Heaven and Hell in the Big Easy

Someone once described the experience of entering New Orleans as “being humped by a wet dog”. Ask an outsider about the “Crescent City” and they’ll probably reel off a brochure at you: jazz, blues, Voodoo, Mardi Gras, Creole food, graveyards and Bourbon Street. Now ask a local and they’ll tell you about the heat. They’ll probably swear too. Not many tourist information centres explain that the city is surrounded on all sides by water, and was originally built by over-optimistic French settlers on swampland below sea-level, meaning that excess rainwater has to be pumped off the streets (fun in hurricane season), and the water table is so high that the streets buckle at a rate of 3,000 new potholes a year. This is why the dead are buried above ground; not for any sense of aesthetics, but to prevent your deceased relatives popping up to visit you in September.

The Michelin guide never mentions how the murder rate explodes in the summer months, or that August will have you swatting at non-existent mosquitoes and babbling inanely at your a/c window units. Anyone familiar with 100% humidity will be aware of how it makes the hair and nails grow excessively, how it coats you in grime and sweat, and how it knocks the breath out of your lungs whenever you step outside. Moving here from England did not prepare me particularly well for this. Waking up some mornings, I feel like the malarial English colonist from Victorian fiction.

In the nineteenth century, the engineer Andrew Humphreys was sent from Washington D.C. to survey the Mississippi river. He insisted on wearing a formal uniform throughout the summer months. He went insane. One critic attributes the decline of Southern literature to the introduction of air-conditioning. Could Tennessee Williams have written A Streetcar Named Desire in cool comfort? Whatever else New Orleans stands for, it can also be Hell. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “If I had to live in a city, I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other – both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the devil’s existence is freely recognised.”

Summer in New Orleans isn’t merely uncomfortable, although the sweating involved in any kind of outdoors movement would nauseate the entire cast of a John Grisham film. It is also dangerous. The two major threats in this part of Louisiana are termites and alcoholism. Although this may seem like an unrelated combination, the two are in fact closely linked. The first is the problem of the premises collapsing on you. The second is the problem of you collapsing on the premises.

The Formosan termite is a constant menace to the fabric of New Orleans. Living underground, in trees, and in buildings, these wood-gnawing insects are such a hazard that the city receives Federal funding to exterminate them. It is common to see huge planters’ mansions wrapped whole in striped tarpaulin, like giant circus tents, as they are sprayed with insecticide. On some sultry nights, the termites swarm so thickly around lamp-posts that walking in some parts of the French Quarter is like navigating a living pea-souper. The same tropical climate that doubles the size of the local cockroaches and breeds fire-ants that can kill infants with their poisonous bites, turns this town into a wooden Garden of Eden.

Solutions to this heat problem are few. Lie gasping at home underneath the whirr of a ceiling fan. Plan walking routes that pass through the chilled micro-climates of bank lobbies and hotels. Find a swimming pool and lie submerged up to the neck. But remember, this is New Orleans, home of the cocktail and, in Mardi Gras, the world’s only festival that successfully combines family fun and chronic alcoholism. Given half a chance, most New Orleanians would spend the days of heat belly-up to a bar, gulping cold beer, and watching T.V. meteorologist Bob Breck tracking hurricanes across the Gulf of Mexico from the alarmingly named “Doppler Storm Centre”.

Big Easy bars offer some of the best booze and music mankind has to offer. More importantly, they provide sanctuary. Spend an hour or more in any of the city’s establishments and you are likely to meet some fairly eccentric clientèle: the man who was shot in the back of the head and survived, the geriatric who’s convinced that the Federal government is trying to take away his lawnmower, and the middle-aged mother who scientifically explains how long-term exposure to methane gas from the swamps is driving everyone slowly insane. And here is the key to summer survival in New Orleans. Generations of locals have not so much endured the climate as adapted to it, evolving into eccentrics with sweat on the skin and beer in the bloodstream. You can see it in the way people walk, arms dragging listlessly by their sides, and the pavement-corner crazies, smoking cigarettes and watching cars roll by. The expat doesn’t stand a chance.

It is two a.m. at Le Bontemps Roule, Magazine Street, New Orleans. The big sound of Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers, brassy and rhythmic, throbs and lifts the bodies of revellers. This is probably the meaning of “full” sound. The darkness and heat of the bar seems to be part of it, to feed from it. Coloured faces all bob and twist; black, white, brown, lithe coffee-creole, all synchronised, all individual. Behind me, on top of the bar, women are dancing. To be more exact they are quivering, stooping, shaking and thrusting. One is the band’s scat singer. She arches her neck and swings a great mass of curls to cover her face. Another, Spandex-clad, wobbles and growls as she gradually uncovers large rolls of flesh, and then her breasts. Flash, grind, bump, flash. A weary barman struggles to prevent her from tumbling backwards onto bottles of Early Times bourbon and long-neck Budweisers. Meanwhile, at her feet, a drunken tourist reaches up with Dutch courage to touch and grope, a serious-looking black man at his ear whispering encouragement and manoeuvral advice. Le Bontemps Roule. Ruffins’ swirling trumpet melodies rise and dip and bend, the band bouncing with big swing. The ear can hardly pick out an individual. It is one immense, sprawling form.

“Alright! We’re gonna take a twenty minute reefer break! The band will be confiscating any marijuana in the room! It’s us or the police. Thankyou New Orleans! Thankyou!”

At this moment there is pure sound-driven happiness. As the music stops, dancers fall from their trance and sway, checking each other in confusion. Girls skip away to relieve their bladders. Men fumble in their pockets for green-back drink tokens. Some leave to weave big cars homewards on the boulevards of the hot New Orleans night, faking sobriety and flicking the air-conditioning on full.