By Kelly Foster
Out of grace and sheer dumb luck, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit most of the “must see” sites in these United States. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve watched the sun turn pink and set over the Olympic Mountains from an island in Puget Sound. I’ve watched the sun turn pink and rise over the Manhattan skyline. For two winters, I could see the Prudential building from my bedroom’s cathedral window when the trees were bare. I’ve stumbled barefoot down the coast at Carmel and done the same along the tree-lined coast of Acadia.
It’s a beautiful, spacious place we get to roam in, and every inch of it beggars my imagination, when my eyes are open enough to see clearly.
But if there’s one place I think all Americans should have to see before they die; hands down, I’d say it was New Orleans.
Nothing about New Orleans is as iconic and American as say, the Sears Tower or apple pie. Beignets are French. And the misshapen brick streets, the crumbling pastel stucco, the scrolling iron work, and the flickering gas lights of the French Quarter are much more suggestive of Europe than they are of America.
Nonetheless, I’ve come to view New Orleans as perhaps the most distinctly American of all our major cities. For one thing, it’s a city made up entirely of immigrant peoples who’ve cobbled together a mostly functional co-existence. It’s Creole, in every sense: French, Spanish, Native American, African, and Caribbean. You can taste it in the food: etoufee, jambalaya, gumbo, mirepoix, wine-dark roux.
You can smell it in the streets—the salt Gulf, sassafras and pralines and bourbon. You can witness it in shrunken heads in the Voodoo store windows and the white marble curvatures of the above-ground sepulchers. You can see it in the water coming up from the ground. You can see it in street names: Tchoupitoulas, Poydras, Faubourg Merigny. You can even see it in the patois spattered across handmade signs hanging from balconies. Geaux Saints! Who Dat? Laissez les bon temps rouler!
For another thing, though, there is a certain kind of improbability, perhaps even an American hubris, in the fact that New Orleans is inhabited at all. As you drive in along the endless Ponchartrain, you begin to see it in the houses on top of stilts, pontoon boats perched along their bases. You see it in cemetery after cemetery, forced above ground for fear of flooding.
Surrounded by Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico, over half of populated New Orleans rests below sea level. Each year, soil subsidence and human interference in the form of groundwater drains and excessive construction erode the quality of the earth there bit by bit. It’s a visibly precarious existence, the most obvious example being the much-storied Ninth Ward at the base of several faulty levees decimated by Hurricane Katrina.
Growing up in Mississippi, New Orleans’ proximity and superior notoriety had its advantages. Plays and movies and bands that never came to Jackson always came there or Memphis. For some reason, I’ve always chosen New Orleans. Maybe it’s because I hate Memphis more than I love New Orleans (that’s another story for another essay). I’m not sure. But I’ve been going to New Orleans, as a result, several times a year for most of my life.
And I have grown, in my adult years especially, very fond of this heavy, humid, improbable place, full of its curious smells, its winding streets strewn with people.
When I was a freshman in college, some friends and I went on an impromptu weekend trip to New Orleans over Labor Day weekend. We did not realize until we arrived that it was the Festival of Southern Decadence, and I saw things I had never anticipated seeing, even in New Orleans. One of them was a barely clothed woman smoking a brown cigarette outside one of Larry Flynt’s many strip clubs along Bourbon Street. Her heavily-lidded eyes were tired and hard and blank. And she stared at me about as long as I stared back at her. Her existence seemed as endless and precarious as the bridge that had brought me there, as starkly mortal as the graves that surrounded the highway—hairspray, cigarettes, beer, gaudy mauve lipstick, back alleys that smell like urine.
There is, yes, a darker undercurrent to what makes New Orleans itself—poverty, racism, disaster, debauchery, addiction, crime, abuse.
But there’s also jazz music, a wholly American improvisation arising from the banal horrors of New Orleans’ whorehouses and late night bars. There’s also food down there—magic food—conjured as much from voodoo as any shrunken head. The cocktail originated in New Orleans—Ramos Gin Fizz, Sazerac, Pat O’Brien’s cloying sweet Hurricanes.
New Orleans is shaped by its primordial waters, as it is shaped by the streetcars along Canal Street and the Cathedral beside the river and the antique shops along Royal or Magazine Streets.
It is heedless and brave as America.
And you absolutely should see it before you die.