This is where things get a little starry-eyed, as it should be.
And having put memories of my first day (and night) in New Orleans to words, I find that they pale in comparison to the actual experience—also as it should be.
Part Two: Wrought Iron Lace
Flying over Louisiana for the first time was like landing on a different planet.
As we made our final descent, I craned my neck to get a better view out of the passenger window. I saw the shadow of our aircraft glide across a shimmering expanse of wetlands. Its sunlit surface was broken up by a vast mosaic of floating vegetation.
Descending closer to the inlaying swamps, I could make out the moss-tinted clusters of bald cypress trees. It all looked thoroughly primeval. I must have shook my head at some point. This was my new home, or a surreal extension of it in any case.
I didn’t turn away from the window until well after we landed.
My first few minutes inside Louis Armstrong Airport were hasty ones. I tried not to look at tentative as I felt. I found my way to baggage claim fairly quickly. I stood close to the metal luggage belt, waiting for it to move. Just a few feet behind me, a pair of glass exit doors whooshed open and closed for various passengers, giving me my first hint of New Orleanian heat.
I confess to mild paranoia at first. I kept an eye out for anyone who might be trying to scam newcomers, like someone offering to “help” me with my bags. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for long. I spotted my green canvas “sea-bag”, scooped it up and got in line for a cab. Once I was paired with a cab driver, I made sure to negotiate the flat rate before accepting a ride. More paranoia. The driver hoisted my belongings into a deep trunk, dropped the dented hood shut and off we went.
Most New Orleans cab drivers, native or no, will merrily talk your ear off. Mine was no different. I nodded and laughed in all the right places, but my eyes were on the billboards we passed. Casino this. French Quarter that. Cabaret shows. Haunted Mystery Tours. And so on.
I gave the driver the address of the hotel I picked out for my first few days: the St. Peter Guest House. I don’t recall the exact route he took to get me there, I only know that it felt like one random zig-zagging turn after another.
I caught my first glimpse of wrought iron lace as we entered French Quarter streets. Unlike their pristine Disney counterparts, here and there I spotted metal finials which were (gasp) bent or missing, as well as panels of iron lace whose paint had obviously faded a few shades from years of sub-tropical heat. Here, then, was the real New Orleans, as haunted as it comes.
The cab pulled up to the corner of St. Peter and Burgundy. It was at this junction that I took my first steps upon French Quarter streets. I resisted the urge to gawk at everything until I paid the driver. Once he was off, however, I took a moment to simply stand there and catch my breath. So it began.
I hauled my meager belongings into the side entrance of the hotel lobby just around the corner. The desk receptionist was pleasant, albeit a bit drowsy from the heat. I was handed a metal key and simple instructions to a small but (blessedly) air-conditioned room on the first floor, just off of a brick walled courtyard. The courtyard was small and narrow, but ideal in its seclusion. Quiet.
I remember being thankful for this tiny oasis, a place to gather my wits. Although I had only just arrived, I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Even for a fairly seasoned visitor of exotic locales this was already a lot of raw “vibe” to take in.
Some travelers argue that French Quarter hotels are over-priced for their actual value, especially when compared to fill-in-the-blank American city. It would seem that, apart from a certain contrived “Old World Charm”, the only other thing to recommend them is walking proximity to restaurants and, as the lights go down, the (in)famous entertainment strip many visitors spend 98% of their visit nervously anchored to: Bourbon Street.
But I wasn’t here for Bourbon Street, or the spotless niceties of other American cities for that matter (I had just left Irvine after all). I was here, in part, for the city’s rich history.
My historical immersion began with my first lodgings, which I had picked out of a pamphlet during my final months in Irvine. (The Louisiana visitors bureau package turned out to be quite a valuable resource for a newcomer like me)
The advertisement for St. Peter Guest House wasn’t even a photo, but rather a black and white illustration of a small, quaint guest house whose balcony was adorned with my beloved wrought iron lace. Normally the lack of any photos makes me suspicious, but not this time.
St. Peter House (then):
Fast-forward to 2015, with a new color scheme and a new name: Inn on St. Peter:
The write-up emphasized that the building dated back to the 1800s. I laugh about that now. Even in 1995, you would have been hard-pressed to find a building in the Quarter that wasn’t at least 100 years old, with a good many of them closer to 200 years old still.
(The term “French Quarter” is something of a misnomer: The “Great New Orleans Fire” of 1788 and a subsequent fire in 1794 destroyed nearly all of the old French Colonial homes for which the “French” Quarter is named, save for notable structures like Old Ursuline Convent, Madame John’s Legacy and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop—decimated buildings were replaced by “newer” Spanish colonial influenced architecture, most of which still stands today)
No matter. Intuition told me this was the place I wanted. St. Peter looked small and far removed enough to be affordable, yet “historic” enough to satisfy my need for a symbolic beginning. And now I was standing in the middle of it.
My little room was distinctly Caribbean: slightly uneven walls, with a strip of decorative ceiling border that was beginning to lift away in a few spots, no doubt due to the constant fluctuation of heat and air conditioning over time. I could smell the faint staleness of once damp carpeting and upholstery, the whole of it aired out just in time for human occupancy. The door and window moldings were slightly uneven but bore enough successive coats of thick paint to keep out the elements and make the room appear reasonably current.
The “Old World” focal point of the room was the wooden four poster bed frame, its hand-carved headboard buffeted by layers of pillows. The mattress was blanketed with a sumptuous white duvet and elevated high enough to accentuate the polished hardwood floors. To my eyes, it was the 1800s “dressed”, somewhat grudgingly, by the late 1990s. I’m sure that in spite of my nervousness I couldn’t help but smile. Hell, I might have even laughed a little. I had picked the right place to greet this strange old city.
(Unbeknownst to me at the time, Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls met his untimely end at St. Peter at the age of 38. He died in Room 37 on April 23, 1991, four years prior to my arrival. Since then, Room 37 has become something of a pilgrimage for Dolls fans who want to spend the night there—so much so, in fact, that the hotel staff made it a practice to keep extra ‘3’s and ‘7’s on hand to replace the ones torn off the hotel door…)
From that very first evening, my singular regret is that I couldn’t share these initial discoveries with anyone, including my best friend. This was well before the advent of public internet, affordable cell phones (and thus cell cameras), FaceTime, etc. In 1995, like it or not, I was very much on my own.
As I stood in this low-lit room, it occurred to me that I was stalling. I tend to resist “strips” of any sort on general principle, and the much-touted Bourbon Street was, by description, just another strip. After a few months of bracing through second-hand anecdotes from co-workers in Irvine, I was reminded (unfavorably) of the years I spent in the Philippines. Bourbon, as yet unseen, sounded a little too much like the sordid Magsaysay Drive of Olongapo City I was only too happy to leave behind in my Navy past.
Yet it seemed to me that Bourbon Street was, tonight, unavoidable—at least until I got my French Quarter bearings. I knew it would take a few days to acclimate. Until then, Bourbon would have to be the compass needle by which I explored other areas then made my way back again. When in doubt, I thought, follow the noise.
Still, I was determined not to make the mistake of wasting my first night on bar-hopping. I had a handwritten list of decidedly non-Bourbon spots I wanted to explore. A few days prior, I had consulted my Insight guide and visitors pamphlets, jotting down a few places that seemed to embody the city’s colorfully “haunted” past. I was determined to find at least one of them on my first night.
List in hand, I left the room with the air conditioning unit humming behind me. I padded across the narrow brick courtyard and pushed open the creaky dark green door that led out to St. Peter street. This end of the street was fairly quiet, but I could see clusters of people strolling in both directions of Bourbon just a few streets up ahead. In spite of my “let’s get this over with” expression, I felt a pang of anticipation too.
I took my time strolling past a string of “shotgun” cottages, a New Orleans architectural staple—so named because (as New Orleans historian Samuel Wilson Jr. explains) if you open all the doors inside, the pellets fired from a shotgun could travel unimpeded from one end of the house to the other. In 1995, these cottages were in various states of repair. Freshly painted models were interspersed with faded and peeling ones. Yet nearly all of these quaint buildings, either by design or inheritance, had their doors and windows fitted with tall, forest green shutters, giving each of them a decidedly colonial feel.
I was halfway between St. Peter and Dauphine when someone called out to me. It was a thin woman leaning in the doorway of one of the cottages. Grinning, she asked if I was going to bring back something for the two of us to drink later that evening. I intuited this was more warm-hearted teasing than actual solicitation, so I gamely asked her what brand of drink she had in mind, forewarning her of my limited budget. She made it clear that it was “Dom Pérignon” or nothing. I gave her my best “I think I can swing that” nod and walked on. We both laughed. She waved to me. I waved back. I had just met my first French Quarter resident.
I smiled. I could get used to this.
As I said, I assumed Bourbon Street would be more or less another type of Magsaysay Drive. The difference, I found, was the underlying spirit of the city itself.
When I first approached Bourbon from St. Peter it wasn’t quite dark yet, so I had some time to look around before things became too crowded.
Bourbon Street, like most strips, is a cacophony of cross-competing music. Although a wide variety of genres are represented on Bourbon from end to end, you can ultimately distill them into two core categories:
- Music “From Here” (minority)
- Music “From Elsewhere” (majority)
To my right was Maison Bourbon, a small but cozy venue whose doors were open wide to seduce curious passer-bys, and seduce they did: a local brass band playing Dixieland era jazz was already filling up the seats. This was quintessential “From Here” music: the stuff that gets your toes tapping.
To my left was Cat’s Meow, a two-story karaoke bar. Jukebox fare “From Elsewhere” brought slightly staggering visitors to the microphone, as did the second floor balcony from which, I would soon learn, much bead “commerce” was conducted night after night, usually by visitors.
I walked over to Maison Bourbon. As it so happens, Maison was also on my “list”.
I stood in the open doorway smiling serenely as the band played classic fare like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Basin Street Blues”. To think, I could come here to indulge this any time I wanted.
Eventually, and with considerable difficulty, I pulled myself away from Maison to continue my explorations. I had already run into one “spot”, what was next?
Well, there was St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, with its elegant trinity of grey spires, so unlike its Catholic contemporaries throughout the country that it could have been in Disneyland. (In fact, this was a visual motif presented, bitingly, by Krewe Du Vieux in 2014, but more on that in later installments)
The Cathedral was accompanied by the stately Cabildo on the left, site of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 where France formally transferred ownership of the territory to the United States.
To the right of the cathedral stood the Presbytere, which was nearly mirror image of the Cabildo. The Presbytere, I read, was originally intended to house clergy but this never came to pass. It was eventually sold to the city in 1853, then later sold to the state in 1908. Both were active museums and, like everything else here, well within my reach.
Running along both sides of Jackson Square itself were the Upper and Lower Pontalba buildings. I gazed up at the decorative ironwork along the length of the Upper Pontalba, blissfully unaware of how this historical residence would play a unique role in my future.
I wasn’t surprised to see that the black iron gates around the statue of Andrew Jackson padlocked for the evening. I peered through the fence and admired the grounds that days previous I had only caught cropped photographic glimpses of: mostly of everyday New Orleanians sitting on benches and talking familiarly amongst themselves, pausing just long enough to pose for a guidebook photo.
The French Quarter at night was the essence of twilight itself. I had nearly forgotten about my little “places to see” list. I was content to simply wander throughout the Quarter’s dimly-lit streets with nothing more than intuition and wonder to guide me. It was all here: the shuttered windows, the flickering gas lamps swaying in the river breeze, the soft clinking of glass and distant laughter—no fiction could replicate its actual mystique.
Hours later, I wandered onto Esplanade Avenue which borders the Quarter to the east. I walked, very slowly, under a canopy of oak trees. The pale yellow light from the streetlights outlined the mossy growth along their thick, gnarled branches. Two story colonials stood silent vigil along the avenue as I explored. The hypnotic fragrance of jasmine turned my head at every other corner. This too was mine. I had fallen in love with this crumbling shrine of decadence that very first night.
I never forgot that initial spell, even during those difficult nights in the distant future when I had all but given up on New Orleans.
That first night, however, I tucked my little list inside my pocket, never to retrieve it again. I knew I would explore all of these wonders and more in due course.
All I wanted before turning in was a night-cap at Cafe Du Monde. It was close to midnight when I placed my first order for cafe au lait and beignets. Beignets, for those who have yet to experience them, are fried, square-shaped pastries blanketed with powdered sugar. The surface of the tables are often damp and sticky, the result of waitstaff hastily wiping off excess powdered sugar over and over…
Shortly before midnight, sitting beneath Cafe Du Monde’s distinctive green and white awning, I bit into my first beignet. Sheer happiness. The coffee was rich and caramel colored. I added a little sugar and stirred. Perfect. Far from keeping me awake, the “au lait” actually helped me relax.
I stared across the street at Jackson Square, and then St. Louis Cathedral looming over it. A few of the cathedral’s stained glass windows were lit. It was almost too fairy-tale in appearance to look real.
I don’t remember much about heading back to St. Peter. I only know that once I returned to my room and turned off the lights, it was very dark, almost disconcertingly so. Only the faintest thread of light appeared under the door. The air conditioner had been running all evening, giving the bed sheets a cool, crisp feel to the touch as I pulled them up to my neck. I breathed in the dark, and the dark took me for one of its own.
New Orleans. Part Three.