New Orleans: It’s About to Get Weirder

Travel Stories: After a landmark mayoral election and the Saints' Super Bowl win, Adam Karlin believes the spirit of NOLA is undergoing a tectonic shift.

02.16.10 | 5:13 PM ET

Post-Super Bowl party in the French Quarter (REUTERS/Sean Gardner)

Dave and I had just turned onto Magazine Street in New Orleans when a jester dressed as a rock god—or vice versa—rounded the corner. Motley cap topping a raggedy beard and raggedy-er motorcycle leathers and denims. In one hand, a cigarette; in the other, a royal scepter of twisted deadwood topped with a golden skull framed in green boa feathers.

We shook his hand. The space rock jester bowed and swept his cap on the sidewalk. He pranced off, feet bouncing like a fairy’s skip in combat boots.

Dave called at him: “Sh*t’s getting weird.”

He glanced back. “It’s about to get weirder.”

Let’s take that observation and sweep it across the gestalt of the city of New Orleans of the past five years. To wit: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina—a.k.a. The Storm, The Thing, That Bitch—made landfall. A poorly maintained levee system failed. New Orleans drowned. People left. Many never returned. A major American metropolis almost died. Sh*t’s getting weird.

Fast forward four-and-a-half years to February 2010. The city is at 80 percent pre-Katrina population levels. Those still gone very likely aren’t coming back. A generation of go-getters, artists, musicians, writers, cooks, bartenders and policy pioneers, plus an influx of Central Americans (particularly Hondurans), attracted by the prospect of not just rebuilding but recreating the city, have, to a degree, filled the hole.

Then: White candidate Mitch Landrieu garners a majority vote from both white and black New Orleanians, a first in city history, and wins the February 6 mayoral election. At Landrieu’s election party, there is the sense/hope politics in New Orleans have transcended old racial paradigms. A local manager at an environmental NGO tells us the election of Barack Obama may have had an unintended effect; it not only showed white people would vote for a black candidate, but made it okay for black voters to support a white one. The city celebrates despite low voter turnout, itself attributable to everyone’s jitters over the Super Bowl. The New Orleans Saints, for the first time, are Going To The Show. And that matters to folks here.

The Saints stuck with New Orleans when outsiders dumped on the city for being below sea level and wanted to bulldoze it. The Saints maybe saved the life of quarterback Drew Brees when he came here at a low point in his career, so Brees gets the way this city heals as you help heal it. He is the head of his own well-regarded charity and is extensively involved in local rebuilding projects. For that, he is loved by New Orleans like a knight in black and gold armor. You can’t walk five steps without hearing “Who Dat”—the rallying call of the team (“Who Dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?”)—or the remixed Who Dat version of Stand up and Get Crunk, which makes you want to, well, stand up and get crunk.

The Saints. Underdogged against the Indianapolis Colts, who were led by Peyton Manning, scion of Archie Manning’s New Orleans sports dynasty. Peyton, the kid who grew up in Uptown New Orleans and always wanted to throw the touchdown that won the Saints the Super Bowl—and who did just that, albeit in a way he never wanted, when a fourth-quarter pass was picked by Tracy Porter, who ran it back 74 yards for a touchdown. That caused the Crescent City to collectively and absolutely—please excuse the technical terminology—flip its goddamn sh*t. Which then turned the remaining weeks of the carnival season—oh yeah, Mardi Gras was happening during all this—into, of course, Lombardi Gras.

And with that, folks: It’s about to get weirder. Because of Mardi Gras, sure—Carnival season is always a bit surreal. But maybe more so, because the spirit of this city is undergoing a tectonic shift.

Eating oysters and cheese and bread and ribs and drinking wine and listening to music in my favorite restaurant here this week, a place that mixes dishevelment, indulgence and comfort into one space that perfectly microcosms the city, and looking at a mixed race family dine next to a man in white body paint with a pink beehive wig, I realized New Orleans was practically bleeding happiness. Every day I’ve spent here I’ve witnessed some act of joy that made my soul feel bigger. A Russian band screamed about love over raspberry beer. A woman donned a Saints helmet and a gold tutu and started a Second Line and was quickly followed by a tuba player and fire jugglers. A kid jumped onto a car under the bridge at Claiborne and Esplanade and danced with his ass in the air until the people in the car got out and joined him.

It is the journalist’s curse to oversimplify, but here goes: I think New Orleans has rounded the corner. Let’s not be over-optimistic: Some of Katrina’s scars are permanent. The top black candidate had dropped out of the mayoral election so the vote was probably not the best reflection of the electorate’s will. The Saints have lots of free agents.

But wounds aren’t what defines this place anymore. Everywhere, folks say: This is what we’ve been waiting for. They’re specifically referring to the Lombardi trophy, but I think they know deep down the 2010 carnival season marks when, at long last, post-Katrina New Orleans became, again, just New Orleans. And not just New Orleans but maybe better than before, as anyone who has been hurt but truly healed is wont to be.

I’m not New Orleanian by birth or residence, but in my heart I claim this town. It inspires me like a lover, and does so for many others. I’ll say this: I’ve intermittently wept my whole time here whenever life’s randomness conspires to remind me how Nola is, as Bob Dylan said, One Very Long Poem. Like when at the Candlelight Lounge, the Treme Brass Band started playing and Miss Angelina served me white beans and ham hocks off a hot brick and called me baby and then everyone was dancing so fresh it was like they were transformed into light and air, like happiness and the human spark, caught in some Kabbalistic back-tide, was made manifest in every person and note they danced to. They were dancing like the rhythm was always there and they’d been given new legs.

Adam Karlin is a freelance travel writer and journalist. These days he mainly gets by as a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet, although he is also working on a book about his wandering. He blogs at Adam's Ambles and wants to add that he's feeling a lot better.

10 Comments for New Orleans: It’s About to Get Weirder

TheWordWire 02.16.10 | 6:54 PM ET

Thank you for such a great report—I only lived in New Orleans (Pre-Katrina) for a couple of years, but it’s a place that gets in your soul. To read your description of the second-line, and the jugglers, and the kid who hopped on a car at an intersection, makes me smile at the lovable familiar. To know your observation that the place is back to “just New Orleans” is something to celebrate. Happy Mardi Gras.

jeremy cooker 02.16.10 | 8:38 PM ET

Thanks so much for this beautiful piece on New Orleans.

Telling the story of our recovery and the magic that exists/thrives here means a lot to us New Orleanians who share your love for the city.

We’d love to have you back any time, and you can bet Miss Angelina will keep those white beans and ham hocks warm for you.

Robert M 02.16.10 | 11:58 PM ET


  There’s really nothing more I can add to what has been said except thanks again for the positive words about New Orleans.  As a native New Orleanian, its refreshing that at least some people out there truly understand us.
  There will always be a welcome mat here in The Big Easy for people like you.

Editor B 02.17.10 | 10:53 AM ET

I hope you’re right. 02.17.10 | 11:05 AM ET

The Saints winning the Super Bowl was just what the city needed—a great morale booster.  There’s so much to do and see in New Orleans.  Too bad some of us missed the Mardi Gras celebrations this year.  It was probably one heck of a celebration!

Laura Martone 02.17.10 | 2:53 PM ET

It sure was one heck of a celebration! I was in the Quarter the night my beloved Saints finally won the Super Bowl - and I’ve never seen a happier, more crowded Bourbon Street - and I grew up here!

Julie from Nola 02.17.10 | 11:34 PM ET

All I can say is “Wow”! Thanks so much for writing this article.

Megan Hill 02.18.10 | 11:29 PM ET

Damn. Killer piece.

Don’t forget, though, a large percentage of white voters voted for black candidates in the recent elections, too. So that’s pretty cool. And I’m not sure the Saints really stuck with New Orleans right after the storm…owner Tom Benson talked more about moving the team than ever before. I think the fans here know how lucky we are to still have the team, and appreciate them all the more because we almost lost them.

Tom Cleveland 02.19.10 | 5:36 PM ET

Wow, what an amazing article. NOLA has a always been a special place, but i can even fathom the feelings going on in peoples hearts there these past few weeks. Thanks Again for the insight.

Jeanne 02.20.10 | 9:31 PM ET


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