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March 28, 2000

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Only in New Orleans

by Debbie Lindsey

Thanks to my parents' love of Trout Amandine, I met her the moment I was old enough to travel. New Orleans captivated me; she was New York and Paris to a girl from Mobile. One hundred and fifty miles seemed a reasonable drive if a trout dinner at Galatoires was your goal. The rituals of our New Orleans' day trips deviated little over the thirty-some odd years and also acted as definements of my mother. Strawberries and cream, a side of well-done bacon, and hot tea were her constant as we'd start our day with breakfast at the Monteleone Hotel.

My love of hotel lobbies began in the Roosevelt Hotel where we would leave Dad in the company of his newspaper while we window-shopped. Canal Street transformed Mom into a frivolous schoolgirl. Those wonderful apparel shops allowed Mom and me the vicarious pleasures of being impeccably dressed for an hour or so. As a child, these excursions to New Orleans made me feel terribly grown-up and my parents delightfully young. Through the years New Orleans always placed the three of us on equal grounds, and we traveled as friends. New Orleans has always been a sister city to Mobile. For the price of a bus ticket or a tank of gas, you could leave behind the staid suburbs and feel the eccentricities of our wanton and worldly sister New Orleans. The white bread mentality of my hometown couldn't stand a chance against the power of a beignet. So, at the age of thirty-four, I crossed the Louisiana state line and made New Orleans my home. I left behind beloved friends and family and a sense of loyalty to certain places and things, but never a loyalty to the city itself. I was born to Mobile but chose New Orleans; and, in choosing her, she became my city.

Immediately I embraced the status of being a local and the routines that accompanied it. The rites of living in the French Quarter are constant and numerous, and clearly set you apart from the tourist. Avoidance of Bourbon Street is a matter of principle with few exceptions granted. A New Yorker pace is adapted by most Quarterites as a rebellious affront to the languid sidewalk-hoarding tourist. Yet the moment they respectfully and with much envy say, "Excuse me, you live here, don't you?" we happily turn into tourist guides, talking their ears off. The juxtaposition of tourists and residents in our overcrowded and fragile neighborhood creates its share of problems, yet it strengthens our pride in being a local. Out-of-towners are quick to notice that we know everyone. This microcosm is just a tainted Mayberry with Opie in dreadlocks. I delight in being on a first-name basis with locals ranging from the mayor to the street sweeper. And while this may not place me on the social page, at least the panhandlers defer to my residency and merely say hello. This small town warmth braces us somewhat against the dysfunctions of city life.

There are moments that define New Orleans when the excesses and extremes blend with everyday life, and you can no longer take issue with books and films that seem to exaggerate us, moments when we and our city really do live up to our caricatures, when the phrase "only in New Orleans" punctuates daily happenings. This adage is used to give a wry understanding to horrific problems and events, yet lovingly used to explain our quirks. Our extremes of good and evil are constantly blended together and the pureed results can leave us ambivalent. Yet most of our extremes co-exist and merely amuse or irritate, and sometimes even comfort us: wearing sunscreen and sandals in January, the aroma of roasting coffee competing with urine soaked streets, and a funeral alive with jazz music confound us. The excesses of our city are unrelenting in vying for our senses' attention. Our unruly weather, for instance, behaves as though Mother Nature is suffering with a hormonal imbalance, raging then tranquil, flashing hot and cold; I adore our weather and could never live anywhere without the threat of a hurricane. Some folks feel the need to strap boards to their feet and descend icy inclines or leap from planes; I just let the weather thrill me, the exception being August when the heat brings to a boil every year-long grievance with our city, and side-stepping our grievances becomes our daily workout, with pauses to genuflect before every air conditioner vent.

The French Quarter can exacerbate the bad times with its congestion of people and close corners, yet around every close corner is an experience or event. The annual William Faulkner Birthday writers' awards bash was one such event that shadow-boxed much that life in this quarter of the city means to me. St. Anthony's Garden behind the St. Louis Cathedral hosted this soiree. Standing on a gravestone, cocktail in hand, I posed alongside a statue of Jesus Christ. As my friend focused her camera, I took my own mental snapshots of the night. There is an odd sort of democracy played out at most French Quarter socials. Dressed to the nines, there were local elites, eccentrics, out-of-towners, artists and writers, and riff raff like myself hoping to glean a little culture. And occasionally a bit of poetic justice shows up. In this case, a well- heeled man known for lambasting the homeless was hypocritically relieving himself in the alley as an uninvited homeless wino swiped his unguarded cocktail. By evening's end, both men were equally drunk in their pursuit of happiness -- democracy at work.

There was a rich mixture of music and thick southern drawls spiked with a diversity of accents and a chorus of cicadas bringing up the rear. The chefs and bartenders were serving up more than enough to assist us in maintaining our reputation for overindulgence. I thought of all that recently nagged me about New Orleans and of my heat-induced plots to run away to the Northwest. I pivoted a glance once more of the garden alcove with trees and buildings equally full of life and history surrounding the evening's collage of hedonism and elegance given substance by the sheer power of talent everywhere. My friend, ready to snap my photograph, said, "smile." I smiled at my life here, turned to the imposing statue next to me, and toasted, "Only in New Orleans can you have cocktails with Jesus."


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