City Portrait: New Orleans

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

With a full moon overhead, a warm spring breeze hums through the streets of New Orleans. I'm walking down Magazine Street to the French Quarter with the pulse of excitement quickening within. A man in a mask walks by with a drink in his hand. At the corner of Bourbon and Canal, another man quotes biblical warnings dark as the night. I walk toward the neon glare, the music and the crowds, beyond the point where cars are allowed in the Quarter.

Past the barricades, Bourbon Street is decked out like a huge New Year's Eve bash in mid-March. All ages, genders, and cross-genders stumble happily through the streets, littered with thousands of plastic cups. The thumping beat of dance music is mixed with the steady repetition of blues chords. Smoke spills from dark doorways. Hustlers try to get my attention and a look at my wallet. A crowd catcalls to the women on the balcony above a bar. One obliges with a jiggling flash that's followed by cheers and beads flying ten at a time. No discernible system or order appear to make it past the barricades, so I grab my first drink of the night and join the party.

New Orleans is hidden at the very bottom corner of this country in an oxbow of the Mississippi River. Descendants of French, Spanish, and African cultures have blended a way of life that exists nowhere else in the world. The home of Marie Leveaux and stateside voodoo, the setting for Anne Rice novels, the birthplace of jazz and most other forms of American music, New Orleans celebrates its iconoclasm and hosts Mardi Gras, the nation's biggest party each year.

Nearly everything in The Big Easy is suffused with religious symbolism, mostly from the ornate Catholic side of things. Still, filled to the brim though it is with culture, beauty and Christian imagery, New Orleans doesn't hide the fact that virtually every vice known to man is available in plentiful portions. It's as if the city's parents have forever left their mischievous children home alone with but one rule to follow in their absence: Anything goes.

Harmless merry-making and a little intemperance are encouraged this time of year. And not partaking in French Quarter revels is like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. Besides, a little tomato juice usually cures what ails you in the morning. Rejuvenated, I set out for my first full day on the town. Riding the Gold Wing 1800 I was assigned for this trip, I head down Magazine Street to the shops. Designer stores and windows packed with antique treasures beckon to passersby from both sidewalks.

Further west on Magazine, in an area known as the Garden District, the city becomes more residential, and I head north to St. Charles near Tulane University. The homes on St. Charles heading west out of town are some of the oldest, most splendid homes in the city. Originally plantation homes, they have grand white columns stretching the height of the façade, and beautifully manicured gardens blooming in spring color.

I stop at an out-of-the-way shack called Domilise's for a shrimp po' boy, a New Orleans staple, and the city's signature sandwich. Heading back to town, I check out the Riverwalk Marketplace, a suburban-style shopping mall that adjoins the Mississippi River and the Aquarium of the Americas. It doesn't reveal much of the true spirit of New Orleans, but it's a nice change of venue from the chaos of the French Quarter should one wish to do some quiet shopping.

Magazine Street turns into Decatur after crossing over Canal Street into the French Quarter, and Canal Street delineates the American side of New Orleans from the French Quarter. The style differentiation is clearly apparent as soon as the line is crossed. The downtown buildings stop abruptly on the western, American side of Canal Street. In the Quarter, an old Catholic edict still dominates - no structure may rise higher than the church. As a result, the whole area is capped off at three or four stories, and the only ostentatious structures to turn the eyes heavenward are cathedrals like St. Louis. Visible from Jackson Square off Decatur, St. Louis Cathedral presents a classic image of New Orleans. The statue commemorating President Andrew Jackson's heroism in the Battle of New Orleans anchors the foreground and the beautiful spires rise as though freed from mortal constraint in the background. Directly behind me, paddle-wheelers churn their way through the murky Mississippi.

Just another block down Decatur is the Café du Monde. No trip to New Orleans is complete without stopping here for coffee and a beignet. The chicory-flavored coffee is the perfect accompaniment to the sweet pastry, and the easy-going ambiance of the open-air coffee stand is part of the experience as well. Street musicians, mimes, jugglers, and performers of all types take their acts to the pavement in front. One performer spray paints his body silver and stands motionless and silent. When a coin is dropped into his bucket, the statue startles others who haven't see the gag before by dancing a jig.

Just across the street sits the French Market. This outdoor market dates back to the 1790s for the French, but the property's significance precedes that date much further for the Choctaw Indians. The spot has been a prime trading area for traffic coming down the Mississippi for centuries. Nowadays, its function is mostly tourism, but funky foods and items can be found at bargain prices.

I've chosen to bed down for the night in a quiet corner of the Quarter at the Chateau Dupré, an upscale establishment that provides excellent lodgings at a reasonable price. Its premier location simplifies the walk to all the French Quarter and American side tourist destinations. After washing up, I get a tip on where to find some tasty local fare.

Food in New Orleans has reached legendary status as a culinary specialty (just ask Emeril Lagasse). Interestingly, meals prepared in the Cajun and Creole traditions were never devised to attain five-star status. A good Cajun meal is a messy one, with lots of spices and sauce to be sopped up with bread and chased with good drink. The quintessential New Orleans sandwich proves that Cajun cooking was not designed with effete elites in mind. The 'po' boy is, of course, a smushed Cajun mouthing of "poor boy," referring to those who devoured the sandwiches. So, without one lick of culinary snobbery in mind, I enter K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen and order the crawfish special. Soon an enormous meal is steaming up half the table: crawfish bisque, crawfish etouffée, crawfish pie, fried crawfish, and a crawfish boulette - all served with a side of Tabasco® and a frosty beer. Crawfish special, indeed.

Tonight, I'm out on the town to participate in another New Orleans tradition - listening to the blues, live and in person, with a local friend meeting me for a meal at the House of Blues at 225 Decatur Street. The setting honors the many famous musicians who call this city home, and the kitchen in the House deserves some righteous kudos too. After a fantastic meal, my companion suggests taking in a performance by one of his favorites, Walter "The Wolfman" Washington, a legend in rhythm and blues circles, and one of Keith Richard's favorite New Orleans acts. We sit rapt in a dark and smoky club only a few feet from the "Wolfman" while he drops soulful guitar licks and sings with a gritty sincerity born of experience. Each year in late April, the "Wolfman" and a host of other headliners regularly stage performances at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, an event second only to Mardi Gras in attracting celebrants to the city.

The Blues may be sad; still, it makes one glad. The truly mournful aspects of New Orleans can be found elsewhere, and for the most part, they're readily apparent to those in the mood to look. Because the city's elevation is a few feet below sea level, burials are impractical. Stories of floods that sent the dead washing down the streets of the city are commonplace. The solution to this corpses-on-the-curbs problem became the aboveground tombs that are so much a part of the history and culture of New Orleans. French and Spanish influence in the city is also reflected in the cemeteries. A tour through Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 reveals the family tomb of the Mayfair witches, the dynasty Anne Rice fashioned Lives of the Mayfair Witches around. The first above-ground cemetery, St. Louis No. 1, was founded in 1789. Its crumbling ruins of idolatrous statues and the tomb site of Marie Leveaux accentuate a portion of the spooky underside of New Orleans culture. Voodoo practitioners still mark her grave with red bricks and leave offerings on a daily basis.

Unique traditions and the rich blend of cultures make a visit to New Orleans seem at times like a trip abroad. Walking past an alleyway or out-of-the-way corner can give off a sudden feeling that some dark, supernatural secret lies near, shadow close. Within a block, an ornate cathedral offers its airy sanctuary and a sense of serenity.

Call it what you will, vice or immoderation, the good times do roll - les bons temps rouler - at close quarters with the solid bulwarks of old time religion and the forces of moderation in New Orleans. On one side of the street, you have the temptations of the devil, on the other side, the obdurate symbols of faith. At Mardi Gras, when there's certainly more sympathy for the devils, the sides don't matter much. Adherents of all creeds gather for one thing dressed in many forms - a celebration of life. And don't we always have to step off the sidewalks and meet in the middle of the street to get serious about that?

"Eat, drink and be merry."