NEW ORLEANS – It's true, you know, that New Orleans voodoo-hoodoo. The city has a sneaky way of making you fall head-over-heels in love with it. By the time you realize you've been caught up in a spell, it's too late: You've joined a second line, danced the Charleston in a convenience store, and drunk fancy wine from a plastic to-go cup.
But the thing that will get you good in New Orleans, and the thing that gets me every time, is the languorous Louisiana drawl. The natives make it sound as light as an Abita on a 90-degree day, and it flows as slow as the bayou. It's the kind of accent that reminds you to take your time setting up a joke. To finish your conversation with the taxi driver even after you've reached your final destination.
Down here, the best moments are the ones made up of characters and scenes and dialogue. I'm just a bit player among the performers, a town of local celebrities.
I like to wake up early and run through the empty streets of the French Quarter, as soap suds wash away the recklessness of the night before. Maybe I pass the steamboat Natchez playing her musical pipes and head up St. Charles to Audubon Park. Or I wind through the Marigny looking for shotgun houses I could see myself living in. Who am I kidding? I know my path: straight to Mid City's Blue Dot for an old-fashioned buttermilk doughnut.
I like to spend the late morning under the cyprus trees of Honey Island Swamp. Tiny turtles line up on sunny logs, blue herons blend into the grass, and alligators smile wickedly while snapping at marshmallows (which they mistake for turtle eggs). The captain, who grew up swimming in this particular marsh, assures us that even the gators were born to entertain for a meal, and he demonstrates by dangling a hot dog on a stick. A precocious little monster shoots out of the water to claim his snack.
Wisteria, peppervine, wild azaela, and tupelo gum wind their way around everything in the swamp. You can't help but notice how the Spanish moss (so named for the scraggly beards of the European invaders) drapes over tree branches like streamers from yesterday's parade. Ordinary facts of life become extraordinary trivia: The largest alligator ever found in these parts measured 19.2 feet; Ivory Soap flakes work as catfish bait; rickety fishing huts can support satellite dishes.
On the way back to the city, the driver points out the destruction of the hurricane...of 1965. You can tell exactly which buildings were destroyed by Billion-Dollar Betsy. They're the ones almost entirely reclaimed by kudzu.
STICK IT TO THE AFTERNOON
Voodoo priest Dr. John lives, appropriately, above the French Quarter's Voodoo Museum (not to be confused with the equally spirited Pharmacy Museum or Musee Wax Conti). The museum is filled with the ephemera of Marie Laveau, the famous Creole voodoo queen who performed legendary cures for nearly a century beginning in the late 1800s.
Dr. John can often be found at the entrance to the museum, and he's quick to tell you that his house is filled with snakes. Big snakes and albino snakes and a 28-foot python. They make great guardians and friends, says Doctor John, because they are quick to judge and can tell whether a person means more harm than good.
Dr. John speaks so softly and with such purpose you need to pitch in real close to hear what he has to say. He name-drops witches and warlocks of Louisiana. He knows a priestess who practices zombie-ism, a fire-starter who intuits sparks. He could very well be a living wizard. (He does do psychic readings, though I can't guarantee he'll acquiesce to your request.)
The nice shops close at 5 p.m., so I snag a seat at the classy throwback Arnaud's French 75. Then I roam around the corner and duck into the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, which rotates in a slow counter-clockwise fashion under a merry-go-round awning. It's disorienting after a Sazerac or two, but really helps drum up an appetite.
Dinner is Uptown at Gautreau's on a special occasion. Otherwise it's Cochon or Herbsaint or Ste. Marie for classic Southern with a modern twist before hitting up the bars on Frenchman Street for modern Southern with a classic twist. Or is it the other way around?
Along my route, I run into NOLA Jitterbugs, a three-year-old playing the trumpet, a handful of fortune tellers, a few bored strippers, St. Louis Slim's jug band, a bachelor party in seersucker, and a cowboy walking a tiny pony. It gets hazy, actually, with all that howling and singing and swinging, but it's a bizarre, sweet sound.