Crescent City Afternoon
New Orleans, Louisiana
I walked out from Canal Place into the French Quarter to do some research on art galleries for an assignment. It was a typical New Orleans afternoon – sultry and breezeless, but not nearly as hot as it could have been. Most of the tourists would be gasping at the heat of the afternoon, but three-plus decades in this city had inured me to the heat and I thought that eighty-eight degrees Fahrenheit was quite nice. I pressed on into the streets, pleased that I had chosen such a tolerable day for my little outing.
It just so happened to be the day after Southern Decadence, the big gay and lesbian festival that draws a retinue from all over the continent. Gay guys were all over the Quarter, wandering in their little groups in and out of antiques shops and souvenir stores, occasionally eyeing me up and down. I didn’t care. You can’t live in town like New Orleans and be offended every time some fellow looks at you funny. Especially since it was me entering their turf down here. I let them walk by.
I passed restaurants whose smells made me want to stop in and eat, even though I had just had lunch. I listened to tourists trying to pronounce words like pray-leens, cray-fish and New Orleenz. I laughed for a second, and then caught myself as I recalled having to ask people in Ireland to repeat themselves five times because I couldn’t understand their dialect of my own language. I felt a little bad about my intolerance of outsiders’ ignorance or our very unique culture and dialect. Even I sometimes had a hard time with Cajun names for our own local food!
As I ambled through the streets I occasionally paused to watch some street performer juggling or playing music. They varied in skill from one to another. I noticed that the possession of talent didn’t necessarily mean that you could draw a crowd. Many of the performers who had the most money in their coffers were the ones who did the crowd-pleasers. Musicians who hacked out “New Orleans” jazz and beloved pop tunes always had more money than those who lovingly and painstakingly played original compositions, no matter how well performed or composed. The fire-jugglers made more cash than the jugglers who juggled simple balls, regardless of how many times the fire-throwers dropped their sticks or how ineptly they recited their plagiarized comedy lines. You could tell the experienced ones; forsaking art for whatever got bills and coins lobbed into their boxes and instrument cases at their feet. I guessed the phenomenon of being a “sellout” wasn’t limited to bands with big names and influential record labels.
Up Royal Street I went, searching for the shops I was supposed to write about. I found the first one. Closed. Annoyed, I peered past my reflection in the glass to get a feel for the store in case I didn’t get a chance to come back when it was open. Distant thunder pealed, alerting everyone to the oncoming routine afternoon rainstorm. I took a few quick notes and moved on up the street, appreciative of the breeze that the nearby storm was kicking up.
I got to my next shop. It, too, was closed. I was determined not to get too aggravated by my failure to find open shops and galleries, yet I couldn’t help but argue with the shopkeepers in my mind. ‘Don’t you know my pieces are like free advertising? Besides, you’re missing out on all kinds of art and antique sales with all these gay guys in town!’ I recalled a business report on the positive impact of Decadence on the local economy and wondered why everyone wasn’t taking advantage of it. Then I paused and looked around me at the old buildings and streets, largely unchanged since the Spanish and French settlement. I felt almost ashamed that I had succumbed to the pervasive Yankee spirit that seems determined to erode away New Orleans’ traditional laissez-faire attitude towards everything.
I had always been appreciative of the laid-back ennui so prevalent in Catholic countries I had visited like Mexico, Ireland and Italy. New Orleans, being primarily a Spanish colony, reflects that same feeling and hence embraces any time off from doing work. If you need evidence of this, just take a look around anytime there’s a tropical storm anywhere close to the Gulf of Mexico. People don’t track storms here to calculate how much time they’ll have to prepare for the worst, but rather to see if a hurricane is close enough to furnish a legitimate enough excuse to take off from work. Today was a perfect example of this: if you’re supposed to be closed on a Monday, then dammit, you’re going to be closed, no matter how many rich gays are in town with cash burning holes in their tight pants. It is in contrast to the frenetic work ethic that brought us Germans, New England and corporate America. I grew even more appreciative of my town for gently reminding me that a Monday afternoon could be spent on a slow roam around the Vieux Carre, drinking in the ambiance that I supposedly am steeped in.
The rain eventually made its way down to my vicinity. You can always tell the locals from the tourists when it rains. The tourists took refuge in doorways and under overhangs, staring up at the sky, as if that would drive back the deluge. The locals, simply press on with wherever they were going or whatever they were doing, maybe opening an umbrella, maybe just getting wet. I kept going. As I never bring an umbrella with me, I just got wet. I smiled to myself, pleased with my own damp courage as I passed the cowering visitors. But soon the rain no longer wanted to share center stage with anyone and began coming down in earnest, driving even locals to sheltered areas lest they be painfully pelted with the precipitation. I paused and stood under an awning. The water was coming down faster than the downspouts on the buildings could handle, and it spurted up in geysers at knee level where the pipes were ill fitted into the ground. Nowhere else but in New Orleans could you have a rainstorm that poured down from the sky and up from the ground simultaneously.
Thunder and lightning cracked from the sky. From my awning, I happened to look directly at the sky when a brilliant bolt of lightning seared across the clouds, followed by an earth shaking rumble that jarred my bones. God was taking flash pictures, and the heavenly hosts of angels were all shouting “Cheese!”
But it seldom lasts long, and shortly after it began the sheets of rain diminished to mere pillowcases and dust ruffles of rain. I ventured down the walkway past the gay musclemen hiding in the doorways to the last art gallery in walking distance. I found it, recognizing it as the same spot where my car had been towed a few months before. I ducked in out of the persisting weather and knocked over one of the potted trees on the steps. Smooth. I was sure that the gallery owner would have a great first impression of this writer even though it seemed to me that such an ornament was ill placed on such a public thoroughfare. Nice going.
But he was very pleasant after all. In fact, the shopkeeper was actually the artist himself and I had a fascinating conversation with him. He offered me an umbrella to take with me as I left the gallery, which I politely declined (after all, I was soaked to the skin already; I’m sure I looked like a drowned rat) though I was truly impressed by his hospitality. I stepped back out onto the sidewalk and knocked over the same plant again. I was sure it wasn’t my fault.
As I ambled back up Royal Street, I began to listen to the sounds around me. The rain had made everything sodden and most of the background noise was a hiss of some kind or other. Car tires squished along the wet road, remaining trickles of water hissed down from balconies onto the pavement and the moisture sizzled almost imperceptibly as it began to evaporate from the hot concrete and flagstone. Then through the hissing, a baritone voice boomed down the streets. As I got nearer its source, I could hear the song it was projecting. The verses of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” came through in what was unquestionably the best rendition I have ever heard. The singer was an old black man who had taken up in an archway on Royal that certainly had the most serendipitously perfect acoustics of any outdoor structure in the Quarter. I stopped for a minute to listen in awe. I had stepped into one of those picture postcards in the souvenir shops. I looked at the box at his feet. There was no money in it.
My town had surprised me once again. It is easy to get so disenchanted with New Orleans when you live here. You get fed up with the crime, the weather, the corrupt politicians and so on that you become blinded to the uniqueness that draws so many to our city. It had been an afternoon in the heart of New Orleans, spent doing truly “New Orleans” things; things that I now hoped others could appreciate. I hoped that my fellow New Orleanians would spend a few lazy afternoons in their town without trying to fight the heat or beat the weather or sneer at the tourists before deciding that they hate it here and move out. I hoped that more would appreciate the things that have always made this a great city since before there was an NFL and regardless of who is in City Hall and whether or not we have a big fancy stadium. Newly impressed by my town, I determined to make sure that it would not be long before I spent another Crescent City afternoon.