A Heart’s Love For New Orleans

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My favorite time of year in New Orleans is early September, hurricane season, when the city is at its most elemental. Days begin clear and tolerably cool, but by noon the heat is blaring. After lunch massive banks of clouds begin to roll in from the Gulf, and then, most days, the sky turns a purplish color and there’s a midafternoon down-pour, very heavy but brief. After an hour the sun is out again, and you can see the vapor rising off the pavement, which gives off a sharp wet smell. All the vegetation takes on the intense, unreal green of an early color film. By five o’clock it is intensely hot again, and the heat doesn’t break until after dinner. Part of the attraction of going out at night for New Orleanians is that so much of the day, for half the year, is spent cosseted against the heat. The nights are cool and moist; after midnight a low fog sometimes crouches in the street bottoms.

 

The brief, clear, washed period just after the rain is the best time to drive a little ways outside the city to get a feeling for what, originally and fundamentally, New Orleans was up against. There’s a spectacular fifteen-mile stretch of Interstate 10 on the way to Baton Rouge—between the airport and the town of Laplace—that takes you across the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a flood-control channel between the river and Lake Pontchartrain. Here you get a sense of New Orleans blending indistinctly with marshland at its edges. Fifteen miles from town in another direction, to the south, are tiny bayou fishing villages like Barataria and Lafitte, whose relationship to the swamp seems to be one of well-earned mutual respect. If you drive back to town on any of the older highways, you’ll be able to get a whiff of old-fashioned Southern roadhouse-vegetable stand -prayer meeting rural life. New Orleans is deeply surrounded by the country as well as the water.

There are a couple of other excursions that are absolutely mandatory. At the foot of Canal Street you can catch a vast, creaky, free ferry that goes to Algiers, an outpost of the shotgun-house culture on the other side of the river that’s worth walking around in. (For some reason, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs once lived there.) The ferry is the best place from which to see the ancient wharves and the traffic on the river, and it gives a wonderful view of the French Quarter roughly as it would have appeared to people arriving in New Orleans by boat back in the days when that was the only way to get there.

The other required excursion is to some of the cemeteries. New Orleans takes death seriously. Graves are aboveground because, as legend has it, the water table is so high; elaborate because family, memory, and melancholy are so important; and tend slightly toward ruin, for the reasons given by Lafacadio Hearn. The oldest and most famous cemeteries in New Orleans are St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on Hasin and St. Louis streets and St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. between Iberville and St. Louis streets along North Claiborne Avenue. Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen, is buried there, and the cemeteries were the setting for the bad-trip scene in Easy Rider. Odd Fellows’ Rest, out at the end of Canal Street, is the most spectacularly disheveled of the cemeteries, and Metairie, nearby, gets the carriage trade. My favorite cemetery is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. in the Garden District, a lovely walled necropolis with whitewashed tombs.

A final obscure spot to visit by car is the Schwegmann Giant Super Market on St. Claude Avenue, in the heart of the blue-collar Ninth Ward. This is where Tennessee Williams’s Stella Kowalski would shop. It’s supposed to have been the world’s biggest supermarket when it was built, and it draws Huey Long’s “little people” (or, by now, their grandchildren ) of both races. You can buy ammunition, a wedding ring, or gaze in awe at endless display cases filled with fresh redfish, okra, Dixie beer, and Zatarain’s Crab Roll, all in an atmosphere of Essence of Local Color.

Most of a big city’s secrets are plainly unknowable. But in New Orleans they’re within, and at the same time just slightly out of, reach.

Otherwise, the older sections of New Orleans reward the aimless walker. From Canal Street, wandering downriver through the French Quarter will take you past Jackson Square and the Café du Monde, another tourist spot that the locals like too, and then into a sagging two-hundred-year-old neighborhood where you catch glimpses of anemic, fern-clogged fountains splashing in interior courtyards. At the end of the Quarter is Esplanade Avenue, with its huge, subdivided old clapboard houses, and if you cross it, you can travel endlessly through quiet neighborhoods where the sidewalks are buckled from oak roots, where old people sit on their porches all day, and where the corner bars do a desultory but never-ending trade. Going in the other direction, upriver, from the Quarter leads through downtown, where you can still sometimes see men in linen suits nodding cordially to each other on the way to their clubs at lunchtime: then across Poydras Street, at the end of which the Louisiana Superdome hulks menacingly; and then up through Coliseum Square, an early fancy American neighborhood that has remained stately through its long decline; and finally to Magazine Street, whose bars and often generously named “antique shops” stretch on into infinity.