New Orleans by Toula Drimonis

I know what it means to miss New Orleans

“There’s a humanity and resilience there that I can’t describe without sounding naïve, and that spirit often defies logic. This is a place where people celebrate life with zeal and verve, as if they know it could all be wiped out tomorrow. Because it can.”

I first fell in love with the idea of New Orleans before I ever set foot there. The notion that there was a city somewhere in this world — literally created from swampland and existing barely above sea level — where streets were named after unpronounceable Greek muses like Calliope and where clanging streetcars ran down Desire, Elysian Fields and Tchoupitoulas already tugged a little at my heartstrings. It all seemed impossibly romantic and oh-so impractical, and I’ve always been partial to people and places that, at first appearances, don’t make a lick of sense. 

New Orleans is a ‘love it or leave it’ kind of town. You either fall madly in love with the city and will forever ache for it, or you will never get what the fuss is all about. Of course, the attractions that lure the tourists in are obvious: a vibrant music scene, mouth-watering food and Bourbon Street, that crazy party strip that smells of stale beer and bad decisions. The colour and charm of the city’s shotgun homes in the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighbourhoods, the Southern grace and grandeur of the Garden District mansions and the beauty and history of the French and Spanish influences of the Vieux Carré complete the travel pitch. All this and more keep the first-time visitors coming. 

A city that can’t be replicated

But for the rest of us who’ve been coming back for decades, unable to scratch that itch, New Orleans is more. There are few places in North America that produce something so unique, so irreplicable. New Orleans is not just French, or Spanish, or African, or Creole, or Cajun, or Caribbean. It’s not just the sum of its parts. It’s all those parts coming together, forming a cultural gumbo you simply can’t sample anywhere else. 

While Louisiana may have been founded by the French, Tom Piazza, main writer for popular HBO series Treme and a long-time transplanted New Orleanian himself, refers to his adoptive city as “thousands of years of slowly mutating culture.” New Orleans is the most northern of Caribbean towns. It’s a port where French (Creole, Cajun and colonial) came together with Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, German influences and more, creating something uniquely its own.

It’s a city where you can stumble upon a voodoo ceremony in a neighbourhood alley one day and a brass band or Second Line the next. It’s Southern gentlemen in seersucker suits sipping Sazerac cocktails at the Monteleone Hotel. It’s sampling bread pudding soufflé at Commander’s Palace, sugary beignets at Café du Monde, or fried oyster po’boys at Casamento’s. (Word to the wise, don’t count calories when you’re in New Orleans). 

It’s a place where you can line up to pay good money to see a venerable jazz musician perform at Preservation Hall, and the following day stumble upon an equally respected clarinetist who’s played for four U.S. presidents sitting at the corner of Royal and St. Peter playing for passersby for free. In both cases, the quality of the music is exceptional. 

New Orleans is a place where the oak trees are dripping with Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads. The air can be suffocating in the summer, but it’s also sultry, sexy and sticky, lurking with age-old secrets you’ll never be privy to no matter how many times you keep coming back. 

“Louisiana was like an obscene phone call from nature,” writes Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume. “The air — moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh — felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face.” 

Anne Rice may have had a vivid imagination, but she would have never been able to write her Vampire Lestat series without breathing this air, walking these streets, pushing open wrought-iron gates strangled by vines, wandering through Lafayette cemetery where the dead are buried above ground. This city gave her Lestat and she gave him to us. There’s a reason so many writers, musicians, artists and free spirits gravitate towards NOLA. This town speaks a language only some people understand. 

“You want to do some living before you die. Do it in New Orleans,” sang Dr. John.

The problems behind the poetry

I don’t want people thinking I’m romanticizing the hardship. I’ve been coming to New Orleans for over 20 years. One of my visits was only a few years after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve seen the water lines up close and the damage the flooding did after the levees broke. I walked the Ninth Ward and saw the boarded-up homes, some lost forever. I know about the gentrification concerns and the speculators just waiting to get their hands on land to built luxury condos where modest family homes once stood. I’ve interviewed people who work for non-profits tirelessly raising money to rebuild, and the difficult, exasperating process it’s been for many New Orleanians to return home. 

I know the Big Easy can be a hard city to live in. The crime rates and gun violence are high and far outpace many other U.S. cities. The public schools are in a terrible state of disarray. Poverty is an issue and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is as clear here as it is in the rest of the U.S. The New Orleans Police Department is one of the most corrupt in the country and the city has been notoriously mismanaged over the years. The erosion of coastal wetlands, protecting against storms moving in, is a very real concern. Climate change will only make things worse.

I’m not ignoring the bad because I’m blinded by the good. It’s just that the good — the essence of this town — is so damn good it always manages to override the bad. When Steve Earle sings, “This city won’t wash away, this city won’t ever drown,” he doesn’t mean the place, he means the people.

The spirit and tenacity of New Orleans

My Uber driver on my way to the airport at 4 a.m. was a woman in her late 40s who had lost both of her parents by the age of 12, had become a ward of the state, and was in jail by the age of 18. She had lived a hard life but had managed to turn things around. When she told me she returned to New Orleans barely two months after Katrina hit, when the city was still one giant putrid, wet mess, I asked her why. 

“I don’t know anything else but this,” she said without hesitation. “I know how to survive here. Even if I don’t got a job, at least I can hustle. If I’m selling brownies, people will buy my stupid brownies. People are kind here. Elsewhere they’d just ignore me.” 

There’s a humanity and resilience in New Orleanians that I can’t describe without sounding impossibly naïve, and that spirit often defies logic. New Orleans has no real rhyme or reason to exist. The city is sinking, the summer heat is like one giant wet towel on your face that will suffocate you if you let it, it’s surrounded by alligator-infested swamps and bayous, as if nature is trying in every possible way to kill you here. Even the sidewalks are a hazard, the way they crack open, tree roots emerging triumphant from the ground, reminding you they have the last word. Sending out hapless, tipsy tourists with their alcohol-filled ‘to-go’ cups to walk those sidewalks has always seemed like a test to me. Survive that and you’re allowed to come back.

But nowhere in all my travels have I ever seen people go so out of their way to say hello to you. 

“Good morning, sugar! How y’all doing today?” is a daily, almost-every-single-block chime. It makes the rest of the world positively cold by comparison.

‘Drop Me Off in New Orleans’ 

Music is an integral part of New Orleans, and NOCCA (the New Orleans Center for Creative Art) has produced many gifted musicians. I witnessed three generations of one family on stage while watching NOLA legend Topsy Chapman performing with her two daughters and her grandson playing trombone at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street one night. Music is self-expression and tradition, yes, but for many families, it’s also survival.

From Fats Domino to Harry Connick Jr. to Kermit Ruffins, to Satchmo Louis Armstrong, to Lucinda Williams, to Lil’ Wayne, to the Neville Brothers, to Mahalia Jackson, music is in the water here. Beyond the musical mastery, what’s so often communicated in the notes is the city’s indominable spirit and how it can’t be crushed, can’t be swept away. Even before Katrina. Even after Katrina. Even after COVID brought its tourism industry (an industry that 40% of the population relies on) to its knees. 

This is a place where people sing and dance despite the hardship. They rise above it, like a city fighting levee breaches. And, while they’d have many valid reasons not to be kind, not to be generous, most consistently are. And they celebrate life with zeal and verve, as if they instinctively know it could all be wiped out tomorrow. Because it can.

A city that exists as a contradiction 

New Orleans by Toula Drimonis

You know how they say the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest on the Day of the Dead? That’s how I feel about New Orleans. There are few places in the world where I can sense I’m walking in the past and the present simultaneously, where spirits cohabit here perfectly with the living. 

“Everyone, dead or alive, returns to New Orleans,” writes novelist Andrei Codrescu. The city occasionally feels otherworldly… existing in no fixed time or space, available only to those willing to pull back the veil and see the old behind the new, the gratitude behind the gawdy, the spirit behind the superficial. 

One of the last nights we were there, we watched the legendary Topsy Chapman, well into her senior years, performing sitting down and — I kid you not — attached to an oxygen tank, with a plastic tube running up her nose providing her with the extra oxygen she needed. Before she started her final set for the night, I heard her speaking with someone in the audience who asked her if the tube hurt. 

“It only hurts when I speak, baby,” she said in that gorgeous Southern twang. “It don’t hurt when I sing.” 

Right there, I thought, was the perfect metaphor for New Orleans and all the beautiful people who call it home. A metaphor and perhaps a reminder for life itself that art, creation, revelry and joy, like armour, like a shield, alleviates pain and hardship. It makes it not only bearable, but a negligible, trifle thing. At least for a moment, or a night, joy wins. 

It don’t hurt when we sing, baby.  

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.