I have a thing for “dying” cities.

If a struggling town has abandoned buildings and the crumbling, cracking facades of faded glory, I’m interested. I just like the idea of a place whose existence upsets people. “Save Venice?” My father-in-law likes to ask rhetorically. “What about save me the fucking heartache?”

Like Venice, New Orleans has the same combination of wonder and impending doom. Even if you’re not a miserable fuck like me, it’s hard to avoid: death is right in your face. Within minutes of catching a cab we passed an above-ground cemetery, one of the “cities of the dead” that dot New Orleans, like interactive billboards for mortality. The thinking is that this burial practice started as a reaction to the swampland, which had a habit of spitting up dead, decomposing relatives, like a Michael Jackson-inspired music video with shitty production values. In reality, though, it may have had more to do with simple economics. Either way, the Big Easy’s dead have for years been buried in rows of elaborate tombs, which cremate generations of the same family in the Louisianan heat.

I wanted to ask our cab driver about it, but he didn’t seem interested. He was a large black man and his accent – part Haitian, part Southern, all unintelligible – was difficult to place.

“Ki kote ou sòti,” he said.

All four of us looked at his round brown eyes in the rearview mirror, hoping we could gleam something. We couldn’t.

“French Quarter?” My brother-in-law asked.

The driver did not react at all. After a few heavy seconds of silence, he turned up the volume on the radio. True to any stereotype you may have heard, he was listening to a heated NPR discussion on the revival of classical music.

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Our hotel was the sight of the first cotton press in America. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but it conjured up images of slave drivers and people in chains, which was hard to shake.

“You ok sugar?” the heavy-set black woman at the counter asked me. Her breasts, large and heavy, hung down towards her knees and seemed to be resting on the counter. Through her white shirt, I could make out the shape of two pepperoni-shaped nipples.

“Yeah, just a bit cold,” I said. It was 9 degrees Celsius outside and I was wearing a t-shirt.

“I know just the thing honey,” she said. “Our hot tub. There ain’t nothing like it when it gets a bit frisk. I use it all the time.”

I had no intention of ever using that hot tub, but knowing she did was enough to warm me over. Somewhere a slave driver was spinning in his grave.

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If the majority of the Quarter is pretty and European-like, whimsical even, Bourbon Street is like a conveyor belt of lowered human expectations. Everyone looks stunned, afraid or inebriated.

We had been warned.

“You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before,” my uncle told me. As he has made a habit of vacationing in places that require exit visas, vaccines and snakebite kits, I assumed he was kidding. I was wrong.

The first step I took on the street, I saw an obese bald man with no teeth holding up a sign that said, “Huge Ass Beer.”

I had never seen that before.

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When I used to picture New Orleans, I imagined grand ballrooms, three-piece suits, bow ties and brass bands wearing white gloves. I didn’t usually picture Bourbon’s cavalcade of neon, mismatched pastel colors and assorted football memorabilia.

I think this is why locals seem embarrassed by Bourbon Street. They acknowledge that it’s something you should see and “do,” but it’s in the same way someone would recommend getting a flu shot. They know that it comes with a slight chance of catching a virus.

Up and down the street, the bars all look the same, one after another, like holdover franchises of a chain that couldn’t keep up with the times – Hooters without the cleavage.

There are two respites from this bottom barrel dredging. The first is Legends Park, which offers live jazz and a place to sit that’s free of vomit and frat boys. The second is found outside Bourbon Street’s strip clubs, which provide a free study in customer solicitation. Some, for example, line up their dancers on the street, a kind of police line-up of things you will regret once the alcohol wears off. Others are more cerebral, with soft-spoken, tuxedoed doormen trying to convey just how much your life would improve, if you would just come inside.

“It’s great atmosphere tonight, a lot of smiling couples inside.”

“If you guys feel like getting out of the cold, we have a nice warm room tonight. Great people, good clean adult fun.”

My favorite, though, was more to the point, delivering his message in one word as we walked in front of the door:

“TITTIES!”

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There is a quote about America only having three cities: New York, San Francisco and the Big Easy.

“Everywhere else is Cleveland,” the saying goes.

Every now and again, if the sun catches the right façade or you take a side street at the right time, you can understand the sentiment. You can squint and catch a peak into something so romantic and timeless it’s almost un-American: southerners in linen suits, bright jacket squares and walking sticks, the sound of carriages on cobblestones, gas lights, trumpets and unbridled optimism.

Tourists only drive the point home. I saw, for example, two large groups of men wearing head-to-toe sports paraphernalia, arguing over college football. The only accessory they all shared: tired looking women with anxious, searching eyes. They came for New Orleans but are stuck in Ohio.

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Sometimes, when watching CNN or reading comments on online news posts, I think the end of American exceptionalism is upon us, the country bereft of ideas and energy. And then I see a storefront offering frozen cocktails and pizza by the slice.

The cocktail mixing machines are lit in neon and the pizza looks like it’s been freeze dried and reheated. It is disgusting, sure, but also brilliant, in an aggressively capitalist way. It’s giving the people what they want, goddamn it.

This, I think, can only exist in the US, and by the time I see my fifth “Pizza and Cocktails” restaurant/bar stand, I’m in love with America’s exceptional ass all over again.

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The first thing we saw getting off the plane at the New Orleans International airport was a big blue ad for a hospital.

“#1 in liver transplants!” it boasted.

Was this a fun send up of the city’s bon vivant reputation, a sign that the hospital was in on the joke? Or were we supposed to infer something parasitic about the American health care system? As Canadians, we weren’t sure, but we laughed and took pictures at something we just wouldn’t see back home.

A middle-aged couple, white, fat and grey, stopped to watch us. The man, who rubbed his stomach like it was a lottery scratch card, was wearing a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, with wide, loose-fitting jeans and a fanny pack. Tall and pale, his mouth hung open above a white beard. His wife, plump and short, was wearing an unseasonable sundress, with large, round sunglasses. They looked at us and looked up at the sign. Twice.

“I need a drink,” the man said finally, leaving his wife behind, who was still looking up, as if trying to decipher an ancient message carved in stone.

I saw them again on Bourbon Street. They both had beads around their necks and were double fisting: a cocktail in each hand. They are not the exception. Bars throughout the city provide “go cups,” portable plastic cups that allow you to take your drink with you. The result is an alcoholic parade, a people-watching paradise that celebrates all things liquid and intoxicating. It’s an atmosphere that lends itself to booze-powered creativity and encourages people to create their own cocktails.

I had my first Sazarac in this environment. It was slightly bitter and disappointing, but I gave it another shot. The second one was better, the ingredients balanced and smooth, and for a few blocks, I felt great, like a parade marshal in a leading float.

I then had a Hurricane and continued navigating through bachelor parties, tour groups and vomiting degenerates. I couldn’t shake the sense, though, that it was all a bland copy of something that was once unique and heartfelt, a scene living off the fumes of another era, waiting for something new.

And then I saw two drag queens. The first, a tall blond in a tight black miniskirt, was pushing a sleeping baby in a stroller. The second, a short, pudgy brunette, carried a baby bottle in his left hand and a large, inflatable black penis in his right.

I ordered another Sazerac, and I felt better.

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“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans,” Tennessee Williams once wrote. “An hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

It’s hard to see what he’s talking about, until you come across Jackson Square in the rain. I was just about to tell my wife about it, but as I turned to look at her, a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt unleashed one of the longest, loudest belches I’ve ever heard.

It was so tuneful and heartfelt, a group of nearby buskers, packing up after a show, started applauding.

“Thank you,” he said, exaggerating a deep bow, like a true southern gentleman.

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A man with a snake around his shoulders greeted us on Frenchmen Street. We tried to avoid him, but he stopped at every corner, looking for something to validate his decision to go out with an “accessory” that could choke a small child.

My wife, who would rather jump out of a helicopter over a volcano than be in the same zip code as a live snake, nearly ripped my arm out of its socket. This is her worst fear come to life, and to avoid an unnecessary amputation, we got a table at Praline Connection.

The waiters at Praline Connection wear white shirts and black hats. There is a comment to be made about style over substance here, but the food was honest and comforting: I had a jambalaya that made me want to move to Louisiana. This was not the first time that had happened. The food in New Orleans seems designed to elicit a response, to have you consider all of your lifestyle choices with every bite.

The beignets and chicory-flavored coffee at Café du Monde had, just a day earlier, condemned and mocked every donut and cup of percolated coffee I’d ever had. The warm Muffaletta sandwich at Napoleon House took a similar shit on every sandwich I had ever consumed, bringing on a mix of emotions that’s difficult to describe – like having your heart stolen and broken at the same time. It’s a feeling that grows more pronounced with every meal, as you realize that this food isn’t on every block in every city in America, and that this may one day change or disappear altogether.

I tried to tell our waiter at Praline Connection how much I had enjoyed the Jambalaya, but he didn’t seem interested. I don’t think he even looked at us. We’d encountered this – a cross between annoyance and indifference – in a few different restaurants in the city. I can’t tell if they think we’re enemies, picking away at their city, or if they’re just displeased with working in the service industry.

“Can we get two beers?”

“Local?” the waiter asked, looking over my shoulder to the back of the room.

“Sure,” I answered, expecting there to be more to this conversation. He walked away.

A few minutes later he dropped off two varieties of Abita Beer. He’d opened both without checking which we’d prefer. I had an IPA, and hated almost every second of it.

“This one is raspberry-flavored. It’s good,” my wife said.

We ordered two more of the raspberry beer, but our waiter did not react.

“Did he hear us?” My wife asked. I could only shrug.

We watched him push past a swinging door to the kitchen, and through a round window, saw him drop off our dishes. He then vanished out of sight, into the deep end of the kitchen, the door still swinging behind him.

The beer never came.

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If you have a love of music, the kind of love that manifests itself in dusty, doomed record shops, in the hunt for dustier, doomed records, Frenchmen Street feels like home. By 8pm, Jazz was spilling out from every door, up, down and across the street.

While we were finishing up at Praline Connection, we heard what sounded like a marching band. It turned out to be a local brass band, a seven-piece of young black kids.  They had set up shop on a corner of Frenchmen street, right in the middle of all the clubs charging covers for live music, and started playing. Within minutes, they’d attracted a large group of people and brought traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, to a standstill.

I’ve spent a lot of time, money and energy dissecting the punk and new wave era, a period of time I missed out on entirely. I’ve read countless interviews with members of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Wire, each of them going out of their way to explain why it was so revolutionary to hold up shitty clothes with safety pins and talk badly of Margaret Thatcher.

None of that crap stood a candle to watching these kids play. Free flowing, funky, urgent and heartfelt, they didn’t give a single fuck about: 1) what you thought 2) what the “rules” were with regard to playing on Frenchmen 3) if they made any money 4) how they looked.

It was one of the most punk rock things I’ve ever seen.

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My grandfather hates Little Italy.

“Too many Italians,” he says, a Neapolitan accent so thick it might as well be classified a speech impediment.

He isn’t a self-hating Italian. He just believes in the idea of the American melting pot; in being able to avoid living amongst people that were just like you. When explaining his decision to emigrate, he says, “I wanted to see black people.”

“When I was young, I only saw them on movie screens. Now I live next to one,” he says with the kind of smile reserved for children at ice cream parlors.

I bring this up because I was skeptical about the New Orleans’ Habitat Musicians Village. I’ve been in a band for nearly ten years, and while I’ll stop short of calling myself a “musician”, I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time around real musicians. While I have a soft spot for these people, the thought of living in an entire village of drummers, bassists and trumpet players strikes me as a particularly evil version of hell.

However, when you’re face-to-face with the devastation in the Ninth Ward, the Musicians Village just feels right. Its goal is to bring low-income musicians back to the city by providing them a modest but well built, single-family home. To apply, musicians have to have a “need for shelter,” an “ability to pay” and a “willingness to partner.” The last two requirements involve paying an interest-free mortgage (roughly $550 a month) and putting in 350 hours of “sweat equity” in the construction of their home.

The new homes are bright and clean, and they’ve created a lively core of new streets in the area. Still, it’s a conflicting place to visit. Yes, it’s heartening that these people are getting a helping hand, but it’s mystifying and depressing to see how much of their neighborhood is still fucked up. Tour buses, and tourists snapping pictures of busted, abandoned homes, only make matters worse. I’d say this is parasitic and cynical, this attempt to make money off the misery of others, but we’re partly to blame. We were only here, after all, because we were curious, because we wanted to see the American neighborhood left for dead.

Once you see all the busted down homes, though, the misplaced lives and empty lots, you just want to see the neighborhood come back to life – even if it’s full of musicians.

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Why do people take cooking classes on vacation?

The urge must come from the same region in the brain that downloads (and later deletes) exercise and calorie-counting apps. The intentions are good, but who the fuck are we kidding? I will never make shrimp remoulade or bananas foster. I know that in the same way that I know I will never have washboard abs.

Still, I found myself taking notes at the New Orleans Cooking School. Our teacher was a thin, bald white man with a soft Southern accent and a smirk that made it seem like everything he said was full of shit. As a consequence, he followed everything with, “I’m serious!”

“You have to keep stirring the roux or else you’re gonna mess errthing up! No mah-er what happens, don’t stop sturring. I’m serious! Someone knocks on the door, shout, “Come on! I’m making a roux!” Someone calls you, let it ring! If they call back, disown’em…I’m serious!”

A short line of historical background followed every ingredient he threw into the pot, as if he were assigning blame.

“This came from the Indians, and by that I mean the natives. Can you believe we still use the term “Indians?””

“This the French brought over, like they did with syphilis.”

“This is from the Italians. You know, we wouldn’t have the French Quarter if it wasn’t for them! I’m serious!”

Energetic, funny and sassy, he was the kind of person that makes you want to believe that cities and states form unique ways of thinking, acting and speaking.

“By now,” he said, “Y’all have heard the slogan: “Laissez les bon temps roulez”? Well here’s another one from Nawlins that I prefer: “Lash pah la pat aht.”

When he said this he looked in the direction of our table, assuming that we, as “French speakers,” would understand what he was saying. We did not.

“Lash pah la pat aht,” he repeated, looking at us again. “Seriously? Come on!”

After he explained it, we understood that he was trying to say, “Lache pas la patate,” an old French expression (literally, don’t drop that potato) that is supposed to mean don’t give up on your dreams.

“I just love that,” he said, pausing to look up at the yellowing ceiling, as if he were considering the great potato in the sky. “I’m serious!”

A large couple from Alabama laughed whenever he said this, slamming their thick tree trunk arms against the table and applauding. The female, a bottle blonde with a square face, sleeveless red shirt and linebacker’s shoulders, had described herself as a “gourmet cook,” a description that evidently gave her license to raise her flabby arm whenever our teacher stopped speaking.

“Another question!” He shouted each time, pretending he liked fielding her inquiries about spices, sauces, dishes, restaurants, yams, marshmallows, beer, donuts and ice cream.

“I’m sorry for the questions y’all,” she said finally, “I’m just very curious. I want to know everything.”

This, as it turns out, was false, and when our teacher began discussing his problematic professional life, her arm stayed glued to the table.

“I find there are quite a few organizations that do not want to be associated with someone living an alternative lifestyle,” he said. He repeated “alternative lifestyle” a number of times, the term hanging higher and higher in the thick, silent air of the classroom, like the scent of a perfectly prepared roux.

“I’m serious,” he said looking down at his white apron.

The blonde from Alabama said nothing.

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“As soon as I smelled the air,” Anne Rice once wrote,” I knew I was home. It was rich, almost sweet, like the scent of jasmine and roses around our old courtyard. I walked the streets, savoring that long lost perfume.”

She was talking about New Orleans, but if I were to hazard a guess, she probably wasn’t describing the French Quarter in the early morning, when the smell of urine, stale beer and vomit mix together to form a bouquet of inebriation, a floral replication of a hangover – all of which, I was told, gets exacerbated in the summer by the warm temperatures.

To fight this off, the Quarter is cleaned every morning, with a custom-built water truck blasting the streets with up to 4,000 gallons of water and “SDT Super Fresh,” a biodegradable, deodorizing disinfectant. “SDT Super Fresh” was developed by a company called SDT Waste and Debris Services, which was started by a man named Sidney Torres IV.

“As New Orleanians we have become accustomed to some less than fresh odors in the French Quarter,” Torres said in a press release years ago. “Super Fresh was developed to specifically snuff out those “day-after” odors,” he said.

Young, ambitious and trendy, Torres IV turned himself into something of a street-cleaning rock star with his French Quarter gig, before selling SDT Waste and Debris Services to a Canadian conglomerate. He now owns a resort in the Bahamas.

If you know this, or have heard about Torres IV and his invention, SDT Super Fresh smells like unadulterated capitalism at its best; the American dream in its purest, most snortable form. If you don’t, it just smells like a warm, lemon-scented bath, albeit one with immediate psychological benefits. Everything that happened before, every whiff of consumption and avarice wafting off open bar doors, every sign of excess, struggle and success, scrubbed and flushed away.

It reminds me of that old joke:

“Why does a criminal take a bath?”

“To make a clean getaway.”