How is it possible to love this place so much, a place where broken things never seem to get fixed, where order and cleanliness are way down the list of things to worry about, and where you need gills to breathe? But I do…I love New Orleans. I think I fell in love with it when I had my accident.
In a town notorious for its crime, when I fell and shattered my shoulder in 2010 (no, not in the Quarter and yes, dead sober), no less than five people got out of their cars and came over to offer help. I didn’t think to ask if they were muggers, and I still had my wallet when I left the ER.
Everybody knows about the “laissez les bon temps roulez” party atmosphere of the Big Easy. The first time I visited, I asked our hosts at the b&b where I could find a liquor store to buy some wine. He said, with a hint of a smile, “Hunny, it’s Nawlins. It’s ALL a likka store.” Certainly, there’s no special value placed on sobriety, but it’s not just about getting trashed, like the tourists and frat-boys on Bourbon Street. Here they simply know how to live. And to let live.
Riding the St. Charles streetcar, so many types of people are packed in like sweaty sardines… Tulane students, maids, drag queens in full regalia, business people, convention revelers, slackers with so many piercings they would never make it through an airport, and at least one guy talking to himself. (Not a cell phone or earbuds in sight, by the way. A breath of fresh air, that.) Everybody in it together, radiating heat, getting stickier with every passing block.
One of the nicest things about New Orleans is the way it doesn’t just tolerate eccentric people, it treasures them. It doesn’t expect its residents to be uniform and to behave decorously, it expects them not to. I’ve always said that the city’s tag line should be “No Two Alike.” If you’re looking for cookie-cutter, orderly predictability, you will purely hate the Crescent City. Let every other town in the United States have its Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens and Office Depots. If you want that stuff here, you gotta hunt for it. The only things people hate here, near as I can tell, are bad food and bad coffee.
My rabbi told me how, leaving for work one morning in full Purim drag as Vashti, in heavy eye makeup and fetching attire, she runs into her next-door neighbor who is picking up his newspaper. Glancing her way, he says, “Morning.” That’s it. Nobody’s business but hers. Gotta love that.
Black and white, straight and gay and everything in between, locals and tourists, religions of every stripe, rich and poor, young and old, every nationality, all live their lives without judgment in New Orleans. I’m not talking about “tolerance,” because that implies just putting up with something. I’m talking about the kind of politeness that comes not from “manners” but from true acceptance of people as they are. It’s easy to see why people that society has decided are broken, or weirdos, or just not “our kind of people” end up here. Thank God.
So, I come to New Orleans every chance I get. I watch my step on the broken pavement, wait in the sunshine and the rain for the streetcar while the cabs go by, find excellent remoulades in dive bars, change clothes three times a day, and feel more alive and creative and relaxed than anywhere on earth. This place clings to you like a warm, sweaty hug.