Four nights in New Orleans

Our Air B&B in New Orleans was beautiful, but not practical. Not practical, and also a very probable scene of a haunting, or a murder, or something else unsavoury.

New Orleans – or NOLA, as I recently learned it is regularly shortened to – is soaked in hauntings. There are ghosts in the cracks in the pavements, and ghosts lining the banks of the grey Mississippi. NOLA is home of voodoo and of gris gris, of souvenir shops filled with voodoo dolls. Most people buy souvenirs for the people they love, or miss, or want to make believe they loved or miss. The shops of New Orleans sell the magical means by which to pain and punish a person.

All of which is a bit strange, since NOLA is teeming with pleasure. It has me licking my lips. It is hot, and damp, and the tourists are drunk at 10am, and 2pm, and 8pm, and 3am, and all the gaps in between. You get drunk with your breakfast, on a Bloody Mary (blood, there it is) filled with bacon and shrimp, because it can be, because why wouldn’t you pack your breakfast full of blood and spirit and flesh? We should, we always should. Avocado, bland paste, has had its day. The food is rich and wet and salty; candied pecans and oil-heavy sprouts and blue cheese that burns bits off your tongue. Artichoke hearts (hearts, there they are) and spinach sauce and eggs that burst like something living. Everywhere feels a bit drunk: a bit too hot, a bit staggery, a bit swimming. The tourists walk the streets like prey. We have been eaten by New Orleans. We are going back for seconds.

The bars stay open for 24 hours, which makes me wonder why all bars don’t stay open for 24 hours. What is the point of closing for a mere 8 hours, 10 hours, whatever the normal hours of a bar looks like? Never closing means never cashing up nor cleaning up, which explains the tack of the table and the slatted swinging doors in the Ladies loo. You don’t shit in public behind a door that is half not-door; you save up your shits for home. Never closing means weary travellers (me) stepping inside the door at 1am, bleary from 8 hours of driving (not me, I was in the back reading Jojo Moyes) and winking awake in wonder at the tables full of people, and the bar stacked deep. On a Sunday. The day after St Patrick’s Day. Why aren’t they sleeping?

NOLA doesn’t sleep. The first resident I speak to is a drug dealer. The negroni I order is double-poured, filled to the brim with spirit, and the only reason it’s not full of shrimp is because I didn’t think to ask.

We arrive in the dark. I have done no research, so I don’t know what to expect in the morning when I walk outside the door onto a street that seemed, upon arrival, looming and foreboding and tightly packed with cars and houses and potential dangers (this, after Austin, where you could have driven a truck between each house on the block, with room to spare). Everything is dangerous in the dark, but in the daylight? I cannot describe New Orleans without resorting to cliches it doesn’t deserve. A riot of colour. The houses are a rainbow, each painted in a unique hue, with carefully chosen accent colours, as if someone took the idea of a splash of colour on a front door and went strategically and beautifully mad. I am from a neighbourhood that values a villa, so I know my finials from my canted windows, but these houses, shoulder to shoulder, a children’s paint-by-number; I’ve never seen anything like it. It is life viewed through stained glass. It is as if Dickens fucked a My Little Pony. It is the kind of stroll that makes you long for an eye for the camera and walls on which to hang your pictures.

We arrive a couple of weeks after Mardi Gras, a time in which, I am told, the city goes wild. To my tame eye the city is wild enough already, too wild around the edges, a wildness that makes me skittish and bit wild myself, and so I am glad (a bit, a tiny bit) that I didn’t witness it, but it has left traces. In the tourist books (OK, blogs) you read “beads are a central element to Mardi Gras” but this doesn’t mean anything at all until you see the beads: winking strands of multi-hued and faceted beads, hanging drunkenly from trees and awnings and fence posts and cacti; trod into the grass at the side of the road and clenched in rainbow balls in gutters. There are beads everywhere I look, a city adorned with the bought and sold beauty of a junk store binge, glitter gorged and emitted and retched. I am drunk and in love with this careful architectural beauty painted with bawdy hues and strung about with plastic gems. And I am actually drunk. I have had a lot of Bloody Marys.

Beautiful, but not practical, this city on the banks of a teeming fast-flowing (so much faster than our sludgy Thames) river, packed with ghosts and tourists and zombies (their toes don’t touch the ground, that’s how you know), skanking to jazz and cooling their brains with frozen margaritas.

Our Air B&B is a huge house owned by a man named Franz. It has outdoor fans, lazily turning to churn the mugginess out of the air. It is impractical because it is split down the middle. There are two front doors, but at the top of the flight of stairs there is a door with a crystal knob, locked, which if turned, would take me into another Air B&B booking, another party, I hope, drunk on this Marigny splendour. It is not a secret door, but it is still a door I cannot open, and you cannot help but wonder, in this city of ghosts, who is on the other side (I know who is on the other side, because they get up early and stomp up and down the staircase, and have loud conversations about toast on the veranda, but still). Another impracticality is the dining room, devoid of all decoration except for a single portrait of a girl, who leans from the mantle and looks down with dark eyes. All four of us decided, within a minute, individually, that she haunted the house, stalking the halls with malicious intent, though the only ill to befall us is hangovers. The third practicality is adjoining bedrooms, which makes sex a bit of a gamble, but no more needs to be said about that.

New Orleans thinks it’s old, a madam imbued with ancient magic, though to a British eye, it is a baby, a toddler wandering too close to the water. There is a drum beat under the pavements that makes you believe it, a pulse that cracks and lifts the concrete. I have eaten and drunk too much of New Orleans, a place where the seven pomegranate seeds are a pile of deep-fried shrimp, an alligator po-boy, a beignet dusted with sugar, a Bloody Mary that might be two parts blood, all consumed under the black eyes of a painted ghost girl.

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