You’re eating breakfast outside at a cafe called La Madeleine at the corner of St. Charles and Carrolton. The battered olive-drab streetcars, looking like World War II military vehicles, rumble by going in both directions, carrying commuters and college students and tourists, but mostly tourists, hanging out the open windows.
What Knoxville can learn from New Orleans may be limited. The two cities were never peers. New Orleans was always much bigger, of course—it’s presently over two times the size of Knoxville. It used to be much bigger than that, but in the last 25 years, due to an increase in crime and a decline in the local economy, New Orleans has shed about 85,000 of its citizens.
At the time of Knoxville’s founding, New Orleans was also more famous, though not yet for its hedonism. It was the dismally remote setting of a French novel called Manon Lescaut. Through the 18th century, New Orleans evolved into a mostly a religious and military town, business-like and dignified.
During the Civil War, New Orleans was a more thoroughly Confederate town than Knoxville was. Ironically, though, it was the Knox County-born, New Orleans-raised David Glasgow Farragut who restored New Orleans to the Union, more than a year before General Burnside did the same for Knoxville.
Judging by the people taking photographs of the Jackson statue on a Saturday afternoon, you figure there are maybe one million images of it shot every year.
There’s no longer a streetcar named Desire, but New Orleans is famous for its electric streetcars.
Felix’s is the old oyster place on Iberville, a friendly, brightly lit place, one of the most honest joints in town. There are tables, but you like the counter. The man behind it says, “Talk to me.” Most people talk to him about how many oysters they want, and how many beers. A dozen oysters is six bucks, and you can have them plain or with lemon and hot sauce and catchup and “horse relish.” And an Abita draft, $2.75. Sitting next to you is an Atlanta country-club mom. She’s talking to a college-age boy who has his ball cap pulled low over his eyes.
The Napoleon House, at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, is the best bar in the world. People at the bar talk to each other; they’re from New Orleans, and they’re from all over the place. You’re sure the guys in the white shirts and black bow ties who run it don’t recognize you from two years ago, or 11 years ago, or 27 years ago, but they seem to. On this hot afternoon, people are drinking the famous Pimm’s Cup, a sweet-tart gin drink, each one adorned with a distinctively loony touch, a slice of fresh cucumber.
There are different estimates of how old the building is, different versions of the story, as there are of most stories here. In New Orleans, history is a malleable thing. At gorgeous City Park, at the end of the new Canal Street streetcar line, a plaque states that “100 years ago, Creole gentlemen settled their affairs d’honneur with pistols and swords underneath the park’s oaks.”
New Orleans is a paradox. It pushes the boundaries of public sex and intoxication and perdition in general farther than any other city in America; it’s sometimes called the most dangerous city in America. The tour books tell you not to cross this street, or that one, and be careful on that one, and locals tell horrific stories of carjackings and home invasions and motorcyclists ambushed and dissembled. New Orleans traffics in shock.
In the Vieux Carre and Faubourg Marigny you look for music but don’t find much that you wouldn’t avoid in Knoxville. Many of the bands you hear through the open doors and windows are cover bands. There’s a good small bar on Frenchmen called the Spotted Cat where there’s good bebop, but nothing surprising. You go to Gennifer Flowers’ Kelsto Club partly for the weird spectacle and partly because you’ve heard she’s actually a good singer, but you look in the open window and it’s somebody else singing tonight.
You always say you’ll stay away from Bourbon Street, but this night, there you are. It seemed the quickest way back to the streetcar.
A half block off Bourbon Street, a girl leans with her back against a wall; she’s wearing denim shorts and a T-shirt that says, “The Closest I Ever Came To a 4.0 in College Was My Blood Alcohol Level.” She looks barely old enough to be in college. She pulls down her shorts, squats, and for a long time, pees between her shoes. People walk around her on the sidewalk.
You can have enough of New Orleans in a short time. Again with the plastic beads, again with the trumpets. Again with the naked breasts. Again with the butter, all over everything.