Mar 26, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Free to Be ... You and Me
New Orleans is a city where people can feel safe being themselves.
When you live in a wonderful city such as this, you have certain responsibilities, and the main one is hospitality. As such, friends across the country know that my door is more or less open to them at all times. I’ve had company in town almost nonstop since Halloween: friends from college, friends from preschool, cousins, honeymooners, Saints fans, do-gooders, bachelorette partiers, people in town for work, people in town for fun.
Last week, I had two people sleeping in the guest bed and two more on the sofas, and I barely had time to get the sheets washed and back on the bed before I had more company coming in.
I love it, though. I love picking people up at the airport and immediately getting them drive-through daiquiris. I love people stumbling through my front door at dawn, bewildered, saying, “I kept expecting the bar to close, and now it’s morning, and I don’t know how that happened …” I love making them jambalaya, driving them by Lake Pontchartrain, feeding them roast beef poor boys and muffulettas and beignets. I love getting them hooked on Abita Strawberry and chocolate snowballs with condensed milk and Pimm’s Cups. Just as Christmas is more fun through the eyes of a child, New Orleans is more fun through the eyes of a newcomer … and in some ways, it’s even nicer through the eyes of a homesick ex-pat who’s clearly just so happy to be back, if only for a weekend.
But as fun as it is to introduce people to the magic of go-cups and the giddy energy of Mardi Gras parades and the appalling neon tackiness of Bourbon Street, sometimes the city is more than just a party destination.
I had visitors recently, a gay couple in their very early 20s. They live in small-town middle America, and they are not comfortable being openly affectionate or even introducing themselves as a couple.
My husband and I got a baby-sitter and took them down to the Quarter, and at first, they seemed shy, guarded, wary. But Bourbon Street has a way of loosening people up, and as the night wore on, they started dancing together, whispering to each other, holding hands. None of their behavior was in-your-face or over-the-top; they were just finally, for the first time in their lives, able to act like an actual legitimate couple.
The next day, one of them said to me, “This city is amazing; it’s the first place we’ve ever felt comfortable.”
Most visitors leave New Orleans exhausted and dehydrated and overfed. These guys left New Orleans feeling more at peace than they ever had. I just want people to have a good time, but if they end up with something much bigger than a hangover and a bunch of good stories, then so much the better.
As hotel owner Sean Cummings told the Times-Picayune in a recent story about his offer to host an alternate prom for the students in Mississippi whose prom was canceled after the ACLU intervened on behalf of a lesbian student who wanted to bring her girlfriend, “New Orleans, we’re a joyful culture and a creative culture here.”
And we are. We’re generally too busy having a good time ourselves to worry much about what other people are doing.
As joyful as we are, as fabulous and diverse and amazing, we are not without problems, obviously, and whenever I have visitors, I make sure to warn them that this city can be dangerous. I tell them to leave their purses at home, put their wallets in their front pockets, leave the extra cash and expensive jewelry behind, stick to well-lighted streets, be aware, take a taxi rather than try to walk too far. I always feel sort of like a killjoy for giving this advice, but when I was here on spring break in college with a group of friends, we were all robbed at gunpoint, and I’ve trended toward overcautious ever since.
It was a nice change of pace to see my friends casually being affectionate and be reminded that even if it is often dangerous, New Orleans is also, in many ways, a place where some people can feel safe for the first time.