It makes absolutely no sense, but I have always been resistant to the allure of New Orleans. I think it’s a kind of character flaw, a stubborn desire to defy easy assumptions. Friends would say to me, “You haven’t been to New Orleans? Oh, you’re going to love it. It’s so...you.” It’s true: I love jazz, eccentric characters, food, the occasional drink or three — so why in the world wouldn’t I love a town that is steeped in these?
I guess I got hung up on the image of drunken frat boys wandering Bourbon Street with their massive “go cups,” and sloppy girls lifting their T-shirts in exchange for gaudy beads. And, OK, that is definitely a part of New Orleans, in the same way all the other clichéd images of New Orleans are true: beignets at Café du Monde, paddle-wheelers on the Mississippi, brass bands in Jackson Square, voodoo in the air, second line parades down Rue Royale, the gothic eeriness of crypt-filled cemeteries...
The thing about New Orleans is that these moments live are so much more interesting and atmospheric than their legends. And they scratch at the deep mysteries of this city like a moss-draped oak tapping at a storm-darkened windowpane.
New Orleans has often been called the “northernmost Caribbean city in the world.” Its flavor is influenced by more than 400 years of cultural jambalaya. American Indians, the French, the Spanish, the British, African slaves, former Canadian fur traders and gold-rush prospectors, the Civil War and Reconstruction — they all left their mark. There is more poverty and violence in New Orleans than there should be, and the damage wrought by Katrina has left scars that will mark the city’s inhabitants forever.
A look at the New Orleans area on Google Earth tells the story. One of the busiest ports in the world, New Orleans is not on any ocean but nearly 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and at the tail end of the 2,320-mile-long Mississippi River. To the south of the city, the fibrous ganglia of the bayous reach out toward the Gulf of Mexico. To the north lies massive Lake Pontchartrain, the second-largest inland saltwater estuary in the United States. To the east are the Rigolets, a tidal strait that connects Lake Pontchartrain to Lake St. Catherine and Lake Borgne, a saltwater lagoon in the Gulf of Mexico. Water is the lifeblood of New Orleans, and its geography — low topography, lots of water, a hurricane hot spot — has been its fate.