You say East Hampton, we say Big Easy
As the editor of this website, I thought I would just check in during these mid-summer-hazy days. While the country is going through one of the worst heat waves in history, I’ve always found myself heading down to what I call “Heaven in Hell,” that is New Orleans, when June-through-September roll around. The City That Care Forgot, but cares…a lot.
It isn’t a pretty picture on paper, but it’s how I like it. Personal grooming and style are thrown to the subtropical winds down here, but for on Fridays, when most of us don a sweat-stained seersucker, straw hat, and necktie, and hit Gallatoire’s to remember that we are NOT animals but civilized human beings. It’s the power-lunch of the city—one of the few establishments to abide a strict dress code–that rolls on through the day in the French Quarter, the place you might even sit with a member of the Haspel family, the clan that invented the seersucker as we know it in the States. One of them carries a little Derringer pistol in her pocketbook, because, here, you never know.
Why New Orleans, famously seething in the summers and prone to hurricanes (and of recent, oil spills), a place where the murder rate rises with the thermometer, and busted-ass tourist families pour onto the streets like the Pinesol-meets-puke mix that flows from Bourbon Street saloons, so much so that locals call the arrivals “Red Tide,” a flotsam-and-jetsam of cheapos taking advantage of low hotel rates and happy hours that go on 24-7? Lutheran busloads arrive, offering “FREE HUGS,” according to their neon-green T-shirts (while their dads sneak into the strip clubs). There’s a “swingers” confab. There’s a “red dress run,” in which men of the city—straight ones too—don red dresses in a race, just to break up the time. There’s the Satchmo Fest, celebrated favorite son Louis Armstrong. That’s a high point, and it just happened. I watched from my porch stoop as three second-line parades filled my balmy street, blasting horns and strutting with homemade umbrellas. Even the bums join the club.
It’s for all kinds of reasons I choose here, rather than my old stomping grounds of salty Montauk. Muthuh Nate-chuh provides Tempest-like drama, daily, with thunder-and-lightning storms that cool the sidewalks and mangle the palms, creating gushing waterfalls out of rooftop gutters. The streets Uptown are quite nearly empty, and you can just hear the wild parrots in the trees and bending water oaks cloaked with Spanish moss. Sometimes when bicycling, not a single car passes me after traversing 20 blocks of history and architecture not seen anywhere else but here.
This town holds its bones (including the above-ground cemeteries) like no other. Manhattan is getting its umpteenth makeover. Its history is being replaced by condo buildings by the year. Nobody interesting can afford to live there anymore. In the course of one day, I may spend $20 in New Orleans, and have good drink and even better food, made with love and pride. There’s RBR Mondays, when every bar and household makes red beans and rice, according to handed-down recipes. At the bars, it’s “lagniappe,” a little something extra, free. We have swimming pool parties, and everyone brings pitchers of Pimm’s Cups and sweet tea (maybe with something extra added to match the buzz of the cicadas in the magnolias).
It isn’t stupid being here. You can actually think, and that humidity off the Mississippi is good for your skin, a fountain of youth if you stay covered from the blistering sun. True, it ain’t the heat it’s the stupidity that makes people lose their minds here. I actually FIND mine. It’s a place to collect your thoughts, away from the neuroses of Manhattan, and away from the possibility of running into anyone you know, and are tired, so tired, of.
Bukowski said, “I could piss away my life in New Orleans.” But I discover mine here, where somehow it acts as a physical and mental rehab. The most unlikely place to detox. No TV, just live music. Go to bed early, rise early. Fresh produce, incredible food. Friends who don’t even know who Jack White is. Refreshing somehow. And to own a bicycle is to be free of the rising cab fares and piss-perfumed subways. You just….roll, silently, sleepily, dreamlike. People in any neighborhood take the time to say hi to you, even when they’re in conversation or fanning themselves, as there’s a blackout from “that last one” and the AC’s off. Everyone’s hands aren’t glued to iPhones and Blackberrys. Attention Deficit Disorder can’t exist, as there’s too much natural stimulation.
And you stop caring about being drenched in sweat. It’s funny, really. It’s sexy too. We’re all in the same sinking boat. Look at me here in this photo. I mean? Pictured at the Candlelight Lounge, a live music club in Treme that may as well be a rec room or Lion’s Club lodge it’s so devoid of “character.” The characters are surrounding you is why it doesn’t matter. Drinks, $3. Free fried chicken. And the amazing Treme Brass Band. No, it’s not a pretty sight. And the other night, I killed with a Gambit Weekly a cockroach the size of a subway rat, like that.
Beauty on the edge of decay, a town with more bars—just reported as fact—than any other in the country per capita. But when you see that many drunks, it makes you pull back, restrain, and just listen to the train whistles, the steamboat calliopes, and the tubas, just blow, baby, blow.
W’yat? New Orleans. See you in September, albeit dressed a bit more sophisticatedly, groomed mostly, for Manhattan in Autumn. And what’s better than that? – Steve Garbarino
Disclaimer: Kids, don’t smoke. I’m trying, lord, I’m trying.