BY ROMANA KING
Imagine the dawn of the Millenium in the “City that Care Forgot”: New Orleans.
The southern Louisiana City of New Orleans has many nicknames, all of which aptly describe her lurid history and colourful heritage. Names like “city of dreams,” “The Big Easy,” “Crescent City,” to “New Orleans: Open all night” are all fitting descriptions of this tinsel filled town whose surface is layered with charm and magic but whose underbelly hides the callousness of boardroom deals and the savage desperation of day-to-day life.
As the eve of the Millenium approached (so what if it really ends next year, this year was the party right?) a friend and T decided to visit the mythical city of New Orleans.
Founded in 1717 by John Law, a crooked Scotsman working for the child king of France, New Orleans is the only other city in North America that does not have closing laws: in other words the bars never close (the other city is Las Vegas). Even at 9 A.M. a person could walk (or stumble) down to their local pub and find a merry band of mates waiting to share a drink with them. We know, we did it! In fact this aspect of New Orleans is one of its largest draws for tourists. In a seven-month span, between October and April, people come every year from around the world to celebrate Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s, Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival. In fact it is this tourist trade that helps this predominantly poor city survive and it is why locals tolerate the excessive nudity, lax littering policy and the insane block parties held in the French Quarter every night.
On New Year’s Eve this absurd-ity was only amplified. Overlooked by the old Jackson Brewery building and the St. Louis Cathedral, thousands of people crammed into Jackson Square to catch a glimpse of the Latino-flavoured performances and the glowing New Year’s Eve countdown ball atop the brewery.
Milling around we purchased beer from restaurant take-out windows as hundreds lined-up for a shot at the porta-potties. This night you could tell how much the city relied on the tourism trade. Beer had shot up to $3.50 a glass when only a day prior it had been three for $2.00 and every artist, fortuneteller and street-performer was out plying their trade in an effort to cash in on the generous spirit New Year’s in New Orleans seemed to inspire.
As the clock approached mid-night a group of 12 hostel mates started to push our way into the throng of people located at the heart of Jackson Square. Our goal: to get close enough to the Jackson Brewery glowing ball so we could see it when it dropped to mark the New Year.
Our worst fear was that a few local Americans might get a little too excited and pull out their firearms during all the festivities. Though unheard of here in Canada, some Americans like to celebrate by shooting their guns off into the air.
It seems harmless enough, except when you find out that people have been injured and even killed by falling bullets.
In fact after losing all but one of my hostel mates and after witness¬ing the ball drop and the fireworks explode, I realized that the stranger beside me had indeed brought his gun to the festivities.
The crowd had begun to push and jostle one another in an effort to make more room for dancing. This 6′, 250-pound muscle man remained perfectly still. In fact it wasn’t until his friend grabbed him when he finally said something.
“Don’t push me man, or it’ll go off,” was the last sentence I heard.
Seriously fearing my life I immediately pushed the opposite way hoping to distance myself from that crazy American. Next day I read about how five people had been injured that night from falling gunfire. Damn those wacky gun laws.
Eventually that night the 12 or so United Nations Hostel Clan (as we’d been aptly named) crossed paths with one another as we strolled up and down Bourbon Street, known as the strip, taking in the sights, sounds and smells.
Clad only in T-shirts and pullovers we paced the trash-littered streets and listened to vendors yelling out “Huge Ass Beers” while cops stood on the corner with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. Though New Orleans professes to have an anti-nudity law, it’s hard to believe with the amount of cleavage, hairy asses, and other body parts one sees on the strip.
In fact the only taboos on Bourbon Street appear to be fighting and pissing. Marty, a friend of ours from Hatsfield, England, found this out the hard way earlier that month when he angrily kicked open a bar door.
Six cops (and they always came in sixes) saw this and pounced on him. Though he’d done no damage he was taken to jail over night and was let out on $600 bail. Charged with assault he was fined $150 American and told to watch himself.
In light of Marty’s ordeal it seemed strange that a woman or man could completely undress, and a few actually did, and the police would do nothing but stare along with the hundreds of other partygoers. BUT if your bladder was full and you didn’t or couldn’t pay the $1 to $3 charge for a bathroom then taking a leak on the street would immediately get you arrested and thrown in the slammer.
This liberal attitude to sex and the human body may be a throwback to the French colonists who first populated New Orleans.
After Law, the unscrupulous Scotsman, gained the confidence of the French child King, Louis XV, he acquired a 25-year charter to exploit Louisiana.
Law plastered Europe with posters that boasted promises of wealth and grandeur in the new colony. Hundreds of French men left their homes for the rugged new country only to find a harsh existence among the mosquito-infested swamps. Undaunted the French freed eighty-eight women from notorious Parisian prisons. These ladies were sent to New Orleans as brides in 1727 and by 1737 New Orleans became a crown colony after surviving hurricanes, floods, disease and Indian attacks. All in all an auspicious start for a city known as the Big Easy.
Though our time was short in this city my comrade, Doug, and I left tired and content. We had witnessed the most European city in America, with its grand Garden district homes and its French Quarter old-world charm. We had spent days out searching the city, touring the Mississippi River and Cajun Country between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, while soaking up the music and nightlife of this festive city. Each night we delighted in tasty treats from gumbo to jambalaya as we ate dinner with our new friends from Australia, Seattle, New Zealand, Kansas, Brazil, England, Edmonton and Victoria. It is the city of dreams.
Where a visitor can forget about routine and custom and live from night to night wearing fancy peacock feathered masks and plastic trading beads while relaxing in jazz filled coffee-patios and sitting on Mississippi ferries by day. It is a city that beckons us, inspires us and wears us out. And the only city I know where a 74-year-old stripper can still pack ’em in every night.