I spent the flight home from New Orleans cradling my head on a paperback-size excuse for a tray table, feeling vaguely like I should be hospitalized but not knowing for what or for how long.
“How were the hurricanes?” someone asked me, once we were back in Ohio.
It is the question posed — nearly without fail — by middle-aged adults after they find out you’re 21 and recently returned from New Orleans. It’s usually accompanied by half a smile and one raised eyebrow. The subtext: “Undergrad couldn’t handle his booze.”
I wasn’t offended by the question.
For one, the hurricanes were tasty.
But beyond that, I admittedly looked like someone battling the worst hangover of their life. My eyes were bloodshot and my clothes wrinkled. As I shambled my way through airport security that morning, the TSA stopped me for a drug screening. The agent swabbing my hands assured me it was random.
While the drinks from the night before did no favors for my health, the deeper cause of my corpse-like state was a weekend worth of blunt-force sensory trauma inflicted by the city itself.
The first thing that hits you is the smell.
Step onto the worn bricks of the French Quarter and your nose twitches. Damp earth, flooded river, musty trash and fried seafood fight for olfactory dominance. Notes of vomit and piss punctuate the air with a frequency relative to your distance from Bourbon Street.
Off-kilter from this opening salvo, the next 72 hours crash down on you simultaneously.
Neon signs advertise fried chicken and peep shows and Hand Grenades, which are bright green drinks served in plastic replicas of their namesake. Avoid the Hand Grenades, but buy some chicken while you observe Honky-tonks leak country music and husky Midwesterners onto Bourbon Street.
Stare into the window of a white tablecloth restaurant nearby. The bartenders are wearing white tuxedos and the dining room walls are plastered with more gold leaf than Versailles. Think about walking in but stop yourself.
Farther down the street, turn into Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub. The tan stone walls are lit by string lights. Standing room only. Close your eyes and identify three pianos hammering out an up-tempo standard. Open your eyes, squint and then realize it’s just house pianist Richard Scott playing by himself.
Wait in line outside the Preservation Hall Jazz Club and puke 10 minutes before the 8:30 show starts. Plead with the ticketer to let you in. Sit on a flat floor cushion in the cramped room made of unfinished wood. Let the All Stars’ trumpeter deafen your right ear with the best rendition of “St. James Infirmary” you’ll ever hear.
Glance inside a souvenir shop at the shot glasses and Voodoo skulls and shot glasses with Voodoo skulls on them that fill the windows. A t-shirt reads “I’m a nurse / I’m here to save your @$$ / Not kiss it.” Every souvenir shop you see sells this shirt.
Return to the hotel at some point. Stay up way too late on the second-story balcony listening to Louis Armstrong cover “Blueberry Hill.” A woman walking by on the street below recognizes the song. Bring a couple beers down to the curb and talk with her for two hours. Sing “Amazing Grace.” She is in her late fifties and homeless. Her name is Angel.
Head up a couple blocks toward Frenchman Street. On the way, Antebellum townhouses with courtyards framed by flickering gaslights impose themselves over pastel apartments. A corner diner with less than a dozen stools promises the best cheeseburger in New Orleans and a lone woman sitting behind a card table promises spiritual healing through crystals.
Walk into the open door of a blues bar and listen to a man wail on a harmonica that he’s playing upside down. He looks like an alternate-history version of Elvis that didn’t get fat on fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches but instead got skinny on methamphetamine.
A few doors down, the trombonist at the Spotted Cat leads a crowd of 20-somethings in a song called “Scuba Diver.” Everyone shouts the chorus. You recognize the trombonist. He was playing at Fritzel’s. Was that last night? Tomorrow? Between sets, he hits on the girls in the audience. You think you see them blush in the dark.
Find a nice bar for a change. Order a Sazerac while a traveling classical guitarist plays in a bop trio. His curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he’s smiling as he improvises. The Sazerac arrives, garnished with an orange peel arranged like a rose blossom. The cocktail tastes like anise.
Head to Jackson Square. Listen to a funk band play for tips in front of the cathedral. Their amplifiers are powered by what is either a huge car battery or a miniature generator. Their bassist is probably 13.
Across the square, walk up to a girl sitting at a TV-tray table with a baby blue typewriter. Her glasses are round and have rose lenses. She operates a pop-up poem shop for a living. The sign reads: “Your Topic, Your Poem, Your Price.”
Commission a poem about writing poems for a living in the open air in Jackson Square. Eat three beignets at Café du Monde in 10 minutes. Go back to the poem girl and pick up the poem. It’s printed in green ink on an index card and marked by a little wax seal.
Walk around the square and stare in vague annoyance at the statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse. You’re still covered in powdered sugar from the beignets. It’s sunny. Think about something for a while. Return to the poem girl one last time.
Wake up in the hotel. Shower. Throw on wrinkled clothes and look in the mirror. Your eyes are bloodshot.
Shamble through airport security. Get your hands swabbed. Try to sleep on the tray table on the flight back to Cincinnati.
Someone asks you, “How were the Hurricanes?”