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My Miss New Orleans

Winner of the 2019 Jade Ring for Nonfiction

At first, the music sounded like some kind of Dixie funeral dirge.

The students’ expectant faces turned to watch the brass band’s slow march down the aisle of the auditorium. The musicians, dressed in crisp white shirts, black ties, and snap-brim caps, walked in a slow cadence as their horns released the mournful tones. Then, with a flourish, the white-gloved Grand Marshall blew his whistle and snapped open his green parasol, launching the band into an upbeat tune. The smiling deans followed the musicians down the narrow walkway, their colorful gowns and sashes whirling as they moved with the joyful beat.

It was this processional that welcomed the class of 2021 and its families to Tulane University in New Orleans.

Josh and I couldn’t believe that our daughter Lena would call this city home for the next four years. We fell in love with New Orleans on our first visit 25 years before, a feeling amplified with each subsequent trip. Now, after a tearful goodbye in the sultry August heat, we’d leave our baby to discover and, we hoped, delight in the city for herself.

Lena will find that it’s a little rough around the edges. Yet New Orleans is a place like no other in America: sidewalks buckling and heaving over ancient oak tree roots, multicolored strands of beads from Mardi Gras past draping over wrought iron fences, gas lamps flickering above grand entrances, and plates heaping high with spicy, bright red crayfish. 

The Crescent City, so nicknamed for its position on the first high ground along a bend in the Mississippi River, took shape under early French and Spanish rule. During its first hundred years, the settlers battled a succession of devastating hurricanes and fires, and, refusing to give in, built and rebuilt their city time and again.

In 2011, we introduced our young teenagers to New Orleans. We basked in the historic French Quarter where the streets are lined with two- and three-story buildings, their deep balconies trimmed with elaborate arched railings and lush hanging planters filled with ferns and flowers. Lena and Elijah hoisted up the tall sash window of our hotel room and scrambled onto the balcony to watch the happenings below in Jackson Square. 

The early French influence is a major part of New Orleans’ identity—from street names like Chartres or Dauphine to elaborate above-ground cemeteries— particularly in the city’s beloved cuisine. The early residents preserved the high standards of French cooking while adapting to common local ingredients. Our young teenagers tucked into a perfect example at Café du Monde, where French-style beignets blanketed in powdered sugar arrived alongside creamy, chicory café au lait. 

On that initial family trip to New Orleans, we knew one thing for sure: our kids would either love it or hate it. It’s a place that shows its true face to the world, reveling in its unique culture, but also not shying away from its problems. It can feel kind of scary at times. We knew we’d won them over when they both took to the food—even the raw oysters—and accepted the colorful city with all its imperfections.

The four of us bellied up to the oyster bar at Felix’s, watching our shucker make quick work of dozens of bivalves while regaling us with stories of his hometown. New Orleanians, it seems, want you to love the place as much as they do. With a wink, he promised Lena that any pearl discovered was hers.

The Creole, Cajun, and African American settlers joined the French and Spanish to create a melting pot of fantastic flavors found in po’ boys, gumbo, shrimp étouffée, king cake, and the list goes on. About a month after she started school, Lena called and told me, “Mom, they have grits every day, and red beans and rice are in regular rotation at the dining hall. I’m obsessed.” I hung up the phone with a grin, knowing the city was already pulling her in.

In those first months I sure did miss my baby girl, but I knew she was in good hands in that faraway place. She reassured me that the locals made her feel less homesick because of their kindness. “Just like Midwesterners but with more spice,” she said. 

The minute our November parents’ weekend visit ended, I began plotting my next trip south, renting a charming little house not far from campus. Known as a Shotgun House (if all the doors are open, apparently a shotgun blast will travel through without hitting a thing), this type of dwelling is seen all over town.

Walking to campus with Lena every morning, I gaped at all the little Creole and Center-hall cottages and double-gallery houses in the neighborhood. Most of these unique homes are built right up to the property line; some with shuttered openings, others held up by columns; all painted myriad colors. 

Even though Lena and her friends Uber around the city, I prefer taking the streetcar from the Uptown area near campus down stately St. Charles Avenue. For just over a dollar, I can relax on a wooden bench in one of the oldest continuously running streetcars in the United States and enjoy sightseeing on the grand avenue, along which are beautiful Greek Revival antebellum mansions, their lavish gardens replete with colorful blooms and drowsy bumblebees. I wonder who lives in these houses and try to imagine what life is like behind those towering wooden front doors.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of strands of Mardi Gras beads drip from the old oak tree branches along the route. It occurred to me that this would be the first time someone in our family would be in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, which happens the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Festivities often run for weeks prior to what is known as Fat Tuesday. In fact, Tulane, along with every other school in town, closes for several days so everyone can participate.

During the run up to Mardi Gras, private clubs called “Krewes” organize dozens of parades throughout the city. Lena was surprised to discover that even though it’s a big party, Mardi Gras is really about the community, with families coming together and people of all ages lining the parade route and kids perching from homemade ladders.

Cries of, Throw me something, mister! abound as people reach for the “throws” hurled off the floats. Generous Krewe members pay for everything they toss. Back in the late 1800’s, people caught glass bead necklaces But today parade goers snatch plastic necklaces, Doubloons stamped with Krewe names, stuffed animals, and special cups (and, according to Lena, even panties). Instead of throwing them, the famous Krewe of Zulu hands down sought-after painted coconuts so no one gets clocked in the head. 

One of Lena’s favorite parades is hosted by the all-female Krewe of Muses. The ladies of this krewe spend all year bedazzling their throws, which are high-heeled platform shoes decorated with sequins, feathers, rhinestones, and glitter. Snagging one of the coveted stilettos is a sign of good luck.

Tulane has a few Mardi Gras traditions of its own. Just off the streetcar line as you enter campus, there’s a huge tree covered in beads. After their first parade, freshmen toss a necklace and hope it catches on the branches—a good omen for acing their final exams. Lena said that beads aren’t allowed in the campus bar for safety reasons, so the street outside grows ankle deep with the necklaces the bouncers confiscate and toss away. 

Folks in the black wards of the city weren’t welcome to participate in the parades at first, and that initial rejection spawned the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The American Indians were the first to accept free slaves into their society, so in a sign of respect the black wards assigned themselves tribal Krewe names. Each year, the Big Chief and Krewe members spend thousands of hours in their clubhouses creating elaborate hand-beaded costumes and headdresses. At an agreed-upon time, the Krewes face off to see who’s “prettiest.” 

I first saw a Mardi Gras Indian on the HBO show Tremé. In a poignant scene, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux returns home after Hurricane Katrina to find his house and social club destroyed. In response, Lambreaux dons his full Indian regalia, the feathers of his elaborate costume reaching beyond his outstretched arms, as he asks a rival Krewe member for help. As a sign of the respect he garners, his request is granted. You can see some of these amazing costumes and learn about the unique cultural traditions of Black New Orleanians at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, located in the Tremé Neighborhood.

The threat of a hurricane actually cancelled Lena’s first day of classes this year, freaking us out a little. But Hurricane Katrina was the one that nearly knocked the wind out of New Orleans for good. The devastating storm made landfall on August 29, 2005, with a surge that breached the city’s levees. By the time the hurricane subsided, more than 1,800 people were dead. Many of the city’s poorest residents couldn’t evacuate and instead scrambled to their rooftops, hoping for rescue. 

It was heartbreaking to watch the government’s pathetic response to the storm, forever immortalized in George W. Bush’s praise of the head of FEMA, Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” African Americans, disproportionately affected by the storm, disagreed with President Bush’s assertion, and Rev. Jesse Jackson remarked at the time that much of the nation has “an amazing tolerance for black pain.” 

With almost three quarters of the city’s housing damaged or destroyed, native New Orleanians and Tulane students alike scattered to other states, sometimes permanently. When I visited, some eight months after the storm, my cab driver lamented the loss of so many residents, wondering how they would ever teach their kids about this distinctive place if they never returned home. 

In the next breath, he laughed, though, and said at least the daiquiri shops were back in business. Drive-through daiquiris are just one aspect of the unique drinking culture in New Orleans. Bars in the city proper often stay open 24 hours, and you can get a “go cup” when you want to take your drink with you. Open carry of intoxicants is legal in the French Quarter, and laws against open carry are rarely enforced elsewhere in the city.

Tulane University takes the wellbeing of its students very seriously, encouraging the kids to take care of each other and imbibe wisely. And of course, they do imbibe—most often at a local bar called “The Boot,” to which Lena dragged us during Homecoming.

Walking through New Orleans, drink in hand, you’ll hear music coming from every direction. This is the birthplace of jazz, a place where slaves playing drums during voodoo ceremonies collided with brass horn players from Europe. Musicians of many cultures flowed into town and, over time, created a unique, jubilant style of music that matches the energy of the city.

A musical Second Line parade is traditional for a New Orleans funeral. At the close of Tulane’s convocation, the horns converged in a happier version where the brass band and deans led the celebration forming the “Main Line,” with students organically flowing into the “Second Line” as they left the auditorium. 

Watching Lena and her classmates stream out onto the quad in that gigantic Second Line, we took a deep breath and crossed our fingers. Would New Orleans capture her spirit as it had ours? Would she dance to the music and revel in its special blend of hot sauce and sheer abandon? Could the hole in our hearts formed by her leaving ever be filled?

When I hear Crescent City native Louis Armstrong plaintively sing of moonlight on the bayou, of Creole tunes filling the air and magnolias in bloom, of forever longing to be there, I understand.

The song title asks the question: “Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” 

My answer is yes. Yes, I do.

 

 

Contributors

Julia Gimbel has been published in the anthologies Family Stories from the Attic (2017) and Creative Wisconsin (2017). The discovery of her late father’s World War II journal motivated her to write her first full-length nonfiction book, as yet untitled, set for release in Spring 2020 by Orange Hat Publishing.

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