Beyond Bourbon Street
Here we go. The home stretch. The final week. The sprint at the end of the marathon. All the parts, parcels and parades – the ways and means – of the last wild days and wicked nights of the Carnival season in New Orleans.
For native New Orleanians – or those who, like me, have lived here too long to oblige another culture or accommodate another place to call home – it’s pretty much a love/hate thing.
There are those of secure financial means who, this time of year – unless they have a close family member serving in the court of Rex or Comus – often escape to the pristine waters of the Bahamas or the powdery ski slopes of Colorado.
And then there are those attached to the season as if by umbilical chord, dressed out in purple, green and gold* polo shirts and bedeviled by the notion of missing a single parade on any single day or night, hunting and gathering a near tonnage of beads and other seasonal tchotchkes as if they were currency – only to stash them in attics along with 30 years’ worth of beads and shoes and purses and Moon Pies and rubber dog turds – all to be sorted and inventoried by the next generation for a distant estate sale that parses the priorities of your New Orleans life.
But it is, as they say, what it is. And what it isn’t. Nobody outside of New Orleans – or, at least, north of I-20 – could ever understand what Mardi Gras actually means here, how it works, why it matters, what we do, and why we do it. And why we think yellow is gold.
Explaining that part is above my pay grade.
I’m repeating something I wrote a long time ago when I say this, but I always get a kick out of the notion that somewhere in Des Moines there is an old couple sitting in their cozy recliners watching cable news accounts of Fat Tuesday – what with girls gone wild on Bourbon Street balconies flashing their wits to the drunken masses below – and wife Martha, clutching her pearls, turns to husband Alvin and gasps: “It’s a den of iniquity, New Orleans is! It’s Satan’s playground. If the Lord had any sense he would smite the whole process!”
And Alvin, clutching his Pabst Blue Ribbon, wishing he was there, nods and mutters: “Mm-hmm.”
But what Martha and Alvin don’t realize is that those coeds flashing from those Bourbon Street balconies are more likely to be from Des Moines than New Orleans because – with notable exceptions, of course – that’s not really what we do here.
In fact, that’s why we have Bourbon Street. It’s an unholy mess that many New Orleans residents fail to recognize for its value as ground zero for bridge and tunnel weekend warriors and lowest common denominator visitors – drawing them like moths to a flame and leaving the rest of this glorious, mysterious, intriguing city to the whims and vagaries of everyone else to enjoy the true, earthy, visceral and vibrant pockets of our local culture.
That may or may not make sense, but let me explain: When you move to New Orleans from elsewhere, it is inevitable that everyone you ever grew up with or went school with will show up here some day – for business, pleasure or other nefarious reasons – and they will contact you because they saw on Facebook that you live here.
Over the decades, I have developed a strategy for how to deal with first-timers to the city. When they contact me, I greet them warmly and welcome them to this great city and I tell them, as if from a script, the following: Go to Bourbon Street on your first night in town. It’s one of the most famous – and infamous – streets in all the world on which the depths and breadths of the human condition are on full display.
I tell them: Get Bourbon Street out of your system and then call me the next day and we’ll make plans to catch up on each others’ lives and jobs and families. And then, when they call me the next day and ask me to show them them the authentic parts of the city – places to celebrate our true indigenous culture – I pick them up and take them for the ride of their life.
Or: If they tell me that Bourbon Street was such a blast that they want to go back there again tonight, I realize that we are probably not friends any more. That we have taken different paths in our lives, made different life choices, gone our separate ways.
Do I sound like a snob? Elitist? Or worst of all – an aesthete? By not wanting to hang out on a street where – even if it hasn’t rained for two weeks – the curb sides are filled with puddles?
Bourbon Street Gravy, as that fetid stew is fondly known – a toxic concoction of spilled beer, cigarette ashes, crushed oyster shells and involuntary human emissions.
Bourbon Street is one of our economic lifelines, our avenue of wide regard, where the sense of the past is vivid and slow and the night brings any and every sense of danger and possibility.
Where karaoke and bad Jimmy Buffett cover bands provide the soundtrack of the city and the night air smells like sweet olive, night blooming jasmine, crab boil, weed, coffee, dead crustaceans, mule shit and sex.
It’s an Edward Hopper painting. A Tom Waits song. A Raymond Chandler story. A Joseph Cotton movie. There for your amusement or disregard.
Our Boulevard of Broken Dreams. T’is the season. Handle with care.