As I took my first slow, observation walk in New Orleans on Saint Charles Avenue, a few blocks from where I was staying, I spotted a nice little bar. It's sign gave the name, Igor's, and a short description of just what it was: Food. Wonderful - a proper bar should always have access to a good grill, you know? Drinks. How outstanding is that! Now, I knew I could walk into this bar, get some food, AND grab a few adult beverages to wash it down! Always nice to have that confirmed! Gameroom. Hey, a good game or two certainly never hurt a proper bar and grill. It goes with the territory, really! Laundromat. Now.... Wait, what?! I really don't think I can say a whole lot to that. Except that when you're visiting New Orleans, a famously loose party city, it's that kind of thing that makes perfect sense in its own refrigerator logic kind of way. It's useful to know that if I got blasted on way too many hurricanes or hand grenades and puked all over myself, I would have an easy standby washing machine in which to wash and dry my clothes before doing anything else that night. Yes, that would involve removing my clothes from my body, but that's not much of a problem - New Orleans is the kind of place that might not have any laws against nudity. Or, at the very least, it wouldn't think anything of people in the buff.
And the best part was, it was open 24 hours, every day! This was a bit of a shock to me. Here in Buffalo, the people make a big deal out of the fact that the proper closing time is 4 AM. In Chicago, there were 4 AM, 6 AM, and all night bars, but they were sporadic and nine out of ten bars still made last call at 2. I could only smack my palm against my head and exclaim "wow!" Since I had just spent 15 hours on a train and was tired, my sense of need then guided me toward a nice little local coffee house that happened to be in the area, and let me say this: I do not believe there is such a thing as a bad New Orleans blend. I used to drink a New Orleans blend of coffee when I lived in Chicago that I really liked, but there at ground zero, the local blends were some of the most bold and robust I've ever had. Let the folks in Seattle celebrate their corporation; I'll take a New Orleans coffee any day.
After my official check-in (something my hostel was really awful about), I then made the fatal mistake of all New Orleans visitors by visiting the French Quarter. I can't say the most famous part of New Orleans is a completely arbitrary merchants' point created strictly to overwhelm your senses and liberate wallet change in large chunks. In my time there, I learned that the Quarter is historically important because once upon a time, it was the entire city of New Orleans. And while there are still residents there, it has certainly evolved into a merchants' paradise. Despite such historically important places as the first bar in the United States, the home of playwright Tennessee Williams, the Louisiana History Museum - hell, all of Jackson Square - the more famed parts of the Quarter consist of gift shops, restaurants, cabaret shows, and bars where music is always going full blast. Nothing is reasonably priced. Even a Coke will set you back over two bucks BEFORE tax!
There is a very artistic style about the entire city, and I noticed that in everything from the painted bus shelters and benches to the brass band that greeted me at the entrance point of Bourbon Street. But of course, a place like New Orleans better have some kind of unique flavor; it is, aesthetically, the weirdest place I have ever seen in my life. Not that I'm saying it's bad; I truly dug the city. But the shock of going there for the first time isn't something that easily wears off, and among the things I noticed were that, first of all, in my official capacity as a cyclist, New Orleans has the best cycling atmosphere on the planet. It was one thing I never though about before visiting - New Orleans has the flattest terrain ever, which makes perfect sense for a city built below sea level. Second is that I don't believe I saw any truly natural shade. Below the sea, the city planners had to do everything, and so most of the tree placements I saw there were definitely planned. Ordinarily that's also something you never think about until you spot how odd the collections of palm trees look next to the other trees. Third, every major street is a giant arc, which is how New Orleans got the nickname The Crescent City.
I spent the week sampling the grub, from red beans and rice to gris gris, po'boys, and the famous gumbo. I also had to try a local beer called Ambita, which I can't say impressed me very much. I brought the idea of the po'boy back to Buffalo with me and have been using it ever since.
As I spent days walking throughout the city, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful it was, despite the litter and lack of a good recycling program. I visited the first Saint Louis Cemetery and the Lafayette Cemetery, as well as walking throughout Audubon Park, the Garden District, and several of the neighborhoods. Even the poorer parts of the city that I visited had a certain visual appeal for the artistically inclined. Houses were painted in funky, bright ways. The city made up its warehouse district into an area of museums and restaurants. Getting around was a little tricky, because the public transit system - NORTA - was spotty at best. But it did work for what it did, the price was cheap - three bucks gets you an unlimited-use all-day pass - and the streetcars provide a nice old-world Victorian charm, even if they are uncomfortable.
I spent some time hanging out with a couple of dormmates in my hostel, and it was with them - one of whom was a longtime resident - that I learned that New Orleans is a double-entity city. There are the parts meant for the tourists, but my dormmates and I went on a long walk through the French Quarter one night to get to an area where the locals hang out. The atmosphere was notably different, and the people, freed of the cliques that tourists gather in because they share a hometown, were gone. We bar-hopped, and I chatted with some friendly locals, and it did result in me doing that stereotypical tourist in New Orleans thing: Drinking too much of the fine whiskey - Jefferson Reserve - and stumbling back to where I was staying through the French Quarter at 3:30 AM.
In observation of the bicentennial of our final war with Great Britain, I also took my first-ever steamboat ride up to the field where the Battle of New Orleans - the final battle of the War of 1812 - was fought. It was a somber occasion, but the field was pretty and the weather was very cooperative. On Easter I attended mass at Saint Louis Cathedral, not because I'm religious - I identify as a card-carrying member of God's Loyal Opposition - but because it was something I believed that, being an avid studier of religion, I thought I should experience.
In between listening to the music, sampling the cuisine, I found a New Orleans with a spiritual positivity, friendly populace, and open-minded diverse style of its own. I truly dug it there. Hell, I could see myself living there quite happily, writing, taking pictures, and going easy.
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