We were walking down Bourbon Street when Murray exclaimed, "I'm virile! I'm virile!" He did it sheepishly, for old time's sake, because we both remembered the night, when we were in high school, that he'd had too much to drink, then ate too many raw oysters (natural Viagra, by reputation) and then went leaping down Bourbon Street, past the strip joints and jazz clubs, dodging the corncobs and empty beer and hurricane glasses in the gutter, shouting the glories of his masculinity.
It had been great to be an adolescent in New Orleans -- the Crescent City, Fat City, the Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot -- to which Murray and I had both moved in our early teens from small New Jersey towns. In New Jersey, adults stopped you from doing the things you wanted. In New Orleans, the adults were out doing them.
I had not been back in nearly 20 years; for Murray, it had been almost as long. I'd been to Europe three dozen times since then; why not my old home town? Something I could not articulate had kept me away, and it was only when Murray, now a Charlotte, N.C. nephrologist, decided to attend a medical convention in New Orleans, that I summoned the courage to tag along. We easily convinced our wives to join us.
Neither Murray's wife, Ginette, a French Canadian, nor mine, Julie, a Pennsylvania Yankee, had seen anything like Bourbon Street. As in my youth, the narrow street is a daily frat party for people of all ages. It's not merely tawdry; it's communally tawdry, a honky-tonk district that is socially acceptable, indeed socially necessary.
I believe the four of us were near the intersection of St. Peter Street when a dozen 20-year-olds gave a whoop and ran toward a club where a stripper was doing an interpretive dance atop a bar, exposed to street view.
A few doors up, we passed a club from which Dixieland played and another which sent sweet blues into the street. Jazz, blues, the drunken cadences of New Orleans rock 'n' roll -- I'd learned them all down here. I took Julie into my arms now and we danced along Bourbon Street to the sound of rhythm and blues, the music like old medicine, doing its ancient good.
"I'm starting to understand you better," said Julie a couple minutes later. "How?"
"The way you view women."
Then I realized: I was watching the silhouetted image of a stripper, projected onto the street through a translucent curtain as she undulated for the paying customers inside.
"Did you ever have to grow up here?" asked Julie.
"If I'd stayed -- never."
The next morning, Julie, proving she was indeed a northerner, went jogging, only to stumble and hurt her ankle on cragged sidewalks of the Vieux Carre (the French Quarter). I was seated nearby, at the historic Cafe Du Monde, stuffing down beignets. The New Orleans beignet (the word is French for "doughnut") is a puff of fried dough as fun, and as white from confectioners' sugar, as kids rolling in snow. You get three to an order and have to eat all of them while they're hot. Your coffee must be laced with chicory, an acrid-tasting substance used as filler since a Civil War coffee shortage.
On my way back to the hotel, I passed a chubby young guy squatting on the sidewalk, playing fine blues on an electric guitar. I stopped to listen. He called out, asking for money. I gave it to him.
Nothing I had seen so far of the low, compact French Quarter, which Bourbon Street neatly bisects, was much different from memory. Not a single facade may be altered without permission of the ever-vigilant Vieux Carre Commission, and the Quarter's latticework balconies and genteel, hidden courtyards remain distinctive architectural signatures of America. The Quarter as a whole is still a Bohemian district, with the city's best restaurants and art galleries, a place where you might not live with children but you might move to after they have grown and gone.
The Garden District -- where English-speaking, Protestant families settled when they first came in a big way to this French-accented, Catholic town during the 19th century -- hasn't changed either: the same lush, subtropical greenery flouncing among big, elegant houses, many of which sell for not much more than my New York apartment.
That is because, economically, New Orleans has been in decline for generations. You can plot the course of American prosperity by what New Orleans failed to accomplish. Once the headquarters of a major business, shipping, New Orleans missed out on finance, railroads, automobiles, aviation, pharmaceuticals, electronics, the Internet; it's the down side of being a party town, and a corrupt one. The annual real estate taxes on our lakefront house, complete with fountain and pool, came to $50. "Your father didn't even have to ask to lower the assessment," explained my mother. "If he had, the city would probably have ended up paying us for the privilege of having us live there."
What has changed is the main thoroughfare, Canal Street, which the four of us walked the next morning. Except for the few blocks that link the French Quarter with the tourist hotels on the edge of the business district, Canal Street, like the main arteries of so many American cities, has calcified and decayed.
All the native department stores that once lined it had closed. We found Maison Blanche (theposhest) under conversion into a Ritz-Carlton hotel, D.H. Holmes (the best run) reworked as a Sonesta hotel, and Krauss Co. (known for bargains), an abandoned hulk, the forward segment noticeably settling into its pilings, ready, like the bow of the Titanic, to break free from the rest and sink into the gooey soil under Canal Street.
It was a particularly sad sight for me. My great-uncles, the Krauss brothers, had founded the department store in 1903. The Krauss warehouse had gone up on the remains of a block of Storyville, the part of town essentially zoned for brothels. Storyville was the place where jazz was, if perhaps not born, at least well nourished in its infancy.
Bordering the former Storyville on one side and the French Quarter on the other is St. Louis Cemetery Number One. We went there next and stood at the reputed tomb of a voodoo queen, listening to a tour guide explain what Murray and I knew and what our wives had heard on a Garden District tour the previous day: Because of its marshy soil, New Orleans buries its dead above ground, in family tombs in which the Louisiana sun does the work of a crematorium's fire. Each tomb is reused, the remains of succeeding generations piling upon each other as mulch in a pit dug into the bottom.
It was amusing for Murray and me to see the contorted faces of the outsiders hearing about this. Our wives, even on this second go-around, were having trouble with it. But facing death is as much a part of the local culture as music, drink, food, sex and corruption. New Orleans once had the highest death rate in the United States. If yellow fever didn't get you (it killed 12,000 in the epidemic of 1853), cholera, hurricanes, fires and crime might avail themselves of the opportunity. New Orleans became a party town because it had to, because you never knew whether the next day would carry you off, and because, as a Catholic city walled in by the self-righteous Protestant South, New Orleans had mastered that Latin American manner of reconciling faith and sin.
Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday," is the day you take out a loan on sin, one you start paying off the next day -- Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Halloween is another time to behave foolishly and wear masks; conveniently, the next day is All Saints' Day, which, by custom, you celebrate with a picnic at the family tomb.
As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed how many of the older tombs had fallen into disrepair, the family lines presumably ended. Others were as shiny as the full moon; you don't need much convincing to show respect for a grave you expect you'll be entering anon. A woman introducing herself as Joy was following tradition by cleaning and painting her finely maintained family tomb in preparation for All Saints' Day, which was one week off. She asked if I was doing the same.
"I'm down from New York," I said. "I figure I'll see the family graves at some point."
"In this cemetery?"
"No. Hebrew Rest."
Joy looked at me sternly. "There has been much desecration over there." Images of the smashed-up Jewish cemetery of our ancestral village in Germany filled my mind. "Thanks. I'd better look in on it." There was no dodging it now.
What I looked into that evening was dinner. This is not a light matter in New Orleans, figuratively or literally. Good food, real food -- none of that prepackaged tuna-casserole business my parents' generation celebrated as kitchen work -- has been a part of New Orleans life long before the rest of the nation knew what polenta or arugula was. We all went to Bayona, one of the best French Quarter restaurants, and forgot our troubles, from the white bean and pancetta soup through the molten-chocolate gingerbread cake.
Julie was unable to jog the next day, and it didn't seem right to leave her alone while I took a beignet detour. Murray was at his medical conference, and Ginette was relaxing by the hotel's heated pool. In our rented car, I finally took Julie out to the cemetery where members of my family lay buried. They were all there in a neat row, my father and my paternal grandparents, under undamaged headstones. Julie, who had often asked why I hadn't come back to New Orleans, asked no more.
I didn't say much on the short ride back. We weren't more than a few blocks into the French Quarter, near the open-air French Market, before Julie asked that I stop the car. She ducked into a cafe to snag me an emergency order of beignets. I sat mournfully alone in the parked car until Julie returned with a warm bag. I opened it and the aroma of dough and sugar filled my lungs. I bit into the fragment pastry, sending sugar flying onto our clothes.
Then, from someplace, and I never learned where, a jazz band began to play. The tune was "Over in the Glory Land," one of my favorites, and it flowed through the street with the naughty, buoyant charm that is Dixieland at its purest. I was eating hot beignets and listening to the music, and something odd began to happen. It wasn't as if I lost sight of death; it was as if it all made sense, as if what had seemed unfathomable was now becoming bearable, even pleasant. And no sooner had I noticed that than I was truly enjoying myself, listening to good music, eating good food, ready to pick up our good friends and get out there and have fun again.
My wife had often asked me how I manage to push myself along when things get tough. I understood now that, in a way, I hadn't come back to New Orleans. It had been rattling around inside me all the time, waiting for the moments I needed it most.