There was the cemetery, the grass still woven together with silvery dew. Camera-toting tourists ambled through row upon row, looking. My husband and I were there with a sense of purpose, my skirt dragging through the soggy grass as we traipsed, passing crumbling facades of unkempt graves. People stacked one atop the other. Hundreds of them. Because when you are gone, what better way to rest eternally than sandwiched among bone-laced cement?
But it’s not a place to lament the dead, no. Rather, those left behind. The woman who Scotch-taped a Father’s Day card to her husband’s grave, perhaps; that’s the stuff that makes your heart hurt. But it’s what separates the living from the dead: the capacity to go on living and loving, despite…everything.
The last time I drove through the Lakeview district with my husband, things were apocalyptically different. But that was 2005. We are here now; it is eight years later, and things are humming with activity. The last time my husband saw his grandparents’ house, it was a piece of collateral after the storm to end all storms. The porch screen, tattered then, drooped like loose skin off the house. River mud clouded the warped wood floors in the living room and bled into carpets, and shards of glass were scattered around the furniture.
But things look better, so we park our car to survey the progress. The house looks much the same structurally, but it seems to sag a little less, breathed back into existence by coats of fresh paint, new landscaping and cheerful inhabitants.
So, death, life … then lunch. Isn’t that always the way here?
We’re swiftly revived by a chilled corn broth with fresh crabmeat and even fresher avocado. A pulpy peach bellini. Gin shaken with green chartreuse—just enough to make for a dreamy lunch. Pork belly BLT. Seasoned-to-perfection kobe burger.
Lunch is punctuated by flashes of blue—a bit of spectacle passing outside the restaurant. A fallen cop, his hearse, his comrades processing down the street. A reminder that while life hums within, afterlife isn’t that far away.
We finish our lunch and move on to our hotel.
“Have you been here before?” the woman at the check-in desk asks.
It would take too long to explain.
My husband’s family is from here? I spent most of college back and forth from here? My grandmother lived a few blocks from here? My kids want to read “Goodnight Nola” every night?
“No,” I say, fumbling over my words. “Well, yes, I guess. But it was a very long time ago.”
“Well, you sure knew where our secret entrance was,” she says. “So welcome to New Orleans.”
If the blisters on my feet from the not-quite-broken-in sandals are any indication, we’ve walked miles so far. But we have more ground to cover.
Bourbon Street is still as gross as ever. People wearing Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 T-shirts and smiling like they’re original. Leathery old women wearing feather boas and drinking hand grenades. Silver-haired men with goatees and football jerseys sloshing beer on the ground as the beads clink around their necks.
The bartender at the local dive bar we pop into is busy topping off drinks with sickly sweet ginger-ale and doling out beer.
On the other side of the silver-haired drunk, a mid-fifties couple is sipping frozen Irish coffees, the house specialty. They’re clearly out-of-towners (So are we, I guess), and are clearly on their second or third drinks at 5 p.m.
“We’re here from up north visiting our daughter,” the woman tells a patron beside her. “She moved here just before Katrina and her husband is in the military.”
And there it is. We’ve clocked less than 30 minutes before the “K” word surfaced.
We move on. Another local watering hole. We’ve been here before. It’s been awhile.
We take a seat at the bar, order two drinks. We are thirsty and eagerly drink the city in, mixed with a little whiskey. All of a sudden the door bangs open—or at least that’s how I like to recall it—and a six-plus-foot-tall … person half walks, half stumbles in. He’s wearing a straw-yellow wig, slightly askew, an S&M-style cowboy hat with a fleur-de-lis badge on it (what else?), a leather studded bikini and combat boots. Between the bikini pieces, a massive gut hangs, and he tromps straight to the back of the bar, pulls some dollars out of his bra and feeds them into the video poker machine.
We suck down our drinks and move on, eager to cover more ground.
Another street, another bar.
Two old men enter the bar. This is not the start of a joke. Or maybe it is. They are both old, old. As in 80 was years ago. Their pants are hoisted well above their waists. And they’re both wearing Orville Redenbacher-style hats. Except, even old Orville didn’t wear a skimmer hat like that. The result is more Double Mint twins—geriatric style. The 50-something bleach blondes with too-tight clothes, in-your-face jewelry and obnoxiously large Louis Vuitton bags.
The old men tap their feet to the music as they perhaps reminisce of a long bygone era. Or perhaps they’re just tapping their feet because they’re happy to be alive and may just get laid tonight. No matter. One of the women is getting to her very high-heeled feet. She’s walking toward the stage. I grab my husband’s arm. She gets up on stage and commandeers a microphone.
“Oh God,” my husband and I whisper to one another.
But it’s OK. She clearly knows the band. And she belts out Summertime in a surprisingly soulful, throaty timbre.
We breathe a sigh of relief. It’s okay. The living is easy, after all, here in the Big Easy. It’s summertime.
We leave after a bit, gasping for some nonhumid air when we hit the streets. But it is not to be. What meets our eyes, our ears, is the band of brass musicians playing the hell out of dented trombones and trumpets. They’re kids and they’re good. Oh, they’re great actually.
Same street, another bar. We’re ushered in by the tattooed hostess, sucking in the clean, refrigerator-cold air. We grab a table, a drink. And the musical cacophony washes over us. We split a smoky duck confit pizza and buttery yellow bursts of egg yolk coat our mouths. It is beyond delicious.
We are tired and full, and, frankly, we’re out of money. It’s time to call it a night.
So we’re herded back to the streetcar with all the other hot, tired, out-of-money tourists, and we go … clanging and swaying down the avenue until we lurch to our stop and step out again into the humid night under the resplendent oaks.
New Orleans means something different to everyone. But for me, when I’m there—even if for only a night—it is home. And it’s good to be here again.