“You can take the boy out of the bayou, but you can’t take the bayou out of the boy.”
At least, that’s what my dad tells me.
He was born in New Orleans during World War II and, despite leaving at a fairly young age, he has always identified with the city. No matter that I grew up in the flat farmlands of the Midwest–thanks to my dad’s allegiance to New Orleans, I was raised with Tabasco sauce on the table and Fats Domino on the record player.
The bayou my dad’s talking about is Bayou St. John, one of the city’s many waterways, which passes right by the house he grew up on Picheloup Place. Like so much of New Orleans, Bayou St. John is a quiet neighborhood with lots of live oak trees, palmettos, and cypress offering constant shade over big porches. Within walking distance of City Park, this is the opposite of the French Quarter: calm and familial, with sun-baked sidewalks and neighbors who look out for one another.
I had been to my dad’s old house once before. A full year after Hurricane Katrina, I drove my grandfather down from Washington, D.C. so that he could “check on the house.” Luckily, it was still there, though the occupants said they had about six feet of water inside and that after the storm, rents nearly doubled due to lack of housing in other parts of the city.
In addition to Mardi Gras, hurricanes are part of my dad’s distinct memories of New Orleans. He remembers playing with his building blocks during a hurricane in the 1940s and how the house shook so hard, his toy blocks would always keep tumbling down. For him, hurricanes weren’t scary, they were simply frustrating.
My father finally left New Orleans and moved up north to face his greatest childhood disappointment when he discovered that there was no such thing as Mardi Gras in Washington, D.C. My grandfather tells the story of the time at a dinner party, when trying to impress his guests, he asked my then six-year-old father if he could name four American presidents. My dad pondered the question and then ventured forth with a response, “George Washington?” followed by, “Abraham Lincoln?” The adults in the room applauded both correct answers. He pondered some more, then answered, “Roosevelt,” who had died not so many years before. Then he waited some more, scrunched up his face with concentration and then belted out, “Louis the Fourteenth!”
Only a kid from New Orleans could think that Louis XIV was an American president. And that’s what I love about this city–how different it is from the rest of America. New Orleans eats, drinks, parties, dresses, and lives differently from anywhere else in the country, and they’re oh so proud of that difference.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, I went back to my dad’s house on Picheloup Place; I sat on the same concrete stoop that my dad used to play on as a kid 60-some years ago. For all the exciting places travel takes us to — on new adventures and memorable vacations — travel also carries us back to our family and the places we’re from. I’ve traced our family back to Scotland and Wales, to southern Utah to Texas and to Maine, but also New Orleans.
My father left New Orleans when he was just six years old, but the city stayed with him for the rest of his life. The same goes for my grandfather, who still reminisces about the city. He called me as I sat on the banks of the Mississippi and asked me where I was. When I told him New Orleans, he laughed, “Ah, good ol’ New Orleans! Do you know why they have the very best food in the world? Because it’s French and seafood combined.”
I asked for his restaurant recommendations and at 99 years old, he still had a whole long list of must-tries in New Orleans.
“Make sure you eat oysters at Antoine’s,” he insisted. Surprisingly, every restaurant he told me to go to is still open and in business today. I don’t know any other American city that can boast that kind of culinary continuity. I was also surprised that despite all the decades and the fact that my grandfather was calling from hundreds of miles away, he talked so clearly about the city as if he were right in the middle of it with me, navigating the streets.
I’ve since come to the conclusion that you can’t ever really leave New Orleans. It stays with you and you just have to keep coming back.
I’m utterly amazed by the number of people I met here who came to New Orleans on vacation and simply never leave. Maybe they traveled here for Jazzfest or for Mardi Gras; to escape Northern winters or just for the weekend. But the one thing they all have in common is that instead of completing their round-trip back home, they moved into a friend’s house, they rented a room in the quarter, or they just bought a house. They stayed.
I knocked on the door of my dad’s old house and met a woman from New Jersey. That’s right: a Jersey girl who moved to New Orleans 12 years ago and never looked back. I met a woman from San Francisco who couldn’t explain why she stayed, except that she likes it.
“I love living here. Everyone is family,” she said.
And then I met Vida at the Candlelight Lounge, one of my favorite nightspot discoveries in the city. A tall, 50-something African-American woman from Treme, Vida still lives on the same block she was born on.
“I left and was gone for three years after Katrina, but the whole time I couldn’t wait to get back. I’ve been everywhere — New York, L.A., Houston, Chicago, Detroit. Gawd, don’t EVER let me leave New Orleans again. Not ever.”
I’ve only been here two weeks, but I totally understand.