An abridged version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, in February 2008
So you thought New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005? It still remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US! It is often referred to as the “most unique city in America”. New Orleans is in the state of Louisiana and is perhaps one of the oldest cities in the US. The beauty of New Orleans springs from the multi-cultural heritage of the city, the food, the language, the music- Jazz, of course, the joie de vivre of the place; so infectious! The French founded the city (called it La Nouvelle-Orléans), then the Spanish occupied it, the French took it back again and then Napoleon sold it to the Americans! Quite a mix, and that is what gave rise to the unique (sub) culture of New Orleans!
The French founded the city around what is now called the French Quarters. The world-famous Bourbon Street, which is off Canal Street, is bang in the middle of the French Quarters! The street, perpendicular to the Canal Street, can roughly be divided into three sections: the Upper Bourbon Street houses many bars and restaurants, strip joints and a lot of souvenir shops. The mid-section has many of the popular bars. The last third of the street, which I had no inclination to visit, is popular among the gay community. One of my colleagues, of British origins narrated how he stumbled into a bar in this section of Bourbon Street and found it “rather dodgy” as he quaintly put it!
What I did see was a hyper-active Bourbon Street; crowded, noisy and very, very vibrant!
Of Hand Grenades and Hurricanes:
Where else would you find “Hand Grenades “, “Hurricanes” and “Huge Ass Beers” floating around in the street! The French quarter does not have what in the US is called “Open Container Law”. What this means is that patrons can walk around carrying cups (plastic only, mind you) of their favourite tipple and walk up-and-down the street. And that is what the patrons do, walk up-and-down, down-and-up carrying their drink, many of them smoking impossibly huge cigars! “Hand Grenade” is a secret recipe of a local company owning four bars on Bourbon Street. The drink comes in tall grenade-shaped containers, bilious green in colour, and has a melon-flavoured concoction! “Hurricane” is a rum based drink, extremely sweet and very, very potent! The recipe for this is creditted to Pat O’Brien (the bar bearing his name is a prominent landmark on Bourbon Street still) and dates back to the 1940’s. And the beers! If you were not carrying “Hand Grenades” or the “Hurricanes” then you should be guzzling draught beer off a tall, tall cup! ”Huge Ass Beers” as these are called. Does not matter if you are drunk or purporting to be drunk, anything goes. No one cares, no one minds! It is not out of place (actually very much in place to find someone drunk and sprawled on the road! There was this lady, mid- 30’s maybe, spread-eagled across the pavement and the Street with her T-shirt threatening to crawl upwards beyond limits of modesty! Her equally drunk partner was valiantly trying to shake her into consciousness. People just walked ahead, none throwing even a second glance! Not that one can partake alcohol only on the street, there are many, many bars lining the street, some of which are virtually heritage sites thanks to the great jazz musicians who have played in these bars sometime in their careers! We tried hard to enter some of these, but after a few futile attempts, we decided to pick-up some “Huge Ass Beers” and walk up-and-down, down-and-up!
Music and All That Jazz:
Jazz was made in New Orleans. New Orleans airport is perhaps is the only airport I know of which is named after a musician: Louis Armstrong, the cult jazz musician. The music tradition is perhaps due to the mix of the cultural influences. The Europeans, the Blacks and the Americans. Decades of inter-mingling spawned Jazz music. And Jazz lovers from all over the world flock to listen their kind of music here. And aspiring Jazz Musicians too come from all over to play in the bars and restaurants here! Unfortunately for us, the evening we spent on Bourbon Street, the jazz lovers of the world were out there is droves to relish their form of music! So we had to settle into a place which perhaps was not the best example of New Orleans music traditions but had a lovely atmosphere and some reasonably good music. “Steamboat Willie” entertained us through the evening while we downed cups after cups of draught beer.
The Beads of Bourbon Street:
As far as city quirks go, this one takes the cake! The narrow street is lined with quaint two-storey buildings, all of them with balconies. The balconies were originally made for the residents (and their guests) to take in the sights of the street after a sumptuous meal and hear the strains of jazz music wafting through from various bars and restaurants. As we were walking up-and-down we saw curious little hordes of women (and men) on the street looking up towards the men (and women) thronging the balconies. Ever so often the balcony-astride man (sometimes women too) would throw down shiny bead necklaces on (probably) specific persons (invariably women) down below and there was a scramble to grab the necklace. We could see women with piles of bead necklaces of various shiny colours adorning their necks or wrapped around their wrists. Someone in our group who was in-the-know explained to us that this bead throwing was an old tradition linked to the annual Mardi Gras festival of New Orleans. On a normal work day (night, really) this was a kind of a game whose rules stated that the women below would get to keep the bead necklace thrown at them. But, but, if the necklace were to land around their necks without getting intercepted beforehand then the woman “target” would have to “flash”! Flashing being rolling up her T a few inches more than modesty dictated!
Fortified and emboldened by copious quantities of beer we have had, we hung around the crowd hoping for a sharpshooter on the balcony to snare a dame. Tough luck! Or maybe the flashing story is just apocryphal!!