Updated: Dec 13, 2021
New Orleans broke my heart.
It broke my heart in the way a beloved, melancholy song can pull at your emotions and leave you saddened but gratified at the same time.
It broke my heart but helped me put the pieces back together bit by bit, so that I when left I carried with me a deep respect for this haunted city with its vibrant culture and troubled past.
When I arrived in the Big Easy my intentions were set on good food, even better music, and spine-tingling stories of ghosts and vampires.
I imagined walking down the quaint streets of the French Quarter, admiring local art and eating gumbo and beignets while the sounds of old-time jazz filtered through the humid air.
It was a dream that was shattered when I stepped onto Bourbon Street, where I was besieged by a herd of inebriated tourists swaying about, lewd men throwing beads from the balconies, and a cacophony of sounds emanating from every door. The smell hit first—a mixture of vomit, urine, sweat, and lack of respect.
“Oh, the smell has really improved” the concierge at my hotel told me. “Since the city has redone the irrigation down here, its not nearly as bad.”
There was a small boy, no more than 6 years old, sitting in the middle of the street amongst the crowd, two yellow canaries perched on his head. He was banging out a rhythm on an upside down bucket while a woman that must have been his mother waved a tip jar in the faces of those passing by. There was a desperation in her eyes that spoke of hungry mouths and bills to pay. A tourist with a ruddy complexion and eyes glazed over by too much rum swaggered over to the boy and cackled in delight. Spittle flying, he shouted “Atta boy! Look at you GO!” The boy continued tapping out a rhythm on his buckets, expressionless. The tourist walked away, ignoring the tip jar, already in search of his next form of entertainment.
The next evening I took an Uber to Frenchman Street, where I was told the locals go to enjoy good music. I was anxious to shed all thoughts of Bourbon Street and see a different side of New Orleans. We drove past a girl lying unconscious under a tree, dress pulled up to expose lacy underwear. A big dog was curled up by her side. While we waited at a stoplight I stared, making sure the girl was breathing. My Uber driver told me there was a lot of that going on here-desperate trust-fund kids from Tennessee or South Carolina-coming to the Big Easy to bum in the streets, get drugs, and live the “boho” life. Many of them have dogs-the dogs help with tips and prevent them from getting arrested.
Not all the homeless in New Orleans have rich parents at home. During my visit I saw many people living on the streets-not all young, not all white, not all with dogs. Poverty is rampant in New Orleans. In 2014, one study showed a shocking 52% of Orleans Parish households living below the federal poverty line (1). I remember my first visit to the city in 2011, when I ventured through the ninth ward, where at the time the majority of houses were still boarded up. Now, thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina, people are still struggling with its aftermath. Thousands of building projects remain open and unfinished. Sink holes are threatening the city’s infrastructure. People remain on the streets, homes and lives lost with no one to help rebuild (2,3).
The music on Frenchman Street that night was live and authentic. But there seemed to be very few locals in the crowd, other than the artists catering to tourists from street-side stands. I enjoyed some jazz at The Spotted Cat, a tiny bar with stand-only room (the saxophone player was phenomenal). But I quickly tired of the frantic atmosphere. So many voices shouting to be heard over the music. So many bodies colliding and drinks spilling.
In the morning I woke with a heavy heart. I tried to shake off my mood, gathered my camera, and headed out to give this city another chance. A girl walking down the sidewalk almost knocked me over trying to take a selfie. I brushed myself off and continued down the street, where I came to a small art gallery that was empty save for two small dogs and a short stocky man in a beret, attempting to balance on a ladder and pull a piece of art off the ceiling. I looked around and saw artwork everywhere. It covered the walls, was stacked in piles on the floor, even hung from ropes on the ceiling. I stepped in and the dogs quickly jumped up to greet me. My eyes focused on a large painting on the wall. It was a portrait of President Trump-the orange hair and distinctive lopsided smirk immediately gave away the identity. Yet there was something uncharacteristically soft about the eyes…
The man on the ladder saw me staring and grinned.
"Got a lot of people coming town who want pictures of that man. I tried to draw him as realistic as possible but people were offended. He looks mean! They said".
The man chuckled mischievously.
"So I gave him Gandhi’s eyes. Amazing how you change the eyes of a man and alter his character. People are buying it up now!"
I laughed. The man stepped off the ladder and shook my hand. "Name’s Adrian. That there is Abby, she’s the queen of the place. And the other one is Ruby. Abby gets jealous because Ruby steals all attention."
As he said this, Ruby bounced in front of me, tail flying, while Abby sat stoically a short distance away, her acknowledgement reserved to a slight wiggle of her tail stub.
I talked with Adrian for almost an hour. Actually, he did most of the talking while I listened. He showed me his gallery-primarily portraits-all painted on metal or on the backs of cardboard boxes. He told me a wealthy man came in once and said he needed to paint on real canvas.
"He said my art is too good to be wasted on cardboard!" Adrian laughed and told the man if he could supply the canvas for a starving artist, then maybe he’d give it a shot.
Adrian was born and raised in New Orleans. He’d had this gallery for twenty years, but was currently in the process of moving so that this building could be turned into expensive condos. He said it with a light-hearted shrug.
He used to work in the corporate world but he told me that he went crazy. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and they wanted to put him on medications.
Instead he turned to art.
He found a way to work through his anxiety through his painting. Anxiety stemming from corrupt politics, social injustice, and the lack of empathy people have toward one another these days. His art calmed his mind and allowed him to connect with others. As he spoke I found my eyes welling up with tears.
Adrian was what I was looking for.
Call him crazy, I call him real. He apologized for talking so much. I told him it was quite all right. I left his gallery with a lightness in my step that wasn’t with me when I walked in.
Adrian taught me something valuable about traveling. The interactions I craved were there all along, just under the surface. They just required a little digging to flush them out.
From then on I made an effort to speak to more local shop owners, Uber drivers, bar bouncers. I got up early one morning to visit the Lafayette Cemetery as the sun was coming up. While the rest of the city slept, I sat with the ghosts-a truly surreal experience. I sought out authentic Creole food, often doing no research but just stepping into a restaurant that looked appealing. I was never disappointed. I ate gumbo, alligator, turtle soup, and crayfish etouffete. I sipped chickory coffee and devoured a pile of beignets at the famous Cafe Du Monde.
My friends and I spoke to a bouncer one night, asking him for advice on how to escape the crowd and see something unusual. He smiled, turned to the door behind him and punched in a code, advising us to follow a hallway to a golden elevator that would take us up to the third flood. The elevator really was gold. And it led us to The Foundation Club, an intimate bar located just above the House of Blues, decorated in elaborate Indian rugs and illustrations from the Kama Sutra, where locals sipped drinks and lounged in oversized leather chairs while a DJ played hits from the 90’s.
I went on a night ghost tour and learned about Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen, the legend of the vampire Count Saint Germain, and the horrific story of the serial killer, Madame LaLaurie. I went on a swamp tour, where our boat ran out of gas and we sat, laughing nervously, while alligators circled us in the murky water and we waited for someone to rescue us. I was told The Preservation Club had an incredible jazz performance but unfortunately I wasn’t able to go. It seems time always runs out before everything can be explored.
I’ll just have to visit the Preservation Club next time. Because I know that I’ll be back. There’s just something about this messy, vibrant, smelly, haunted city that pulls you in and won’t let go. Despite its sad past and troubled future, this place has a unique energy that you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. New Orleans may have broken my heart, but I found myself falling in love just the same.
Until next time, Big Easy.
1. New Orleans Business News April 2017
2. USA Today "Louisiana-Still Finding Katrina Damage" July 28, 2015.
3. The Conversation "Still Waiting for Help: The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina On Poverty". Aug. 25, 2015