A Masshole Visits America: Alabama, New Orleans

Ever since I started planning my trip, The Big Easy had loomed on the horizon like a miasma, and many questioned my sanity for going anywhere near the Gulf Coast, let alone Bourbon Street,  in mid-August. “You’re not going alone, are you?” they asked, as if I were some corn-fed co-ed from Bismarck heading to Tijuana solo for Spring Break. As it happened, I had an old friend there, and I’d already been once before, two years earlier. Even so, it was the one destination that truly concerned me a little. If I managed to dodge the hurricanes, there were still hustlers, hookers, and 25 other letters worth of hazards to get me. As I crossed Lake Pontchartrain, the trip odometer rolling through 2,000 miles, I realized the only way out was through.

I’d left Atlanta 10 hours earlier and tore across Alabama like I had an outstanding warrant. I knew it was probably the right idea when I pulled off the highway at the Alabama Welcome Center and was greeted by this cheerful little bagatelle, which I kept thinking the sculptor forgot to put the asterisk on:

(Photos by Colin Kingsbury)

After crossing into Mississippi with time to spare and forgiving weather, I decided to drop off I-10 and follow the Gulf Coast from Biloxi to Gulfport. While Katrina is synonymous with New Orleans in most peoples’ minds, it was the Mississippi coast that she struck right on the chin, with 120 mph winds driving an unimaginable 28-foot storm surge over six miles inland. As I drove along US-90, which ran right along the beach, the area still felt like a work in progress seven years later, with alternating bands of brand-new buildings and vast empty lots with for-sale signs right in what looked like prime locations. Prior to Katrina, Biloxi had been the capitol of so-called “riverboat” casinos, which were more like barges permanently docked so as to skirt state laws. Katrina tore through them like Charlie Sheen with a suitcase full of blow, tossing several of them hundreds of feet inland, wiping out an industry that by some estimates accounted for as much as 10% of state revenues. Needless to say, the legislature moved quickly afterwards to legalize building casinos on dry land, and it is now impossible to throw a piece of fried chicken without hitting one.

I arrived without incident on Ursulines Avenue in the heart of the French Quarter. I’d asked my friend a week earlier for a recommendation for a place where my odds of catching bedbugs or bullets was below 50%, and she set me up with a friend of hers who ran a guesthouse that—she cautioned me—was very basic. Upon arrival, I realized that it was possibly the rattiest place I’d seen since a stay in the notorious Chunking Mansions in Hong Kong back in the mid-90s. And yet, I could not have imagined a more perfect place to spend the weekend in, marinating in a city that much of America was happy to give up on.

It had the air of a grand old house owned by a woman who, in the decades after her husband passed away, had gone gradually and thoroughly crazy, a mix of intricate elegance and decay, and I would not have been surprised to find Spanish moss hanging from the ceiling fans.

I met my friend Ava, who’d grown up practically next door to me in upstate New York, and gone to Tulane to study architecture. We had dinner at Coop’s Place, which is the first thing you must do upon arrival, where we caught up on everything that had happened in our lives since age 12 or thereabouts. While Katrina had been responsible for driving nearly half of New Orleans’ residents away, it actually caused Ava to leave New York and move back: as a young architect, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of rebuilding an entire city. “It was really frustrating to listen to the things people in New York were saying,” she said, “who were just completely ignorant of the place and what really went on here.”

And New Orleans is a place that it’s easy to be ignorant of: it’s possibly the most byzantine city in America, a densely-packed web of neighborhoods and distinct subcultures unlike any other. Until 2010, I’d been one of those ignorant Northeasterners who reasoned that anyone nuts enough to build a city below sea level in a hurricane zone deserved what was coming to them, and to some extent I still do, but after visiting for the first time, I couldn’t help but be seduced by the dark energy of the place. There are entire musical genres that exist nowhere else (see New Orleans brass bands and “Sissy Bounce” for two examples), the architecture of the city is unmistakable, and it’s home to possibly the only truly great indigenous gastronomy in America.

And then there is the drinking. Vegas markets itself as the place where anything goes, but after coming here, the Strip feels like a visit to Hot Topic in the Burlington Mall, where suburban teens exorcise their angst by emptying their parents’ credit cards on racks of identical nonconformist accessories. Vegas, for better or worse, is an entirely manufactured place filled with invisible lines behind which hotel security and plainclothes cops stand at the ready. In New Orleans, for better or worse, there are no lines, and it’s a wonder the place hasn’t collapsed in on itself sooner. But where else can you walk down a street like Frenchmen, and hop into any bar at any time of day, and hear a trio of amazing musicians playing like their lives depended on it for nothing more than tips from the crowd? It’s not simply the only place like it in America—it may be the only place like it in the world, and for better or worse, that’s why it deserves to be saved from itself.

Distance Driven: 476 miles
Average Humidity: 95%
Hurricanes survived: 2 (at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop)
Live bands seen on Saturday afternoon: 4