This week’s chilly mornings have reminded me of one of NOLA’s most fundamental truths. It is the first truth I learned about this wonderful place and it remains one of the most counter-intuitive ones.
I learned it while visiting a gallery on Royal Street in January, 2011. It was a Monday afternoon, the sun was shining, the wind was calm and the temperature was in the low 50s.
I was freezing.
As I walked into the gallery, shoulders hunched and rubbing my hands, the guy behind the desk took one look at me and said, “You new around here?”
I explained that I was new, having moved from Boston about five months prior.
“I think I’m coming down with something,” I rationalized, “because I am so cold this morning.”
He took one look at me and spoke this Truth: “You will never be as cold as your first winter in New Orleans.”
I explained that perhaps he hadn’t heard me. That I had moved to New Orleans from Boston, where I endured 19 winters. 19 Boston winters.
“I know cold,” I said. “50 degrees is not cold; in Boston, this is t-shirt and shorts weather.”
Then I sarcastically added, “Where are you from? Florida?”
“No,” he said. “I moved here from Michigan.”
Well, that gave me pause. And hastened my exit.
Shivering back to my house in the Treme, I pondered Michigan Art Guy’s truth.
Before moving here, if you had told me I’d be cold in 50-degree weather, I’d have thought you meant Southern California cold. You know, when the mercury dips below 60 and beautiful people put on beautiful sweaters to pretend their cold. No, sir. When it’s 50 degrees in New Orleans, we’re not pretending. We’re freezing.
Why is dat? Is it because our blood thins after months of boiling in the summer heat? Yup dat. Is it because the humid air makes 50 degrees feel like one big cold shower? Dat, too.
But, you know the real reason you’re so cold that first winter (and, perhaps, for winters to come)? Because the line between inside and outside is so thin in New Orleans, if it exists at all.
Back up in Boston, homes are built to be a fortress against Old Man Winter. Down here in New Orleans … well, down here, our homes are built in a way that just lets Old Man Winter come right on in and make himself comfortable.
A lot of our houses aren’t insulated at all and many, including mine, don’t have wall installation (a fact I’m reminded of every time the neighbor with whom I share a wall plays Wii to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” at 6 a.m.).
Most homes are raised. That’s a great strategy during hurricane season, but in the winter, it means that your floors feel like one giant ice tray. My next-door-wife, Meg, is so sensitive to this reality that she moves her dog’s crate upstairs whenever it dips below 60 degrees, because “I don’t want poor Cha-Cha to get cold.” Cha-Cha, by the way, is a 50-pound pitbull. I’m coming back as her in my next life.
Finally, the gaps between our windowsills and door frames and our actual windows and doors are so wide that you could slide a pizza through them. And not disturb a single topping. I remember how, that first winter, I thought my friend, Peter, was crazy (and overly dramatic) when he told me I should dampen paper towels, roll them up tight, and shove them between my sills and windows to keep out the cold. Soon after that, I watched, horrified, as the the wind blew my mother’s hair during her Christmas visit. She was sitting in my living room. Viva to the rescue!
I’m now on my third New Orleans winter. I can’t say I’ve warmed up to them, but I can say I’ve adapted. For instance, as I sit here typing this column, I’m in a long-sleeved, thermal t-shirt and a big, fluffy, brown fleece jacket that my sister gave me. To stay warm. Inside the house. I have on a pair of thick socks that would make any lumberjack—or lesbian—proud. Tyra Bank, my Scottish Terrier not the supermodel, is curled up close next to the space heater that we cart around like an oxygen tank this time of year. I am looking out the window next to my desk, watching the sun shine and the banana leaves sway in a 12-mile-an-hour wind. It’s 58 degrees outside.
Which means it’s time for me to wrap this column up, take off my thermal t-shirt and go outside.
To warm up.
While it’s still winter in the morning around here, February means that it’s spring in the afternoon. To hear my thoughts on ‘dat particular New Orleans phenomenon, listen to my segment on WWNO at 89.9 this coming Monday at 8:35 a.m.
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Visit his site at ashamansjourney.net.