People Make New Orleans

Tourists walk on Bourbon street in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 2006. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A foreigner’s take on the Big Easy

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I had my first taste of southern hospitality the day I moved to New York. A young woman from New Orleans, whom I had met only briefly over Skype (she had advertised a room in the Bronx, though I preferred a room in Manhattan), had asked if anyone would be picking me up from the airport. No, I told her. I didn’t know anyone, let alone someone with a car. “Oh, then I’ll come get you!” she said. Her name is Keri and we’ve been friends ever since.

Keri’s family, whom we stayed with earlier this month, live just outside New Orleans. They are just as generous as she. Soon after arriving, they sent us to a nearby market to pick out some shrimp. “This is your first time in Louisiana?” the lady behind the counter said, tossing crabs carelessly out of a bucket. Yes, I told her. “And this is gonna be your first boil?” Affirmative. “Girl! You are winning, winning!”

Word traveled fast about Keri’s Scottish friend from New York. And their family home became a revolving door of friends. One visitor, Miss Cindy, waltzed in with a big grin on her face and an old fashioned in her hand. “Did you drive here with that?” someone asked, aghast or impressed. “Yes,” she said, taking a self-congratulatory sip. “It’s easy, if you just drive sl-ow.” Another friend introduced me to his mother as a singer and asked if I could sing something. I sang “Amazing Grace.” “Beautiful!” she said, wiping away tears.

Back in high school I had studied Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, set in New Orleans, and had imagined the city to be extremely charming. I wasn’t disappointed. However, walking around the French Quarter, riding the St. Charles streetcar, visiting the aboveground cemetery, all had a strange effect of image-replacement: almost like watching a movie adaptation of a beloved novel, knowing that you’ll never be able to remember how you pictured the characters before seeing the actors.

Hungry for some history, we visited Oak Alley, which had been a sugar plantation, a cattle ranch, a rice operation, a country home, a chicken farm, and where a majestic conclave of oak trees swooped over a carpet of green. Keri said people go there to get engaged, just for the pictures. I said I thought this distasteful, given what the place had once been. But according to the entrance sign that was all ancient history: “200 years is a long time,” it read. “A very long time.”

An awful siren wailed on our ride home. Keri explained that they run these as tests the first Thursday of every month at noon, in preparation for hurricanes or tornados. I asked what would happen if there happened to be a real tornado on the first Thursday of the month at noon. That floored her. “Then I guess we’d be screwed,” she said.

Nevertheless, the resilience of the locals is remarkable. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, causing catastrophic damage and over 1,200 deaths. At the Louisiana State Museum, the Presbytere, an overturned piano stands at the entrance of the Katrina exhibit, signifying the storm’s destruction. Most of the damage was caused by flooding, of course — after the levees broke. Horrifically, some residents drowned in their attics after struggling unsuccessfully to get out. Other stories were more hopeful — about those who had risked their lives to rescue others. Once rescued from their rooftops, many were deposited in the city’s football stadium, the Superdome.

Football matters a great deal to Americans, I’ve learned. Keri’s dad managed to get four tickets to the NFL playoffs, the Minnesota Vikings versus the Saints. In order to mark the significance of my being included, Keri’s dad digitally altered a family photo scoring out those who would not be coming to the game and inserting me, instead, as a stick woman.

The pregame experience was hardcore (and I say that as a Scot). We had shots with breakfast, mimosas while tailgating, and hurricanes (the notorious New Orleans cocktail) during the game. After all that, I was worried I might fall asleep, but the game was too gripping. When the Saints lost (and I admit I had to check that was what had happened, since no one spoke, and I still don’t fully understand how it works), Keri’s dad said, “Well, Maddy, now you get to see a New Orleans funeral.” He was devastated. As we were leaving, one fan shouted: “It could be worse — we could live in Minnesota.” That’s the spirit!

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