Beads, Booze, and Bourbon Street

Inevitably, whenever New Orleans is mentioned, the first thing most People Not From Here are going to think about it is one of the three things in the title of this post (beads = Carnival, as I was going for alliteration; this title is reminiscent of one I used on a failed short story I turned in to a Creative Writing course in college; it had its moments, but overall the story failed and I’ve never bothered going back to it because there’s really no point, but it just now occurred to me how to make it work…see how my mind works?).

But…there is so much more to New Orleans than those three things. Yes, those three things are a part of the patchwork quilt that is life and culture here but it’s also not everything. It’s easy when you don’t live here to view New Orleans through that particular lens, because it is what everyone knows about the city. But that irritates the locals to no end. It isn’t Carnival all year, after all, and Bourbon Street, while a mecca for people looking for a good time, isn’t really all there is to New Orleans, either.

People immediately defaulting to “MARDI GRAS!!!!” when they think of New Orleans isn’t different than thinking of Disney when you hear Orlando; it’s probably the thing we’re known for the most. It doesn’t irritate me the way it used to. I’ve become resigned to it and now I just smile and say, “yes, Mardi Gras.” I do love it myself, despite the irritations of living inside the box and having to plan my life around a parade schedule for two weeks. The last couple of years haven’t been great for Carnival in New Orleans; I didn’t go to many parades last year and neither did Paul–the crowds, the persistence of the coronavirus, and the weather wasn’t good all played a part in our decisions to not really spend a lot of time out at the corner this last year (everything was cancelled the year before.) Even the 2020 Carnival, right before the shutdown, was cold and damp and had a bad energy to it, as though the gods of Carnival knew what was coming. The pandemic virus was already here by then, of course; the parades that year were certainly super-spreaders. The weather was bad–cold and damp–and the energy was off. Part of that was because the parade route had to be shifted because of the Hard Rock hotel collapse (remember that? Seems like a million years ago) and two people were killed at parades that year; Nyx and Endymion, I believe? I don’t remember which parade had the second death, but it really cast a pall over the entire experience. (I have been meaning to write a short story about a killer during Carnival who was shoving people under moving floats to kill them ever since…soon, soon…)

One of the things I’ve always loved about New Orleans is how distinctive the different neighborhoods are (hence the old where’d you go to high school? question asked when a local meets another local for the first time). Uptown is not the Quarter is not the Marigny is not Holy Cross is not Gentilly is not the Black Pearl and on and on and on. New Orleanians always complain about how the city is seen by People Not From Here, who always default to Carnival and Bourbon Street–but even Carnival is different in different parts of the city. (All that “show me your tits” shit only happens when the parades get to Canal Street–and even then, it’s rare. Rather it’s people on balconies in the Quarter, especially the ones on Bourbon Street, who’ve made that Carnival activity a trope that is loathed by New Orleanians–and for the record, it’s almost always tourists.) In my neighborhood, it’s mostly families. There are kids everywhere running around and playing; and toddlers generally wind up being pimped out by adults for throws. (There really is no prouder New Orleans tradition than pimping your child for throws at a parade.)

So, yes, there is more–way more–to New Orleans than Carnival and Bourbon Street. There’s a great music and club scene down on Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny; the Bywater and St. Claude corridor have lots of fun places to have a cocktail or grab something to eat, as does the Carrollton corridor in Mid-city/ Bayou St. John–really, you can’t go anywhere in New Orleans without finding a great bar or place to eat–and of course, there’s Magazine Street in my neighborhood, the Garden District, and Uptown. The CBD used to be a ghost town at night, but now it’s become a residential neighborhood as well with clubs and restaurants open late–it still trips me out a bit to drive through the CBD late at night and see people and cars everywhere. (When I used to drive home around midnight after bar testing events, I’d swear there were tumbleweeds blowing down Poydras.)

And of course there are the cemeteries, too.

Don’t get me wrong–I love Carnival and look forward to it every year (my dread inevitably gives way to excitement the moment I hear the first marching band down at the corner), and I am fond of Bourbon Street as well; and of course who isn’t a fan of booze? You can come to New Orleans just for Carnival every year and hang out on Bourbon Street afterwards and always have a great time–but I always tell everyone to pick a neighborhood and explore it on top of your French Quarter experience.

You won’t be sorry.

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