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May/June 2005 | Shadows in New Orleans

May/June 2005 | Shadows in New Orleans

An intimate look at the Big Easy through the eyes of the city's queer prodigal son

Our thoughts and hearts go out to the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Please note that this Web article has not been updated since the storm, and many of the places mentioned below could be closed or damaged.

I took my boyfriend to New Orleans for the first time during Southern Decadence, a Labor Day weekend block party that turns an intersection of the French Quarter into a miniature gay Mardi Gras. A year earlier I would have forced Brian to join in the alcohol-soaked reverie, but too many hangovers andand blackouts since then had compelled me to tame my wild ways. The real reason for our visit was hardly festive. My father had just been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable brain tumor. When I take someone I care about to New Orleans for the first time, I like to pretend that I am bringing them to visit a beautiful but slightly senile aunt who lives in self-imposed isolation; I make it clear that we are to forgive her faults unless I am the one pointing them out. In light of Dad's illness, I didn't have the energy for such an act, so I took a step back and let Brian discover New Orleans on his own.

Almost instantly, Brian saw the same flaws I had used to justify my decision to leave the place three years earlier. The streets are one-third bayou. The city is rife with violent crime that claims the lives of its black residents while invoking wildly defensive and out-of-touch anger from the white ones. Locals express a fanatical adoration of their hometown even as their elected public leaders are regularly carted off to prison. Debauchery is the city's most precious commodity, and it dispenses it without regard for class or race. But Brian has almost no taste for alcohol, and he was frustrated by the sluggish pace of everything from the city's midday traffic to its evening news broadcasts. A Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he was unimpressed by the wild breed of Catholicism that runs rampant throughout the city and its suburbs, even though the emphasis is on the ecstasy of the flesh and the most popular priests are a bit swishy.

Brian and I traveled to the city on a regular basis as my father's condition worsened over the following six months. Gradually the photographer in Brian began to see a different New Orleans from the one his conscience had encountered during our first visit. Soon he was heading off into the most impoverished neighborhoods with a massive view camera he had borrowed from a professor at Parsons School of Design, returning with powerful images of city blocks that looked like Monet's interpretation of a war-torn European nation. On his first visit to the French Quarter, Brian had seen rank chaos. With his camera as his eye, he uncovered the disarmingly good nature of its gay residents. (In so many other gay enclaves, flamboyance and elitism go hand in hand. In the gay French Quarter, every reveler is on equal footing until they pass out.) Eventually Brian discovered what it is about New Orleans that evokes a visceral reaction in anyone who hears its name. It has responded to seeminglyinsurmountable civic obstacles with institutionalized kindness, and as a result it is almost impossible not to forgive it for just about anything.



In the four years since I moved to California, I have avoided writing about New Orleans. The city is a major character in my first novel, A Density of Souls, and in the course of one fictional summer I subjected it to a terrorist bombing and a massive hurricane. My harsh portrayal of one of the city's most celebrated high schools angered certain Uptown residents who were tired of seeing their often misunderstood hometown depicted in a negative light. (Five years after the novel was published, there are still some parts of the city I visit with sweaty palms and a stiff upper lip.) After my father's death, my mother made the painful decision to sell the Garden District mansion where I grew up. Now, after a brief stint in the suburbs, she has decided to leave Louisiana altogether, bound for an affluent Southern California community. It's just a day's drive from where I live with the boyfriend she met for the first time after my father's terminal diagnsis three years ago.

I tried to take my mother's departure as a sign that it was time for me to turn my back on the city. My feelings for the place have always been too conflicted for me to trust. I drank too much there, and I used to fall in love too quickly there. I have never been able to decide whether to dismiss New Orleans like a dour West Coast liberal or embrace it like a French Quarter drunk. Then came Hurricane Ivan. If you ever want to feel like a traitor to your hometown, watch a massive hurricane barrel toward it as you ride a cross-trainer at a West Hollywood gym. Watch news footage of evacuated French Quarter streets where you walked hand in hand with your first boyfriend as it's broadcast to a room full of oblivious screenplay-skimming poseurs. Try to convince the sweaty people around you that a great city, a city they know only from song lyrics and inauthentic movies about the place, is about to be washed out into the Gulf of Mexico, and with it, that special flavor that coats your tongue every time you try to recite the city's faults. All of this turned out to be a waste of breath. As with most of the acts of God that almost destroy New Orleans, Hurricane Ivan veered off course at the last possible second.

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

Moderate: Hotel Monaco (333 St. Charles Ave.; 504-561-0010; $94-$409) is just three blocks from the French Quarter. The modern-gothic building features 250 colorful rooms decorated with undertones of Creole, Cajun, and African cultures. Expensive: The Ritz Carlton Maison Orleans (904 Rue Iberville; 504-670-2900; $380-$1,000) offers the height of luxury in the heart of the French Quarter.

Restaurants

Inexpensive: Clover Grill (900 Bourbon St.; 504-598-1010) has to be seen to be believed. If you can't bring yourself to eat a hamburger cooked under a steel hubcap, drink in the French Quarter characters who frequent the place. Moderate: Feelings Café (2600 Chartres St.; 504-945-2222) is the gay-friendliest place in town. Sing show tunes around the courtyard piano or peruse the collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that belonged to the drag queen who once owned the place. My best dates all started here. Expensive: With so many of New Orleans's finest restaurants being replicated through the country, Cuvée (322 Magazine St.; 504-587-9001) remains a true elegant original. Located outside of the French Quarter in the quieter central business district, it has a wine menu that will knock you flat.

Nightlife

Exhibitionists belong on the atrium dance floor at Oz New Orleans (800 Bourbon St.; 504-593-9491), and across from it the downstairs video bar at The Bourbon Pub and Parade (801 Bourbon St.; 504-529-2107) is better for attempting conversation over the music. A change of pace can be found just up the street at Good Friends (740 Dauphine St.; 504-566-7191), where the music isn't as loud and there's usually a pool table available. Café Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon St.; 504-522-8397), purportedly the oldest gay bar in the United States, was one of Tennessee Williams's favorite watering holes.

Attractions

Anne Rice's former residence, the nine-bedroom Brevard-Clapp House (1239 First St.), circa 1857, still attracts die-hard fans. The above-ground Lafayette Cemetery (Sixth and Prytania streets) figures prominently in Rice's vampire saga.


The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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