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Letters from New Orleans

The culture of New Orleans is changing, but its heart remains the same.

 

1.

New Orleans has the longest wharf in the world. This is an even higher distinction than the city’s most recent entrant in the Guinness Book of World Records, established several years ago when 850 people, standing with upright mattresses behind their backs, fell consecutively into each other to set the world record for “human mattress dominoes.” The quay between Henry Clay Avenue and Milan Street Terminals is more than two miles long, and is capable of docking fifteen vessels at the same time. I drive along the wharf every week, along Tchoupitoulas Street, which runs its entire length—but I’ve never seen it. Nor have I seen the port to which the wharf belongs, the Port of New Orleans, which, when combined with the adjacent Port of South Louisiana, is the largest port in the United States. The port is hidden from the rest of the city by a brick wall that, for much of its span, is about twenty feet high. This wall says bluntly that New Orleans ends at Tchoupitoulas, while everything beyond belongs to Louisiana, America, the world.

It is almost impossible, in fact, to glimpse the Mississippi River, except when you drive across one of the bridges on the way out of town. Otherwise you have to go to a short platform of cement at the edge of the French Quarter designed for tourists who want to glimpse the Mississippi; a park at the upriver edge of the city that is popular with trysting lovers; or a park on converted railroad land that you can only reach by crossing the train tracks. The city does not make it easy for you.

The invisibility of the Mississippi is especially disorienting because, for most of New Orleans’ history, the river has been the source of the city’s geographical, economic, and social life. For coffee one went to the Poydras Street Wharf, where it was unloaded from boats from South America. Bushels of bananas were delivered by the Standard Fruit Company to the Erato, Pauline, and Desire Street wharves. Hogsheads of tobacco were found at Robin Street, oysters at Dumaine Street, and cotton at Napoleon Avenue. The river’s natural levee was a meeting place for the city’s diverse population. In An Evening’s Promenade on the Levee (1837), the Creole poet Pere Rouquette writes blissfully of wandering “along the endless white strand; Distracted anon by the woods and the heavens.”

 

 

But it has been a long time since anyone stood on the bank of the Mississippi in New Orleans and was distracted by the woods and the heavens. Neither exist anymore: the trees were long ago timbered, and the heavens are now blank and purple, lightened by the city’s electricity. Nothing of that lost world remains, especially not the “endless white strand,” which has been replaced by the endless brick wall.

What happens to a great port city that loses its port, a river city bereft of a river? The culture changes, as it has in so much of the world, as laborers and merchants—the ruddy sailors and greedy merchants—are replaced by factories owned by multinationals that operate out of public view. It also means that the people of the city stop caring for the river with the same level of vigilance. This seems evident from the way the health of the Mississippi has deteriorated in recent decades. Having been domesticated and tamed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the first half of the 20th century, it has now been contaminated beyond recognition. A century and a half ago it was referred to as “The Great Sewer,” but that was because of the huge quantity of sedimentation it carried, turning it brown. Today it is the country’s great sewer in a more literal sense. It serves as America’s gastrointestinal tract, receiving thirteen million pounds of toxic discharge from thirty-one states. This creates, at the river’s debouchure in the Gulf of Mexico, a Dead Zone nearly the size of Israel. The Mississippi is the filthiest river in America. The further downriver you go, the dirtier it is. If you were to imagine the river as the nation’s large intestine, New Orleans would be perched on top of the rectum.

All of the waste carried by the Mississippi does not bypass the city of New Orleans. In fact it enters the city in many unseen ways. Every day we breathe, eat, and drink the Mississippi. It is the source of our drinking water, our coffee, our Pho broth. But as long as the brick wall stands, we can pretend that the Mississippi remains unbowed, majestic, and clean enough to support a flourishing city.

2.

When tourists arrive for the first time to Paris they ask to see the Eiffel Tower; in Cairo they ask for directions to the pyramids. When people visit me in New Orleans, their first question is, Where can I get a po-boy? Their second question: What is a po-boy?

There is a particular look that comes over a visitor’s face when, after driving out to Domilise’s or Casamento’s or Parkway, standing on line for an hour before placing an order, and salivating for another twenty minutes while the meal is being prepared, he is finally handed his first poor boy. The expression is one of befuddlement, mixed with a rising indignation. It says: Hold on a minute—you mean to tell me that a po-boy is just a plain old sandwich?

There are a few features that would seem, at first glance, to distinguish the local product from what in other parts of the country is known as a hoagie, panini, submarine, hero, grinder, Cuban, Italian, wedge, or, in upstate New York, a bomber. The po-boy tends to be served hot. It is often filled with fried seafood—oyster, shrimp, catfish—though alternatives include roast beef and gravy, French fries, sausage (smoked, hot, or alligator), and cheeseburgers (three patties, typically). Also it is usually “dressed” with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, and sliced pickles. The possibilities vary depending on your location. The newfangled Mahoney’s, for instance, lists a Liver Cheese po-boy, while Guy’s, though it doesn’t have oysters, is home of the “Bomb”: grilled catfish and shrimp, smothered in melted cheddar and Swiss cheese.

Since none of these variables are critical, and all can be substituted out, the distinction between po-boys and other sandwiches breaks down under scrutiny. Yet there is one essential element that separates the po-boy from its competitors, an ingredient that goes into every po-boy and no other sandwich in the world: New Orleans tap water.

The invisibility of the Mississippi is especially disorienting because, for most of New Orleans’ history, the river has been the source of the city’s geographical, economic, and social life.

After Hurricane Katrina, the writer Andrei Codrescu delivered an elegiac ode to the people of New Orleans on National Public Radio: “The whole country’s garbage flows down the Mississippi to them. Until now, they turned all that waste into song…but this blues now is just too big.” It is an elegant metaphor, and moving besides. But the fact of the matter is that the whole country’s garbage is turned into New Orleans tap water, which is the crucial component of po-boy bread. And it is this crisp, delicious bread, particularly the variety made daily by Leidenheimer Baking Company, that makes a po-boy a po-boy.

Leidenheimer reopened for business less than six weeks after Katrina, despite the fact that the family-owned company is based in Central City, a neighborhood that was heavily damaged by the flood. The plant was spared thanks to a design quirk unique to its business model. The building was constructed on a raised platform, so that the bakery floor is exactly even with the height of a truck bed. This allows deliverymen to slide pallets of bread from the factory floor into their trucks, instead of having to lift them. The extra elevation ensured that the plant was not breached by the floodwater. As soon as the taps started flowing again, the Leidenheimer deliverymen resumed their routes.

The deliverymen are local folk heroes. They wear badges that give their names and length of tenure. The crew’s most senior member has been delivering bread since 1978. The owner is the great-grandson of George Leidenheimer, who founded the bakery in 1896. Since resuming operation after Katrina, the plant has only closed on Christmas Day. Otherwise the ovens never stop baking. The day’s first bread trucks depart for their routes at thirty minutes past midnight, heading to the towns on the opposite bank of Lake Ponchartrain: Covington, Mandeville, and Slidell. The po-boy bread is delivered in a long brown bag, which is itself a masterpiece of commercial design; each bag contains ten thirty-two-inch-long loaves. Leidenheimer also takes orders from around the country—from restaurants like Bayou in Washington D.C. and Yats New Orleans Original Po Boys in San Francisco—but only for pistolets and round buns. The bakery refuses to ship po-boy bread outside of the local area. The loaves might crumble in transit and, besides, even if they did make it safely, they wouldn’t taste right.

Consistency of taste and texture are of supreme importance. The bread needs to absorb plentiful quantities of mayonnaise, hot sauce, and grease, but it can’t get soggy. To ensure consistency, the Leidenheimer bakers must improvise. That is, they vary the amount of tap water mixed into the dough depending on the weather in New Orleans. More water on cold or dry days, less when it’s humid and hot. How do they know exactly how much water to use? Having been at it for more than a century already, they have developed a sixth sense. Like any masters of an art form, they just know.

3.

Demons have always dwelled in New Orleans in large numbers, for two reasons: as the lowest-lying city in the overworld, New Orleans is the first place demons encounter after leaving the underworld; they fit in. New Orleanians are conditioned to the presence of demons. There are so many of them, and we see them so regularly, that we let them go about their business without staring, or asking for autographs.

Demons have been spotted in New Orleans since its earliest days under French rule, but they enjoyed a heyday in the period directly after World War I, a time when streetlamps were irregular enough that one could walk the city’s darkened streets at night without close observation. These were the years that Jack-the-Clipper haunted the city. Jack was a sick monster whose pleasure was to cut off girls’ plaited ponytails. A pair of scissors in his palm, he trailed them as they walked home from school. He also did his dirty work on the streetcar and in darkened movie theaters. It was believed that, upon returning to his private lair, he soaked his treasures in gin. After a few weeks’ infusion, he mixed the alcohol with crushed limes, and drank the vile concoction in a martini glass.

A source of even greater terror was the Gown Man. His pastime was to deprive young women of their virtue. He was a tall, slender figure who wore a black gown so long that it dragged behind him on the ground, gathering a train of fish bones, oyster shells, apple cores, dead pets. You could hear him coming from a block away, his train rattling on the cobblestone. He also was said to hide in trees. In the city’s wooded areas, women walked with their eyes constantly turned upward, for he was known to cling to the branches and drop down like an owl swooping for its meal.

Most diabolical of all were the Needle Men, a particularly underhanded sort of bandit. These devils lurked in overgrown lots and leaped out whenever a pretty young woman passed, jabbing her with medical needles that contained some kind of poison. The dose was lethal and worked quickly. Afterwards, the Needle Men would drag the corpse into the shrubbery, where they would conduct obscene and highly disrespectful medical experiments.

New Orleanians are conditioned to the presence of demons. There are so many of them, and we see them so regularly, that we let them go about their business without staring, or asking for autographs.

While many streetlamps have been installed since that time, almost none of them work—10,000 street-lights, by recent estimates, require new light bulbs. At night entire boulevards, even neighborhoods, go dark. The demons have returned. One of the most vicious is the Bicycle Man. Taking advantage of the darkness, this criminal stands between two cars, waiting for a person to approach by bicycle. When a bicyclist appears, the Bicycle Man waves his arms and calls out: Can you help me? My bike is broken. Etc. When the victim, decelerating, realizes that the man does not, in fact, have a bicycle, the Bicycle Man punches the victim in the face. While the victim is writhing on the ground, The Bicycle Man hops on the bicycle and disappears into the night.

My wife recently encountered Erect-Penis Man. His name speaks for itself. He can be spotted from afar by the long pea coat he wears—he is the only man on the streets of New Orleans wearing a pea coat after Easter. Having been imprisoned for revealing himself in close proximity to a girls’ school, he has become more sophisticated in his method. Typically he will sit down next to a woman at a bar or outdoor restaurant and make small talk. He does not look like a demon; in fact he resembles a young, educated man, perhaps a Tulane graduate. He speaks slowly, politely, always asking directions—to the closest ATM machine, say, or a 24-hour pharmacy. Most kind New Orleanian women humor him for a minute or so, trying to explain patiently how he might get to where he needs to go. They have to be patient, because he asks circular questions and never seems to be satisfied with their answers. My wife was engaging in such a conversation when she happened to glance down.

Some of New Orleans’ demons have even begun to come out during the day. I’m referring to the Giant Ghost. Nobody who has seen him will forget him. I had been told about him before—he has been compared to Abraham Lincoln and Iggy Pop—but I never saw him until last week. His odd combination of physical features make him instantly recognizable. He is six-and-a-half feet tall and grotesquely thin, his skeletal body barely capable of supporting his brown cape. Despite the attenuation of his limbs and torso, his face is enormous. His nose? It is about the size, and shape, of a mature yam. His ears are like the unfurled wings of a seagull. His eyes are bulbous; his jaw prognathous. The Giant Ghost is even more polite than Erect-Penis Man—at least at first.

 

 

He surprised me at Frady’s. I was having a solitary po-boy lunch with my newspaper and a glass of New Orleans tap water. I don’t blame the water for what followed.

“Sir?” He bowed at the waist so that we were at the same level. His voice was higher than I expected, and he spoke in a wispy, hesitant manner, his mouth twitching busily, as if trying out several different formulations for each word before settling on one. “Would you mind terribly if I joined you?” He indicated the empty chair opposite. What could I say?

He thanked me with a series of nods and nervous mouth movements and lowered himself, raising the cape theatrically so that it hung over the back of the chair. I expected that he would try to make conversation, but he seemed immediately to forget that I was there.

A fly buzzed noisily around our heads. It tapped the window, fell to the sill, summoned its wits, and began its crazy circuits all over again. The Giant Ghost became fixated on the fly. He grew very still. Only his eyes, darting, followed the fly’s path through the air. After several minutes, his hand jumped off the table and the buzzing stopped. I looked up from my sandwich just in time to see him insert the fly, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, into his mouth. He swallowed it—a theatrical swallow, complete with a head nod and excessive throat action, as if to make sure I understood what was happening—and gave me a placid smile. I broke eye contact, staring down at my newspaper and my half-eaten sandwich. I was no longer hungry. When next I looked up, he was gone.

I ran outside—he was nowhere to be found. I decided not to look for him. It was beginning to get dark.