Rites of Summer
This time of year I always look back to the beginning of my New Orleans adventure.
Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.
The humidity was evident within the drab, run down airport terminal. The fine hairs that framed my face curled, and the rest of it frizzed. When the glass doors slid apart and I stepped outside into New Orleans for the first time, the July heat was stifling, the air was soupy, the smell of flowers I could not yet identify enveloped me — but I knew I was home.
Typically choosing the path less traveled, I wanted the first time I experienced New Orleans in person to be the worst time of year—the dog days of summer in the week that bled from July into August. My potential relocation from New York City to New Orleans had to be tested. Could I handle the humidity, the potential hurricanes, the afternoon rains and the pace of summertime in New Orleans?
Married for less than a year, I dragged my husband with me so we could suffer this crucible together. If I could get him to fall in love with New Orleans in July, I knew there was a chance he would realize there was a pretty interesting world west of the Hudson River.
Our cab wasn’t air conditioned and I was immediately grumpy. We arrived at our hotel, Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue, and argued with the cab driver, who said he couldn’t accept a credit card. I observed the live oak and palm trees and the iron balconies, I felt the sweat drip down my back, and realized I needed to shift my entire mindset. In that moment, I became a New Orleanian. I sighed, handed over the cash, and decided that for the next few days I would just see where the summertime would take me.
My dad and stepmom, who were living in Bogalusa, Louisiana, at the time, drove down to spend the weekends with us. We ate at Frank’s on the Balcony overlooking the Joan of Arc statue and I tried my first muffaletta. We ate at Felix’s and I experienced my first oyster poor boy, dressed, and pledged my allegiance to Felix’s forever. I also made the critical decision to favor Crystal over Tabasco.
We saddled up to the bar at Erin Rose, loving their curated jukebox (ain’t dere no more) and Frozen Irish Coffee (still dere). The mingling of the air conditioning from the back of the bar with the outdoor air seeping through the plastic flaps hanging in the doorway created a middle ground. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was interesting.
At the Moonwalk, with my first view of the Mississippi River, I recalled Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams. I wondered if I would ever write about the roiling water with its hidden currents, and I just had to touch it, carefully walking down the steps to dip my big toe in while my husband held my hand.
We strolled Frenchmen Street and listened to the trad jazz of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns at the Spotted Cat, crushed up against sweaty strangers in a way that was much more pleasant than the NYC subway. Later, when we caught Glen David Andrews at D.B.A., I watched people dancing and I cried at the joy and freedom of it all.
My dad and stepmom’s Toyota Corolla was stolen from the hotel parking lot, and coincidentally, our own Toyota Corolla would be stolen from the zoo parking lot years later. Because New Orleans is not perfect.
This wasn’t purely a vacation. I was a tourist with job interviews lined up. On Monday morning, I peeled the sheets off my body in a room where the window air conditioning unit seemed to add more moisture than remove it, and I took a tepid shower. Being a New Yorker, I donned my best (only) suit, a black polyester affair. I walked seven blocks and arrived at my destination feeling like I’d made the worst mistake of my life. I’m sure I shocked the receptionist with my bright red sweaty face. I came to understand why linen and seersucker are summertime sartorial staples. A week of interviews, experiences and evening strolls had us convinced. We would move to New Orleans.
The last weekend, when I hugged my dad goodbye at the airport beneath the statue of Louis Armstrong, I knew the next time I came to New Orleans would be in a moving van. I wasn’t exactly correct. My dad died in an accident a few weeks after we left, changing the course of my life like the river before the levees were built. It took a few years to get here, bringing our infant son with us when we did, but we made the move.
Every July, for a day or two, I imagine I’m a tourist again and try to see my city with fresh eyes. I visit the river, I eat an oyster poor boy and I toast my dad, just another visitor to this uncomfortable, interesting city.