Friday, March 9, 2012

5 Reasons to Visit (And Question the Sanity of) New Orleans

Louis Armstrong, "When The Saints Go Marching In"

After a 9 year absence, I returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. More than anything else, there was a sense that not much had changed. The southern hospitality was still there, the overall jovial spirit was still there, even the playlist at Razzoo's bar was the same. And the beads. The massive amount of beads in every shape and size imaginable. Watching people do anything for these very cheap balls of plastic on a string will always be the most hilarious concept to me. And when you're in the thick of it, with thousands of screaming, laughing, and most importantly, accepting people around you, it all makes perfect sense. As my friend Jeremy put it, you feel "at home and on a different planet."

It's the same, but yet something's a bit off.

For this trip to the Big Easy, I was the experienced veteran showing around the newcomers. I almost felt like a local showing the out-of-towners how it's done in my town (even though I haven't been in nine years and I only lived there for 3 months). As I said before, New Orleans will always hold a special place in my heart. It's a place that stays with you. There is an indistinguishable, overwhelming atmosphere of pleasure over everything else that finds its way into your soul and never leaves. They handle life a little differently down there. Their response to hard luck and constant struggle is to party harder. They even named their most popular local drink after a natural disaster that frequently destroys a good portion of the city. Good food, good  music, and good spirits solve everything, and you are more than welcome to join them and find out.

"Poorly Constructed Levy System" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Hurricane".

Here are five reasons you have to absolutely love, or be completely baffled by, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Food
When we arrived on Saturday, it was raining rather hard, and it definitely affected the number of people out on the streets. I was starting to worry that we wouldn't get a great experience on our first night. Then we stopped to get dinner at a restaurant on Bourbon Street and my worries were put to rest.

I didn't really pay attention to any of the names of the restaurants because I knew they would all be great (and I was a tad distracted to be honest). We literally chose any random little restaurant we could find as soon as anyone felt hungry. And we were always satisfied.

Catfish, hush puppies, and fries for the first meal. 

Crawfish soup and biscuits with gravy made from God's semen, if God's semen is the most delicious thing you ever tasted. And why wouldn't it be?



If you are a fan of fattening food, or seafood, this is the place for you. Most of the food is fried and greasy, and served in large portions. Those oysters had to be exposed to gamma rays or something.

I love cajun food, and I had an excellent caesar salad with cajun chicken, as well as crawfish pasta. Late one night, I even succumbed to the street meat vendors and bought chicken on a stick. I doused it with cajun seasoning and went to town. I discovered that night that New Orleans street chicken on a stick = AMAZING.

Then there are Lucky Dogs. Anybody who's been to New Orleans knows about Lucky Dogs. I no longer eat mammals so there was no chance of me eating one; in fact, I don't think I ate one after my first trip ten years ago. You get to a point where you realize you will never eat one again if your life depended on it, and I reached that point after about 4 Lucky Dogs on my first trip. One of my fellow travelers did eat one, though, and he enjoyed it...until later that night, of course.

The majority of the food is absolutely delicious, but there's a reason Louisiana is the second fattest state in the nation.

The Music
Music. Sweet music. There's music everywhere. You walk into a random bar and a live band is playing, and they are always enjoyable. It's usually rock-and-roll or jazz, or a combination of the two, and there's a certain energy that all of the performers exude that rubs off on the listeners. The music is truly the lifeblood of the city. There's a tinge of melancholy, but it's always balanced with humor and the spirit of survival.

In addition to the live bands, there were parades with high school and college marching bands, loud music blasting through the windows and balconies, and impromptu parades with makeshift bands down the side roads. Walking down one side street led us into the middle of a random costume/dance/drum-circle/garbage-can-bongo one-block parade. It was fantastic.

There's nothing bad you can say about the music, but it's just fascinating to see how much music plays a part of everything, and how the music expresses the spirit of the place. On at least three different occasions, large groups of people started dancing in the street in what looked to be a choreographed dance sequence, except it was simply a group of people who heard music coming from a bar, saw other people dancing, and joined in, following the moves of everybody else. In the middle of a crowded street. I had never seen anything like it.

In a moment that truly reflects the positive, circular vibes happening in the NOLA, we were walking past the Dueling Piano bar, and one of my friends said, "I wish they'd play some Bob Marley. I'm surprised we haven't heard any." Twenty seconds later? They're playing No Woman, No Cry.


The People
On any vacation, the people you go with always make a big difference in the level of enjoyment. I've been lucky with all my times in New Orleans. I've had great company every time. This trip was no different. In our hotel room at the Queen and Crescent on Camp St. (to find it, walk down Canal Street towards the smell of used cat litter...great place, though!) there were four people: myself, J-Rock, Dizzle, and Feelin' Good Frank aka Frankie Fish aka Frankie Butt-Wipes aka Frank's Red Hot aka One Hurricane and I pull My Dick Out Frank aka Forever Changing Frank aka Frank Van Winkle aka Trigga Face Frank aka Flamingo Frank aka Southern Fried Puke Frank aka Motorboatin Frank. Long story short of this inside joke: Captain Frank wanted a nickname, so we had a few suggestions...

The point is, we came equipped with a good crew, which is important wherever you go, especially in a party with hundreds of thousands of strangers. Plus, there were several other friends of ours down there that we hung out with sporadically, so that was cool.

The other thousands of people were pretty cool, too. It's actually incredible when you think about how relatively few incidents of crime occur considering the number of (drunk) people in such a small space. I guess that says something positive about human nature.

I think it's just the vibe down there, too. Everybody is just chill. Starting the day with a beignet and a Hurricane helps, but Southern hospitality really exists. The locals are, for the most part, the friendliest people you'll ever meet. They move a little slow and talk a little funny, but they will make you feel like family.

Now, don't get me wrong, with that many people, and that much alcohol, it's bound to get a little testy. When you are literally shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, trying to walk down the street with a drink in your hand and not lose your friends at the same time, you get the urge to shove everybody by the face so they'll just move already. You've been walking all day and just want to take a piss, but there's a line 30 deep and the port-a-potty is overflowing with some kind of thick liquid that's going to  make you vomit just thinking about what it could be, so you're running out of patience.

And then there are the Jesus freaks. All due respect to my Christian brother and Sisters (I was one of you once!) but nobody wants to hear that shit on Bourbon Street. And if you think I'm being harsh, imagine getting harassed every day by dozens of naive college students, telling you to change your life. They're not even the worst of it. The worst are the people holding on to each others' shoulders and forming long lines down Bourbon, holding crosses and signs with phrases like, "Homo Sex Is Sin". It's all part of the absurdity,though. All aspects of life are represented. And it does give me a tingle of enjoyment when the Jesus freaks walk through the gay district and everybody boos and throws beads at them, yet nobody gets truly violent.

Yeah, it can get a little nasty. But for the most part, everybody keeps their cool. Besides, it's the tourists who are the assholes. During other times of the year, it's not nearly as overrun by drunk douchebags.

In another scene that reflects the spirit of New Orleans, me and J-Rock were down by the river, taking a break from the insanity on Bourbon. A young lady in purple spandex pants, a yellow and black tank-top, and what looked like ballet slippers, approached us and started chatting. She was very friendly, sitting on the rocks looking out at the river. She was from Atlanta and visiting for a few days. When the conversation turned to music, we asked what she liked and she said, "Oh, I don't know, everything? I'm not really sure. I'm on acid." And that little bombshell was not one bit out of the ordinary. It was just something that you came to expect after a few days in the Big Easy.

Hi, Sam!

The Beads

There are necks and torsos in there somewhere.

Some people (who have never been to Mardi Gras) wonder why people go so crazy over beads. They are just cheap plastic necklaces that usually end up staining your clothes and skin. They are an environmental catastrophe, and they make unsuspecting walkers-by slip and fall on the disgusting, beer-and-piss soaked streets, scuffing up their knees and embarrassing them in front of a group of young ladies ready to expose themselves. Goddamn beads!

But man, those beads are better than cash money down there. It's like any financial system; certain objects are valued higher than others, and the value is not intrinsic, it comes from the public's perception and demand of the object. And the public demands big, shiny, unique beads. 
Talking, dancing pigs get mad love, for example. Boas are also a hot commodity for the ladies.

Beads fly down from the balconies, fly up from the streets, fly over from the sidewalks...there is no escaping the wrath of the beads. There are always a few balconies that switch it up a bit, too. One balcony threw superballs down to the street, dozens at a time. Cups and glow-stick necklaces were popular, but possibly my personal favorite (besides the time I got the pig) was the guy on a side street off Bourbon throwing cheese balls down from the balcony. It was the perfect hit at that moment and it was just really funny watching people catch flying cheese balls in their mouths in the middle of the street.

The first night we were there, people were very generous with their beads. As a group of four guys, we got some really good beads without doing anything. It was surprising, but then I realized it was the first night for a lot of other people, too. They didn't truly understand the value of their beads. When it got to Fat Tuesday, the four of us didn't stand a chance of getting beads bigger than bb's, and our best beads only went to the most attractive, or the most daring, or the most massive, or the most unique sets of chest-puppies.

Some people who've never been there might judge others for flashing or doing some other silly act to get beads, but that's because you need to be immersed in the culture to understand it. There is no judging down there, there is no shame; flashing is such a natural occurrence that you are the oddball if you don't flash (remember that, ladies).

The Scenery
No, I'm not referring to countless bare breasts...well, ok, I am referring to countless bare breasts, but I'm also talking about the actual scenery: the buildings, the river, the parades, the costumes, the body paint, the artists, the musicians.
The talented street performers.

The awesome costumes.

The AWESOME costumes.

The Mississippi River.

The street meat trailers. Me.

Every aspect of the city captures the feeling of a population that overcomes constant tragedy with good nature and humor.

Now, this is just my perspective of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. But in my experience (which only extends to three months) it applies to the city throughout the year as well. I love the place, in spite of, or because of, all its faults. The city does what I want to do: enjoy life to the fullest in the face of  inevitable tragedy and death.

It's not an easy thing to do, but with enough practice (and enough beads and alcohol-based beverages) anything is possible.

I Love You All (And It Really Is A Wonderful World)...Class Dismissed.

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