She is honeysuckle dripping with milky juice. She is magnolia-sweet air and hot crawfish boiled in backyards in 100 percent humidity. She seeps into my skin, my hair, my molecules, until I am hot and wet with sweat that doesn’t ever evaporate, and I don’t mind because this is the most alive I’ve felt since the last time I was here.
She doesn’t have to be the place you were born to seduce you this way. She can be the place where you feel at home even if you’re a Yankee. You’re going to succumb in the end, and she knows it with the certainty of a voodoo queen. It may be the food, or the music, or the fog settling in on the French Quarter as if the Mississippi River has finally come to claim her gas lamps and wrought iron and all those French doors shuttered to the night. New Orleans is many things, but if all of those things were simmered down to an essence, clarified like butter, what remained would be pure aphrodisiac.
The exact origin of the seduction has always been a mystery. She works on me slowly, from my first steps out of the airport gate, every time. In the spring of 2005, as I deplaned in New Orleans and slowed my feet to a stroll, I looked to my left and noticed a tall, good-looking man in his late twenties, with long red hair and a lanky gait. He started chatting me up on the way to baggage claim. We were both home for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the flirtation went down easy, like the cold, wet bodies of oysters sliding down my throat. The redhead introduced himself—“I’m Andrew, Andrew Babylon”—and reached his large, freckled hand toward me. I laughed as I took his hand. I’d just set foot in this town, and already it had begun. Is it that I look better here? Do I sway my hips further from this side to that side? Am I just sexier in this city of sin, this city that care forgot, the Big Easy? Yes, yes, and yes. It’s not just me; everyone is sexier in New Orleans.
In the Bay Area, where I live, my dates are few and usually disappoint by dessert. Strangers won’t speak to me even when I smile and say, “Good morning.” It took three years and an earthquake before my neighbor would return my smile. I blame the cold of the Pacific, the bundling up against the damp, turning us inward. In New Orleans, we are all soft-shells. We are moist and open; maybe it’s the heat. By the time I reached Babylon, it had been five months since my last visit home, and I was starving for someone to let me know I was still a woman and had some powers left, and that being single and fairly young and alive was a good, good thing. Oh, yes, New Orleans began to feed me five minutes after I landed at the airport. It was like this each time. If there was no red-haired Babylon, it’d be a middle-aged airport porter with a paunch, asking, “Honey, you need a cab?” or the clerk at the rental car place, drawling, “Awright now, baby, you want INshuurance with your car?” As I smiled at Babylon, I found I was sliding down the inevitable slope. There was no use fighting it.
I arrived at Mid-City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl on my first night in town, having chosen it from a city full of bars with smokin’ hot music playing all night long. I parked at the far edge of the parking lot, right up against the bus stop. The place was littered with crawfish heads and tails, as if someone had just had a crawfish boil right there, next to the on-ramp of the I-10. I turned to see a seafood restaurant behind me and smiled, imagining people eating crawfish and drinking beer while waiting for the bus.
Feeling like I didn’t belong, I climbed the long staircase to the dancehall, which is also a bowling alley. I’d had this feeling too often in hip San Francisco bars. I was still moving too fast and worrying too much, swimming against the current of the town. Even for me, it’s not easy to let the South seep in all at once. It’s an adjustment, slowing to Southern time, which drifts and stretches out like the Mississippi River Delta. I wasn’t used to going out alone, but I told myself I was never really alone in New Orleans. I always ran into a cousin, or a sister’s ex-boyfriend, or I made new friends real easy.
At the top of the stairs, I breathed in and smiled, surveying the twelve lanes running the length of the room and a small dance floor with a stage on the right. The bowlers spun to the zydeco music the DJ played. It was a raucous room, with bowling balls banging and rolling, and folks talking and dancing and carrying on. Tab Benoit was only one of four acts scheduled upstairs that evening, and four more would play downstairs. Really, there should be a law against so much hot music in one place. But there aren’t any laws that interfere with having a good time in New Orleans. There are drive-through daiquiri shops all over town, making literal the meaning of the phrase Laissez les bon temps rouler, which is more mandate than mantra in the city. Let the good times roll.
At the bar, I wrapped my hands around my first Abita Amber, found an Offbeat Magazine with the subtitle “Jazz Fest Bible,” and snuggled into the crowd waiting for Tab Benoit to resume. After a while, a blond man about my age, in a baseball cap and alligator shirt, returned from the bar and handed me a cold one and smiled, and I smiled back. He took my empty bottle, and I thanked him with the sweet recollection that as a woman in the South, I did not have to buy my own drink. It’s one of those tacit Southern rules, like putting Miss or Mr. in front of a person’s first name as a sign of respect.
I eased onto a long bench and heard, “May I sit next to you?” I looked up to see a handsome blue-eyed brunet gesturing toward the spot next to me. He started up a conversation with, “This is just what the doctor ordered,” pointing toward his feet in their Converse low-tops, saying they were sore from the festival that day. I had to agree about the whole thing being just right: the bar, the beer, the sweet anticipation of bayou blues, and the fact that this was the third attractive man starting something up within a few hours, ummmm hummm.
His name was Will, and he was from Houston but lived in the West. His accent was gravy-smooth and peppered with darlin’s. Sure enough, the conversation was easy. I told him about my job as a hospital social worker. He was a graduate student struggling toward a PhD. We found, somewhere in these tellings, a mutual story of the bliss of finding this city as she was and finding in her just what we both needed, a respite from the world of death and deadlines.
By the time Tab Benoit came to the stage, I assumed the night would only improve. I went directly to the dance floor while Will went to the bar to buy me another Abita, and with the first strains of the slide guitar, I felt an early symptom of succumbing: my lips curling up into a smile that stayed put.
Tab Benoit had thick curly locks that would amount to whole handfuls of hair if grabbed. He wore a pink cotton shirt. I loved that such a masculine man wore pink, as if to say, “I got everything y’all need right here, and a soft side.” He stroked the strings and howled the blues with a Cajun lilt, all muscle and rhythm. His jeans were tight, and his big belt buckle signaled the size of what lay below.
My feet, which just a few hours before had been rushing down the jetway at the airport, shifted easily to the barroom shuffle, the brass band bounce, the swamp boogie saunter. I learned my first dance steps on the French Quarter streets when I was in grade school. My father, a jitterbug man, taught me. I picked up my brass band stomp in high school, from the marching bands at Mardi Gras. Later, in the clubs on the edge of Rampart Street, my jazz musician friends showed me how to second line. For a white woman, I move all right. At the Rock ’n’ Bowl, I brought my feet down to meet the hardwood. My hips followed their lead, and I let the town take me.
A few sets later, Will and I were hula-hooping along with the twenty-one-year-old barmaids to the twang of John Mooney’s relentless blues guitar. Many sets later, they finally stopped playing music but hadn’t closed the bar, though it was four in the morning. Will and I made out under the full moon, on the hood of my rented sedan, by some crawfish heads, overlooking the on-ramp to the I-10 going west toward Baton Rouge.
After that, I expected the seduction to gain velocity and accepted the fact that there really wouldn’t be any getting off the freeway of the city until I “fell out,” as they say. I didn’t care because I was too busy smiling that nonstop smile and letting it all happen.
The next morning, the hangover set in. My ears rang, and my feet ached from dancing. I perked up when I remembered I was having breakfast at the Jazz Fest with Will. I eased through the festival gates with all the other music lovers in sundresses and shorts. I strolled toward the food stands and began to salivate. Crawfish quesadillas. Spinach oyster salad boudin balls. I asked the lady at the first meat pie stand for directions to the Natchitoches meat pie stand and told her, “I’m meeting someone there.” Twelve hours in the city had loosened my tongue. I’d begun to talk to strangers about all my business.
The lady laughed and said, “Oh, it’s not just a tasty treat; it’s a destination.”
“It’s a date,” I added. I was late, because time already seemed superfluous. After I had strolled up and down the food stands awhile, reading the signs and trying to decide what to eat first—Crawfish Monica? Oysters en brochette?—Will appeared in a blue oxford shirt. He was energetic, having already eaten a meat pie. He had also had a Bloody Mary, with beef bouillon, for breakfast, and he held that this was the hangover cure. We moved on to the soft-shell crab po’ boy stand. He pumped layers of mayonnaise like a meringue onto the French loaf and doused the crab with hot sauce and lemon, and we sat down in the grass, facing each other cross-legged. He told me the story of his dissertation, and I ate the po’ boy, hearing only his Texas accent mingled with the flaky crabmeat. Will’s eyes got bluer, and his story of erosion and tectonic plates became increasingly compelling, as the sweetness of the meat and the tangy hot sauce tingled on my lips.
Somewhere between the Gospel Tent and the Jazz and Heritage Stage, Will and I moved into that neutral ground where the strains of electric blues guitar and the jazz trumpet’s ecstatic blast blended on the breeze with the climactic chorus of the Zion Harmonizers’s “Meet Me on the Church-House Steps,” and I felt it. Held in the space between the stages, the musical mix that could have been cacophony became a kind of heaven. The divergent rhythms melded into a gorgeous, disorganized whole, like the city herself. After eighteen hours, something in my step, something in my nonstop smile, in the lingering aftertaste of the crabmeat, and in the promise of the warm hand in mine, settled it. I had truly arrived. In that moment, I sounded like myself again; my Southern accent slid on, and my step was a saunter. I was home.
Will had to leave for the West the next day. I did lament his absence for a good few hours that morning after I put him in a cab. Then I realized that, after all, I was a woman, and fairly young and alive, and I was in New Orleans. So I put a honeysuckle sprig in my hair and a slinky sundress on the rest, and I headed back to the Jazz Fest with my sister, Juju, who had just arrived from Portland.
That evening, as the sun set on the fairgrounds, we ran into our old friend LeClaire, who told us where to go next. At the corner of Esplanade and Moss, a Shell gas station hosts the annual after-party. “Shell Fest,” LeClaire said, “is for the drunks that don’t want to go home.” I conveniently fit in to both categories. He went on, “The beauty of it is that people are doing so many illegal things all at once.”
Now, it’s common for New Orleanians to find excess and a disregard for the law attractive. It’s also common for them to hold in high regard activities that are just plain stupid and dangerous, if not technically illegal—like smoking by the gas pump or doing the limbo in an impossibly short skirt. According to LeClaire, these were some hallmarks of the Shell Fest.
We strolled toward the Bayou, not fully believing a party at a gas station could be a good time. As we arrived, some SUVs were leaving what had been a parking lot, revealing a cement dance floor. The “Shell girls,” good-looking blondes in their fifties, danced to disco music and called me “baby” as I bought my Bud Light, which I wouldn’t ever drink in California, but here at the gas station, cold beer was good beer.
My sister and I joined the others on the cement dance floor, grooving to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” and I noticed a white man in his mid-twenties, dancing like a black man born right there. He was shorter than me by a good three inches and younger by about ten years. He had blond hair and wire-rim glasses, looking real intellectual on top, but, below, all muscle, not too stocky and not too lean. He was just right.
I smiled and looked away, having remembered how to flirt. Soon, I got too hot. With all that sunshine and sticky air, I was layered with sunscreen, Jazz Fest dirt, and sweat. When the DJ announced, “Have a COOOOOLD shower at the Shell Fest,” I danced over toward the barbecue grills, to where an upturned water hose pumped a powerful spray of water into the air. It came down cold and clear, and I plunged straight into its thundering circumference, in my cotton sundress, squealing, raising my face to its goodness, eye makeup be damned. Then, the man with so much soul appeared outside the shower and held out his hand toward me. Yes was all I could say. It was all I had been saying for two days. I grabbed his hand, and he spun me in and out of the spray. The man turned out to be a salsa-dancing fool on top of all his funk prowess and general good rhythm. He spun me to bliss and back. Our hips and arms intertwined and pressed for a moment right up almost into each other, and then with a snap of his wrist, he spun me out and back under the shower. In the spinning, wet blur, I saw that the crowd on the dance floor had turned our way and bright flashes of light came from the cameras of people in lawn chairs perched on the flatbeds of their trucks, parked on the perimeter.
Breathless at the end of the song, we joined Juju and LeClaire and his friends, and I twisted the ends of my dress to wring out the water. Everyone laughed, and LeClaire said, “You are the Shell girl.” Somehow, this was a high compliment. The man introduced himself as Dave from Brooklyn, and he couldn’t explain how he got so much soul. He said good-bye and left with his friends. The rest of us stayed and danced until the crowd thinned. At the grills, they were selling “Shell Burgers.” The DJ said that all the proceeds from the burgers were going to “the poor orphans at Shell Beach,” because political correctness just never caught on in the South. The price went down to a dollar, and I bought two. The smarmy, unshaven men flipping burgers looked at me knowingly through half-closed eyes and said, real slowly, “We loved watching you dance, baby. You want cheese on that? Yeah, we really loved watching you dance.”
They said it like they’d seen me make love. I wondered if I should be ashamed, but I laughed as I put onions on the bun, thinking I hadn’t done anything I wouldn’t do on the salsa dance floor in Berkeley. It was the shower that made people gather and take photos. Showers are usually something you take for a small naked moment in your house, but sensuality isn’t reserved for private spaces here. It’s out on the street; it’s the thrill of honeysuckle scent, the burst of a mango freeze on your tongue; it’s everyday life with all of its fragrance and flavor. So I didn’t mind that these men had watched me succumb to the pleasures of the Shell shower any more than if they had watched me do something as natural as exhaling.
On the final night of the Jazz Fest, my head was full of music from the entire week, from jazz to blues to zydeco and funk and a little African and folk and bluegrass. I thought I couldn’t take in another note, thought I might boil over or burn up. In between howling, ripping slide guitar riffs, from the stage at Mid-City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl, John Mooney said, “We were arguing before the show ’bout who was gonna fall out first, the crowd or the band.”
Nobody fell out because the music propelled us up, though it was three in the morning. My feet couldn’t stop moving because John Mooney’s guitar beat set a foundation for Theresa Andersson’s soaring, wild fiddle melody, which electrified the air. Her voice asserted itself above it all, singing, “I take what I want, and I want you.” As if on cue, Dave from the Shell Fest shower appeared on the periphery of the crowd. The city, despite her slow pace, is always on time. Her timing is borne not of minutes or hours, but of notes and phrases, of chords and refrains, climaxes and resolutions.
Dave took my hand and pulled me close, I mean real close, and I didn’t push him to an acceptable distance like I would on the salsa dance floor in San Francisco, no. I’d been home about ten days, and all resistance was gone, or almost all. I mean, we didn’t do it right there on the dance floor, but we may as well have. He added a little swing to his salsa, and blues to his funk, and ummm ummmm ummmmm. I put my drink down for this, and he alternately spun me dizzy and pulled me so close I was almost behind him. I could feel everything, and everything was satisfactory and in just the right place, and then he kissed me. The kiss was half sugar and half muscle, like a cocktail, the very one he put to my lips during a brief interval between the songs, so brief we barely had time to clap. John Mooney couldn’t stop. He pressed on. Atomic, that’s how the kiss was, and my pent-up, thirsty self was sucking on him like he was honeysuckle and I was a bee.
“Yeah, you right!” screamed John Mooney when he finally gave in and played the last note, holding on to it while we clapped. “Yeah, you right,” I screamed back, meaning not only “Yes!” but also “Hell, yeah,” and “Amen,” and “Hallelujah, I’m home.”
I couldn’t cling to the final note or the festival or the city forever. I had to leave the next day. I couldn’t live in New Orleans year round. I wouldn’t survive. I’d die of a heart attack from the mayonnaise and fried food, or of cirrhosis or something.
Back at my favorite café, a week after my return to the West Coast, I noticed something. It seemed I still smelled of honeysuckle, still had a soft shell. I kept smiling and talking to strangers, as if a friendly conversation wasn’t a commitment, as if it didn’t mean marriage or anything more than we’re both alive and isn’t that a good, good thing? Sure enough, I met more men in the two weeks after my trip to New Orleans than I had in the entire six months before.
Too quickly, my scent faded, my pace sped, and I closed up like night jasmine at dawn. As much as I tried to cling to myself, the saucy openness evaporated into the summer fog. I made up my mind to go home every three months for an adjustment, to let New Orleans slow my step and soften my shell, and not only to be seduced but to become the seduction myself, if not by way of the on-ramp or the Shell shower, then some other part of the city just as unlikely and just as fine.