As we approach the ninth anniversary of Katrina — a storm that ravaged our city’s landscape; changed our hearts; drove handfuls of locals into distant cities — some returning, some not; and ultimately made our community question what it means to love and miss New Orleans — — NolaVie is running a short series that takes a look at why folks — locals, expats and tourists, alike — love the city that Care Forgot and continue returning after the catastrophic storm.
Today’s story comes from Berkeley-based journalist and New Orleans ex-pat Michael Milano.
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I exploded out of New Orleans early on a delirious Sunday morning after not having slept for several days. For months, I had been on the verge of spiraling out of control, tip-toeing a top a high wire strung out across a pit of madness with a drink in both hands and a blunt pinched in my teeth. Along the way, amidst the speed and the chaos and the pain, bliss.
I burned across the infinite summer road that day with memories crying out, screaming in my face for attention.
The reality is that New Orleans had swept me away into some romantic bender in which time and life moved so fast and so full that there was barely a moment to stop and consider just how magical and unique the experience had been. Looking back, pinpointing individual moments is hard, because most are heavily glossed in some sort of libation.
That’s what happens in that city, you fall madly in love and look back and can’t recall a specific time or place, the overwhelming emotion is a sort of warm and comforting joy, a content fulfillment of knowing that so much worthwhile had happened that you can’t even remember it all.
It went fast, faster and faster as I moved closer to the end. It has seemed that years of emotion had passed in just months. Each experience so full of impact that perspective, priority and thought were collectively restructured and re-born. You meet lots of people and you meet them in the most romantic settings; it can be explosive. It makes it hard to be focused on anything but the present, better, you have no interest in being focused on anything but the present.
Sometimes when you’re sitting on your porch, bathing in the tropical heat and enjoying an ice-cold drink, you hear something in the distance. The funky, deep rhythms of New Orleans music headed your way, an impromptu parade starts up and next thing you know your dancing with your neighbors, moving down the street, following the golden trumpets and trombones as they pierce into a hot blue summer sky in an impromptu second line.
New Orleans is like a smoking cigarette, or a joint. Hot, bright red and burning in the moment, while the memories like smoke, drift off into the air in seductive rhythmic patterns teasing your imagination before slowly dissipating from sight and concrete existence – just left with the high.
Depending on who asks, I have different answers for what I miss most. Quick and easy and also a very true answer is the food. The food is so freaking good. Bowls of thick gumbo, trailed by a distinct line of steam. Crisped beignets dappled in powdered sugar that falls to your chest when you bite in. Newspaper-lined picnic tables covered in heaps of deep red crawfish, some sausage, corn and potatoes, too. It’s all so very decadent. And it’s not that other cities don’t have good food; it’s that their food isn’t infused with the richness and soul that ours is.
Then there’s the music. I can’t help but miss the music. Frenchmen Street with its rows of block lined with music clubs — jazz clubs, blues bars, reggae spots, brass bands in the streets — the entirety of the scene produces a subtle hint of nostalgia mixed with absolutely intoxicating dose of energy. The swing of the horns, the bounce of the percussion and the bluesy guitars pour into the street electrifying the damp heat that hangs heavily in the air and makes the whole place feel both provocative and enchanting. The city is the music, or the music is the city. The landscape moves with a heavy musical vibration that can be felt at almost all times.
The city’s unmistakeable architectural composition is another one of the gems I can’t let go of. New Orleans is like some artistic masterpiece. The architecture is uniquely stunning; it radiates a silent, confident charisma — French and Spanish and English and Italian and Cuban and Haitian and all of it mixed together, and massive white columns with rocking chairs on porches bordered by rolling green lawns, and small shotgun shacks painted in dramatic pastels, and dilapidated cottages with smiling people sitting on their porches. Orange sunsets light up ancient cemeteries that seem to glow with unknowable energy. Above ground crypts hundreds of years old, crumbling and beautiful silhouetted against those spectacular hues of the southern sky and holding within the secrets of a city.
I lived in the Garden District, where, in the spring and summer, the sweet tropical aroma of night jasmine poured gently through my windows. I didn’t have screens, so on windy days I often came home to find the old wooden floor covered in white flowers. In the evenings, bright pink clouds would tower and roll across the dusky blue sky — every streak of pink and blue imaginable — like a painting. The neighborhood was so beautifully lush, I often forgot Bourbon Street was a mere mile or so away.
But the real truth about what I miss most about New Orleans isn’t the food or the music or the architecture or the giant oak trees that hang like a thick canopy above Uptown streets. No, what I am still struggling to come to terms with is that no other spot on earth has New Orleans women, the living embodiment of that spectacular place – beautiful, enchanting, bewitching, captivating and very dangerous, New Orleans women.
I am talking about real New Orleans women, the kind that make you nervous — beautiful soft skin, bright radiant eyes, and unforgettable lips. Passion ran hot and wild for two years and no doubt beautiful women were a treacherous and most serious hobby. It was inevitable, and thus, New Orleans was named by a close friend and fellow romantic — the city of heartbreak. I did fall in love there, potent unfulfilled love.
When I first arrived in New Orleans a friend told me, “You’ve made it here, you must have figured something out, and now keep it a secret.” And it’s true, if you’ve made it to New Orleans, there’s something a little bit different and unique about your priorities or maybe your perspective. Whatever that particular trait may be, it does exist.