Each year when I return from any trip to New Orleans, my father will inevitably ask me, "What'd you do down there." And I will inevitably respond, "Oh, mostly just walked around."
And that's the truth, both all of it and not enough of it.
See, that really is the best part. With friends or alone, I walked N. Peter's, Decatur, Chartres, Royal, a bit of Bourbon (he justified), all in the Quarter, as well as large portions of Magazine and Tchoupitoulas Streets outside of it. We circled Jackson Square numerous times and went up and down Pirate's Alley. I went from here to there and back to our French Quarter hotel over and over again. One day, our goal was just to walk the French Quarter. It's a walking city. That's what you do. Maybe it's what you have to do if you are going to eat New Orleans food for several days.
But that misses the point, just as if you don't walk a city (and some cities, sadly, are not set up so that you can walk them), you miss knowing that city. To my father, who cannot understand the lure of New Orleans, I say we "walked around" as if it were nothing, when, in fact, it was everything.
Here are some of the encounters that would not have happened without those random explorations:
--my first New Orleans street wedding, where after the ceremony a horn bands leads the bride and groom through the streets of the Quarter, with the wedding party trailing behind, all twirling white handkerchiefs, and the whole entourage stopping at various points along the way so that the bride and the groom and whomever else among the party or the onlookers can join in.
--an invitation to a free concert inside an art gallery with drinks and snacks with a very skilled roots/Americana band a la the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
--a discovery of a good, new late-night restaurant only because it is called St. Lawrence and we walked toward it wondering what kind of store it might be, only to discover that it was a restaurant and that St. Lawrence is the Patron Saint Of Cooks, supposedly because he made a joke about asking to be turned over while being roasted alive.
--a discussion with a street artist about how he finds his "frames" first--from old windows, cupboard doors, wood panels, etc.--and let's the colors in the fading paint and variegated wood dictate his palette and, to some extent, his subject matter. I especially admired his painting of four small, faceless, African-American children dressed for and walking to church.
--all of the pleasant and unpleasant trappings of tourism--the free bite of praline here, the "Also comes in SOBER" T-shirt there, the "gutter Goths" who hope to benefit from tourist presence, the bride-to-be out with her bridesmaids and wearing "penis horns" on her head, the woman you ask to take a photo of your group who assumes that you want her to be in the photo and suddenly you do, the crazy, oversize drinks, the crowds of the young who remind you that Bourbon Street is not for you.
--the comfortable smells of garlic, trash, frying, horse droppings, coffee, cigarettes, seafood cooking, blossoming flowers, sweat, construction, and redolent spices, an olfactory "gumbo".
--the many reminders of time--beads hanging in trees from years of Mardi Gras, the trash of last night's revelries, the architecture of four centuries, the venerable restaurant and the latest try in a location that has a new business every time you come, the morning drunk who teeters in place with her can of Bud Ice, the plaque commemorating the Pope's visit 20 years ago, and all around the revitalization and abandonment that continues since the hurricane.
--a stunning reminder of how good New Orleans street musicians can be when I happened upon a female violinist accompanied by a male acoustic guitarist and heard some of the most skilled, soaring violin I've ever heard anywhere.
All to be had for free in simple walks around a multi-layered city.