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Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler

A funny thing happened recently at the corner of Iberville and Bourbon St. in New Orleans. I discovered that worn jeans, a tee shirt and a carefree attitude are more than enough to begin a journey down one of the “easiest” streets in the world.

I had a week to spend in New Orleans, but I would only need a couple of minutes to realize that this “Crescent City”, with all its mystery, charm and hospitality, would suit me just fine. “You gotta drink one beer…then skip a block…drink a beer…skip a block,” George warned me as I surveyed the small mountain of oysters behind the bar. “Yea…you gotta pace yourself man,” he added, as he sliced open another oyster and placed it on my tray.

I was a writer from New Jersey. George shucked oysters on Bourbon St. We sat across the counter from each other in Arnaud’s. George cut open each oyster with ease, looking up every few seconds to offer a short anecdote. “Yea, man…when I was a kid, if you didn’t shuck, you didn’t eat”. He put another oyster down on my tray. The soft humming of the crowd outside filtered into Arnaud’s. The ceiling fan whirred overhead. I took a generous sip of my Abida beer.

It was early evening in the “Big Easy” and Arnaud’s exuded all the energy of a Saturday afternoon nap. If you want to feel rushed or anxious, you better head North. Way North! New Orleans is rich in history, with the early French influence quite evident. The French Quarter, or Vieux Carre (Old Square), was the site of the original city. It is a sleepy, yet vibrant melange of bars, jazz clubs, restaurants and boutiques. Two and three story buildings line the Quarter, many with ornate balconies overlooking the narrow streets. It must also be noted that “Gentleman’s” clubs are generously sprinkled all along Bourbon St. Enough said. Bordered by Rampart street to the South, the Mississippi River to the North, Esplanade Ave. to the East and Canal St. to the West, the grid-like arrangement of streets in the French Quarter teems with an unmistakable “joie de vivre”. There is an unwritten rule here; drink and be merry. And local laws make this rule easy to follow. While no open containers are permitted on the street, if your beer is in a cup, “c’est bon, mon ami”.

The city sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana. With approximately 500,000 people, it is the state’s largest city and by far, the most visited. But what is the inexorable draw?

For me, it’s people like George that make the city what it is. Behind each restaurant, polished saxophone, or Mardi Gras mask, there is a revealing character. Napoleon I sold New Orleans, and a large piece of real estate stretching to the North, to the United States in 1803. The city’s early lifeline was the Mississippi River and that inter-dependent relationship continues to this day. The port in New Orleans is one of the largest in the world and handles the most freight per year in the United States.

Unlike Denver, it is a lack of elevation that distinguishes this city. It is the only major U.S. city that lies below sea level. Floods and bugs offer a multitude of employment opportunities for local residents. If not for a complex network of canals and water pumps, the city would be an out-back adventure destination, not an exciting metropolis. Due to this non-enviable distinction, all cemeteries in New Orleans feature graves built above ground as otherwise bodies tend to float up from the ground. There are several worth visiting, with prominent local politicians and even a Voodo Queen among the many graves for all the world to see.

A couple of blocks north of Arnaud’s on Bourbon St. is Tricou House, with 91-year old Al Brouchard weaving a musical mosaic of rhythm and blues. I don’t pretend to be a music critic, but Al could sing. His age-worn hands worked the keyboard like a veteran chef operates his kitchen. I stood a few feet from him, marveling at his wide smile and contagious spirit. I put a dollar in his tip jar. He nodded his head in appreciation. There were about a half dozen people inside. The open-aired entrance allowed Al’s voice to meander out onto Bourbon St., where a few people stood by, listening.

Bourbon St. is a musical buffet, with melodic sounds emanating from every nook and cranny. You can always get a sample of jazz, blues, or rock before entering an establishment. I stopped one evening in front of The New Orleans Blues Company after hearing a particularly good rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl”. My friend, Suzel and I started dancing. We were joined by another couple. This was our dance floor, shared of course, with hundreds of other revelers. But who’s counting.

I continued slowly up Bourbon St., crossing the intersections of Orleans Ave. and St. Anne St. To my right down Orleans Ave. stood Jackson Square. Another must-see in New Orleans is the French Market, walking distance from Bourbon St.

As my weeklong visit came to a close, it became apparent that New Orleans was much more than world-class Jazz and Creole cuisine. It is a carefree attitude worn by locals and adopted by visitors that makes The “Big Easy” so attractive. The Crescent City is a happy place, where a friendly smile is as much a part of the local fare as sumptuous Crab Legs. It was just past midnight, and a light rain began to fall on Bourbon St. My worn jeans and tee shirt were wet. I then remembered George’s response when I ordered some more oysters at Arnaud’s. “Hey, no problem, man.”

My friend and I looked at each other and smiled. He was right.

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