Last week, oddly enough, found me in New Orleans for the first time since 1986. While i’d passed through Louisiana once in 1998, i’d never been back after moving away, and was the last in my family to lay eyes on what became of where we used to live. Not to mention the last to go back and experience the city as an adult.
It will not surprise, likely infuriate those who know me when i say i didn’t need directions to my old house. The relative locations of everything were still known to me; the interstate, the service roads (service roads are a foreign concept to the girl) and motels that flank it, the McDonald’s, and where it is relative to the Wendy’s. The main business road and corresponding lack of a real downtown. The other roads that sort of let you circumnavigate the town surrounding my neighborhood. Familiar names, and the hints of familiar landmarks. Not the Wal-Mart, but the plaza where it stood. Not the pizza place, but a different one in the same spot. The ancient nemeses CVS and Walgreens doing battle where a different pharmacy once stood.
Finally, my old neighborhood. Southern, concrete streets that once seemed to tick by slowly on the school bus thumped rhythmically under the rental car’s tires as i slowly read off the themed street names that faintly registered familiarity. And then my old street. So tiny. The walk to the bus stop now looked ludicrously small, the boundary we had free reign over so near to our house. And our house, not what you’d call large either. It was big enough that we had rooms that we were simply forbidden to enter, a spacious backyard, a driveway, and yet, it looked so modest, so crammed in amongst neighbors, and yet still the same; immovable in brick and therefore tough to alter the appearance of that much. The slight bend in the driveway to the tiny garage, rendering the latter unusable by our van, and therefore basically every modern SUV that’s now de rigeur down there. The big kitchen window where we sat while waiting for my sister to never eat her vegetables.
It blows my mind to look at a place that is now completely other to me, but nevertheless know for a fact that my 7-year-old feet trod every inch of it, and to know it’s the setting for all manner of things that remain indelible until i kill those brain cells with alcohol.
Speaking of which, it was fascinating to visit New Orleans as an adult. My experiences with the city as a kid, at least the ones i remember were primarily related to the Audubon Zoo, the 1984 World’s Fair (which had a damn space shuttle, so you know it was pretty important to 8-year-old me), and Café du Monde. And maybe the nice parts of the French Quarter.
It was therefore very strange to me to experience it as being closer to Las Vegas than the wholesome historical stuff i vaguely remembered. As related to us by a French Quarter (he pronounced it “Voo Carr-ay”, reminding me how mutilated Louisiana French pronunciation can be) local, the longtime residents don’t much care for the tarted-up commercialized to-go-cup bacchanalia of Bourbon Street, the same way Boston locals scorn Quincy Market. At the same time, with so much of an old city’s heritage tied up in those occupied blocks, there’s more than a bit of tension evident. Personally, i found that history much more fascinating while sipping on a drink the same way Tennessee Williams or Jean Lafitte might’ve in the same places they would have. And there’s nothing wrong with a little tarted-up bacchanalia, either; happy people and good cover bands and freedom of open-containers make for a damn good time, too.
Another thing that was radically different from my memories was visiting a plantation. An ancient house, but updated with modern, scarily stylish ideas, with an old outbuilding turned into a bar that would be impossible to get into in any city, and tour guides sporting the latest in hipster facial hair and highly pleasant nonchalance about the fact that you can touch everything in what he calls “our house”. Far from the stuffy museum that i remember enduring when company came to town. One thing remained the same, though—not a lot of mention of the little issue of slavery.
One thing that was utterly the same, though? Café du Monde. We usually got it take-away as a kid, so sitting down and being waited upon was fun. We went three times in four days, and every day went home happily coated in powdered sugar. It’s cheap, it’s always open, and it’s delicious and unique. It’s not of this country. If teleportation was a thing, i would go there every single day.