[It’s been a hectic and exhausting week of international travel–and I’m writing this in a Starbucks on the Persian Gulf waterfront in Doha, Qatar, where I’ll be until 9 March. No time for a new post this week, so since Mardi Gras season is cranking up in my second hometown of New Orleans, I thought this post from 2017 might be apropos. I’ll try to write some Notes from the Road for next week.]
College applications have become a traumatic right of passage for American kids. My daughter Peanut, a straight-A, very talented, quite zen, non-boy-crazy young lady turned into a blubbering pile of neuroses for the four or five months of college application season. It was both awesome and horrifying to watch.
It was much different a generation before. No online FAFSA, no Common App, no paying to go on a summer medical mission to Botswana. We took The Test and completed The Paper Application on a device known as a Typewriter—or even [gasp] Wrote It In Ink—before sending it off with something you Licked and Stuck On an Envelope. That was my process for the four (count them, only four) colleges to which I applied and was accepted.
When it came time to decide which one to attend, I had it narrowed down to two of these four choices: Notre Dame or Tulane. Lest you need reminding, the University of Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana. A nondescript town on the southern tip of Lake Michigan that, even by Great Lakes Region standards, gets a prodigious amount of snow every winter. And fall. And spring. Tulane, by way of contrast, is in New Orleans. Where snow is not the most pressing concern.
Since I was unable to decide, Mom said, “Let’s make one more trip to each school and then you’ll just have to choose.” I should note that this was in January. We drove the 150 miles to South Bend, where the snow was up to my nostrils all over the Notre Dame campus, making that Big Gold Dome a lot less alluring. Two weeks later, we flew down to New Orleans. I should note that this was now early February. And seven or eight days before Mardi Gras. I trust I need not say more.
So Nyah’luns was to be my second hometown. It seemed like a grand idea at the time, but come August I was uprooted from sleepy little Skeeterville in the middle of the Illinois cornfields and plopped down into the, shall we say, somewhat more exotic environs of the Crescent City. To make matters worse, I was surrounded by cool, hip and sophisticated classmates from places I had only read about in Penthouse Forum, like Miami and Houston. And some place called Long (hard ‘g’) Island. I have never felt more a hayseed in my entire life. The Law of Unintended Consequences being what it is, this acute self-consciousness compelled me to study harder than I had in the previous eighteen years combined. This was based on my later disproven notion that “Urban Sophistication + Izod Shirt = Smart,” the inverse of which was me, or expressed as a formula, “Rube + Charlie Daniels Shirt = Dumb.” I peaked academically my Freshman year and road a downward-sloping GPA for the remaining three.
But regardless of anything else, I was in New Orleans and that kind of made everything OK. The usual way this works for new Tulane students is that for two or three months, you’re in Hyperkinetic Tourist Overdrive. This means one finds oneself spending way too much time in strip clubs drinking $7 Schlitz minis or at Pat O’Brien’s drinking $12 (including a $5 glass deposit) Hurricanes. And these were 1978 prices, keep in mind. For those who live to tell about it, this starts wearing thin by about Halloween. For a surprising number of my classmates, it never did wear thin and by graduation day, we’d lost two-thirds of our class. The siren song of the French Quarter dashed many a budding academic on the Rocks of Debauchery. And I’m not saying that isn’t a valid alternative career choice. It’s just not something the university is keen to feature in the Admissions Porn they send to impressionable high school Seniors and their parents.
NOLA was and remains an utterly unique place in America. Things are just done differently there. It wasn’t expensive—stay away from the tourist mecca of the Quarter and you could live cheap. Shoot, on Mondays, which means red beans and rice all over Nyah’luns, I used to get a plate of RB&R, a chunk of baguette and a draft Dixie beer at my corner bar for $1.25. There was a place near campus where Friday happy hour was nickel oysters, all you could eat. (Let me rephrase: they sold fresh Pontchartrain oysters for one-twentieth of One US Dollar.) Hence the appellation “The City That Care Forgot.”
There was always music—or at least the threat of music—in the air. The HBO series Treme spread knowledge of the New Orleans tradition of the foot parades known as Second Lines far and wide. My favorite memory of a Second Line was the night the upstart U.S. hockey team beat the vaunted Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. I was watching at my corner bar, a joint called The Boot, after a rugby practice. The place went crazy at the final buzzer, but celebrations in NOLA are seldom confinable within doors. A few umbrellas—required accessories for any parade in NOLA— appeared and some happy drunks led us packed-in patrons out onto Broadway Street, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the top of our lungs. (It’s always “The Saints,” after all.) As is the way in New Orleans, a single trumpet appeared from God-knows-where to lead the Second Line and obstruct all hope of normal traffic. As we romped up and down Broadway, more people came out from the houses and other instruments joined the parade. Soon, people on porches started throwing beads, since every household in New Orleans has crates of Mardi Gras throws stashed in the back of closets. This spontaneous Second Line went on for a good three hours. (I also got laid that night, a rare enough event, to which the U.S. hockey victory may or may not have been causal.)
Of course, the signal event of the year was Mardi Gras. The Gras is, as that American sage Dennis Hopper once said, “the weirdest.” And he meant fun weird, not creepy weird. Well, mostly not creepy. There was always that voodoo thing in New Orleans. Like the occasional item in the Times Picayune that read something like, “Christian Bourgeois, age 34, found dead in his apartment by a neighbor. He had a hugely swollen head and minutely shriveled limbs, his heart having exploded out of his chest. A Coroner’s inquest is ongoing.” Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, ever made fun of the gris-gris in public places. Just. in. case.
My first experience of Mardi Gras was not at all unique. My roommate (from North Carolina) and I made our way downtown the Saturday morning of Mardi Gras weekend by streetcar and hoofed it up a side street into the heart of the French Quarter. When we reached the corner of Bourbon, we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow in a wildly cheering crowd of several hundred drunks, all looking up at a balcony. When we too looked up, we saw a man and woman, completely naked except for sparkly carnival masks, wildly copulating. My roommate turned to me and said, “I believe we’ve found Mardi Gras.” Truer words were never spoken.
If you managed to settle into a sustainable life as a Yat (a nickname for locals, the standard greeting in NOLA being, “Hey, where y’at?”), Nyah’luns became an inseparable part of you. To this day, I can stay away maybe three or four years before that ache starts, and I mean a deep physical ache, to get back. Might be triggered by a whiff of something that smells a little like a beignet or a few notes that bring to mind a certain song. One such song asks, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”
I sure do.
Anyone else have any great recollections of or a shout out for NOLA?