There is an awakening that comes with the inauguration of autumn. Leaves turn orange and the air begins to crackle with the anticipation of cooler temperatures, warmer light, matte red apples, thick wool sweaters, and rich brown leather boots. Down here in the south, college football season kicks off, open doors replace air conditioners, walks replace drives, and leaf-kicking replaces beach trips.
Specifically in the port town of New Orleans a sort of reverse hibernation comes to an end, because it is not the cold but rather the heat of the summer that chases residents inside and behind closed doors. With temperature and humidity competing to hit the high nineties during the summer, any departure outside can be detrimental to your will to live.
But then… then October comes.
October brings with it Halloween, the lead up to Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and Twelfth Night, marking the official beginning of Carnival. One reason October marks this reawakening of New Orleans is because visitors are scarce during the stifling heat of summer. In the tenth month, however, they start to return to New Orleans in droves.
They come for the universities, conventions, weddings and bachelor parties. Then, after the rolling over of the year, the city-wide celebrations of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Through phones, cameras and stories told back home, visitors share with the world images of old Spanish architecture in the French Quarter, colorful bungalows, Mardi Gras beads, tales of salacious evenings on Bourbon Street, hot puffy beignets suffocating under mounds of fluffy white powdered sugar, cocktails in dilapidated old buildings, and the big, fat, chocolate milk river weaving his way lazily through it all.
New Orleans enthusiastically welcomes these visitors with open arms and embraces them with her strong, fragrant, sweaty hugs. But what about those people who live in the city? Who teach in the schools? Who work in the coffee shops and restaurants? Who sell the wine? Who supply the groceries? Who own the buildings? They are the heartbeat of the city. This is where they live. Where they work. They are the ones who take the streetcar to work, who sit on their front porches while visitors snap photos, who drive through the French Quarter with convertible tops down playing Dr. John on WWOZ….
Goin’ back home, fe nan e’
To the land of the beautiful queen
Goin back to home to my baby
Goin’ back to New Orleans
It is appropriate that New Orleanians would feel a kinship with the fall because although there are many allegories that address the reawakening of spring, in this water-logged and spirit-soaked city things are just done a little differently than the rest of the world, and rebirth comes on the heels of the lethargy of summer.
There has also been a renewal of the city since the catastrophic levee failures that flooded the city after Hurricane Katrina. People woke up in the unfolding aftermath of that disaster and made their decisions: return immediately, return eventually, or stay gone. And many people who had not been living in New Orleans during the disaster also made the decision: go and rebuild.
New Orleans has changed since that event. Not everyone has welcomed the adjustment, but no one can deny it. People flocked to New Orleans wanting to be a part of the rebuilding—not to see skyscrapers and trendy cocktail bars but things much more basic than that. To see education and homes return, and to prove to the world and to individual people that they are cared about, that they are loved, and, no, not everyone abandoned them in their flooded homes while they waited for a rooftop rescue.
So as temperatures and leaves fall, the city’s new energy and drive remind us that New Orleans, once again, as she has done for centuries past, blends together all disparate cultures, including the blue blood old guard and their seersucker suits, captains, of industry, and of highly revered carnival crews, baristas in suspenders and khaki work pants expertly crafting $6 coffees, daring young entrepreneurs, street musicians, and rhapsodic Baptist preachers.
And in this reawakening, when the mercury drops there is a primal desire to be outside, to reemerge from the confines of summer. And at the same time the menus change—oysters reappear. Crab and shrimp replace crawfish. Cocktails are served on the veranda. The spicy and potent Sazarac replaces the gentle herbaceous Pimm’s as the drink of choice. Hot coffee with bitter chicory and rich cream replaces iced tea for an afternoon treat.
A weekend might look like this: A stop at locally owned, locally supplied Big Fisherman before they close on Fridays to pick up a dozen blue crabs and several pounds of extra large shrimp. Saturday means a walk to a local coffee shop, like District for coffee and wildly creative doughnuts to power up for a shopping trip along the 7 miles of Magazine Street where school girls pick up latest disposable fashions, moms pick up smoked frocks and gargantuan bows for their little girls, the more fashionable transplants from elsewhere in the south head to Billy Reid for smart southern style (though headquartered in Florence, Alabama, Billy actually grew up 45 miles from New Orleans), galleries open their doors, restaurants put tables on the sidewalk, and men and women search for expensive, bargain or vintage furnishings and knick knacks. After the day of exploration is done, night creeps in and it is all about meeting friends at one of a thousand local restaurants for a Saturday night out.
Sunday brings about sleepy family days and a trip to Audubon Park where the kids can run free and parents can sip on Café au Lait and repair their hangovers from the night before. Then everyone heads to someone’s house to talk and laugh and share food and wine and stories about their lives. Tears, laughter and again, those hugs. Pregnancy is celebrated and end of life mourned. Plans are made to travel together, to see each other again soon, to attend upcoming parties… anything to extend this feeling of family, life affirmation, and an honest to goodness belief that we could be anywhere in the world but none of us—not one—would choose to be anywhere other than a front porch in New Orleans, Louisiana.
3301 Magazine Street
3927 Magazine Street
District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew.
2209 Magazine Street
1800 Magazine Street
6500 Magazine Street