But before I step on the scale, I am going to linger a little longer in New Orleans, a city I love. I was in my 30s before I made my first trip New Orleans. There’s always a danger that when you visit some place so well known, that it will disappoint. (Unfortunately, that city for me was London. I was 15 when I went; it was my first time to Europe and I was met with a modern city. I knew better, but I guess I was expecting something a little more Shakespearean. I grew to like London and would never pass up a chance to visit again. I learned my lesson though, to approach cities openly, on their terms.)
I don’t remember much about the ride from the airport as my mind was filled with stories of Blanche, Stanley and Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire*, of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces**, of Ruth Avery from Dinner at Antoine’s***. Then there they were – Creole cottages and townhouses, shotguns, galleries, cast iron railings – the backdrop to these stories.
The French Quarter at once felt familiar, not just the product of another’s words, but my story was here too. In 1877, Lafcadio Hearn wrote that New Orleans resembles no other city on earth, “yet it recalls vague memories of a hundred cities” and the traveler finds “some remembrance of something he loves.”
Instead, I had a book in hand. My friend Kara had given me Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children . . . and Other Streets of New Orleans! by John Chase. As I keep saying, history is not about dates, it’s about stories. In Frenchmen Chase tells the stories behind New Orleans’ street and is easily one of the best reads of New Orleans history that you will find.
I was staying on Burgundy Street (pronounced not like the wine, but like bur-GUN-dee), named for the French king Louis XV’s father, the Duke of Burgundy, who had died before having a chance to sit on the throne. Burgundy crosses Toulouse, Orleans and Dumaine (among others). The Duke of Orleans was regent of France during New Orleans founding and was much hated. Toulouse and du Maine were royal bastards of Louis XIV. Every corner has a story to tell (or to be kept).
The following day, I was going to meet my friend Marie, who is from Louisiana and whom I had first met when we were both working in Boston. It had been a few years since we had seen each other, but she was going to drive across the bayous to meet me in New Orleans.
The plan was to meet at my hotel on Burgundy sometime around 11 a.m. I had returned from a morning of exploring the Quarter, and yes, I probably had a beignet or two (okay, three, they sell them in threes) before returning to my hotel.
Ah, to sit on the gallery. It was the perfect perch to watch the street below while I waited for Marie to arrive.
I sat down and realized this scene needed a beverage. I ran down to the courtyard to get a can of Coke. The machine refused my dollar, refused my quarters. Although frustrated, I remembered seeing a bar just across the street, so I decided to head over there to get a glass of Coke.
I walked into the dark and empty bar. The bartender was getting ready for the day, but headed over to me and asked what I’d like.
“A Bloody Mary, please.”
That came out of me. I was surprised. Not only had I gone in there for a Coke, and had every intention of ordering a Coke, I had never ordered a Bloody Mary before in my life. Perhaps the Quarter had spoken on my behalf.
“Would you like that to go?”
Again I was surprised. It’s not like I didn’t know anything about New Orleans, but after years of living in New England, I was still getting used to Seattle where you could buy beer and wine in the grocery stores. Now I was being asked if I wanted my drink to go.
Plastic cup in hand, I headed back up to my gallery.
The French speak of goût de terroir – the taste of the earth – and how the sun, soil and growing conditions affect the taste of wine. It’s a term people use now for coffee and foods too. Perhaps rather than the goût de terroir, it was the taste of the place – the sights and sounds of the Quarter, but that bloody Mary was the best I’ve ever had. And now, like chicory coffee, a bloody Mary takes me back to New Orleans.
Shortly, after I sat down, I got a call from Marie that she was running late. It would be a while before she crossed the bayous. I walked across the street a couple of more times before Marie arrived. When she did arrive, Marie showed me around town, a native of Louisiana but not New Orleans. She took me out for my first ever oysters and showed me a drive-thru daiquiri stand. When I knew Marie in Boston, she was always off exploring the city. It was a lesson that took me a while learn, but it’s from Marie that I finally learned that you don’t need to wait for vacations to explore.
Over the years, my visits to New Orleans have become tamer. More time spent eating (somewhat amazed that is even possible). A decade of visits and it was only on the last trip that I made it to Marie’s hometown. After a couple of days, I made my way to New Orleans. My very first trip to New Orleans, I approached the city from the airport taking the highway into the city, hardly scenic, yet I fell in love. This trip, I approached New Orleans from much farther west, crossing the bayous as the sun set.
With that drive alone, I’m a little surprised I don’t live in New Orleans.
The city inspires stories, so much so I nearly forgot I was about to step on the scale.
* Stella!, my bike, was named in part for Stella of A Streetcar Named Desire.
** A Confederacy of Dunces is in my top five favorite books of all time.
*** My dinner at Antione’s is a story for another day.