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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Atheist Life Hacks: How To Fall Head Over Heels For The Big Easy

The French Quarter

The French Quarter

I’ve gone free diving with a purple octopus in Tahiti. I’ve explored uninhabited islands in Australia and Thailand. I’ve had my hair braided and beaded by beach vendors in Indonesia. I’ve walked through the jungle for breakfast in Malaysia and welcomed Santa as he arrived barefoot, with an umbrella, in an outrigger canoe in French Polynesia. I’ve done a lot of things and seen a lot of places, but none of them have ever moved me so profoundly as New Orleans. There’s not another place on this entire planet with as rich a culture in all directions: music, food, traditions, costumes and writers and street performers and more. The Big Easy felt like home to me when I went there, and 6 years later, I still can’t shake that feeling.

At the time, we were living in Mexico and only had a visitor’s visa. In Mexico, a visitor’s visa lasts 6 months but you can renew it by leaving the country and coming back. Most of the expats we knew either went home for a visit or they popped down to Belize for a weekend. Godless Dad and I, however, were all but done with Mexican food and needed a foodie getaway. So, we went to New Orleans.

I was 6 months pregnant when we hopped on our flight to Atlanta for a layover before hitting NOLA. The skies were rough with thunderstorms as we landed in Georgia but I could still see the greenest city I have ever landed in out my window.

This was my first time in the south. I had an unfair image in my mind of backwards people, heavy drawls and lots of guns, Jesus and ‘Murica. When I landed in Atlanta, and our flight was delayed due to the storms, I learned pretty quickly that I was wrong. Sitting at our gate, waiting for a plane, literally every southern person in the gate stopped to chat with me about how far along I was and how I was brave to be traveling at 6 months pregnant. They offered to get me water and use their pillows and talked lovingly of their homes. One lady, from Baton Rouge, was dressed in an expensive looking, royal purple suit dress and matching hat that had a diameter bigger than a pizza pan. She sat next to us the entire time and pretty much dragged our whole life stories out of us, with lots of silky “y’all”s and buttery “oh, sugar”s.

I hadn’t even gotten to my destination and had already experienced southern hospitality. I am not going to lie, I was impressed. The people I spoke to in Atlanta were not only friendly, but articulate, non-judgmental (as many people back home had been when we decided to live in Mexico), helpful and genuine.

When the storm had passed and our flight was finally ready to board, the entire gate unanimously spoke up about me getting on board first. I had an easy pregnancy and remained active, not slowing down at all, but I took it anyway. I hopped on my flight and dozed my way through a short ride.

It was about 2am when we landed in New Orleans. The first thing I heard when I got off the plane was Louis Armstrong, blowing his way through Summertime over the PA. One of my all time favourite songs, performed by my favourite trumpeteer, it’s like they knew I was coming.

Post-Katrina New Orleans cab

Post-Katrina New Orleans cab

We caught a cab; a blue minivan with crudely applied lettering that said, “You’re in bad hands with Allstate” on every side of it. I asked the cabbie about it. This was two years post-Katrina, and the cabbie explained he was still in a FEMA trailer because Allstate insurance had found some loophole so they didn’t have to pay out on his homeowner’s insurance. He said it had happened to damned near everyone he knew.

I asked him how the cab company felt about him doing that to the cab.

“Oh, honey, there ain’t no cab company! Most of us do this because we lost our jobs in the storm. This place is still so disorganized, unregulated cab drivers are the least of our worries.”

Over the next week, we would hop rides with half a dozen home-baked cabs, with sharpie scribbled signs on their sides. This was an American city, but it was an entirely different world.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

Our first full day in New Orleans we spent wandering the French Quarter. We walked and walked down Bourbon Street, to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, to the 1850 House and all the way to the waterfront on the Mississippi. We watched the Natchez steamboat in the muddy waters and spied Algiers from the Cafe du Monde where we covered ourselves in powdered sugar to the sound of the best street music we’d ever heard, the background noise of our entire day. Brass horns, washboards, banjos and drawly wailing everywhere we went.

It was humid as we headed to Central Grocery for dinner: a muffuletta, or rather, the greatest sandwich I’d ever tasted… that is, until I tried a po’boy the next day. A muffuletta is a round loaf of Sicilian bread, layered with mortadella salami, mozzarella, ham and an olive salad. It was massive, glorious, and made Subway look like garbage pickins.



I think it was sometime between hearing the rich banjo picking near Jackson Square and taking my first bite of a muffuletta, I started to feel like this place was not just special but some place I would likely never be able to let go of. My heart literally began to ache for NOLA, knowing I would have to leave at some point. I felt like I belonged here. It was quite literally, a city of dreamers and artists and history.

There’s a scene in Treme, the best television show ever written, and it happens to be about post-Katrina New Orleans, where a cop visits his ex-wife in Indianapolis and he notes that New Orleans had never been her type of place. She said, “Nothing but drunks and dreamers”. They cut to him back home walking out of a po’boy diner with take out to see a guy dressed as a jester on a bike lined with rope lights. The jester says, “Roast beef, you?” to which the cop replies, “Oyster” then he pauses, smiles and says, “Don’t ever change.”. The jester doesn’t even look up from his sandwich or hesitate before he says, “‘course not”, and rides away on his lit up bike.

This is New Orleans. Artists, writers, musicians and joyful weirdos. I was definitely falling in love.

We headed to the garden district the next day and rode a streetcar down oak lined streets dripping with spanish moss and mardis gras beads. On our way, we drove past “tent city”, a collection of homeless people living under a freeway overpass in tents, most of whom lost their homes in the storm and were either still waiting for the insurance to come through or had their insurance company, like Allstate, weasel their way out of paying up. It was upsetting, to say the absolute least. This was no small tent city, this was visible from our hotel room on the 37th floor a half dozen blocks down Canal Street.

New Orleans Cemetery

New Orleans Cemetery

It was dead quiet when we wandered into a New Orleans cemetery, with all the dead above ground in tombs due to the delta ground, soggy and swampy. Burying the dead is not an option in New Orleans, and it makes for some seriously haunting strolls through cemeteries. Sadly, many of the newer grave markers read 2005. Before we visited, I had read that many of the old tombs had been opened up by Katrina and buried remains rose from their resting places and floated down main streets and into backyards and the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. The floating dead, drowning zombies, true horror in the city that care forgot.  I couldn’t even imagine.

Walking back to Canal st. from the cemetery, I caught the glances of so many people grinning and greeting with welcoming hellos and bonjours, but in their eyes there was loss, trauma and sadness. What they had been through… I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. As we walked, we saw signs of the storm: blown out walls in buildings, water lines inside and outside, endless empty lots and rubble piles. This was two years later, in a city in the most powerful and resource-rich country in the world. I just could not grasp what was going on here. I was living in the Mayan Riviera which had been hit shortly after Katrina, by Wilma which is, by many accounts, the worst storm in recorded history. Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum were all but leveled, but two years later, there were no signs of the destruction left. Mexico had rebuilt quickly. Why hadn’t New Orleans?

We headed to Mother’s and stood in line for a po’boy, which was a life-changing experience. Godless Dad and I sat, silent, in a crowded restaurant, wafts of home baked ham floating through the air, savouring every morsel of this sandwich of the gods. It tasted how Louis’ trumpet sounded. It’s beyond description. We let it digest some before hopping the ferry to Algiers, where we wandered away the afternoon.

That night we hit up Emeril’s NOLA for dinner. I had Chef Lagasse’s fried chicken, in his restaurant, in New Orleans. This… this was about the closest to a religious experience as Godless Mom is ever going to have. Let me tell you something. If that chicken had looked up at me at that moment and said, “Let’s spend eternity together”, I would have married it on the fucking Natchez with Emeril Lagasse officiating, and pronouncing us Fried Chicken and wife right there in the Mississip with a “Bam!”. Let me tell you something: fuck your fried chicken. Fuck it, because it ain’t shit next to E’s.

I slept in a fried chicken coma that night, picturing tombs sliding open and zombies crawling out. Every time I thought about these people, this wonderful city, the beautiful places and incredible food, I would tear up. I had no idea I would react this way. I was falling so deeply in love with the Big Easy.

We hopped on a bus for a Katrina tour the next day, our morbid curiosity getting the best of us. We caught the bus near Cafe du Monde and the French Quarter, which was all shiny and clean – what damage had been done by Katrina in this area was cleaned up a long time ago, because tourism. Our bus driver started talking about the beignets at Cafe du Monde and how you cannot take them to go. I had no idea there could be so much to be said about powdered sugar covered donuts, but this man went on about it for what seemed like a good 10 minutes.

As we started to leave downtown, the rain began to pour and he started to talk about his experience during Katrina. His home had been destroyed. He was living, still, in a motel room and waiting for his insurance payout. He explained that his house had been in his family for years, and it was still standing, but when you went inside, the black mold was dense, the water damage up to his navel he said. You could see the line on every wall on the bottom floor. He said he had escaped from a bedroom window. I heard his voice sag. He said he lost his dog and his neighbours and his mother. The bus was absolute silence. What the fuck do you say to something like that, when you’ve heard near the exact same story from multiple people over the last few days? These people forced to live in tents and motels and FEMA trailers on their front lawns while they navigated red tape with their insurance companies for two years just to be told they were not eligible to get a payout. These people who had to bury multiple loved ones on the same day, who found out their place of employment had been destroyed, and discovered their homes were unlivable or had been demolished by the city without their permission. These people who came from neighborhoods that now look like fields with random sidewalks and driveways dotting it. People who were still missing loved ones that were never recovered after the storm. My eyes were watering. This was too much.

I can’t really explain what we drove past. It’s about as heartbreaking a thing as I had ever seen. Destroyed homes, rubble piles and empty lots that had been demolished long enough for it to have turned to grass already. It literally looked, in some places, as though no neighbourhood had ever been there. We drove through the Ninth Ward and by the end of it, there wasn’t a dry eye on the bus. The markings on the houses that remained indicating the dead inside, it was haunting and terrifying and depressing. I just couldn’t understand what had happened here, in a developed country, the most powerful country in the world. I couldn’t help but see that the worst hit neighborhoods were black neighborhoods and I couldn’t help but wonder if that had something to do with why no one seemed all that concerned with rebuilding.

Here are some of the photos I took: #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } #gallery-1 .gallery-item { float: left; margin-top: 10px; text-align: center; width: 33%; } #gallery-1 img { border: 2px solid #cfcfcf; } #gallery-1 .gallery-caption { margin-left: 0; } /* see gallery_shortcode() in wp-includes/media.php */

On the way back downtown, the bus driver told us about Brad Pitt and pointed out some of the homes he had rebuilt, on stilts, just in case. He said that in all the time since Katrina, Brad and his organization, Make it Right, had done more than anyone else, including the government. Brad is still doing it, check it out: Make It Right.

We felt pretty low when we got back downtown, so we went to hear some music at a bar on Bourbon st. where we sat and ate red beans and rice and listened to an old bluegrass band pick their banjos and rub their washboards and play the spoons. It sufficiently cheered us up, but this city’s strife wasn’t about to leave my mind any time soon. It climbed into my mind and found a place to live. The haunt, the rot, the suffering… it’s still there, in my mind, robbing me of rest to this day.

As we walked back to our hotel, a funeral procession made it’s way down street, everyone in black with black umbrellas, singing, chanting and dancing to brass horns and marching drums. It was about the prettiest thing I’d ever seen and it was a funeral. Tears came to my eyes after a long day of peeping other people’s pain, and a long week of hearing about it. I realized that what made me love this city so much, was not the culture, it wasn’t the amazing food or the rich history, it was the fact that all of these things that made New Orleans what it was, absolutely refused to be washed away in the worst storm in US history. The people of New Orleans knew how special their city was, and when Katrina finally passed, they picked right the fuck back up, got to living again, even in tents, and sang their songs and made their food and greeted their visitors with hefty hellos. That city got into me, into my chest cavity, where it parked a FEMA trailer and never, ever, the fuck, left.



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