A New Yorker in NOLA

“America only has 3 cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” – Tennessee Williams

Our NOLA Art Tour guide enlightened me to the existence of this quote as I visually inhaled the vibrant murals on the streets of New Orleans. Of course, as a diehard New Yorker, I wholeheartedly embraced it, especially since I can’t remember when I’ve ever been so dazzled by a city that wasn’t my own.

Thanksgiving of 2021, I decided to do something completely different. Rather than celebrate the day with my fam or significant others’, engaging in turkey-eating while avoiding any sort of real contribution to the actual food preparation (Millennials, do ya’ll hear me?), I accepted a gracious offer from my Argentinian friend traveling in the states to meet up in New Orleans for a leg of her months-long trip.

Let me just say, I couldn’t have picked a better traveling companion. Both in our mid-thirties, we were not there to get Bourbon Street wasted or Mardi Gras hammered every night. We took the obligatory stroll down the strip the first night and found some poor soul’s corporate credit card on the ground outside, which I finally decided to just shred after we failed to hunt down a cop to turn it in to (surprising, I know, but we only encountered EMS). Better it was us pure souls with no nefarious intentions that found it than a shady drunkard.

Secondline Arts & Antiques

Now, once you get that initial Bourbon Street walk out the way, you’ll wonder why all you ever hear about New Orleans is a party place to get sloshed because this place is chock FULL of culture! The Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden (right next to the New Orleans Museum of Art) is a MUST SEE, and it’s gorgeous, enchanting, and FREE. JAMNOLA is one of those super fun art experiences that is actually worth the price (though we did score Groupons, so BONUS). Honey Island Swamp Tours will pick you up FROM your hotel (for the smallest additional fee) and take you about an hour outside of the city to their swamp. While we didn’t get to see any gators (fun fact, if the weather gets too cool, they hibernate), we got one of those weird swamp rat sightings and local birds, including a bald eagle (!). Our guide was super knowledgeable and taught us a lot about crocs vs gators and the “camps”, those uninsured, low turnover abodes that line the swamp and look like “roughin it” shacks to an urbanite, but apparently have running water and electricity. We even hit up a local nerdy burlesque show, another first for me as I got the opportunity to throw singles at body-positive performance artists with tasseled nipple pasties. Oh, and a man in a banana hammock thong. The aquarium here is aight; the only attraction I found underwhelming and top-10-in-America list questionable.

When we weren’t hitting up one of the numerous non-drinking activities, we were hoofing it EVERYWHERE, my companion being from a big city as well, and New Orleans is incredibly walkable. A 20-30 minute walk to reach a destination for us is nothing. A light stroll. A chance to sightsee or stumble across a secret. Or just to feast our eyes on the splendor of the beautiful, artistic architecture there. Is urban exploration considered a hobby? Our hotel was in the Garden District, so our main stomping grounds for the week consisted of that area along with the French Quarter and the Bywater district. Walking the colorful quarter in the daytime, you’d find random bubble machines on the 2nd floor balconies, as if they simply wanted to add to a fun and festive atmosphere. And probably due to the climate, there’s greenery everywhere. Tree-lined streets with spanish moss, glorious parks, yards with gardens and fountains.

Now, FOOD. I am Black, with southern roots. And NOLA is known for their SEAFOOD. Maybe not the culinary wonderland for my vegetarian travelling companion (we had to check the menus in the windows each time beforehand to make sure she had options), but every place was fair game to me. And I am a PICKY eater with a non-spicy palate. I tried po’boys, gumbo shrimp, biscuits and gravy, catfish, and BEIGNETS, the pastry I never knew I needed in my life. Warm, fresh (ALWAYS fresh), fried squares of delicious dough with powdered sugar on top. Glorified funnel-cake minis, but so much more classier. If these are available in NYC, I am completely unaware. We sought out local spots only, avoiding chains like Starbucks, McDonalds (which I don’t eat anyway) and even Popeyes. Deciding where to eat next made me giddy; I wouldn’t label myself a foodie, but eating out and exploring new restaurants gives me joy.

Carousel Bar

On my last night there, we even got a chance to sit AT the famed Carousel Bar, which I thought would be horribly touristy and overrated, but I’m super happy we ended up taking the chance. Is it expensive af in a fancy hotel you’ll probably feel out of place walking into? YUP. Now walk in like you own the joint. We were hoping to just score seating at the little couple’s tables by the festively decorated windows, but after about 10 minutes of waiting seats opened up right at the rotating bar. Pretty sure my drink was about $15-17 (Pimm’s Cup), but it was DELICIOUS, this was a rare experience, and reminiscent of the NYC prices I don’t even pay for at home. Along with my drink I got mussels and truffle fries and a beignet order for dessert. ALL scrumptious. The bar seating slowly REVOLVES around the bar just like a carousel. Gimmicky, YES, but squeal-worthy and done right.

Sidebar: Travelling with another boss-ass urbanite woman who is financially secure and knows how to take care of herself is the move. Because splurging/deal-seeking is a tightrope we toe well. Walking everywhere, finding online deals through Groupon and Priceline, and scanning places that offer a similar activity for the best price is second-nature to us, but we know the inherent value of unique experiences and when it’s worth it. Our trip was a mix of whatever-priced YOLOs (dammit that stupid term has grown on me) and free/low cost experiences. We didn’t give a second thought about shelling out $30 each for a walking art tour, or back down from a restaurant we wanted to try because of price. Nor did we give a third thought to discounted activities, park explorations and general city-adventuring that cost nothing. We left the hotel around 10 or 11am each morning and didn’t return until nightfall. We even took turns paying the whole bill for whatever the activity was, and simply used the Splitwise app to keep track of who owed who in the end.

I completely stumbled upon the street art tour by accident. I hadn’t researched NOLA’s graffiti scene at all beforehand, so imagine my surprise when the tour I settled on mentioned it would end with an authentic BANKSY piece viewing (currently my favorite artist, and yes, I consider street artists, ARTISTS). I was unaware that there were even two authentic Banksy pieces in this city. “Girl With Umbrella,” is protected and maintained by the tour guides themselves (shout out to @nolaartwalk). Our guide also told us where to find the 2nd one in the city. “Looters” is housed in the lobby of the ritzy International House Hotel where they practically have a Banksy shrine room adjacent to it that you can just waltz right in to.

I found out lots of interesting tidbits from our various tour guides. Like New Yorkers, they’re not wild about tourists, but they know it’s necessary for business. Apparently the crime rate has been increasing so much that many locals are leaving the city because of it. One woman basically told us if you hear a ruckus, just duck and wait for gunshots. She was shocked that we’d been walking around at night exploring by ourselves, though we felt perfectly safe. She also told us that by living here, you accept the fact that you will probably end up restarting your life over twice, due to your home getting destroyed by a hurricane. While this is a crazy sobering thought, it’s also a testament to truly loving and choosing your city, something New Yorkers can relate to.

I noticed the homeless population is quite large here. As urbanites, this didn’t put us off or anything. The majority we encountered were quite pleasant and usually bid us a good night as we passed them, unlike the kind in NYC that you warily watch on the subway as they chant to themselves, hoping they don’t suddenly come at you with a knife. Another thing we noticed is that despite NOLA being extremely walkable, NO ONE ELSE WALKS HERE. Outside of the French Quarter and touristy/bar/entertainment sections, it was rare to encounter another pedestrian on the sidewalk. Probably because the sidewalks CAN get pretty janky here in a lot of neighborhoods. I’m talking, watch where you step because the concrete will slant at laughably exaggerated angles, or a slab will suddenly poke out as if it’s trying to grab your ankle and bring you down to kiss the cement. But in residential areas, there was barely any street traffic either. And even weirder, as we passed and admired all the lovely homes (seriously, we must have been drawn to all the nicer neighborhoods by luck because the houses were HUGE and spectacular; you could easily spend a day just sightseeing the homes), no one was really in them. And yes, we looked (don’t you?). We never observed families cooking dinner, watching TV, kids playing in the backyards or anything of the sort. It was often like walking through wealthy ghost towns.

I guess I’ll have to put San Francisco on my travel bucket list, just to see how it stacks up against New York and New Orleans. But NOLA delighted me and touched my soul. It’s a friendly city with character, beauty, and HELLA culture, and I recommend you go and explore all it has to offer outside of Bourbon Street. Walk the parks, eat ALL the things, ride a STREETCAR. Visit the Tree of Life at Adubon Park (and be sure to check out that amazing artsy pink/purple Barbie-dreamhouse-looking mansion with a pool and German Shephard guarding the yard) and then go to New York to SUNY Purchase and compare it to the awesome Elephant Tree behind the administration house. It’s a city I would love to return to in the future. And if a New Yorker can be impressed by it, then that’s saying something.

JAMNOLA

~Tael

When The Towers Fell

How do I remember 9/11?

I was a freshman in high school. Sitting in history class. The teacher had left the room while we chatted amongst ourselves, taking advantage of her absence. When she returned, she mentioned that something had happened, maybe a bombing in the city, and that we were to sit tight. This was before the advent of smartphones; I didn’t even have my first Motorola flip handset yet. Laptops were barely a thing, and Facebook hadn’t been conceived so no one was rushing to check social media for news. Word of mouth was our link to the world.

More time passed and she returned and informed us that we were all being dismissed, released on our own pending parental permission. I found it a bit strange that our mommies had to call in to say it was okay for us to leave, after all, we were high schoolers now! But my mom was on the ball and had done so. Her job was only about 10 blocks away, so I made my way there to meet her with a group of downtown-bound students. All public transportation had been suspended, and the streets were teeming with pedestrians, even more so than normal New York standards, as if we were walking a marathon.

I met up with my mom at her job and we continued from 14th Street, down to Grand Street. I couldn’t see the smoke from where we walked. But at that point I’m not even sure I knew planes had crashed into the towers. The word currently going around was that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Again. I didn’t remember the first one, but that one hadn’t been SO crazy, right? The mood was cautious, yet spirited. With trains and buses halted, and an unknown looming threat to the city, New Yorkers stepped up in solidarity. As we walked through the streets I love, store owners offered bottled water to those journeying home. Apartment building doormen held their doors open, inviting folks to use their restroom facilities. Strangers exchanged friendly words of encouragement. I saw a long queue of bodies crossing each bridge in the distance. I felt for them, since I only had to walk to the bottom of Manhattan.

When we finally made it back home, we beelined for the television and the clarity it would bring. We didn’t even have to specifically turn to a news station. Every channel was broadcasting live and looping raw footage of the morning’s events. Two planes had flown into the Twin Towers, and our beloved buildings had crumbled.

We had just been there the weekend before. Stage Door Delicatessen had been across the street, with their confection-like pancakes. We’d discovered there was a little shopping center in one of the towers. In New York, you are always making new discoveries; you never truly know all the nooks and crannies of the entire city. I couldn’t believe those two towers, the icons of Manhattan that appeared in countless movies and that I’d always used as a directional compass, like the North Star, looking up in their direction to navigate, were gone.

Everything broadcasted was uncensored. The frustration, rife with profanity, the terror, the shock, the desperation, it was all there, unscripted. We watched as those trapped in the tower and resigned to their fate, soared from the windows to a guaranteed demise that was the lesser of two evils in their heads. The sticky web of stifling human emotion wrapped heavily around us, connecting the souls of all who watched. That day, we were all the same. We all felt the same things.

Back then, I was a chat room nerd, who went online every night at the same time to hang out with my Internet friends. That night, the mood was equal parts solemn and anger. There were no jokes and no discussing the latest episode of Gundam Wing.

“If they take the Empire State Building next, I swear to God…” someone typed.

It felt good to make empty threats against unknown (at the time) assailants as powerless teenagers. It felt good to simply expel the emotion we were feeling. Anyone who tried any troll-worthy comments that downplayed the massacre were punted out to the harshest degree. Methodus Toolz could do that.

The next day was a little less raw, but likely only for those like me who were less affected and less in the line of fire. I hadn’t lost a loved one or listened to a voicemail they left about how much they loved me and how they wouldn’t make it home tonight. I hadn’t thrown on my gear and dodged a barrage of concrete on foot to save anyone like the first responders did. My apartment building was far enough away from the debris and soot to affect me no more than some eye sensitivity for a few days after. But I still felt a deep bond with the people of my city, who had so often garnered a reputation for being rude, nasty and uncaring, who were embracing each other and offering helping hands or shoulders to cry on in the true spirit of support. For awhile after, we didn’t just pass each other in the streets. We checked on each other, gave smiles of encouragement and eye contacts of acknowledgement. We gave each other strength.

For months, even years after, I had the wildest dreams. Dreams of warmongers coming to assault our country on ships with motion-tracking explosive cannonballs. Dreams of terrorists hiding in plain view in bodegas launching rocket-launchers at my window. Dreams of an unknown threat eating away at our moon, threatening to plunge our world into eternal darkness because we didn’t have the resources to stop the source or save it. They prompted me to begin a dream journal to explore my subconscious. I hadn’t expected such an aftermath of rippling currents, expanding out to reach me with its tickling tremors.

When they first showed preview pictures of how they were going to turn the sites of the Twin Towers into deep waterfall reflection pools, I thought, “No way!” For some reason I didn’t think it was possible. But they did. They came through and I’ve visited the memorial multiple times and they are beautiful. When I go, I slowly meander through the site and never lose sight of the reason these pools are here in the first place. I touch a few names, gaze over the railings, and reflect. It’s important that I pay mental tribute when I visit, because I remember the collective trauma. Whatever the surrounding reasons behind it, so much human life was needlessly extinguished. I hope that fact remains respected, even over the passage of time.

My city is strong.

~Tael

That New York Bubble

At the time of this post, I can still say that I’ve never had an overtly racist encounter. Strange, isn’t it? I’m a 30-year-old African American woman with about 12 years worth of dreadlocks. I have never once been called a “nigger” to my face or over the internet. I have never had a backhanded compliment such as “Oh she’s blahblahblah, for a Black girl.” I’ve never had trouble landing a job either because of my race. The only questionable situation I had with a recruiter was when she tried to low-key tell me that the positions she recruited for would likely have a problem with my hair (And well, the hair stays). And as far as I know, I’ve never been passed over for anything because of the color of my skin.

I grew up in New York City, which I consider to be the greatest city in America. I may not have an overwhelming “patriotic” pride, but I sure am loyal as hell to New York. And growing up here, there’s a whole different lifestyle and an entirely unique state of mind. There is no physical divide between rich and poor and race here. Sure, certain neighborhoods are more LIKELY to have a certain demographic (South Williamsburg, Sheepshead Bay, Brownsville) but gentrification runs rampant through the city, low-income/lottery housing exists in the most luxurious buildings (my friend was lucky enough to bag one) and you’ll find everyone in Times Square from the businessmen to the tourists to the teenagers to the hood squad.

There is a certain kind of acceptance that comes with being a New York native. If you went to school here, you were exposed to a mixing bowl of race and culture at a very early age. I grew up brushing elbows with project kids, families who had enough money to treat a group of kids to dinner and the movies for their child’s birthday (an impressive feat in the 90s), immigrant children who spoke little English, young girls wearing hijabs and a boy brought up as Jehovah’s Witness who wasn’t allowed to participate in any of the holiday activities. We had class luncheons where everyone would bring in family dishes, Dance Festivals where we’d learn choreography from different origins, and Spanish class was a requirement for 5 years of my public school life.

The fact that a Confederate flag was recently found displayed in the window of an LES apartment was definitely a surprise, considering I grew up in LES. Because in the New York Bubble, racism is something that happens somewhere else. Growing up here did not instill the fear of cops in me and getting pulled over was never a stressful or scary event. In the New York Bubble, a racist establishment will get slammed and shamed on social media or Yelp; a racist incident in the street will be recorded on a camera phone and make the Gothamist for the city to snub; a Good Samaritan will call someone out publicly for displaying prejudice. Growing up in NYC, I was not taught to see race, traipsing through Chinatown, the only Black person in a swarm of Chinese friends, their parents thrilled with my knowledge of Mah-Jongg without the English characters on the pieces. In the New York Bubble, racism is a shocking and disgusting thing we’ve mostly evolved past, while small towns in Middle America remain ignorant without progress. In my mom’s building, our conservative Jewish neighbor, a mother of 2, has offered my two cousins to come wait inside her house when we weren’t home, and they can look like hoodlums sometimes.

I just had a conversation with my boyfriend the other night about how different my high school experience was from the ones you see portrayed in teen movies. No one was ever singled out for being poor, for being overweight, or for struggling in English class. Those with bad grades or bigger pants sizes or suspicious odors weren’t really treated differently than anyone else. What kind of alternate universe did we exist in? Were we just on a different level of maturity?

Even when I leave New York, I find that the Bubble still follows me. As much as I’ve traveled to visit my family in South Carolina, no one has ever tossed a racial comment my way down the dirt roads, surrounded by deep forests and trailer parks. When I moved to Boston for 2 years, I was met with friendliness abounds, as if the whole New York vs Boston rivalry didn’t exist. When I went to D.C. for Otakon a week ago, nada. Likewise, Baltimore, Virginia and down the East Coast, nothing.

One might see this as a strong sign that our country is progressing. Until you look at your Facebook feed and the news stories, the viral videos of police encounters and personal accounts from across the country of cultural headscarves getting snatched and sneers to “go back to your country.” And you dejectedly realize it is very much still there. And sometimes…it comes into our Bubble and it’s here too. And while I hold my NYC upbringing like a talisman, how far can that Bubble extend? The outer membrane is so thin…

~Tael