A clarinetist leads a band in New Orleans. Credit: 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.
Used to be that people would tell you that while in New Orleans, you better order a Bloody Mary because the garnish would be the only vegetables you’d get on your trip. But the chefs here seem to have taken a note from Northwest cuisine. Almost as ubiquitous as pork and seafood was a side of shaved raw Brussels sprouts, albeit often with a sprinkle of bacon bits.
Coffee. There’s an occasional Starbucks but more often, local outfits like the famous Café du Monde down by the river feature coffee made with chickory and its slight bitterness. Lines stretch around the place, open 24 hours a day, everyone waiting for the deep fried powdered sugar covered treat known as beignets. The floors around the tiny café tables are sprinkled white, as are the fronts of most customers.
Before we leave the quarter, there is Preservation Hall. Can’t think of anywhere to match it in the Northwest. This ancient little room is dark inside with just two overhead lights and benches for the audience. There is no amplification, no air-conditioning. But, a visit here is essential to anyone who loves traditional jazz. The night I was there, a line of ancient black musicians marched in to their seats and began their songs. The lead trombonist, who had to weigh 400 pounds, rose, sweating from his chair and, a la Louie Armstrong, spread his arms and sang, “Take all of me.”
The city’s embrace of life extends all the way to their dead, buried in raised graves in cemeteries all over the city. When I couldn’t find my guide at a cemetery up in the elegant Garden District, the volunteer at the wrought iron gate said he’d fill me in. A plump little man with a neat white beard, he wore a T-shirt stating he was against the death penalty.
He wanted to share how the graves, dating to yellow fever times in the 19th century, were built with a hole inside toward the back so they could be continually used by families. The graves turn into ovens during the long hot summers, reaching 200 degrees, like a crematorium, he explained. When the next family member needs burial, the cemetery takes a big shovel and pushes the old remains to the back where they fall in the hole. Then they roll in the next one.
Back to the living. I can think of no finer place to mingle with the locals in New Orleans than the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘N Bowl. The last bowling alley I went to in Portland is going out of business. But the Rock ‘n Bowl and their Thursday night zydeco is going strong. The musicians and their squeeze box concertina keep the dancers stomping while nearby you hear the crack of bowling balls hitting pins in the several lanes.
Four glorious days of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s soothed my angst. It did rain, but not until the morning I left. I took solace in the promise of even more abandon when I got home. In my luggage, I had half a dozen sweet pralines from the French Market. See’s Chocolates, eat your heart out.
Photo of cemetery memorial with beads: Sonya Zalubowski