“What the hell is a virgin mint julep??” the bartender at the Voodoo Lounge drunkenly exclaimed in response to the order Claire, a fellow bookpacker, tried to place.
Non-alcoholic drinks apparently do not exist in the Crescent City.
New Orleans’ obsession with drinking culture and general debauchery is most clearly seen on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter through the eyes of Ignatius J. Reilly, the belching, overweight, "slob extraordinaire", protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces.
The city has many masks.
Nocturnal. Licentious. A sweaty cocktail.
The cigar smoke in the air mutes the neon signs advertising 24-hour-bars and souvenir shops that are only broken up by drive through daiquiri joints and strip clubs. It smells exactly how you would imagine.
Chaotic. Celebratory. Exhibitionist.
Beads are thrown into the air. Bachelor and bachelorette parties, their sashes dirtied, their t-shirts stained, stumble past people throwing up in gutters. Drag queens purse their lips, hands on hips, surveying the sweaty, swaying crowds. The deep bass of dance music blasts out of every storefront.
Heady. Spicy. Sensual.
There is a feeling of transgression, of stepping outside of your comfort zone, and of sexual and social deviance. On Bourbon Street one can buck the monotony of everyday life. People drink like there is no tomorrow and wildly chase after the next moment of excitement.
Decadence. Indulgence. Gluttony.
There is extreme excess in an attempt to stay in the now. But this happiness is fleeting: the alcohol wears off, the glitter is washed away, and the colorful beads lay forgotten in the street as people stumble back to their houses and hotels.
Debris. Decay. Distress.
Compartmentalized. Syncopated. A new day.
The city is hungover and it is time to go to church. Mass is held at St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, serving as an ever present reminder of the French Catholicism that the city was founded on, and the Southern medievalism that the city continually hints at. From the Rex (King of the Carnival) krewe parade during Mardi Gras, to the echoes of the medieval code that surface in today’s version of chivalry, the past invades the present.
Historic. Preserved. Memorable.
The piety on Sunday is forever at odds with the loose morals of Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras before Lent, feast before fast. (Or if you’re Ignatius, feast before feast before feast before feast.)
Across the street from the Cathedral is Jackson Square, a beautiful, green park lined by the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartments in America.
Charming. Familial. Quaint.
Restaurants, galleries, museums, and cafes line the Square, most famous of which is Cafe du Monde, selling golden brown beignets and sweet café au lait. Street performers sing and play instruments, while psychics offer advice and predict your future with tarot card and palm readings.
Colorful. Upbeat. Eccentric.
Around the Square you can hear the street musicians playing jazz. Jazz was invented in New Orleans and in many ways the city resembles the music it gave birth to.
"The music was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, lovepains, cockiness. Up there on stage he was showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story."
- Coming Through Slaughter
It is a city that is a melting pot of cultures and a synthesis of ideas and values. New Orleans has been owned by many different nations and entities, and through all the handshakes and deals it retains a piece of each one. However, it is also a city that reamins very separate and distinct. New Orleans fosters small subcultures in its many faubourgs (neighborhoods). From the quaint houses in the Marigny, to the rundown shotgun houses in the Tremé, New Orleans displays the improvisational nature of jazz music.
Bohemian. Enchanting. Free.
Melancholy. Ennui. Decay.
It is time for the city to go back to work or school. There is a searching, or maybe it is a remembering. It is so abstract and yet everyone in New Orleans feel it - the writers, the drunks, the musicians, the students alike all feel the a sense of melancholy press down upon them.
Perhaps I feel it most acutely this morning because this Monday morning we are boarding the van and driving to Baton Rouge. The New Orleans chapter of the Maymester is coming to a close, and there is a sense of sadness as we pull out of the city and onto the highway. I’ll miss the cacophony of sounds and smells of the city, the $0.75 happy hour oysters, and the distinct character of New Orleans that you can't find anywhere else. I can only hope that the journey from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is not as ill-fated as Ignatius’ Greyhound bus ride story.