For a young couple married in Memphis, it was the natural honeymoon destination. Thirty-one years ago, my then-husband and I booked tickets on Amtrak and spent our first evening as a married couple awaiting 3 a.m., when we finally could head to the South Main Street station to wait for the train, The City of New Orleans.
The stately old station had been nearly ruined by time and the abandonment that came with the Civil Rights Movement battles that took place in our city streets. White people drove to New Orleans, but we were young and poor and didn't know better.
We climbed aboard at 4 a.m., only to find that every seat in the train was filled with travelers from Chicago and points in between. On our wedding night, we stretched out on the vinyl booth seats of the club car and snoozed, exhausted, all the way to New Orleans, through the noise of cigar-smoking patrons playing cards and drinking all night long.
We finally arrived in the powerful heat of mid-afternoon August, crashed again in our French Quarter hotel, then took to the streets all night long. We were dazzled by the long musical notes twisting through the crooked alleys, stunned at the sight of strippers on swinging beds, flying out windows into the night air, then gracefully arcing back inside.
Our honeymoon was the clichd New Orleans experience: beignets and dark chicory coffee at the French Market, free rides on the trolley to the Garden District and City Park, exotic meals.
It's possible that one of the great awakenings of my life was the snapper en papillote at Antoine's, served by a tuxedoed waiter, the divine scent that met my nostrils as he delicately tore open the paper roasting bag, releasing a plume of cognac-laced steam -- incense of well-prepared food, inhaled in a cathedral of dining.
In later years, I returned many times to New Orleans, every time the opportunity arose. I did the same things over and over, because that's what tourists did in New Orleans. On every trip, I stood in line at Felix's Oyster Bar, waiting for a plate of chilled fresh oysters, shucked by a line of men in smeared white aprons, cracking open the craggy bi-valves in one swift movement, their hands scarred and gnarled, their forearms abnormally muscled from years of the same continuous motion.
What I always found in New Orleans that can't be found anywhere else in the continental United States was the experience of being a stranger in an exotic land. What finally struck me about New Orleans was that it was a place where people could shed the weight of expectations and habit and become someone else for a short while.
On my last visit to New Orleans, I hung out with a high school friend who'd made her career there producing political documentaries. She'd made a graceful home in mid-city, in a 150-year-old white frame house with 12-foot ceilings and exposed plumbing. She took me to a club where Dennis Quaid's rock band played until the wee hours. Even Dennis Quaid escaped to New Orleans to be someone else. I've tried reaching my friend by e-mail every day since Hurricane Katrina roared inland. I haven't heard from her yet.
Another time in New Orleans, I became someone else for a brief moment. It was a bad time in my life, a time of exhaustion and loneliness. I arrived in the city in a daze and wandered through the crowded streets of the French Quarter to a shiny new restaurant that smelled like fish and salt water. I was frustrated by my dinner companion, who had just reminded me, once again, that much of my life was a lie.
My mind went blank, and in a New Orleans-induced fog, I did something I never would have done in another place: I hoisted my water glass and hurled its contents right in his face. I pushed my chair back loudly, threw my napkin down on the table and walked out into the loud, stinky night of revelers, beggars, street musicians and starry-eyed tourists.
New Orleans will and must endure because it's a great American city, and because its natives don't want to live anywhere else, toxic sludge or not. Those of us who have only visited need to remember the spell the city casts, stripping our conventions and inhibitions, letting us become someone else for a brief blessed moment.