The sentence that is printed on everything is laissez les bon temps roulez. “Let the good times roll,” it roughly translates.
As we drive to New Orleans, the water rises out of nowhere. Lake Pontchartrain, the map says. We drive over a bridge a mile long, and all we can see is water. It is the first thing we see that truly looks different. Alabama, Mississippi seemed like a hotter, flatter version of home, but Louisiana, with its French signs (“Bienvenue a Louisiana”) and its lakes and bayous and bridges feels, for the first time, not home.
“We’re going to New Orleans!” I exclaim. To Josh, to the cat, to myself.
I fall in love with the French Quarter in spite of myself. I pride myself on hating touristy places, but it has a disheveled elegance about it. Even with the bachelor partiers and the strip clubs and half-price margarita bars on Bourbon Street, a block away, on Royal or Saint Peter, you can hear none of the noise. The gas lanterns flicker, and the elaborate iron latticework winds its way up the old Creole buildings like a vine, and somewhere, a brass band is playing.
We eat gumbo and rice and beans, shrimp Creole and good crackly-crust bread at a place with a quiet courtyard.
Josh declares that it is pretty, and the food is great, but it smells like pee. The Simpsons were right, after all, in that episode where they put on a musical of Streetcar Named Desire. But I am getting over a sinus cold, and I can’t smell it. I am entranced by a place where there are gas lamps and good gumbo and a brass band better than any you’ve ever heard playing just outside a CVS, on an everyday Thursday.
We are tired and head back early. We pass a Benjamin Franklin statue. Someone has thrown silver beads around his neck. Let the good times roll.
The next day, we have a three-course lunch at a place in the Garden District, across the street from a cemetery. There is a waiter to fill your water glass, another to scrape your crumbs off the table, another to bring your food. There is still one more to crack open your bread pudding soufflé and pour the sweet cream sauce with raw whiskey straight in.
Across the street from the bread pudding soufflé is a cemetery. There are family tombs there with eight or nine names, some which died at a ripe old age. And then there are some names trailed by the sad inscription “died at 2 months and 23 days, of yellow fever.”
We are back in the hotel and changed out of our nice clothes when the sadness finds us and refuses to leave. It has been a hard year, I’ve learned to say. It’s my shorthand for the sadness that has taken up residence in our house. Depression is a demon, and no matter how many corners you turn, it can usually track you down again.
I flip listlessly through our hotel visitors guide while Josh sleeps away the sadness. Laissez les bon temps roulez, it smiles at me. Let the good times roll.
It is easy to forget that Katrina was here nearly seven years ago. But even here, as I eat dinner in the French Quarter, there are buildings that were flooded, rebuilt. I haven’t been to the Lower Ninth Ward. As I sit in a restaurant, eating crawfish etouffee in a building where people used to auction off slaves, a hurricane watch plays on the TV in the corner. A tropical storm, Isaac, is headed to the U.S. It’s not set to come here, but I doubt anyone will breathe deep until it’s gone. The bon temps here seem always lived in the shadow of the bad. And even though Josh is sleeping back at the hotel, has slept away the day with the sadness, I feel a closeness with the people here. I feel not alone.
I turn down Royal Street in the French Quarter after I finish my etouffee, and St. Louis Cathedral is lit up white. In the square are the fortune-tellers with tea lights lighting their palm-reading tables, a street musician, a couple of art hawkers. And above them all is a white stone Jesus in front of the cathedral, with his arms outstretched, glowing like the Transfiguration.
His shadow up against the cathedral wall looks nearly ten feet tall. His embrace is wider than I have ever seen it. It stretches for a half a block. While a Japanese tourist beside me snaps a photo of the illusion, I just stare.
He looks like he is embracing this whole city. The fortune-tellers and street musicians and the living statues. The bachelorette partiers drunk on $3 daiquiris on Bourbon Street and the homeless men playing their trumpets by the Mississippi River. The waiters delivering the food and the men outside beside the Mississippi eating sandwiches doled out by the church ministry. The millionaires in the palatial Garden District homes and the people in the Lower Ninth. The people eating the soufflés and the people going to the cemetery.
The bons temps and otherwise.
As I walk away, I glance back, and his arms are still outstretched, reigning over me, reigning over all this city.
This post was written just after we left New Orleans, before Hurricane Isaac brought more devastation to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. I am praying now and in the coming days that the Christ of the cathedral will be the Christ of the flood victims–that his arms will stretch far enough to comfort everyone in Isaac’s wake.