It’s hard to describe New Orleans to someone who’s never been here. There are words; but sometimes words don’t land like they should. They don’t stir. The moment you get here, the moment you walk the streets, you realize it’s unlike any place you’ve ever been. And to the right spirit, it pulls you in, almost immediately. The love story is always the same with this town.
I’d lived in Minneapolis for ten years, Minnesota nearly my whole 29. I moved here on a whim, almost on a dare. I’d never even visited. The first night, walking the Quarter with a friend, stopping in the Spotted Cat for a random set, just breathing in the air—heavy, full, bloated air not at all like midwestern air—it felt like I was being welcomed back by an old friend. Like I’d been here before, like it had missed me; and it was telling me I was right where I was supposed to be.
The city selects her partners well. Sure, she will bed a few tourists. A good sport fuck is needed from time to time. But she keeps her heart locked away for those of us who really understand her. Those of us who accept the scars on her streets, or her at times poor hygiene, her pock-marked neighborhoods that can often resemble somewhere in between the second and third worlds. Those of us who look for adventure and something extraordinary. Those of us—she keeps close. And rewards.
Natives will probably never quite understand just how strange and unique this place is.
Mardi Gras is, of course, part of it. It’s what she’s known for, right? Like that band you love that had that one hit in the 90′s and it’s the only reason your dumb, less hipstery friends know about them. “That song’s okay,” you plead, “but you really have to listen to their first record.” But they never listen. As an outsider, I was a skeptic. It seemed to be, as far as I could tell, a bunch of drunk frat boys hanging off balconies tempting drunk college girls to show them their tits for a few cheap beads. That has its time and place, I guess. I’m not anti-drinking. And no one has ever accused me of being anti-tit. But Mardi Gras never struck me as something more culturally significant. I came into February with few expectations.
But sometimes the one hit is the band’s best song. And despite the bullshit that comes along with the madness—the endless traffic, the trash, the noticeably more obnoxious tourists, the noticeably drunker frat boys—I’d say that might be true of New Orleans, too. It’s everything it bills itself to be, and so much more. It’s excessive. Absurd. Full of vice. Wasteful beyond belief. No, really, really—a fucking waste. But, mainly, it is full of love. And full of a sense of community in a way that no other city can come close to touching; at least not in this country. It crosses cultures and class and race. It is America. Or, at least, what we all pretend America to be.
I missed entirely too much of it, of course. I caught Bacchus and Barkus. That was it for the parades. I was stuck working most of the time, in the Quarter, relegated to observing from the street, carding 19yo’s with fake ID’s, making up fake directions to restaurants and hotels I have no clue where the fuck are, helping stupidly drunk girls hail cabs. And of course most of the tourists suck, as tourists often do. They can’t help it—they’re tourists. They see Mardi Gras on TV or Girls Gone Wild videos and assume New Orleans is their personal trashcan for a long weekend. They come not to party, but to binge in every sense of the word. Often it’s pathetic. But, still, they are part of what makes it what it is. Mardi Gras would just be another week of Second Lining if it wasn’t for the million or so people packing the streets.
On Fat Tuesday I was stuck working until 4am. I was day drunk by the time my shift started, but I hid it well. I had taken photos earlier around Frenchman and the Quarter. I had made friends with a drunk bumblebee and a gay man in a nun costume. I saw some tits. I shuffled down Bourbon a bit, taking a few more photos before saying ‘fuck it, everyone here sucks and I can’t move’ and wandering down to work, where everyone also sucked.
When I punched out, finally, Decatur was empty, like the city had been evacuated for a storm they’d forgotten to warn me about. Only the trash and a few random drunks, hobbled like zombies, trying to find their way home, were the only signs to show something wonderful had happened here. I walked back to Bourbon. It reminded me of winter in Minneapolis. Crews were busy clearing the streets in the middle of the night while everyone else slept. Only there was no snow. It was garbage. The remnants of the world’s biggest fucking party.
By morning they would be cleared, like the storm had never come, like the snow had melted away by sunrise. I imagined a fair amount of drunks waking up the next morning, in a fog, wondering if the whole thing had been one big magnificent dream. Only their hangovers, and if they were lucky, Chlamydia, to prove they were here.