The temptation, of course, is to say: everything! But that really wouldn't be truthful. Beauty is never perfect. There is always that mole here, a wrinkle there... if only to emphasize the rest of the picture's perfection. But, then, I never think of New Orleans in terms of beauty, as I think of Paris, surely the most beautiful of cities; or the stateliest that is London; or the most awesome and magnificently decadent: Rome. I think of New Orleans in terms of character, in terms of what distinguishes us from all other cities, and makes us different from people in other places... and believe me, we are different.
The Home Plate Inn has character. It's a bar on Tulane Avenue in the Third Ward, a blue-collar clubhouse with more characters per bar stool than any place I know. But it's not just a bar. In its 89 years, it's been owned by only two families: the Gatipons and the Lehrmanns. When he bought it, Matt 'Rags' Lehrmann kept the traditions begun by the Gatipons... the great roast beef poor boy sandwiches, the spicy hot dogs with chili. And, he started a tradition of his own: a race horse handbook in the back. And such was the brotherhood of the Home Plate Inn Matt renamed it since the baseball park was just across the street. When Matt took sick, two beat cops, both childhood friends, worked the handbook for him marking the board and taking bets. Today, Matt's nephew, Clem, is the owner and carries on the tradition, serving insults along with the poor boys, the third generation of his family to belly up to the bar and see neighborhood history being made, observing the frailties and follies of his flock; inheritor of more than just a bar the guarantor of a way of life and of living that is found no where else.
The French Quarter has character. It is still a neighborhood, a place where people live and work. And, in addition, it is one of the premier tourist destinations of the world... not a reproduction of what was, like Williamsburg, but a living, throbbing presentation of what is. Bourbon Street had character: it was simply naughty; women took their clothes off and some bars never closed. But progress changed things. Now the women taking their clothes off are mostly young men, except during Mardi Gras, when a string of beads brings instant nudity but without the hint of naughtiness of years past. The focus has shifted from Bourbon to Royal and the antique shops and art galleries, still run by the families that started them, and still offering the real thing in age and beauty.
The Mississippi has character... character to burn... and majesty and magnificence. And it is ours. Mark Twain gave it a voice, a profile, a persona... even a plot. But only God could give it its power and glory. And such power awesome and relentless. The Army engineers who fight to contain the Mississippi speak of it as a woman with a mind of her own... a woman who has agreed, so far, to stay where they put her. But a woman who, once day, will abandon our city, seize the Atchafalaya and carve out a new and shorter route to the gulf. There are two best ways to see the Mississippi: from shore, the Moonwalk perhaps, where you can sit and watch her go by, with the Cathedral and the Quarter at your back. The other best way... standing on the fantail of one of those tankers as it heads for the open sea. I did once, on the MS Havprins carrying fish from Louisiana to Rotterdam. We passed Canal Street at twilight, backlit and beautiful, with the lights in the Quarter just going on, the river and the city blending perfectly, tenderly, lovingly. Soon the city was gone, a silhouette around the bend. Only the river remained.
Why is New Orleans so different? Why are we, her people, so different? I think the French must be given the credit. Look what happened to New England. Narrow people, God-driven and frightened, sensing life as a trial; living, one long avoidance of sin. Their legacy: boiled beef and potatoes. But the French they knew how to live. They brought with them their great, gusty, sensual, even vulgar attitudes towards life and living. They treated sin not as something to be avoided, but simply as that which comes just before redemption. And their cuisine was sublime, their chefs, magicians. No bony, oily rockfish here to flavor the Boullabaise. So they used salty oysters and blue crabs and Gulf shrimp and made gumbo instead. Their legacy: superb food, an attitude of laissez faire, and the inclination alive today to lose ourselves in the glories of the past that we tend to neglect the present and forego the future.
We must always give thanks to the French. What if the Pilgrims had landed in Pilottown instead of Plymouth?