It’s normal to think back on times past as the calendar winds down to its final days. But the approach of New Year’s Eve always makes me think of one time in particular –– New Year’s Eve 1996 and the blacked-out Marigny street party that changed the course of my life.
That New Year’s Eve was the first time I laid eyes on New Orleans, and it made a big impression. It cemented my previously vague notion to maybe try living in this fabled city some day, and I can see it now as a turning point that led me to the constant richness of experience of New Orleans life.
In late 1996 I was fresh out of college and back home in Rhode Island with an English degree in hand and a juggling act between two menial jobs and an internship. When a friend proposed we hit New Orleans for New Year’s and sweetened the deal with free lodging in a friend-of-a-friend’s vacant Uptown apartment, I leapt at the chance. On New Year’s Eve we made our way downtown, through the Quarter and into the Marigny, and all the while I watched the passing city scenery with fascination. The streets were full of people all ramping up for a big night out, and every turn, every block, brought something new. I felt the excitement of a big holiday and the intoxication of exploring an unfamiliar city all rolled into one –– plus a dose of just plain old intoxication.
We found Frenchmen Street and squeezed into Café Brasil, the now-shuttered nightclub that was then in its prime as Frenchmen Street’s anchor. A brass band thumped on stage, and the room was packed with dancing people. More exciting still was what we found outside. Clutching big go-cups of beer (then a novel experience), we ensconced ourselves by the corner and watched the unscripted parade of New Orleanians and giddy visitors course past.
Some people were dressed for a masquerade while others wore black tie and gowns, and we wondered what ballroom, what restaurant, what unseen courtyard they would visit that night. Smart-looking girls pedaled past on bicycles, weaving through the crowd, and in a moment someone carrying a boombox stopped short on the sidewalk and broke into a rapid break dance routine. An impromptu audience gathered, the dancer wrapped up, acknowledged their delighted cheers and then strode off anonymously into the jumble of the street.
Things like this happened all night. There was an easy flow and a playful feel outside. Music emanated from the string of clubs and barrooms, and periodically we would press back into Café Brasil for more of the brass band. But on the street if felt as though we had joined a party with no invitations, no particular host and no pretension.
As the minutes ticked down to midnight, though, I began to wonder just how we would mark the arrival of 1997. There was no one to orchestrate the crowd for a final, 10-second countdown, and there would be no balloon drop. But then the rumblings started. People gathered in little clusters and stared at watches (those single-function relics of the pre-cell phone age), and out of apparent chaos some coordination materialized. Sure, 1997 arrived a few times in rapid succession as different watches reached midnight moments apart, but then something extraordinary happened to unite everyone.
While people were bellowing “Happy New Year” to each other and hugging and kissing in the street, the electricity cut out. How far did this outage stretch? We couldn’t tell, and I never found out, but there on Frenchmen Street, in our own little nexus of New Year’s, all the lights went out and stayed out for quite some time. To my naïve astonishment, this did nothing to curb the party. The brass band inside Café Brasil kept blowing, the beer taps kept flowing, cash changed hands and inside the darkened club people kept dancing. Outside, the headlights of cars inching down crowded Frenchmen Street cast a surreal, interrupted illumination over the old buildings and the milling crowd.
I can’t be sure the power went out right at midnight, but the way I remember the night now, the blackout seemed like a curtain falling on 1996, ending the show while simultaneously ushering in the new year. Now, infrastructure failures are not always so romantic, and they’ve been a little too frequent in this city lately. But on that night, it seemed part of the spell. It was one of those moments, as I would later learn, that seem to be just part of life in this city –– like the second line materializing as if on cue or the generosity of a stranger at Mardi Gras. By the time I returned home after this visit I was already scheming to somehow move to New Orleans and see what else this town would offer. It took better than two years to make this happen, but that New Year’s experience set the plans in motion.
Times change, of course, as New Year’s Eve always reminds us. The Frenchmen Street scene on big holiday nights has grown a bit too crowded for me –– or maybe I’ve just grown a bit too old. For a stretch, the ad hoc bonfire on Orleans Avenue had been my default plan for New Year’s Eve, though that tradition seems to have imploded under too much scrutiny.
Of course, there’s always the city’s official New Year’s Eve celebration by Jackson Square, with bands, a “fleur-de lis-drop” and a midnight fireworks show (see schedule and details).
I still don’t know what I’ll do on New Year’s Eve this time around, but whenever the calendar gets ready to flip, I think about that first visit to this city and that first extraordinary New Orleans experience. No matter how you spend New Year’s Eve, I hope it’s just as memorable. After all, you never know where these New Orleans experiences will take you.