'Letter from New Orleans' by Kevin Rabalais

by
January-February 2016, no. 378

'Letter from New Orleans' by Kevin Rabalais

by
January-February 2016, no. 378

The streets of New Orleans double as scented gardens for the blind. Round any corner in the Vieux Carré – known to most as the French Quarter – and experience the assault of sensory details. It might start with a spicy tang of boiling seafood, crawfish, or shrimp or crabs plucked from the amphibious Louisiana land. Maybe it's frying beignets or praline mixture bubbling on stoves, or one of those fluorescent alcoholic drinks that bartenders pour inside goldfish bowls and sell to tourists from the Mid-west to sip as they stroll through the Quarter, convinced that they've reached the precipice between civilisation and debauchery.

Then it comes. Somewhere in the middle of defining the precise scent, your ear tunes itself to the city's true heartbeat. First you might hear the trombone. Now the trumpet and tuba combine to release the city's musical gift to the world. In New Orleans, second-line jazz parades are more common than changes in the weather. They begin with one group – the women's Pussyfooters Club, say, out doing what they do to pass a good time, in the local parlance – but open themselves to anyone who wants to dance through the humidity that assaults the city for the six months, sometimes more, that New Orleanians call summer. If you're unlucky enough to miss those second-lines, turn another corner and find a band – slick or rag-tag, most of them better than any you'd hear in a club in other cities – out busking for tips.

It's not the heat, it's the humidity, goes one local adage, and the subtropical air can feel more like an assailant than a necessity. This is one reason for the larghissimo tempo. Don't expect the simple things to function here. If they do, it won't be long before heavy weather rolls in and thunder sends the city's graceful, termite-infested wooden houses atremble, knocking out electricity, sometimes for days. If you can't forget that most of the world runs on some semblance of a schedule, you may need to find another home. If you have the good fortune to discover one that radiates a more lavish spirit, please give the rest of us directions.

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