Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I will never forget my first sight of New Orleans. My parents, my brother, and I had taken a 24 foot motorboat from Nashville down the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Mississippi Rivers, and we pulled into the Port of New Orleans the night of July 4, 1971. Coming through on the river, it was romantic as hell: fireworks over the city, lights everywhere, little bits of music and cheering floating over on the air, gorgeous. After the sinister miles south of Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi started spreading out into BayouWorld and it became very difficult to discern the channel (but alarmingly easy to discern alligators, even in the dusklight) the festivities in New Orleans were a welcome sight.

Then we put-putted into the Port proper, and I got the living daylights scared out of me. A port full of ocean-going freighters is no place for a 24 foot runabout. The wakes of the big ships were like mountains, even in the cautious waters of the port. We'd fly up to the top of one, as if the boat were going to lift off on an early moonshot. Then we'd plunge down the other side, farther and faster than could possibly be a good idea. I was sure we were going to die.

At last we pulled into the lock to Lake Ponchartrain. Ever since, I've thought of the lake as a safe haven, even though it was also an accident waiting to happen. The thing is, New Orleans is all about accidents waiting to happen. It's like Key West, and Macau, and other places where bidness goes on, some of it pretty evil bidness, much of it pretty necessary bidness, and the tourists come and go.

It had that old-city smell, almost but not quite a bad smell, that carried the scent of rotting things, and urine, and secrets. I fell in love with it instantly, and have fantasized from time to time about living there. I've always said, though, that I am too much of a wimp for a New Orleans August: the wet heat, the carnivorous bugs, the threat of storms. I've always admired people who could stand up to a New Orleans August.

I had no idea.

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