On Tuesday, we arrived excitedly—and with aggressively rumbling stomachs—to New Orleans, ready to start exploring the various cultural pockets the city has to offer, while reading Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Michael Ondaajte’s Coming Through Slaughter, and other novels set in the Big Easy. We were more than anything, ready to eat. But that is beyond the point. We began carving into Interview while on the long car ride into the city from Grand Isle. Our first three days there would be spent looking through the eyes of Anne Rice and her vampire protagonists, observing first, the European influences that give New Orleans its Gothic and ornate charm.
Louis describes a diverse and exotic city—relatively compact yet brimming with a “medley of languages and colors,” full of enough fascinating characters that a Vampire could blend in comfortably. Such a description seems initially as fantastical as the bloodthirsty subjects of Rice’s novel, and yet one quick stroll through the French Quarter—with its Spanish architecture but otherwise French influence—or the Garden District—with its “magnificent Grecian houses” and eerie above-ground cemeteries—proves otherwise. Louis’ perspective couldn’t be more grounded in reality. That being said, there is no better way to show the endurance of New Orleans’s diverse bizarreness and colorful characters than to recount some of the strange and whimsical experiences I have had thus far. The following vignettes vary in tone and seriousness, as does the history and culture of the Big Easy.
On the night of our arrival, a few of us, though ravenous, held up the rest of the group, insisting on buying postcards for our family members immediately. A bit disoriented from hunger and general misunderstanding of our new home, we found ourselves walking along the grimy epicenter of neon-lights and unsolicited conversations with zombie-like strangers: Canal St. We explored the kitschy and somewhat scandalous merchandise of Voodoo Mart, finally settling on two of the more tasteful postcards from the options on display. Voodoo Mart didn’t sell stamps, however, so we set off along the flickering lights and uninterrupted stares of Canal St. towards a place that did.
We found ourselves at a convenience store that sold small stamp packets, hastily gathering change to make our purchase and finally find food! As I was gathering my things, I noticed that Cameryn, a fellow bookpacker standing outside the store, was filming in my direction. I made some funny faces until my stomach dropped and I felt the presence of the real reason for her videoing. Two pointed objects put sharp pressure on my shoulder and something fluffy flapped excitedly, tickling my ear. To my horror, I see in my peripherals that a pigeon had landed on my shoulder and was now comfortably adjusting itself on my new white blouse. I felt his wing on my ear and wondered dramatically if this was how I would die. My bookpacking peers found this hilarious, naturally. My face was puckered in horror, my chin bunching as I fruitlessly attempted to move my face away from my unsolicited companion. The pigeon’s owner—or friend, perhaps—was an ill-fed, dirty blonde man with hunched, skinny shoulders sticking out of his sleeveless, tattered shirt and rugged, black-denim vest. I turned to him slowly, afraid that whatever movement I made would trigger my new pigeon-friend’s bowels. “God favors you,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “He’s blessed, you’re lucky, God favors you, you are blessed.” I asked him to please remove his pigeon off my shoulder. “He’s a pigeon-dove, actually, and his name is Applejacks.” He effortlessly picked up Applejacks’ fat body and placed it on his own shoulder, turning one last time to me, nodding reverently at my blessed-ness, before leaving to say hello to a friend wearing ill-fitting jeans, no shirt exposing a massive cross tattoo on his lower stomach, and carrying what was either a cane or a samurai sword.
II: “Around the Corner”
It was our first full day in the city and our group was roaming the French Quarter, appreciating the quaint streets so lovingly described by the sensitive vampire Louis, peering through the various openings and tunnels in brick walls that showed glimpses of mysterious yet inviting garden patios shaded by sleeping palmetto leaves. As we walked down Royal Street, the very road on which Louis and his vain and ruthless companion Lestat lived, appreciating the gorgeous view under an oil-painted sky, a black van with a blue stripe slowed down next to our group and a rather gaunt driver with sports sunglasses resting on a hat of oily, thinning hair stuck out his head and announced, “There’s weed around the corner, come stop by later, we got cannabis, joints, CBD oil…” and pointing a malnourished finger at each of us, said with matching rhythm, “weed, weed, weed, CBD oil, weed, weed.” We remained still for a moment as he drove away, and then broke into bewildered chuckles. Only in this city can you be at one moment, appreciating gallery-lined streets on a quiet day, and then almost immediately be accosted by drug dealers announcing their goods like one would a free concert, or ice cream. Needless to say, we did not attempt to locate the weed around the corner.
III: “Interview with the Vampire”
There’s a real vampire shop on St. Ann street.
Note: In this vignette, I attempt to channel my inner Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of another book we read for this course, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Granted, I fail miserably. Enjoy.
For existing in such a hot climate, New Orleans does not appear to have any decent ice cream shops. Sure, there is the occasional fudge or candied apple store with a few neglected rows of hard-scoop ice cream also for sale, but no amount of looking will find you a freshly made waffle cone, and don’t even bother asking around for a cake cone. Chocolate and vanilla swirl? Forget about it.
One might respond indignantly, “but what about so-and-so gelato shop on such-and-such street?” I hesitate to respond, knowing that some wrong opinions just can’t be changed. I turn slowly to the asker, the enlightened words whispered from my barely parted lips, “my friend, gelato will never be soft-serve.” Oh, how at that moment I envied their blissful ignorance.
Continuing my fervent search down Royal St., I found a total of zero ice cream shops and instead, at least fifteen art galleries and five shops dedicated entirely to selling chandeliers and chandelier-adjacent crystal atrocities. At this point, I’m desperate and incredulous.
Depleted and morose from my futile search, I settled on some homemade chocolate from a store that doubled as an antique shop. To my utter horror, the attendant was busy selling a lamp to another person! Unable to wait any longer and at my wit’s end, I exited with a huff.
From this experience, I can only conclude that New Orleans holds lighting fixtures to a much higher esteem than ice cream. A total disgrace!
V: “Coin Shop”
During a loan trek down Royal St., I stopped by a vintage weapons and coins shop, noticing that the store clerk was a young woman with short hair and blunt bangs, maybe just a few years older than me, slumped on a stool behind the counter, looking nowhere in particular, with an unprovoked expression. I wondered whether she had always lived in the city, and what brought her to working at that bizarre little store, which sold coins darkened by age for more than one-hundred dollars.
VI: “Street Poets”
Walking down Royal Street on a particularly crowded and sunny day, we took delighted note of a wonderful New Orleans street tradition. Poets sporadically lined the streets, hunched over bare-bones typewriters on little folding tables, crafting poems on any topic on the spot. Our bookpacking buddy, Kayla, asked one with a nicely groomed mustache and a turquoise machine to write her a poem about love. According to him, he was from Illinois but with “a lot of kin in Kansas” and had a speech impediment that made his l’s and r’s difficult to say. We asked him to read his piece out loud—a rather twisty piece of poetry, speaking more on shyness than passionate love, but altogether quite thoughtful considering the 10 minutes it took to write. Proud of this particular piece once he had heard it out loud, he asked if Kayla would email it to him later, rushing back to his typewriter, flipping the poem around, and immortally printing his gmail onto the back of the paper.
VII: “La Vie en Rose”
After a long day of roaming the French Quarter with my class, I decided to set off by myself in the cool afternoon, listening to Interview with the Vampire as I walked the same streets on which Louis, Lestat, and Claudia lurked in the night. I settled on the Café Beignet patio, under the shade of a melancholy live oak, listening to the ladies next to me gossip and watching the young man a few tables away playing video games on his computer while communicating strategy to his distant companions through a large green headset. Rarely have I been able to just sit and look out, not since a tumultuous academic year of self-doubt and constant inner dialogue. In that moment, I was not necessarily at peace, but at least mentally silent, finally allowing my mind to quiet down and let the sounds and pictures in front of me take full control. A saxophone player leaned on the fence separating the patio from the sidewalk, back towards the subjects of my observation, and filled my quiet mind with a sweet rendition of La Vie en Rose. I happily forgot where I was and what I was doing, just for a minute or two.
VIII: “You Dropped Something”
Having sweat through all my available blouses, I was walking with my friend, Tara, to the H&M on Decatur street when we hear, “Ma’am! You dropped something… ma’am, ma’am!” We tried to ignore the voices, thinking they might be con-artists or clever loiterers, but hands patting pockets and detecting genuine concern, turn around just in case. The voice, belonging to a stylish young man popping seemingly out of nowhere, says “you dropped… A CONVERSATION WITH ME,” reaching out his hand. We turn around instantly, laughing at our own naiveté and with great admiration for a pickup line we would surely be using later.
IX: “You Are My Sunshine”
Tara, Kayla, Alex, Cameryn, and I were walking back from brunch one Saturday morning, relieved that the rain had stopped right as the check was paid. The sky was clearing up, pouring light on Royal St. at its most vibrant thus far. Whether it was the blessing of Applejacks the pigeon-dove, or the general serendipity that seems to float through New Orleans on any given day, we all shared a tingly, happily feeling that luck was approaching. There was a lightness to the air, and we all felt an inexplicable whimsy. We had watched a show of bubbles dance outside the restaurant window earlier, seeming to celebrate our arrival, and tingly feeling rising, happened upon a musical block party on our way back. A brass band was playing on a stage, in front of which Baby Dolls danced, calling on the audience to sing along. Together, we sang “You Are My Sunshine,” clapping and two-stepping, looking up at the sky and around at each other, so grateful in that moment to be in a city where one can happen upon so much happiness at any moment’s notice, unplanned.
Such was the city of New Orleans. Just in the first three days, I found myself face to face with the charm, humor, and unapologetic weirdness of a city that embraced every facet of itself. New Orleans is unique, transgressive, and surprising like no other city I have ever visited. No wonder Anne Rice spoke of it with such tenderness—the people are as colorful as the buildings lining the French Quarter, its history as ornate as the ironwork on the city’s notorious balconies, and its eclectic citizens as warm and delightful as its famous beignets. Never a more interesting cast of characters have I met than in New Orleans.