I fell in love with the idea of New Orleans over the summer of 1977, when I read Anne Rice's classic Interview With The Vampire. More than ten years later, I finally went there with my then boyfriend (now husband).
We were enthralled.
Multiple trips followed. In addition to our usual visits to the French Quarter and Garden District, we spent days out in the bayou, toured plantations, attended Anne Rice's halloween balls, visited with friends. Always enjoying the sensual gumbo of sights and sounds and smells (some sweeter than others) that make New Orleans so unique.
The first time our daughter joined us, she was four-years-old and we were there for a cousin's wedding. On that trip, we stayed in a bigger hotel in the CBD, the Central Business District, a few blocks from the Quarter. In between family festivities, my mother, daughter and I went to the Audubon Zoo and had a ladies' lunch at the old world Hotel Pontchartrain. The wedding itself was in an historic cathedral, after which we "second lined" to a gala reception at the Ritz.
Our family's favorite anecdote from that trip is the story of my daughter twirling in the lobby of the hotel on our last day. "I love New Orleans," she announced. The sweet clerk behind the front desk responded without missing a beat, "And New Orleans loves you, shuggah."
When Katrina crippled our adopted city, we headed back down again, working together at a relief station in the flooded suburb of Aribe. We met amazing people and felt so fortunate to be able to help. Since then, we've enjoyed two "Papa Noel" weekends, which included historic home tours and multicourse reveillon meals at famous venues like Antoine's.
This winter, with February break looming, we decided it was time for another visit. We longed for NOLA's warm weather and the even warmer reception we always find there. Although my daughter has been there four times before, this would be her first trip as a full-fledged teenager.
And, it was ... different.
"You're so pretty." "You're so pretty." She was told this countless times in the five days we stayed. It was nice to hear it from my childhood friend who teaches at Loyola and from the ninety-year old queen of soul food, Leah Chase. It was downright creepy to hear it from grown men on the street. For the first time, I felt as though I had to be on guard, gauging the level of (or lack of) sobriety of the people we passed and blocking any physical access they might have to my "so pretty" girl.
By and large, we avoided Bourbon Street. If you haven't been, there's about a four block stretch of strip clubs in the otherwise dignified French Quarter, and my daughter didn't like it. 'Can't say that I blame her. Rude tee shirts in windows, mardi gras beads with large plastic genitals dangling from them. Eww.
At one point, a stripper — oh, I'm sorry, an exotic dancer — passed in front of us on her way to the Barely Legal Gentleman's Club. She was only a few years older than my teen and made up to look like a high schooler herself. We moved along more quickly. I repeat, eww.
On the way back to the hotel, I wanted to take a picture of two giant mardi gras masks on the corner of Royal and St. Ann. A bunch of drunk fraternity boys were loitering there. From years of experience, I steeled myself, but what happened next was new for me.
"Mom!" one of them yelled to me across the intersection. His buddies snickered. "Mom!" he hollared again. "Don't ignore me, mom!" This was worse than anything I'd expected. It's one thing to be the target of unwanted attention. It's another to be mistaken for someone's mother.
We went up to our hotel room where my husband took a post-lunch, pre-dinner nap, and my daughter read her Seventeen magazines. I offered to go and get us some popcorn at a neighborhood grocery. Upon my return, I opened the front door to the hotel and out came a large group of older couples, dressed up and in good spirits as they set out for a night on the town. They were maybe 65- or 70-years-old.
"Aren't you sweet?" cooed one woman as I held the door.
"What are you doing tonight, honey?" teased her male companion, for his wife's benefit as much as mine. "Join us," he said ...
"You're so pretty."