April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The modern city plays host to conventions and tourists, but it still retains the slightly racy charm that has always made it dear to its natives
Writers have been good to New Orleans, or maybe it’s the other way around. Quite a few of the giants at least passed through and scribbled something down (Whitman, Twain, and Faulkner fall into this category); there are a few really major New Orleans works, like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Moviegoer; and there is a long list of local mid-lit, quasi-genre authors, like Frances Parkinson Keyes, Grace King, and Lyle Saxon, not to mention several fine works of journalism, history, anthropology, and musicology. But I think the distinction of being the one essential New Orleans writer rightfully belongs to George Washington Cable, a man whose fame was far greater a hundred years ago, when he was Mark Twain’s lecturing partner and the most prominent white Southern liberal on the race issue, than it is today.
In Cable’s work is codified the basic mythology of New Orleans, which has to do with the way the city was in the period between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. What was going on then, in general, was a rivalry between the sophisticated Creoles, who had run the city in its French and Spanish colonial days, and the raw, innocent Americans, who streamed in after New Orleans became a part of the United States. But even this colorful fact is much too dry to convey the essence of New Orleans. To get a feeling for that, read Cable’s The Grandissimes or, especially, Old Creole Days, and let the ambience wash over you like a wave: plantation houses lining the river… masked balls… endless, rich meals… slaves playing protojazz in Congo Square… coffee… sugarcane… family feuds… haunted houses… dashing young men challenging each other to duels… voodoo… quadroons, octoroons, and every other possible variation on mixed blood… legends passed down through the generations.… trackless, Spanish moss-draped swamps… in short, Romance. The second sentence of The Grandissimes gets the feeling across about as well as any short passage: “Under the twinkle of numberless candles, and in a perfumed air thrilled with the wailing ecstasy of violins, the little Creole capital’s proudest and best were offering up the first cool night of the languidly departing summer to the divine Terpsichore.”
The rest of the country isn’t, and never was, this moony. Most of the standard American obsessions simply aren’t applicable to New Orleans—the New Orleans that exists in my Cable-besotted mind anyway. Success, for instance, isn’t much of a preoccupation in a city that peaked in national importance more than 150 years ago; status in New Orleans depends less on worldly position than it does in any other city I know. Foreigners are often struck by how willing Americans are to move on to another town, but New Orleanians aren’t; having to live elsewhere is regarded as a tragic fate. And New Orleans is too Latin to concern itself much with sin and guilt. The Southern lament for the Lost Cause doesn’t run very deep there.
Nature is different in New Orleans too: more sensual and luxuriant in its pristine state and, even today, ultimately unconquerable. On nature, Cable must yield his title as the great New Orleans mythologizer to his contemporary Lafcadio Hearn, who after some years in New Orleans became one of the first English-language chroniclers of Japanese society. In Hearn’s New Orleans novel, Chita, there is a wonderful scene in which, in a typically New Orleanian plot twist, the Creole hero comes upon the gravestones that friends have mistakenly erected for him and (not mistakenly) for his wife. It stands not just as the best description of the mood of New Orleans’s cemeteries but also as a pure distillation of the feeling that all works of man in New Orleans represent only temporary victories over the all-engorging vines: “Under our Southern sun, the vegetation of cemeteries seems to spring into being spontaneously—to leap all suddenly into luxuriant life! Microscopic mossy growths had begun to mottle the slab that closed her in;—over its face some singular creeper was crawling, planting tiny reptile-feet into the chiselled letters of the inscription; and from the moist soil below speckled euphorbias were growing up to her, —and morning-glories,—and beautiful green tangled things of which he did not know the name.”
From about the age of ten, I was convinced that this New Orleans, the city of Cable and Hearn, was my New Orleans, the city I was growing up in during the 1960s. When I lived in Texas during my twenties, I was amazed to find that my contemporaries there, who had grown up in the Houston suburbs, imagined themselves to be part of an unbroken continuum of Texas frontier culture—it seemed so obviously self-deluding. But I was just the same way. To a kid at least, myths suggest an orderly way to process reality, and so they become reality. I had a small nuclear, but large extended, family, of the kind that was always at the center of nineteenth-century New Orleans fiction; I remember the Sundays of my childhood as having been entirely devoted to social calls on an endless procession of great-aunts. Some of my cousins lived (and still live) in a plantation house in the country that we all regarded as the seat of the family. I was raised with the expectation that I’d join one of the family businesses, a law firm in New Orleans whose clients, some of them at least, were exotically Southern. My father used to take me to a coffee importer’s office where men sat at a round table taking large sips of samples in demitasse cups and then spitting them vigorously into spittoons. We ate the storied New Orleans diet. The society page of the Times-Picayune was full of descriptions of “demoiselles” being presented at fanciful balls. The one not purely local event that affected us, the civil rights movement, was entirely consistent with the old New Orleanian view that race relations is the only political issue that really matters.
When I was seventeen, I began working for a weekly newspaper in the French Quarter called the Vieux Carré Courier. I recently referred to it in print as an underground paper and was severely reprimanded by another of its former writers, so let’s call it “alternative.” Its office was in a second-story loft right near the French Market, in a part of the Quarter where there were lots of hippies, aging bohemians, gays, and bars catering to sailors at port, but few tourists. Just at the time when it might have begun to occur to me that perhaps the New Orleans I was growing up in was not as exotic as I thought, I was plunged into an environment that was truly exotic, at least by the standards of a bourgeois teenager. I remember experiencing a joy of discovery not just when I was interviewing colorfully seedy characters but even when I was filling the Courier's coin boxes with the week’s new edition, which was one of my duties. Every corner where I stopped seemed to contain the quality of Orleansness: there would be a bar too weird to exist anywhere else or a crumbling pastel-plastered building from the 1700s. After work I would roam the city endlessly like Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, in a literature-induced fervor.
At one point I was working for the Courier and holding down a part-time second job as a researcher on a project to study Double Dealer, a short-lived literary magazine that was New Orleans’s entry in the Southern literary renaissance of the 1920s. My work consisted of reading on microfilm every issue of the Times-Picayune for a ten-year period when William Faulkner was writing for it (he also wrote a tiny bit for the Double Dealer), to see whether there was anything that the Faulkner scholar Carvel Collins had missed (there was, but it wasn’t very good). I also checked old city directories to determine the comings and goings of literary figures like Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway and interviewed aged members of the Double Dealer’s staff.
Somehow I contrived to fit all the disparate elements of my life into a continuum. My grandmother claimed to have known Faulkner in the twenties, as a bothersome drunk at parties. This was hardly incredible, because for fifty years her mother and sister had lived in the Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square, considered the oldest apartment building in America. It was right around the corner from the building where Faulkner lived, on Pirates Alley. The managing editor of the Courier, a man so bohemian that he used to give nude dinner parties, lived on Pirates Alley and was named William Faulkner Rushton.
Once, working on the Double Dealer project, I interviewed a man named William B. Wisdom, who wore a long white mustache, a white goatee, and a white suit and reminisced about the famous Southern writers he had known. A couple of days later he called me to say he had been shocked to see my byline in the Courier. “Son, I knew your grandfather, and I know your father,” he said, “and you are a traitor to your class!”
This was fine with me, partly because it was a romantic way to conceive of myself and partly because I was rebellious anyway. New Orleans is more cocoonlike than Manhattan, with less justification. Nobody wants to leave. The outside world and its concerns seem vague and distant. Even travel, outside the much-loved surrounding countryside, isn’t especially alluring. I grew up in one of the most insular parts of this insular city—Uptown, which is near Tulane University and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. It has big old wooden houses on small lots (land has always been expensive in New Orleans because it so often has had to be reclaimed from the swamps). Audubon Park sits in the middle of Uptown, for recreation, and downtown is only three miles away. Everybody seems to be everybody else’s cousin. The constellation of social events, bars and restaurants, and employers that limn people’s lives is an absolutely fixed one. Fathers take their sons duck hunting; girls make their debuts. With the important difference that there is no longer any social distinction between people of Creole and people of American descent, things have changed remarkably little over the years, leaving Uptown unusual in the national context for nineteenth-century traits like the importance of family businesses and the formality of society.
I knew everything that was wrong with Uptown, but at that point I couldn’t imagine ever leaving either. My heart’s love for New Orleans was much more powerful than my mind’s disapproval. I can see now that what was behind all my reading, my work, and my ceaseless wandering around the city was a desire to construct a different New Orleans for myself—a bigger, richer, funkier one, one that would have my complete loyalty. I wanted to find all of life there.
A basic fact about the city is that it is more than half black. As in other cities, there is an increasingly sharp split between the black middle class and the more numerous black underclass, but in other respects black New Orleans is somewhat unusual. For one thing the Catholic Church is a substantial influence, especially in the black middle class, and for another the black neighborhoods are checkerboarded around the city, rather than concentrated in one place. This is a relic of the days when most blacks worked as servants and had to be near their employers; it means that today there are at least half a dozen noncontiguous black neighborhoods in New Orleans with distinct personalities. When I was growing up, there was a great deal of contact between the races, but all of it was ritualized. The general feeling was that blacks knew more about whites than whites knew about blacks. The typical white’s contact with black culture was through attending the occasional wedding or funeral or listening to the black radio stations, and these experiences had the aspect of a tiny peek into a vast unfamiliar and unknowable world.
The other baseline culture of New Orleans was the white working and lower-middle class: Catholic, Democratic, educated in parochial schools, employed in the port or by the city, and living in the long, narrow, closely packed detached wooden houses that are locally called “shotgun houses” in neighborhoods like (at the lower end of typicality) the Irish Channel and the Ninth Ward and (at the higher end) Mid-City or Gentilly. This is the part of New Orleans that’s now slowly disappearing—the New Orleans of neighborhood corner restaurants with a “ladies’ entrance” (directly into the dining room, rather than through the bar) on the side. Blue-collar employment in New Orleans is way down; there has been substantial movement to the suburbs. Much of the working-class area near the Mississippi River was gentrified early, by floor-stripping young couples. Today the formerly typical white New Orleanian—a middle-class family man living within the city limits—is atypical, and he probably lives in the fifties suburbs along Lake Pontchartrain and votes for the Republican presidential candidate.
There is also a substantial sub-New Orleans for tourists, which New Orleanians see every day but rarely experience directly. It would be possible, I guess, for a visitor to a convention to spend a week in New Orleans and come away with the feeling that one layer down it’s just another Sun Belt town. The drive in from the airport is uninspiring. In the tourist heart of the city, which runs from the upper French Quarter down Canal Street to the river, the charms of New Orleans have been so codified and routinized that it feels as if they were simply invented one day by hoteliers. You can hear watered-down “Dixieland” jazz played by men in Gay Nineties costumes, eat red beans and rice or boiled shrimp at a Rouse Company food court, or go to Bourbon Street and get a feel for what was risqué a generation ago. I’m displaying some of the native’s hostility to tourism here; actually, some of the tourist demimonde of New Orleans is worth seeing, and there are certain beloved institutions—Mardi Gras, Galatoire’s restaurant, the Fairmont Hotel (which New Orleanians still call the Roosevelt)—that the locals are willing graciously to share with the tourists.
In further fairness to unimpressed tourists, the charms of New Orleans have gotten more difficult to communicate to outsiders than they used to be. In the 1940s a lot of the men who had invented jazz were still playing, and well; New Orleans was one of the few provincial cities with good restaurants and bars, a racetrack, and other mildly indecorous forms of recreation available; and there was less of an overlay of interchangeable American culture. The deficiencies of the city that natives barely notice —Caribbean-style black poverty, potholed streets—have gotten worse, and are off-putting to visitors from outside the South.
It is very difficult truly to get the feel of New Orleans if you don’t have a sense of the peculiar intermittent connection between the past and the present. Everything is encrusted in local legend. The enormous columned mansion in the Garden District (in Cable’s day the neighborhood of the American arrivistes, today the starchiest part of town) has only a single third-floor light on in the evening. Who’s living there alone? The aging unmarried grandchild of a turn-of-the-century tycoon? Is such and such restaurant still run by the Mafia? What about the high-priced hooker who used to pass the afternoons languidly drinking café au lait on Burgundy Street. Did she ever find a sugar daddy? Has the young guy drinking in the Audubon Tavern gotten over his broken engagement yet?
New Orleans can’t, and doesn’t want to, make this side of itself accessible, but it has made an earnest and admirable effort over the last twenty years to celebrate something closer to its true self than the old Bourbon Street-Dixieland-Mardi Gras nexus. The city had one of the earliest and most heroic local architectural preservation movements in the country, whose greatest victory was preventing the construction of an interstate highway through the riverfront area in the French Quarter. By the time the battle finally ended, during the Nixon administration, New Orleans had gotten a good fix on its local culture. The Jazz and Heritage Festival got under way. There was a revival of the fifties rock and roll of musicians like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. Chefs became national celebrities for the first time in the city’s long history as a mecca for eaters. More distinguished old neighborhoods were rehabilitated—not just the French Quarter but also places like the old warehouse district near downtown, the Faubourg Marigny, below the French Quarter, and Julia Street, in the middle of Skid Row. Even the colorfulness of the local politicians, which gave A. J. Liebling such wonderful material in The Earl of Louisiana, began to be thought of as a kind of civic asset. Movies set in New Orleans now routinely evoke its funkiness, and you can get Cajun food all over the country.
This has been fortunate for New Orleans, which is ever more economically dependent on its own charm, but it’s a tricky game to play. My friend Tom Bethell had a theory that the day traditional jazz died was the first time it was played before a seated audience, as opposed to the clientele of a whorehouse or a dance hall who didn’t know that what they were hearing was a serious art form; as soon as the music was removed from the context of unself-conscious everyday life, it stopped evolving.
It’s frightening to imagine that New Orleans might have distilled and refined its basic attitude so well that it becomes self-conscious as a place, to the point where people there will begin to wonder whether they’re being colorfully happy-go-lucky enough. But New Orleans is in no danger of becoming another Dallas, many years of hype from the local business boosters to the contrary; in fact, it could profit from having a little more bland economic and civic efficiency. The danger is that it will become another Miami Beach or Las Vegas or Atlantic City. All of those places were founded as resorts, so they were always made-up versions of themselves. New Orleans was a colonial outpost that became an important port, and its culture is an authentic one; but now, cut off from its roots and relentlessly celebrated, it seems fragile.
The city most like New Orleans in its shifting of roles is Venice. Since Venice has been a tourist city for more than two centuries, it stands as a heartening model for New Orleans, showing how a city can be supported by travelers’ money without cannibalizing itself in the process. It’s true that Venice is no longer important economically, politically, or artistically, but it does have an indigenous way of life—including such New Orleans-like institutions as society balls and a plate-lunch cuisine—that still seems vibrant. As in Venice, the best thing to do in New Orleans is simply drift through the city soaking up the feeling of the place, though in New Orleans you need a car to do it properly.
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.
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.
I’ve walked these walks a million times. Somewhere along the line I faced up to the harsh truth that I wouldn’t be able to find the things I wanted most in life in New Orleans after all, no matter how hard I looked, and I moved away. But something keeps drawing me back and back to my wanderings through the city. It isn’t the joy of pure discovery anymore; it’s an older person’s passion, the need for a fixed, familiar core in life.
New Orleans holds out to me an elusive promise of omniscience. In a straightforward American small town, people feel they know everything about everybody; there’s no point in continuing to search. In most big cities, most of the secrets are plainly unknowable. But in New Orleans they’re within, and at the same time just slightly out of, reach. When Ellen Gilchrist’s much-praised book of none-too-fictional scenes from the intimate life of New Orleans In the Land of Dreamy Dreams was published, the reaction in New Orleans was: Oh, everybody knows all those stories already. So it’s oddly natural to feel that if one were to read just a few more books, or walk down a few more blocks, or reminisce with a few more old codgers, then one might finally have the whole story of New Orleans assembled in one’s mind, and the city would be in one’s possession. That lizard sunning itself on a fence post or the curtain drawn shut in that window—each one might be the finally necessary piece of information. But it never is. There is nothing to do but keep looking.