It is December already, and I have been back in New Orleans for a little over a month.
I arrived, delayed a few days by a hurricane, for the Halloween weekend and have been in town for the national election, football weekends, and Thanksgiving, with a plane ticket home in April. Adventure travel has been essentially eliminated by the plague; travel to visit relatives, including new grandbaby Hugh, does not seem smart even if permitted; and none of my friends are visiting New Orleans. Of course, the national swingers organization conference didn’t get the memo, and although downsized from 2000 swingers to 250, 40 of the courageous and patriotic body-fluid swappers caught the COVID. I don’t think the nurses or the teachers are going have their big conferences here anytime soon. These things I expected, but had a glimmer of hope when planning my trip that the pandemic might get a little better rather than worse, allowing for a road trip or two. Oops.
I arrived in the first week or so of a relaxation of the plague mitigation rules in the city. New Orleans is as open as any major city, and more than most. There is a set of confusing rules that are not really enforced by anyone but seriously whined about by anyone who still watches Fox News. Many restaurants and bars remained boarded up, and some have announced that they will not be coming back, including some favorites like the Meaux Bar and Mimi’s in the Marigny, and some icons like K-Paul’s. Others are not open, but it is not clear at all, probably even to the owners, if or when they will open. I’m rooting for Kingfish and the Marigny Brasserie and other local fun spots, and against the big chains. Tipitina’s is part of the culture, the Hard Rock Cafe not so much.
Each bar or restaurant seems to have it’s own interpretation of the rules, with some doing to-go windows only while providing tables on the sidewalk, others allowing people to come in, sign in, and sit at a table (but not at the bar) inside so long as they mask up between bites, and others allowing full bar service if you have ordered food (like a bag of chips or a $2 hot dog out of the microwave). The city has limited hours, shutting the bars down at 11PM rather than being the 24 hour party place, a greater imposition on some than others. Every time I approach a bar or restaurant, I try to follow whatever rules they seem to be enforcing, and then decide if it seems too crowded, or if people are being reckless. Large groups of people who have convinced themselves that the virus is a hoax are not the people to be hanging around with. I have felt pretty good about being outside, masked, staying a reasonable distance apart with others doing the same, recognizing the essential intellectual dishonesty of that position. The weather has been great for the most part, warm and dry, which makes all of this possible.
There is a live music ban for indoor venues if there is singing or horn playing. This has shut down all of the dedicated music venues across the city except for streaming performances. It is a little frustrating to walk by an empty club with a good band playing inside to the internet.
This being the “Do Wacha Wanna” city, of course there are workarounds. A couple of brass bands and buskers have reclaimed their corners of Jackson Square and Royal Street; musicians are playing from porches and balconies, some sanctioned by the authorities like at the Jazz Museum and others more spontaneous in residential neighborhoods; groups of guitar players or percussionists will gather at the sidewalk tables outside the open bars to play together; and there have been “pop-up” performances by excellent performers on the sidewalks across the street from bars operating to-go windows. A couple of the restaurants on Frenchmen Street have paid the permit fees to have instrumental music playing to their reduced capacity rooms. There are rumors of DJed house parties and raves throughout the city, but that is not exactly my scene.
The city is not diminished so much as contracted. There are fewer restaurants and bars open, and the music is here, but weekly there are as many shows as there were daily last winter. The flow of cruise ship tourists and conventioneers (and their cash) is gone, but there are independent tourists coming into the city. Halloween saw a party crowd of young adults (not nearly as creatively costumed as the locals) and Thanksgiving brought family groups, but the big crowds of years past are not here. This is hard on the service workers and business owners, who rely on the fall and winter season to make it through the year.
The positive side of this contraction is that most of the people I see daily I recognize and interact with regularly. This is a small city, and the lower French Quarter, Marigny, and Treme are even smaller. It is a blast to see performers like Kermit Ruffins in the grocery store, Shawn Williams in the bar, or Glen David Andrews on the street. I am able to patronize businesses like DBA, even if it is just to buy a to-go beer and stand outside listening to the Treme Brass Band, and be recognized as a neighborhood regular by the owner and the band leader. I am expanding my circle to include some edgier places, made more comfortable by the familiarity with the people hanging out there. I have been able to spend more time with friends, learning what brought them here and learning more about their quirks, reinforcing what an unusual and special place this is, a place where people come to be weird and accepted. I’m seeing more Black people from the surrounding neighborhoods in the entertainment district, reclaiming it from the hordes of tourists, and engaging more with the regulars.
The plague stalks the city and the country, and I hope that my friends and neighbors can weather these hard times and come out partying in true New Orleans spirit on the other end, but this winter will be a hard one.