I ended up at Mandina’s by accident. We’d intended to go Jacques-Imo’s way out in Carrollton, a once-separate town where the streetcar just about runs into the river and turns abruptly inland with a few shrieks and whistles. At Jacques-Imo’s, they specialize in some combination of Cajun and Creole cuisines — which, you find out rather quickly, are totally distinct, and don’t you confuse them. They serve alligator cheesecake there, which sounds about Louisiana as you get, and fried boudin balls and andouille gumbo and douse everything with remoulade. I’m told it’s very good. But I wouldn’t know, because they didn’t take reservations and the line was miles out the door and Tim seemed entirely nonplussed by its popularity. He suggested Mandina’s instead. And when your companion is a life-long New Orleanian, the son of parents with names more Creole than Blanche DuBois, you skip the line at Jacques-Imo’s and go where he says.
The food at Mandina’s is fine and authentic if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s what I was looking for that night: not fancied up, not dumbed down, one of those little local joints where you can feel you’re somewhere else. What I remember most about the restaurant, though, is the sound of its voices. There’s a line in A Confederacy of Dunces, the greatest novel about New Orleans, which describes Yat, a traditional New Orleans way of speaking, as “that accent that occurs south of New Jersey only in New Orleans, that Hoboken near the Gulf of Mexico.” It’s one of the first descriptions in A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the finest too, but I never really knew what it meant until that Monday night in May, some years ago, when I sat eating fried veal with red beans and rice in a dining room way up Canal Street filled with the descendants of Italian and Irish immigrants who, a century ago, had sought new and better lives in this swamp. I hadn’t imagined that, so far south you might as well be in the Caribbean, so far south the waters are filled with alligators and the nights are filled with the rustling of cicadas, the cacophony of a New Orleans restaurant could sound so eerily similar to family gatherings I remembered from New York. But travel surprises you sometimes, and, when it comes to surprises, New Orleans is particularly adept.
The best thing about New Orleans are the surprises. Imagine a crowd of Santas playing beer pong along the riverfront Holocaust memorial, Mary Landrieu conceding at the hotel where Huey Long used to drink, a seventeenth-century building hawking purple and yellow feather boas, manhole covers beneath years of glitter, a racetrack filled with trumpets and people standing around sucking the heads of boiled crustaceans, X’s scrawled on a voodoo priestess’s grave and tubes of Maybelline lipstick left before it for tribute, an Amazon delivery on Anne Rice’s front steps, crossing the Mississippi at dusk on the ferry to a place called Algiers, passing faded cargo ships steaming upriver from the other Algiers, sitting on a levee staring out at thousands of shipping containers stacked on their decks like a titanic checkerboard of reds and blues and yellows. Imagine a city at once more beautiful than just about any other and at the same time reeking strongly of last night’s vomit, this morning’s urine, the soapy water the city hoses down the streets with, and the oppressive stillness of the swampy, subtropical air — a cocktail as distinctly New Orleans as the Ramos Gin Fizz.
A sign in the taxi reminds you, helpfully, that the penalty for murdering your driver is death. The view from I-10, between the canals and the oil pipelines, is one of the vast marble cities of the dead so characteristic of this part of the world. There is still the tragedy of Katrina, and there’s the fact that the whole city is in a constant state of decay, with chipping walls, damp streets, and lilting balconies that threaten to crush you in a heap of wood and wrought iron. Congo Square carries the memory of slavery. Homer Plessy bought his railroad ticket here; his body lies entombed in marble off Rampart Street. The 45-story Plaza Tower in the Central Business District has stood derelict and abandoned, with broken glass and boarded-up windows, for nearly a decade and a half now. The levees and canals remind you that the sea and sky perpetually threaten to destroy this place. Imagine the infinite necropolises and the visiting revelers trying their damnedest to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they may die. Aside perhaps from Giza, no city in the world can remind you so potently of death as New Orleans. But then there there are the jazz funerals, where mourners gather to sing and laugh and dance through the streets to loud, brassy music that celebrates life and the lives we go on living. Is it any surprise that one of the most famous characters to come out of this place is a vampire?
Imagine all these things at once and you being to piece together a vision of New Orleans: dreamlike, grounded more in unreality than reality. It doesn’t help that the reality there is already hazy to begin with, whether from the heat and humidity, the city’s miasmic rhythm and plainly hallucinogenic pace, the binging, or that heavy, somnolent feeling that accompanies a food culture far better suited for a climate more northerly and less swampy. It’s no surprise the weirdos and outcasts and bigger-than-life personalities have felt drawn to this murky city where experience is always open to interpretation and life itself is vaguely metaphysical.
But the most surprising thing about New Orleans, I think, is that, as one of a class of cities like New York and Paris and LA, it’s at least as much an imagined city as a real one. It’s been immortalized in art and infused in the general consciousness to such an extent that, before you even step foot there, you feel you’ve already seen the place, so much so that your first night in the Big Easy is spent reeling from a distinctly potent combination of Sazerac rye and déjà vu. After a lifetime of Ignatius’s misanthropy and Blanche’s reliance on the kindness of strangers; the crumbling projects of Down by Law and Treme; the cemeteries and acid hits of Easy Rider; Elvis singing about crawfish; Dr. John, the night tripper; old Storyville trumpets blaring out, you find, on your first true visit, that the streets all have familiar names and the Mardi Gras beads dangling from the street lamps are like old friends. You’ve forgotten the taste of the chicory coffee, but your first bite of crawfish étouffée is like some hazy remembrance come back to you in a humid fever dream.
My first memory of New Orleans has me riding shotgun down Esplanade Avenue admiring how lush, in every sense of the word, a city can be. We inch slowly along the downriver edge of the Quarter behind a rickety old school bus painted whiter than rice and moving slower than Lake Pontchartrain. From a platform on its roof, a band plays the same, brooding, repetitious song on repeat — some noisy, brassy, drum-beat that sounds suspiciously like “Hernando’s Hideaway” by way of Zach Condon. Jazz Fest brings me here, and this is as breathtaking an introduction to the city as I could have hoped for.
But my first real memory, one just as real as that trip down Esplanade, is actually a memory of my mother’s from before I was born. In the late 70s, shortly after the death of my grandfather, my mother took my grandmother, a nice Jewish lady from Brooklyn, to see New Orleans. They wanted a drink and asked at the hotel where they could find one. They were given a name and, when they went there, found they had front-row center seats to some strip club at some seedy dive where ladies with flowers and liquors for names gyrated wearing spinning tasseled pasties and not a hell of a lot else. My mother claims she felt the tassels whip by her. All my grandmother could say, in her sweet, New York accent, was, “Oh my.” New Orleans was filthy, crummy, disgusting, and best avoided. It sounded wonderful.
The problem, then, the one they don’t tell you about, is that, walking around the place, it’s impossible to sever your expectations of the the city from its reality. Your imagination is always getting in the way of things, and New Orleans ends up being whatever you think it should be. The beauty of New Orleans, maybe its tragedy too, is that the city becomes whatever you want it to be. I can show you my New Orleans, but, to you, it’s something else entirely.
Tim met us, my father and me, at the streetcar stop along St. Charles Avenue, somewhere between Napoleon Avenue and Audubon Park. The out St. Charles Avenue towards Uptown is, like most things in New Orleans, slow, more romantic than functional. The line, they’ll tell you, is the oldest continuously operating street railway in the world, and the cars, just about as old, creep and creak along the median — or the “neutral ground,” they call it, dating from a period of animosity between French and Spanish colonists — between antique mansions that sag just enough to tinge them with melancholy. You travel beneath trees and electrical wires dripping with pink-, green-, and gold-beaded necklaces, the remnants of the Mardi Gras parades which follow the Avenue. If you take the streetcar all the way out to the end of the line, past Carrollton to the otherwise nondescript suburban intersection with Claiborne Avenue, the operator forces you to stand in the middle of the road while she walks down the car, changes the direction the seats face, and takes her place at what had been the back of the car. Only then does she let you back on for the return trip. The operator seems bored, and who can blame her. She spends her days driving up and down a same stretch of street which hasn’t changed in a century and probably won’t change for a century more. Forcing you off the train is the extent of her excitement.
Tim is an accomplished painter and portraitist who, in two of his prouder moments, designed Mardi Gras proclamations for one of the city’s more famous krewes. We were meeting him because he was the long-lost half-brother of a fraternity brother of my father’s. Tim lives on a quiet, green street in an old double-shotgun house covered in gingerbread ornamentation that suits his sweet, gentle exuberance for humanity. Inside, you are surrounded by faces: his paintings, often portraits, and, tacked to one vast, white wall, hundreds of photographs of the loved ones who have populated his life. To Tim, everyone is a loved one, which explains the dozens of godchildren he’s acquired over the years. Some time that night, before he drove us down Canal Street back to our hotel from Mandina’s, Tim took a photo of us which, I bet, is tacked somewhere to that wall.
Like many artists, Tim is also a traveler. Before we left the double-shotgun for dinner, I peeked around his office at the souvenirs of his adventures. The artifacts, assembled on walls and shelves, reflected their collector’s boyish curiosity. He darted over to show me a carved ivory sculpture, a sort of hollow sheath, vaguely phallic, with the image of a snake on it. He said a West African chief had given it to him. (Whether or not it was is beside the point.) He told me he sensed I’d accomplish something great someday, and that I should keep the sculpture as a reminder to always seek to accomplish that great thing. I think his compliment made me uncomfortable, but the memory grows hazy.
If New Orleans can be summed up in one word, it’s lagniappe. The word came to Anglos from the French who took it from the Spanish who stole it from the indigenous Americans and so, in that way, sums up all of the city’s history in two short syllables. Literally, it’s that something extra, those free things you get as you make your way through life, or, as Twain put it in his Life on the Mississippi, the thirteenth roll of a baker’s dozen. New Orleans, as a city, is that great-aunt of yours who was always too busy living to ever settle down behind a picket fence, the one with friends in every town and memories in every port, the one who has experienced everything there is to experience but still wants to experience more and plans to drag you with her on her next adventure. What she teaches you along the way — all those things you learn, all those things you see and hear and taste and smell, all those things you observe but never understand, the clash of the expected and the unfamiliar, the juxtaposition of life and death, the war between reality and imagination, drunken Santas, streetcar rides beneath Mardi Gras beads, watching container ships trek upriver, the voices of a New York diner in a Canal Street dining room — that’s lagniappe.
Tim’s gift to me, the ivory sculpture, sits on my bookshelf, between the dogeared guidebooks, near where I write and paint, a constant memory of New Orleans. I think, years later, its symbolism, or the symbolism Tim meant for it, still eludes me. But I stare at it sometimes, and it makes me think. This is my lagniappe.