I had never been to New Orleans. I had seen the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on television, of course, and I knew it to be the birthplace of jazz. From some long-forgotten history book, I remembered, too, that back in the day, it was a hub of the slave trade – a city in which Africans and African-Americans were bought and sold at auctions, many ferried along the same Mississippi River whose levees broke during Hurricane Katrina.
I knew about the “Who Dat” chant of the New Orleans Saints, bead throwing and king cakes at Mardi Gras, and all the famous culinary delights: po’boy sandwiches, gumbo, jambalaya, beignets and chicory coffee. I didn’t know about alligator sausages and pralines, but once I arrived, those delicacies became evident as well.
What surprised me, however, was the odor of the French Quarter – a mixture of vomit, urine and a little garbage. That’s what I smelled if I ventured out of my hotel too early in the morning, i.e., before street cleaning. At a later hour, I smelled bleach with only a hint of those other scents. I had to presume this was normal. My stay was Tuesday through Friday. I wasn’t even there over a weekend.
On the first day, I walked to a tourist information center and inquired about three things: beignets, a deep-fried, doughnut-esque snack; a palm- or tea-leaf reading in the New Orleans voodoo tradition; and any preserved historical site of a slave auction block. Interestingly, my first two requests didn’t raise an eyebrow, but when I asked about the slave auction block – and mind you, I was only asking if one existed, not demanding that one be built – the woman looked at me as if I were insane.
“Oh, that was long time ago,” she said, shaking her head back and forth in tsk-tsk fashion. She directed me to The Cabildo, part of the Louisiana State Museum, and dubiously suggested I try out my crazy tourist question (from the dumb lady who apparently thinks the slave trade is alive and kicking) on those poor souls over there.
The response at The Cabildo was a simple “No, there’s nothing like that left.” So I asked about Congo Square – unique among slaveholding states as a place where slaves were allowed to dance and sing in native tradition every Sunday. The reply was, “Um, I’m not sure what’s over there regarding that – there might be a statue or something. But I do know there’s a free jazz concert over there every Thursday night.”
It’s funny that nobody in New Orleans seems to give a hoot about this history anymore, but I suppose the city is so rich and lively, its citizens don’t want to get bogged down with it.
New Orleans’ architecture is charming, the cuisine is original and unique, and live music – really good music just wafting through the streets – is ubiquitous. I don’t drink, but if I ever started, New Orleans would be a good place to initiate myself. But look no farther than the nearest bar and don’t bother to dig too deep. It’s not called “The Big Easy” for nothing.