“You could pretty much say you lived in New Orleans for a little while.”
I was told that by a bartender on the final night of my stay. This came after 11 days in the Big Easy, walking, riding, eating, sweating, drinking, laughing, hearing stories, and gazing in awe. I didn’t get any mail down there, but yeah: I lived in New Orleans.
I can’t call it a second home yet – but I say the “yet” really hard when I repeat that in my head.
I woke up at 3:30 on a Monday morning and went to the bar. Twice, I scarfed po’boys between 6-7 a.m. I hit up three jazz brunches. I got to a restaurant at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until almost 7 p.m. I got lost in music like I’d never done before, whether it was Some Like it Hot! with my coffee at Buffa’s, Robin Barnes at the Spotted Cat, a dude playing saxophone inside an empty-but-me Cafe Beignet, or people on French Quarter curbs beating upside-down mud buckets.
But before any of that, I was picked up at Louis Armstrong International Airport (Code: MSY) by a teapot-shaped man with meaty hands and white hair. He was my first favorite Orleanian.
He gave me a firm handshake and tossed my luggage in the trunk of his car. I responded with sheepish insistence – “Oh, you don’t have to do that” – and stood there awkwardly because I thought it’d be rude to sit down while he took care of my stuff. Once he was done loading my luggage (5-6 seconds, roughly) and I was done being weird about it (Just kidding, I’m still being weird about it), we got in the car and were off.
Past the shade of the airport garage was a late-July afternoon that looked the part of a journey fulfilled: a blazing sun, a pale blue sky, the occasional palm tree poking out from between concrete formations, and an unstressed Interstate 10. Clouds dotted the sky like they might in a cartoon drawing, small and spread out. I didn’t soak it in very well. Mostly, I was just like “I’m here” to myself.
GETTING AROUND, BY THE NUMBERS
- My phone’s step-counter app says I walked 132,667 steps during my trip (but this includes MSP airport).
- According to that app, those steps covered 60.6 miles.
- Not counting to/from MSY, I dialed up 12 Lyft rides.
- The price of those rides totaled $145.85.
- A daily public transportation pass gets you onto any bus or street car all day for $3.
- I bought 9 daily passes during my trip.
The first thing he did was explain how New Orleans manages the water. With the Mississippi River to the south of the city’s core, Lake Pontchatrain looming to the north, and the city below sea level, water management is a big deal. Less than two weeks prior, rainfall from Tropical Storm Barry (briefly Hurricane Barry) hit the city when the Mississippi’s crest was already unseasonably high. There was fear Barry’s rainfall would push the crest over 20 feet and possibly flood over New Orleans’ protective levees. Didn’t happen, though. (If you’re into weather, this Washington Post article details just how weird this storm was)
What I lacked in relevant knowledge, I made up for with a Minnesota-related fun fact. “Oh yeah!” he said when I told him the Mississippi first flows from Minnesota’s own Lake Itasca. He asked if the Mississippi really is narrow enough in some places that you could step over it. I wasn’t 100-percent on whether or not you actually could, but I told him yes because I didn’t want to ruin it for him. He was floored.
I looked it up after I got home. You can’t step over it, like take one step and be on the other side, but you can step across its headwaters. Think about that. Look at all the rivers that flow into the Mississippi before it reaches New Orleans, and you can just step across its headwaters in Minnesota. How crazy is that?
Halfway between the airport and downtown New Orleans, he urged me to look out the passenger’s side window. “Cities of the dead,” he said. It was the Metairie Cemetery. I’m sure you already know that a life below sea level means burial above ground in New Orleans. The only New Orleans grave I’d seen to this point was Nicolas Cage’s, but a quick glimpse into the Metairie Cemetery offers a view of some fascinating structures.
The conversation turned to food, and this was the best. He brought up the iconic po’boy, and shared the story of a restaurant owner who wanted to feed striking streetcar workers back in the 1920s. He said gravy and fries were loaded into baguette loaves, and these sandwiches were dished out under the command “Get those po’boys some sandwiches!”
It’s unclear whether this story is true (the websites I looked at were generally hesitant to say it’s exactly what happened), but the mention of French fries and gravy steered our conversation back north.
“We have something like that up north,” I said. “We don’t use a roll, though.”
I went on about how we take a plate of fries, drench them in gravy, throw some kind of meat on there, and top it with melted cheese curds. I’d see poutine on the menu at a couple of New Orleans restaurants, but this seemed to be the first time he’d heard of it – and this was also the first he’d heard of …
“Cheese curds?” he said.
I explained cheese curds with wide-open eyes and a zealot’s intensity. I told him about the billowy fried curds I get at restaurants and the solid cold curds I score at cheese shops in Wisconsin. He looked delighted. I’m still kicking myself for not having packed any.
Interstate 10 transitioned to US Highway 90, and the Carondelet St. exist wasn’t too far from that. He dropped me off at Drip Affogato Bar, on the corner of Carondelet and Girod (for now – Drip is closing Sept. 23). He did my luggage again, I did that standing again, we shook hands, and he took off. I stepped into Drip for a cup of affogato and grabbed a seat with a view out the north window. I could see my next target from there. I had a 5 p.m. reservation: Frank for One, Eating Oysters and Drinking for Three.