the annual William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams festivals swell year after year. And poetry venues like the Gold Mine Saloon are premier stages for young dreamers. Now I am in my element.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is being filmed on the streets during our visit.
The two steady charms of New Orleans are music and food. From the jazz to the latest indie combination bands of R&B and nouvelle retro explode with energy. We stroll into an intimate club, Snug Harbor where we listen to a blues band then head over to the Spotted Cat, a rustic club, the place is packed with memorabilia and upbeat people. So we make our way in and finagle some ringside seats, a rattan settee near the front window while I people watch. Musicians jam while my husband, also a musician intent on watching, eyes are fixed. At the end of a number the bass player, a robust guy with gray slicked back hair, dressed in black pants and a black turtleneck, moves between the parting crowd with supreme confidence walks up to Steven shakes his hand and says, “I love you man.”
The bartender slung a towel over his shoulder, and calls out.
“Hey Joey, where ya been?”
“Oh hey good ta see ya Max. Me and Sheri jess got back from Arizona. We wuz at dis place northa Phoenix. Some place called Zedona. It’s got dem rocks an shit. And got lottsa dem new age types runnin around all in dem vortexes.”
“So ya hadda good time?”
“Yeah, waz all right. Played some golf, drove around some and bought some stuff. So listen, gimme a Johnny Walker Black onna rocks, ana Chardonnays fur my frenz, will ya?” He pulled out a fold of bills and dealt Max a twenty.
“Sure ting, boss.”
We thank Joey and later when we leave walking down the street a woman standing along the curbside gently pulls me into a club placing a washboard over my head handing me a pair of thimbles. A Zydeco band behind me plays Cajun music but to my ears its a mixture of two steps, reggae and rock n roll while I jam with them. Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll!
Our next and final stop, is the rustic and candle-lite Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, an atmospheric piano bar, it’s crumbling plaster makes it appealing and kitsch, and it’s the oldest bar in the U.S.
The powers that be in New Orleans are full time and are in business- a city known for jazz and voodoo, and the fading glory of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of bohemian pleasure done Southern style.
The next morning after a visit to Cafe du Monde to savor the world famous beignets, a fried doughnut sprinkled with powered sugar we pack a few things for a day-trip in our rented car that we did not need in the French Quarter. We take sight of the huge engineering failure known as Katrina that let in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and drowned a myth, bringing to the surface instead the rank poverty and misery of a huge city that tourists never knew, a city ten times the size of the mythical burg carefully crafted out of travel guides. The sobering glimpse of the formidable challenges the city faces with debris, destruction, boarded up houses, potholes, and malfunctioning street signals. It’s a visit to a third world country, right smack in the United States.
Another twenty miles and a drive through the suburbs where all is quiet with private schools and SUV’s and zoning patterns clearly laid out by the signs of stillness. Spanish moss stands on either side of the Destrehan plantation done in a simple West Indies style built in 1787 by a free man of color. This discovery coincides with the book I’m reading, The Known World by Edward P. Jones that takes an unflinching look at slavery with all its moral complexities. A costumed guide leads us through the tour where we discover tea was kept under lock and key.
By evening, we find young chefs make restaurants hip by reconstructing Creole cooking, and ever-roving gourmands in search of new tastes descend rapaciously on New Orleans. A gastronomical lover of seafood, I sample etouffee, a spicy Cajun stew of vegetables and seafood, it’s served room temperature. The tastes of most foods would read like a scroll, the ethnic diversity makes me glad I came hungry. It could make a food lover adopt the city as a new home.
As we leave the city we pass old cemeteries, and I reflect that I’d like to be buried here. I love the fancy dress and my eyes light-up to the sparkle. Sensory expression is everywhere. The city is alluring, funky and artsy. Not a typical southern or American city, it honors its European heritage. Then I’m reminded of a song that plays in my head used in funeral marches. The joie de vivre is contagious where a spirit lives on.