Well, folks, it’s official. Forbes has rated New Orleans, LA the seventh drunkest city in America and, personally, I’m a little surprised. Quite surprised, if I’m honest…because before going to school there for just under ten months, I thought that the city more or less revolved around drinking, and that that’s more or less what everyone else thought, too. The world’s ill-contrived vision of an ill-favored New Orleans has been shaped by a set of dramatically skewed preconceptions, not the least dramatic of which is that the city amounts to a veritable modern day Sodom and Gomorra, irreparably ravaged by natural disaster, and able to afford little more than a whole lot of sodomy or a little bit of gonorrhea (or, if you’re lucky, both). This grave misapprehension can be attributed to the widely bought into belief that “the Big Easy” is only worth visiting for the inane depravity of Mardi Gras, during which time a lush promise is held of booze, beads and, of course, exposed breasts in abundance.
Those who know NOLA also know its idiosyncrasies (which idiosyncrasies, upon local natives, are completely and utterly lost), ones that are to be embraced by those who are to stand any sort of chance at a successful inhabitance. It is not a clean place, New Orleans…but is, in fact, quite filthy. It reeks, acutely, and you can never be exactly sure of its [whichever particular pungency you are abruptly slapped in the face with] source. The roads leave everything to be desired. To drive on them is to effectively halve the lifespan of your car. Its location is shall we say less than prime when it comes to protection from/exposure to, the elements, and the infrastructure is royally fucked-up as a result.
For most of late spring and the duration of summer, the city plays host to a vast swarm of enormous winged beasts (which beasts, by local natives, are nonchalantly referred to as “roaches”). These nasty steroidal buggers walk the streets absent fear or inhibition, like so many invertebrate thugs who please rest assured, if looked at the wrong way, will not hesitate to mount a full scale aerial assault by making a fucking beeline straight for your face (which face, in the case of yours truly, was complete with pupils fully dilated and mouth perilously agape). Let me reiterate that for my fellow Yank readers: there is an infestation of GIANT FLYING COCKROACHES. I shit you not.
Every year for at least the last fifteen, the city has been a leading contender in the running for Murder Capital of America (and some of its residents, weirdly, take pride when the title is claimed). A diverse selection of statistics conclusively recognizes New Orleans as having the nation’s worst system of public education, along with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment, too. Laws w/r/t alcohol and its consumption, while somewhat fascinating for their laxness and unorthodoxy, are also downright hazardous for their legal incongruity [e. my favorite g. i) the infamous Open-Container Law facilitating Public Intoxication charges; ii) the frequently overlooked 18+ requirement facilitating Minor In Possession charges; iii) the literally incredible availability of Drive-Thru Daiquiri shops facilitating Driving Under the Influence charges, and so on].
I won’t get into Katrina, because it’s been gotten into entirely too much and too frequently. So much so that the people of New Orleans have, quite frankly, grown tired of having to hear or talk about it. And who could blame them? Ever since hurricane met city in August of 2005, the two have become essentially synonymous…which really isn’t fair, when there’s more to the Crescent City and its people than Katrina, a lot more. And, contrary to misinformed popular belief, murder and ignorance and crime and poverty and alcoholism and misery and squalor, are not the city’s defining characteristics, either. The things that define New Orleans, things to which most of the country never really cares to pay any mind, are not statistics that can be quantified or attributes that can be ranked on some list. What makes this relatively small place so hugely irreplaceable is nuanced, intimate, and will only be glimpsed when people choose to look at it as more than just some godforsaken den of decadence and iniquity. Bourbon Street may be at the heart of New Orleans, but it’s far from being the heart itself.
When I remember my time in New Orleans, I think of food, and being faced with the daily challenge of deciding which altogether incomparable restaurant to choose for dinner (many of which deserve to be ranked as world class, but have yet to, and are probably just that much better for it). I think of music, and having trouble making it further than two blocks down Frenchmen without feeling compelled to stop and appreciate some prodigiously gifted street artist with a heart of gold. I think of people, real people, ones who smile warmly when they ask you how you’re doing and actually mean it. I think of admiring mansions on St. Charles that are somehow tastefully gaudy, while contemplating how no one seems to recall — or, at least, acknowledge — that they were probably bought with slave money, and how kind of bizarre and strange that is.
I think of chain-smoking cigarrettes on the bank of the Fly at sundown, while wondering why everyone finds it so captivating to just sit and watch industrial barges lumber idly down the Mississipi River, then realizing how totally captivated I am by doing exactly that. I think of being historically, belligerently, apocalyptically drunk on my 21st birthday, and remembering precious little of the purported scandal that ensued. I think of being unbelievably excited to go to my first crawfish boil after having been told all my life how unbelievably delicious crawfish is, then not being able to believe, shortly thereafter, just how unbelievably fucking revolting I find crawfish. I think of getting my first true-blue tattoo with my first true-blue best friend and of how fitting that was, since no matter how far from where we were bound life takes us, bound is what we will remain for life. I think of having my heart broken by a beautiful woman, then pieced back together by another one.
Every great woman has at least one unique quality that draws, and so too, does every great city. New York is that top notch girl who’s got it all, the one everyone in the world seems to forever be chasing after, but you’ll never make it in her unless you’re rich. Los Angeles is the one who looks looks all sparkly and dreamlike from afar, but the moment you get up close, you see that everything about her is made up and fake. London is educated and cultured. She’s a proper lady with nothing but class. Once you move in with her, though, it turns out she’s really cold and depressing nine months out of the year. Paris is it, the perfect woman. She is timeless. You find everything about her desperately pretty (even the bad parts that you shouldn’t, and the weird ones you wouldn’t on any other woman). Her every feature seduces you, enthralls you, makes you never want to leave. She is romance, but her problem is that she knows it…a little too well for her own good.
New Orleans truly is a one of a kind girl. She’s been through a lot, and has the scars to prove it. She’s quietly beautiful, but needs help realizing it. She’s always wanted someone to take care of her and make her feel special, but thinks that people only like her when they’re drunk. Some catastrophe devastated her a while back, and it hasn’t been long enough for her to fully heal, but she sure-as-shit doesn’t want or need your pity. She’s a whole lot of fun, but a murderous bitch at times. She isn’t a lady, not by a longshot, yet there’s a certain grace about her you’ve never quite been able to describe. New Orleans is the girl you give it all up for, and the one who will give it right back if you but take a chance on her. You have to really want to know her, and her idiosyncrasies, too. The Big Easy may not be so easy to love, but once you’ve learned to, it’s a damn sight harder to let her go.