No. Just no.
There’s something really disconcerting about being yelled at by an entire city block. The architecture and the road itself rear up and scream things. This is what they’re saying when we arrive:
BUY THIS PLASTIC CRAP!
FUNNY T-SHIRT WITH A BUNNY ON IT SAYING SOMETHING DECLASSÉ!
WELCOME TO THE LARGEST OPEN-AIR SPENCER’S ON THE PLANET!
YOU ARE A TOURIST!
This last said so violently aggressively that I almost start crying.
It’s not –- I’m not one of those tourists with ideas about being sneaky and not coming off as a tourist. Which is to say, I am exactly that kind of tourist, but I’m not deluded into thinking it’s anything but this Platonic ideal that doesn’t actually exist except as a hyperbolic limit to reach for. But the touristy nature of the area we’re in means that I’m constantly trying to approach that limit, and pass. Pass for real and not just a tourist that is sucking the life out of the real New Orleans, which actual place I paradoxically will never actually encounter.
It’s not like there’s anyone to see you doing it, either. Passing, I mean. All the tourists spend all their time with each other, running into each other over and over and laughing about it, because you’re all going on the same rides, in the same order. You get to know them, you bond like refugees.
Tourist Lady: What does your tattoo say?
Sorrowful Coffeeshop Barista: “Wednesday’s Child.”
One of my companions is a little tiny itsy bit terrified of crime and violence, which possibility I am not ruling out, because there is a lot of sketch going on in this town, but if the alternative is the French Quarter, I might just like to be mugged a little bit. If it means I get to see cobblestones and trees crossing over the road and Spanish moss and little old ladies and people walking their dogs. People yelling at their kids in Creole. UNO and Tulane kids laughing in the street. Old people who have seen history and culture change.
Instead: Fortune tellers. Piano bars. Drag queens. Live sex shows. A whole sex work industry that’s (even more than usual) less about sex than it is about the sex work industry as a phenomenon. What did you do in New Orleans? “Watched people fucking. On stage. Was titillated and repulsed and confused.”
There’s a certain amount of auto-postcarding going on here, where the idea of having the experience: “I am watching a sex show” or “I am watching a drag show” or “I am watching someone vomiting on my shoes” or just “I am in New Orleans” becomes the actual experience: “I am watching myself watching a sex show, and wondering exactly how to word the stories I’ll tell about it when I get out of here and go home.”
No vampire teeth, as yet, but I’m sure that wouldn’t have been true ten years ago. There’s a palpable, Daisy Miller kind of bored hatred radiating from all the natives. That carny vibe. It’s the only way you can really tell who’s a tourist and who’s here to bleed you dry. I wish there were more of them, but it’s just tourists.
It’s not just about not wanting to be lumped in with them, to somehow make special friends with this city, to prove that I’m smarter or cooler or better or full of more boredom or more hatred. Those people are having a much better time than I am, I think, and I’m glad for them, honestly. They’re having a New Orleans Experience. I’m, quite specifically, Not.
We went to a place you have to go all Goonies to even get into, right, through this wet alley place that’s like two feet across, and very effective, rain sleeting down and running down the walls. All very effective. It resonates. A little too well. But there’s, like, Astroturf on the ground?
Detailed dragon heads coming out of the walls, something called “Midnight Potion,” which is described as “16 ounces of PURE HELL” in a markered poster on the black-enameled brick wall behind the bar. A bathroom door built into a library wall, that swings out all secretively to reveal filth. Cobwebs self-consciously depending from the ceiling. Thousands of rooms clustered all around, all pumping different categories of trashy industrial Manson-type music. A Creature From The Black Lagoon bobble-head.
The thing is, as a non-native, this stuff is meant specifically for me. It’s a gift to me from this city, saying, “This is what you wanted? You can have it. We bought it down the road and now we’re showing it to you.” This is the experience you paid for.
Tourist: I can’t believe there’s a La Madeleine in the French Quarter. That’s so sad.
And that’s not to somehow ironically refigure myself as cool and above all of this, because I kind of delight in it. I’m not naïve enough to think that merely by bitching about the plastic, commercial nature of this experience, I’m somehow ahead of the game. Because I’m stuck in the game, and I can’t get out. And if I did get out, and somehow figured out a way to pop the red pill of New Orleans, I would probably be killed. I’m soft and nice and trusting.
It’s just that it’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, to be walking down the street and see that supply/demand somehow supports an entire store devoted to cloaks, capes and shawls. After your fourteenth store specializing in hand-painted, identical Mardi Gras masks and feather boas, the magic starts to rub a little thin.
I feel like this is being done for a reason – that somehow this becomes the city’s natural immune defense. “Here comes Jacob, don’t let him see you sweat. Put up the palm-reading sign and I’ll paint myself silver and stand on a corner for tips and then he won’t notice the actual cool thing going on.” I feel a fiduciary duty to the actual city to somehow make contact with it, since I drove all this way. The deal I thought we made was that I would live here, for a week, and so far I’m just visiting. Like when people come to stay with you, and you want them to feel comfortable, and what it comes down to is: Will they go into the hall closet and find a blanket if they’re cold, in the middle of the night, or do you need to ask them if they’ll need extra bedding. Which you were going to do anyway. Are they a guest or are they a tourist?
I don’t want the city to think I’m cool with seeing it themeparked. I want it to feel lived in, and I want to see its face without makeup on, and I don’t want it to have anything to do with vomiting binge-drinking tourists. I want the real ugly deal and then I think I’ll feel like I’ve conquered it, and I can get over myself about this. And it’s so unoriginal, to feel this way, and I see it on three of every five faces that pass.
You get to know the other tourists, because you’re all going to the same places at the same time, you’re on the ride together. It’s like the expat bars ten minutes from the Mexico border: Why? All the old people just sit there eating American food and listening to American music, and their experiences are no less valid or legit for that, but I don’t…I’m getting circular.
Magazine St. Hipster One: Fucking tourists. This traffic is going to suck.
Magazine St. Hipster Two: When did you move here, anyway?
Magazine St. Hipster One: July, motherfucker.
I’m past the age where I feel like I need to be “real” for anyone in particular, but what I haven’t gotten over is needing things to reciprocate that and be real for me. And New Orleans is not getting the job done, and I can’t escape the Quarter, and I’m the one that ends up feeling false, because like, when I go home at the end of the week, can I honestly say, “I spent the last week in New Orleans?” I don’t feel like that would be true, or at least the whole truth. I’m feeling very adjacent to the reality that’s going on all around.
Plus I fucking hate St. Patrick’s Day, which is this whole other family thing that I don’t want to get into, but basically I was raised to believe that celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is akin to and about as appropriate as celebrating Pol Pot day. And so somehow New Orleans has acquired the rights to St. Patrick’s Day, as well as Mardi Gras, but not because –- maybe slight because –- of the Catholic thing. Really, it’s about drinking.
I hate tourism-supported economies because I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. Like I’m not going anywhere. Like I have not gone anywhere. I could be home right now, drinking this same coffee and freezing almost the exact same way (albeit without that deep-bone-cold-wet thing where it never stops being cold in the exact center of your bones, because Austin is not on the coast). And who the hell am I to question any of this? I paid my money and now I’m going to criticise the game when I already knew how it would be played? So there’s a whole other level of falsity there, too, and I’m back to feeling like even more of a fraud than I did before it started.
Staring off the back balcony of the rooms in Maui, staring out at the horizon and the tiny rain and the sunset and the gorgeous ocean, I felt like I might as well be looking at a postcard of Maui, with like “Aloha From Maui” off-center in the bottom right-hand corner of every picture I took. Same deal here. “Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulez!”
I’m living like a native — taking my work down to the coffee shop every morning and afternoon, it’s wonderful, it’s like a twenty-minute walk and there’s free wireless — and smiling at my neighbors and feeling like a traitor, but at least I’m not shopping. At the same time, though, I know there’s more to it than being as boring as possible, because there is a spirit to cities and I’ve felt them, in Houston and Austin and even San Antonio, and it’s more than just going to work every morning. But New Orleans is wrapped in so many layers of this stuff that it’s disconcertingly elusive right now.
I’m now convinced that this is economically sound, not to mention emotionally smart of the places in question, because it A) contains the trash and litter and B) keeps the financial wheels turning, and C) keeps the boundaries set. But how do you even start to get past this? And in the end, how can you know that you’ve been anywhere or been substantially changed by the experience, unless you feel it? Unless you feel it in the way you feel, emotionally or physically or something, somewhere in your makeup a feeling that you’ve been substantially changed; unless you feel it in your body? Because I’ll tell you right now I’m not getting a frigging tattoo.
How do you know when you’ve actually traveled?