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New Orleans: Oh, how good it is to get away from the Northwest

And the lifestyle is different from ours.
Playing the piano in the street: A bicycle pulls it to performances.

Playing the piano in the street: A bicycle pulls it to performances. Liz Manning

A clarinetist leads a band in New Orleans.

A clarinetist leads a band in New Orleans. Liz Manning

Sometimes the rains here in the Northwest last so long that little white mushrooms sprout inside my window frame. I get this itchy feeling, like webbing has started between my fingers and moss might grow in my armpits. That’s when I draw the line and head for sunshine. Late in the cold, rainy spring, I bolted for New Orleans.

The minute I landed, I knew I’d found the right place. The air was sultry with warm humidity, the smell of magnolias in bloom. Don’t get me wrong. I love the scraggly outline and scent of Northwest evergreens, but there was a balm to New Orleans air that loosened my bones. “Lagniappe,” the little extra the Big Easy promises.

It was midnight, midweek, but the French Quarter, the oldest part of the city, was alive. No Starbucks and rolled-up sidewalks here. The crowds, both tourist and local, spilled for blocks into Bourbon and Royal’s cobbled streets. This year’s Mardi Gras was weeks past but spring break brought out the young men and women, their fists tight around neon green, foot-high drinks and “huge ass beers.”

A man pounded on his baby grand piano with neon-lit keys, his dark head pumping with intensity. The surprise was how he got there in the middle of the street. The piano sat on plump tires, the whole contraption attached to his bicycle in front. Down the way, a young Vietnamese woman serenaded with her electric violin. On another corner, a clarinetist wailed with her Dixie band.

No Northwest prudery here. Two strippers with long pink wigs and no shirts strolled along, their bare breasts exposed. On a nearby balcony, young men dangled shiny beads at a passerby to try to get her to lift her shirt, a tradition born out of Mardi Gras. She complied.

Now, you may not like the college frat atmosphere of the quarter, the oldest and highest part of the city that wasn’t hit some nine years ago by Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that inundated the rest of the city. But, you have to appreciate the laid-back tolerance New Orleans has for this kind of going on. The next morning, early, the crews were out hosing down the place and picking up the trash.

Tourism, which is back bigger than pre-Katrina, provides the city with major revenue, surpassed only by its port on the Mississippi River. You still see empty lots and some wrecked buildings in other parts of the city, but it is now 80 percent recovered, thanks in part to efforts led by actor Brad Pitt and musician Harry Conniff, Jr. The brightly colored new homes stand on stilts to avoid any future flooding.

The tolerance I sensed, I believe, is driven by something more than revenue, maybe that “lagniappe” attitude that grows out of the long history of Spanish and French roots. A gentler approach to what it means to be human, a grace in wanting to take time and enjoy the moment.  An expansion of the attitude in the Northwest that leads some to take a day off when the sun shines.

The young women, more voluptuous than their Northwest counterparts, flash lots of tattoos and cleavage but almost always set off by some black lace, at the bodice or the trim on the leggings worn under short, flouncy skirts. I saw an entire elevator full of women off to a bachelorette party wearing chartreuse, orange and pink net tutus around their hips.

New Orleans folks, like Northwesterners, make a big deal out of what they eat. “First rule,” one woman told me. “You must never go away from here hungry.” Add crawfish to our sea harvest of oysters and shrimp. And celebrate pork — pulled, barbecued and king here. One of the leading restaurants is fittingly called Cochon. I tasted pork face, which an earnest young waiter explained is the face peeled from the bone and left in the air to cure. It was delicious. Then, of course, there are all the famous Brennan restaurants, the originators of Bananas Foster. Dickie Brennan, one of the many children of the founding family, just opened a new restaurant called the Tableau in the quarter.


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