The Layers of New Orleans

I reach the outskirts of the French Quarter as I walk off of Bourbon Street. The angular grid system of the quarter opens out onto the business district. I cross Canal Street and simultaneously exit downtown and enter uptown. I’m now standing on Carondelet Street looking across the two-way intersection at where I just was, and await the transportation to take me where I’m going. Seemingly misplaced palm trees line the streetcar tracks on Canal Street. Parisian inspired architecture juxtaposes the neon red CVS sign and leaves me wondering whether I’m in Europe or New York City. The answer is neither. As I ponder the facades of what feels like a fantasyland, desire arrives in the form of an army green and burnt red streetcar. Less open than its Powell & Hyde cable car cousins in San Francisco, on the front and back of the car a white sign with black letters reads St. Charles.

Photo Credit:  Emily Houston

A woman of short stature sits at the head of the streetcar; her feet barely reach the floor.

“When this light turns green, we gonna bounce,” she says in a thick Louisiana drawl.

She motions for the line of people to come into the streetcar to pay the $1.25 one-way fare. As the light turns, the passenger’s bodies jerk from the inertia as the streetcar turns onto St. Charles Street.

The network of New Orleans streetcars dates back to the 1800’s and the history of the St. Charles line can be felt with every clink of the car on the metal track. My body uncontrollably shakes as I feel the sunshine beam through the windows and warm my pale, winter skin. As one of the oldest passenger railways still in active use, the St. Charles streetcar is a tourist’s form of transportation as much as it is the locals. My friends and I sit across from a man holding a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless: Anything Will Help.” He mumbles under his breath that he wishes he were on the streetcar a few yards up the track.

The driver overhears this and responds to him as if she’s speaking to a young child. “Why you wanna be in that car?” she yaps. “Look at all them squished in there like sardines. Oh child, don’t tell me you wanna be on there. Ya heard dat?”

The man looks back at the rows of vacant seats and sinks back into his wooden bench, as if he was taking unsolicited advice from his mother. The woman continues to talk to herself as we wait at another red light.

“Round ‘em up and herd ‘em out,” she declares, although no one is in line to get on or off the streetcar.

Photo Credit:  Emily Houston

Our stop eventually approaches and we say goodbye to the vibrant driver as we walk onto Jackson Avenue and past the southern mansions of the Garden District.

Every time I enter or exit a building, mode of transportation, district or area I build upon my understanding of New Orleans. Each adventure becomes a chapter and each entrance stacks upon the last exit. These chapters are filled with people and places that give the city an irreplaceable level of dimension and culture. My experiences become layered; each building on the meaning of the one before.

Every experience attracts a different kind of traveler and it was our turn to enter an establishment known for its touristic tendencies. The entrance to Pat O’Brien’s sits on St. Peter Street. We’re within eyeshot of Bourbon Street, but far enough away that our nostrils dodge the smell of pee and vomit that seem to linger like the bad decisions made by the bar crawlers the night before. A small, green and white plastic sign is almost hidden amongst other overhanging wooden signs advertising gumbo restaurants and souvenir shops. An aged Romanesque archway and wooden door looks like it still marks the entrance to the 1920’s era speakeasy rather than the modern day bar. We walk in; a bar to the left, the dueling pianos room to the right, and an outdoor courtyard restaurant lies straight ahead. The music of the dueling piano room draws us in and despite the dark lighting I can still see red glasses filled with hurricanes dotting tables across the room.

Photo Credit:  Emily Houston

In the 1940’s, Pat O’Brien, the founder and previous owner of the bar, invented the Hurricane. Much like the local tongue and talent, the drink came out of a combination of innovation and experimentation. Two traits that are essential to the culture in New Orleans. At the time O’Brien created the famed drink, liquors such as bourbon and scotch were only available in small quantities. These spirits were also only sold if bars bought them alongside bulk shipments of rum. With an excess of rum at his disposal, O’Brien began concocting drinks until the Hurricane was born. Named after the glass that resembles the look of a hurricane lamp, the drink and its accompanying glass have earned the reputation as a city staple.

For $11.50, we sipped on the sugary and strong, yet satisfying rum infused cocktail. The speech and the songs begin to slur together as the women at the dueling pianos sift through song suggestions written in sloppy handwriting across napkins with the green Pat O’Brien’s logo. “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede turns into “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, which fades into “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners. The tunes continue to play on as we make a fitting departure during Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”

We’ve now taken the opportunity to enter and exit the world of the people and their drink. We walk along Bourbon Street towards the Faubourg Marigny District. We’re dodging the green and purple Mardi Gras beads being drunkenly tossed from bar balconies by grown men, despite being nearly 40 days removed from the holiday. As we exit the French Quarter I’m reminded of a quote from a bus driver we met earlier that day. His words seem to resonant much more after the sun has set and crowds of people stroll the streets with drinks in hand.

Photo Credit:  Emily Houston

“During Katrina, the water stopped right here, it didn’t reach Bourbon Street,” the driver exclaims. “You want to know why?” he asks us. “Because we don’t mix no water with our bourbon. We drink that straight. No water no ice.”

The lighthearted take on the less than comedic natural disaster seems somewhat justified when the mumbled sentence mixes with the driver’s laughter and accent.

The streetlights disappear, the breeze feels colder, and the sounds of loud voices fades into the background as the sounds of brass instruments come to fill and define the ambience of the foreground. We’re now on Frenchman Street, whose name is as symbolic to the history of New Orleans as the activities that take place in and around the street.

France secretly traded New Orleans to Spain in 1763. Many of the citizens with French roots successfully revolted against Spain’s political ownership when Spanish officials showed up in the city. The Spanish returned with more military manpower and effectively established a Spanish stronghold in the city in 1969. The Spanish leaders then executed five men, and imprisoned six others, who were involved in the rebellion as punishment for their actions. Today, Frenchman Street is named in memory of their execution and effort to preserve their cultural heritage.

Photo Credit:  Emily Houston

At the corner of the street, next to a vibrantly colored voodoo themed mural, a group of high school aged boy’s plays an impromptu concert from those who are lucky enough to stop and listen. The smell of barbeque wafts in the air as an older man grills ribs from the bed of his truck. The boys seem unfazed by the tantalizing smell of their dinner cooking on the charcoals and instead focus on continuing to blare “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel through their horns. Listener’s bodies fail to the music and their limbs move uncontrollably with little to no inhibitions. The band mates take turns dodging the dancers as they walk around with a cardboard box that people throw dollar bills into.

Up the street a band called Micah McKee and Little Maker plays inside the Blue Nile Bar. They teeter between sounding folky like Mumford and Sounds, yet alternative like Of Monsters and Men, but with a necessary sprinkle of New Orleans brass. With his raspy voice, Micah McKee, the leader singer, sang out a lyric from his song “Let’s Lose.” “Let’s live, let’s love, let’s lose,” he exclaims before the noise from the trumpet, trombone, and violin crescendo to fill the background. His words ring true to the city and my travel experience.

The more I moved about, the more culture I experienced and the better understanding I had of the New Orleans culture. Every time I visited a new place I was living the New Orleans experience in some way. Each district was a singular representation of one aspect of the culture. The Garden District felt like the metal hum streetcars and old money, the French Quarter tasted of juice and rum, and Faubourg Marigny sounded of boisterous brass bands. Each time I left an area, I was losing in some sense. Not the memory, but the physicality of the place. I came to understand that entering and exiting is the essence of travel. With each hello and goodbye I brought myself to live, lose, and maybe even love, the culture of N’awlins.


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