I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate like Polly Pockets. It is hard to watch one’s feet when the environs are so very eye-catching. The buildings reminded me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, but more French – Painted Mademoiselles, maybe. One storefront was dripping with gauzy, gaudy ribbon wrapped around its columns.
I feel the need to saunter in New Orleans, to say hello to passersby; the porches, perfect for lazing about, beckon you to come sit a while. New Orleans has so many of genteel outdoor spaces—with ceiling fans, sloping floorboards, verdant topiaries; like the homes, they are painted colorfully and well-manicured. Cats slink from these porches, sparing a little sideways look in your direction as you pass.
In one small store, I found several copies of the artful nudie mag, Momma Tried (a clever nod to Merle Haggard). The print magazine is playful eye candy. One review calls the magazine “non-heteronormative,” and the fanciful spreads indeed embrace all sorts of folks and all sorts of delights. I get the impression that New Orleans embraces the Mardi Gras-fueled aesthetic of drag, comfortable near-nudity and self-display in many contexts and times of the year. It is as if one could step out of Jem and the Holograms or some Victorian bodice-ripper, and saunter along with the rest of the city with ease.
Photographer Erik Bookhardt’s Geopsychic Wonders (1979) famously captures and pulls together imagery of New Orleans’ mystique. Writing about the phenomenon of Mardi Gras as both a political and cultural event, curator Claire Tancons shares this Bookhardt quote: “Carnival almost always is an innately anarchic and psychodramatic event … that enables everyone to visualize how things can be different and make them different, at least for a day, and that in itself is an inherently valuable, liberating, and potentially revolutionary practice.”
Big Freedia (a.k.a. Freddie Ross) is beloved in New Orleans, a hip hop artist famous for ordering people to dance, shake and bounce. To many, Big Freedia is a needed ambassador for self-expression in a town that clings to the relatively-traditional French and jazz roots that still soak the French Quarter. (His new album is aptly called Just Be Free.)
We happened upon an open mic in which we previewed Cirque du Gras, a humorous and heavily-tattooed New Orleans circus troupe styled somewhere between street performance, Vaudeville and burlesque. They described themselves as “apocalyptic,” and sang hedonistic songs about seizing the day and searching for love. We rounded out our evening with Walter Craft, a folk-singer-activist who came to New Orleans in the sixties to pursue a troubadour lifestyle.
I ate crawfish for the first time at an all-you-can-eat boil, grateful for for the vegetable sides (garlic, onion, celery). The thought of eating crawfish without such accompaniments was just too graphic. By the end, piles of crawfish were strewn everywhere on the lawn where we’d all gathered. It looked like a tiny army had rolled through, leaving piles of red body parts heaped up willy-nilly. It was a gory spectacle, but the mud bugs were delicious, nonetheless – spicy, peppery and soft.
In the dark of the evening, the air felt damp. A freshly-cut tree stump crawled with cockroaches and slugs, and the waxy-leafed tropical plants drooped over fence posts. The air seemed to buzz a little bit, hinting of full summer just around the corner.
We headed North from New Orleans in the evening. It felt like we were leaving some Venice of the bayou – the trees next to the highway were immersed in water, as if wading in a strange, submerged landscape. I noticed an enormous form on the side of the highway, light in color and long. As we drove past, the indistinct figure resolved into view: an overturned, dead alligator, and a big one at that. I had never before seen an alligator besides Claude, the albino gator at the California Academy of Sciences.
We had to keep driving.
California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.