I am leaving the town to the invaders: increasingly numerous, mediocre, dirty, badly behaved, shameless tourists.
-- Brigitte Bardot
W e told our friends we were going for the food, but that was a partial truth. Despite David's passion for gastronomy, it wasn't the call of Cajun cooking that led him to whisk me away to New Orleans a few days after returning home from Seattle -- it was the miles. With a stopover in Chicago, the round-trip would earn us 5120 miles, more than enough to place us in the coveted "50,000 miles flown in a year" category of our frequent flyer program. Once the flight was booked, however, all David could think about was blackened fish and jambalaya. Thus I found myself walking along the Mississippi River one sultry Saturday afternoon, trying unsuccessfully to rid my dark sweater of an incriminating layer of white powder. In L.A., people might have drawn other conclusions, but anyone on the street in New Orleans could tell at a glance that I'd been to Café Du Monde, purveyor of chicory-flavored coffee and beignets -- sinful pillows of fried dough set on a small plate and engulfed in a blizzard of fluffy white sugar. Even more than food, music, and art, New Orleans is known for its Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which is the day (usually in February) that signifies the beginning of Lent for Christians. I learned in Catholic school that Lent is a 40-day stint during which you're not allowed to do things you like -- in child terms, that meant I wasn't supposed to eat chocolate, and when I did, I was supposed to feel guilty. Later in life, I learned that Lent is representative of the 40 days Jesus wandered through the desert resisting the slew of temptations Satan threw at him. For centuries since, folks have celebrated the Tuesday before Lent with the voracious fervor of Britney on a bender the night before she's due at rehab.
Mardi Gras holds no allure for me. I once went to the Mardi Gras celebration in San Diego. Once . Afterwards I came to associate the event with attention-seeking girls baring their breasts and hammered guys assuming the right to be especially aggressive and lecherous. Accounts of friends who had been to the real deal didn't sound much different. I had no interest in fighting my way through the streets with a million other people in search of a clean restroom, or straining to see an elaborately decorated float through throngs of other revelers. By visiting "off season," I was hoping to soak in the culture minus the stupidity brought on by party-seeking tourists. Apparently, this is a lot to ask of a city renowned for decadence.
The night before, we'd gone out with our friends Steve and Jenifer, who happened to be visiting the Big Easy while we were there. Steve and Jen are artists and longtime New Orleans lovers (they'd organized a benefit on Martha's Vineyard to support victims of Katrina). We met up with them at Columns, the hotel at which they were staying that prides itself on having been the shooting location for the 1978 Brooke Shields flick Pretty Baby. Earlier in the day, David had come across a New York Times article published that morning called "36 Hours in New Orleans," which began by suggesting cocktails and live jazz on the porch of the Columns hotel on St. Charles at 5 p.m. on Friday. David and I thought it was a fun coincidence, but Jen was horrified when we shared the news. "It's too bad," she said. "We've been coming here for years. Now we'll never get in." It was Friday, the clock read 5:15, and members of the six-piece jazz ensemble were exchanging energetic solos; we were seated so close to them that Jen had to move a few inches away to avoid being bumped by the trumpet player. After a round of classic New Orleans libations -- Sazeracs and mint juleps -- and a tour of Steve and Jen's Blue Lagoon --themed room (complete with a cheesy poster of another Brooke Shields "classic"), we dined at Upperline restaurant and then took the streetcar down to the Quarter, where we caught the holiday burlesque show at the House of Blues. After the bawdy show let out, we wandered down to Bourbon Street, with its boozy frat party in full swing. The air was aglitter with flying beads. "I don't get the throwing of the beads when it's not Mardi Gras," Jen said. Steve wanted to escape the sophomoric frenzy and bring us to the Marigny district, where we could hear live blues all night. Like the Gaslamp on a weekend, the ruckus was entertaining enough to watch, but I was exhausted, so we bid our friends farewell and headed back to our hotel.
After sleeping in and fueling up on butter-soaked, deep-fried, sugar-covered dough, David and I strolled past voodoo stores, art galleries, and tchotchke shops on our way back to Bourbon Street. It was two o'clock, and the sun was still high in the sky. Rounding the corner to our destination, we were momentarily deafened by cacophonous dance music. The street was lined with clubs competing to see which could inflict permanent hearing loss the quickest. Employees paced the sidewalks, hawking this strip club or that, and women in bikinis and stiltlike heels tottered in doorways to help beckon midday voyeurs.
Though the train-wreck watcher in me enjoyed ogling hosers as they stumbled up and down the street with plastic, liquor-filled "go cups" in their hands, I could see why Steve and Jen didn't want to spend time in the area. It was like Avenida Revolución in Tijuana on a Saturday night. Only instead of college and military kids, the streets were crowded with middle-aged conventioneers. The ground was littered with necklaces of gold, green, and purple plastic beads, but nobody seemed particularly interested in scrambling for the prizes that, in a few months, would be desperately sought after.
Before we made it to the end of the first block, something struck me in the shoulder. I whipped around, but no one was there. David hadn't seen what happened, but he had a guess. I followed his finger to find a group of men standing on a balcony, leaning on the rail for balance, and tossing beads down at the street. David rolled his eyes and said, "This is obviously their Disneyland idea of what New Orleans is about." As if to prove his point, one of the guys screamed "SHOW US YOUR TITS!" He was eyeballing a taxi that had just deposited four older women. I waited for one of the women to shout a retort, but instead, they all laughed and held their hands up for beads. One of them, who resembled Mrs. Potts from Disney's Beauty and the Beast , actually shimmied and shook her enormous bust with glee.
"Wow," I said to David, as the music and shouting receded behind us.
"Yeah," he agreed.
"You know, it kind of makes sense that the whole Mardi Gras concept is rooted in Catholicism. If you think about it, those guys are like Catholic school girls. They get away from home, where they have to abide by the rules of their families, their jobs, or whatever, and they just go bat-shit crazy, trying to cram in every vice they can before they have to report back to their lives. It's like Vegas, but instead of shiny shirts from L.A. looking to get lucky, you've got a lot of button-downs in jeans and white sneakers from the Midwest looking to let loose."
"It's a shame that they're so caught up in having 'the experience' of New Orleans, that they're going to miss the experience of New Orleans," David said. "If they would only look beyond their 'go cups' and Bourbon Street, they might find that New Orleans is a very warm and charming city with a rich history."
"Rich in butter," I joked.
David showed his dimples. "Is there any other way?"