I had the opportunity recently to extend a New Orleans business trip for a few days vacation. Not having visited NOLA prior to this occasion, I thought I would indulge, and brought the wife along. I love Cajun food, history, and music, so this trip seemed to have it all going.
After the four-day convention, I had already begun to tire of jambalaya, gumbo, etouffee, and fried seafood (the grilled oysters are to die for). And the beignets, cafe au lait, and pralines all tasted wonderful. But everyday?
Post convention, we searched for and found a local club where zydeco music plays non-stop, me not being much of a jazz enthusiast, and near Jackson Square enjoyed an impromptu performance by a street band, and I found my music longings fulfilled (too bad I didn’t run across Fats Domino).
Years before, Johnny Horton had given me a history lesson when he sang about taking a little trip with Colonel Jackson on the “mighty Mississipp”. But I felt there were still things I needed to know. We decided to purchase a two and a half hour, narrated tour of the city, and the tour, in addition to numerous walks through the French Quarter, gave me most of the history I needed to fill in the blanks. All in all, we had a good time, but I doubt I’ll ever return.
You see, amidst all the food, music, and history, an undercurrent, an oppressive feeling weighs on you, as if an unseen being hovers around and above. I saw more “homeless” people on the streets of New Orleans, by far, than I do walking Michigan Avenue and State Street in Chicago. And these homeless people are of a different type than those I’ve experienced elsewhere.
I had this funny feeling that the majority of them were just playing the part, and at night they would throw away their cardboard signs and I would see them partying up and down Bourbon Street with the rest (some hints they were fakers may have been them appearing to be recently hungover, many holding handwritten signs uniformly stating “recently homeless, anything a blessing,” an unusually young demographic, many of them accompanied by “homeless” pets, and a general energy level and lack of physical wear and tear not previously seen in the homeless). The truly poor people of New Orleans live nowhere near the French Quarter. I’ll delve into Bourbon Street in a moment.
The oppression I felt has a spiritual source, ala Frank Perreti’s This Present Darkness and Paul’s descriptions from Ephesians:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
The ubiquitous Voodoo and psychic peddlers add to the dark undercurrent, and I indeed needed to wear my armor of God and be prepared for battle. The Prince of Darkness may roam to and fro on the earth, but his home base must surely be located in New Orleans.
Along with the bizarre sights, including the overabundance of homeless lining the edges of and sometimes plopped in the middle of the street, the stench that fills the nostrils is pungent. The bouquet of aromas includes a combination of urine, vomit, garbage, alcohol, fried foods, cigarettes, cigars, sewer, I think you get the idea. Cities in general have an odor, but the French Quarter out stinks them all.
I noticed early on that in front of every store, restaurant and bar, plastic trash bins or open air dumpsters line the street. For a time I couldn’t figure out why these displays seemed out-of-place. But then I thought of Chicago once again and realized that in Chicago, these trash receptacles are stored in the alleys, behind the storefronts. New Orleans doesn’t have alleys. So, the trash lines the street, day after day, morning and night. In other words, their streets are their alleys.
But maybe the entire oppressive feel can be attributed to Bourbon Street, and what goes on there 24/7 spills over into the rest of the French Quarter. My first encounter with Bourbon was in the middle of the day, and with my wife at my side, I was both apprehensive and nervous as we strolled down the street. I won’t describe everything we saw, but needless to say, Las Vegas has nothing on Bourbon Street for decadence and an anything goes attitude.
It seems everyone has something to sell and in their eyes, everyone walking down the street is a buyer. One guy approached me and my wife aggressively, and before we knew what had happened, we wore strings of plastic beads around our necks. Although not accustomed to wearing beads, I thought “why not, they’re free” and we continued down the street. But the guy chased us down and said we needed to give him a donation in exchange for the beads, as was apparently the custom in New Orleans. I gave the guy a $10, From: Jesus, To: You, McDonald’s gift card and that seemed to placate him. Needless to say, beads being thrown around my neck didn’t happen the remainder of the trip.
I have to say that the “homeless” in New Orleans are much more creative than in Chicago (maybe the homeless in Chicago are too cold to be creative). One guy, with his homeless dog in tow, had trained the dog to lie spreadeagled in the middle of the street, completely motionless, wearing a hat and sunglasses, with a cigarette dangling from its mouth. Next to the dog was a bucket for donations. Somehow I wasn’t moved to donate.
We saw topless girls painted in white, who for a price will have their picture taken with you; boys dressed in drag and painted from top to bottom selling the same thing, and more; acrobats; statue people covered in silver; old, haggard women scantily dressed, dancing in the street to music blaring from a boom box held in a hand pulled shopping cart; peep shows; Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club; a boy asking if we would like to hold his fifteen foot long boa constrictor (which I’m sure came with a fee and which we kindly declined); and at one point along the route heading northeast, the point at which most people turn around and head the opposite direction, numerous rainbow flags adorn both sides of the street, it not requiring a genius to know what lie up ahead. I could go on and on. One thing for sure, it doesn’t have to be nighttime to be dark on Bourbon street.
Back to the smells. In the book of Revelation, the prayers of the saints are described as “golden bowls full of incense,” the idea being that our prayers are a pleasing aroma to God. I wonder if the pungent smells wafting up from Bourbon Street, the decadence, debauchery and hedonism, mixed with the vomit, urine and garbage, are equally pleasing to the God of heaven?