Beignets and Beads and Brass Bands

“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place. Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short. It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of south Louisiana in words and to try is to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.

It is home.”

—Chris Rose

New Orleans is a city haunted. Not by the Gothic vampires of Anne Rice’s devising, who slither through the shadows of a long forgotten (if ever existent) French Quarter. Not with the tall tales told by tour guides, who give tourists all the voodoo and mystery they suspect we seek.

These are the ghosts of decadence and impropriety, purged a million times over from the hearts of those who still teem to the Big Easy, looking for bliss in the bottom of shots of whatever is the cheapest path to total inebriation…clinging to strings of plastic beads, hoping to entice a slip of skin, a naked curve…pressing into the myriad packed bars, the surge and throb of music as inescapable as the heat and humidity that drips from the tips of your hair and makes grinding against a total stranger a slick, sticky encounter most likely forgotten by the time the diffused gray mist of morning light slips quietly down Bourbon Street.

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

These are the ghosts of sorrow and loss—the ghosts of miseries borne on shoulders that sink from ineffable sadness but still carry on. They haunt your thoughts as you walk the claustrophobic streets, the whisper of wrought iron slithering across edifices crumbled by time and tempest. They mingle with the tantalizing scents of Cajun and Creole cuisine that blessedly hold back the unpleasant undertones of Bourbon Street’s unseemly stench, rising from mysterious pools that slough down cracked and shifting sidewalks.

They come to you in visions of New Orleans under siege, under water.

Apres moi, le deluge.

You find yourself looking for the scars, wondering where the wounds were deepest. It’s a sick curiosity, but one that seeps in slowly, subconsciously: as you wipe away powdered sugar from your lips, the heat and grease of that last beignet still staining your fingertips; as you stroll Le Rue Royale, perusing galleries filled with local artistry that leaves you breathless from its beauty; as you slip from that last bar, the bitter tang of Sazerac expelled from your lips with each exhalation.

You remember the images. You remember the stories. The loss. The chaos and devastation. How could this city survive? How could it continue on?

New Orleans is a city haunted. But New Orleans is not a city dead.

Its life comes from its people. For many, to be from New Orleans means to be New Orleans. The Mississippi flows through their veins, strong as a chicory brew, and there is no home for them beyond this Crescent City.

Katrina may have displaced them briefly, but their migration home was as miraculous and meant to be as the swallows’ annual arrival at Capistrano. Some returned before the waters had finished receding. Some never left. All have sworn fealty.

New Orleans is a living, breathing entity. It wraps you in its history, its charms, its decadence. Its soul is Cajun hot and jazz blue, with a zing of zydeco on the side. If it seems weary at times, it’s because this is the city that never sleeps. It is constantly alive, constantly awake, constantly singing, dancing, drinking, swearing, loving, screaming, smoking, driving, pulsing, moving, rolling ever onward. Perpetual as the tides, unceasing as the universe itself.