“In just a couple of days, no other place has changed me as much as New Orleans. An eccentric and festive city, she accepted me for who I was, not where I am from, what I believe, or who I will be.”
Before my New Orleans Journal begins….
Before I ventured to New Orleans, I was told by a multitude of people it was a filthy and dangerous city, and one person went as far as calling it a cesspool.
Either a refusal to believe the rapport of New Orleans or perhaps youthful arrogance fueled my desire to see the city even more with every story I heard. Upon arrival, I embraced the culture that was New Orleans. I lived differently. I lived like me.
Now, my goal for this trip was to see as much of the city as I possibly could. Other than visiting the WWII museum, all I did was walk a total of 46.1 miles around the entire city. Now, those same people I mentioned earlier would say what I did was risky and crazy, and not everyone would do it. However, I refuse to live with fear.
Every day, all I did was either look to the skyline or look at my maps app and walk there. I had no obligations and no ramifications; all I did was live.
To begin my first day, I walked every single block of the French quarter. It was an early Sunday morning, and I was able to see all of the shops prepare the day to come. After some time, I stopped to grab a sack of beignets from Café Du Monde. I was told this was the one thing you must do in New Orleans, but I was disappointed. Beignets taste exactly like a funnel cake, and I am not a fan of funnel cakes; however, what came next changed my life.
After some debating, I had taken my order to go and sat on a bench right next to the café. About halfway through my first beignet, a homeless man asked if he could sit next to me.
–Simply put, my conversation with the Colonel changed my life. What’s crazy is I don’t even know if anything we talked about was real or not. It doesn’t matter because for me it was.
I was sitting on a bench when a man wearing an overly large tan jacket approached and asked if he could sit down. Now, most people would say no or get up and walk away, but I said yes. I said yes to a story and a conversation that would change my life.
A Bonding Moment
Our conversation started with a common hatred: beignets. I was not a fan because they tasted no better than a funnel cake (and I hate funnel cakes) but he had a better reason. In New Orleans, tourists will give the local homeless population beignets. He was appreciative of the generosity, but three orders of beignets a day got repetitive.
After a few minutes of talking, the man revealed he was a former Marine. It was his time in the service where he earned his street name: The Colonel. As a Marine, the Corps taught him toughness, responsibility, and accountability for one’s actions. Little did he know this chapter in his life would prepare him for what was to come: his life on the streets.
Throughout our entire conversation, he discussed his role in his family. His family would not be the perfect nuclear family portrayed on television, but his friends and boyfriend were closer than any family I know. Everyone had a job and responsibility and the Colonel served as the Enforcer. The Enforcer is a title reserved for the leader of the family. The Enforcer oversees discipline. The Enforcer is always the person who has lived on the streets the longest. The Colonel also had a secondary role: The Educator. He taught the rules of the streets to the “rookies.” For example, you never mess with kids or the elderly, and you always stay out of trouble with the cops.
The Water Moccasin
As the Enforcer, the Colonel would often place himself in danger for the safety of others. He told me this story as an example of the sacrifices all leaders must make. A few days before our conversation, he woke up one morning and saw a water moccasin slither towards a family member that was still asleep. The Colonel grabbed the snake and threw it, but in the process, the water moccasin bit his hand. He showed me the bite marks, and I saw the deterioration of flesh leading to two puncture marks.
Like any family unit, the Colonel’s street family has a language that only they can understand. The first word he taught me was the word oi. If oi is said once, it is a question that has a proper response. Oi serves as a familial call and response; however, the word oi turns violent quickly. If repeated three times, oi is a sign someone is going to get beat up. I practiced this word with a few of the family members that walked up and it worked.
The other phrase the Colonel introduced me to is comme ci comme ca. He defined comme ci comme ca as “It is what it is. If you don’t have control over the situation, don’t worry about it. If you do have control over it either stop complaining or do something about it.”
A Kind Gesture
During this conversation, I began to shake. Not out of nervousness or indulgence in caffeine, but because I was cold. (The temperature was 71 degrees.) He asked if I wanted to borrow his jacket. I never felt threatened and politely decline, but the gesture shocked me. The Colonel would rather see others more comfortable than himself.
The Daily Struggle
We talked about the struggle of being homeless in New Orleans. As a popular tourist destination, the homeless population often gets in trouble for trying to talk to the tourists. Also, homeless people are viewed as an eyesore, especially in the French Quarter. They must constantly keep moving.
The End (of that story)
Day 1 continued…
After leaving Café Du Monde, I continued to walk around and saw a streetcar roll-up. Without looking at the destination, I decided to hop-on and traveled to the Garden District. Upon arriving at the Loyola University stop, I hopped off. I blend in in quite well on college campuses, so I walked around for a bit and then headed to their neighbor: Tulane University. After stopping for a quick bite, I walked around the entire campus. Unlike me, the students were not on Spring Break, so it was interesting to watch everyone prepare for classes the next day.
After a couple of hours, I headed back to the French Quarter via another trolley and hung around there for the rest of the day. (and night)
After a quick bite for breakfast, I walked back to Tulane University for an official campus tour. After yesterday, I was interested in hearing more from the students about their college experience and the way it differed from mine. After some time, my guide finally admitted they were taking nineteen credit hours, and I was able to sympathize. At one point in my collegiate experience, I was enrolled in 19 credit hours, working a part-time job, and missed about two weeks of class for traveling and other adventures. (By the end of my sophomore year of college, I had missed about 7 weeks of school. Don’t be like me and attend classes you are paying for.)
After the tour concluded, I walked around and found an entrance to Audubon Park. I ended up walking halfway through the park and headed down a familiar road: Magazine Street.
I walked down Magazine Street and then stopped at a grocery store for lunch. After a quick break, I hopped on a bus over to Canal Street and walked towards the French Market.
After thirty minutes of booth browsing, I headed towards the shops at Canal Place to compare the difference in the stores. I walked around for a while inside the shops at Canal place, and then I headed towards St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Louis Armstrong Park. From Louis Armstrong park, I saw downtown and decided to go in the opposite direction towards St. Patrick’s Church and ended up at the National World War II museum.
On my third day of adventure, I decided to lounge around in the morning. I was not feeling the best, and I figured that I should rest up prior to an afternoon of adventure. It was during this downtime I discovered the New Orleans Museum of Art and I decided to head there. There were a couple of outside exhibits, and I did not want to pay to enter the museum. So, I checked my maps app again and noticed an abnormally large body of water with a name I could not pronounce. Naturally, I ventured towards it.
It was a beautiful walk filled with back trails of mulch, but the New Orleans city park ended up being way bigger than I initially thought it was. After finally getting to Lake Pontchartrain (4 MILES AWAY!!), I noticed it was late, so I ended up walking all the way back to the trolley. If I had one takeaway from today, it would be don’t ever forget to be sporadic. If you see something, point at it, and go there. It can be a lot of fun.
The last day in New Orleans was planned the minute I decided to head to the Crescent City. I heard about a French bakery on Magazine Street and bought a small baguette for breakfast and then headed towards the National WWII Museum. As a (former) history major, I thought I would love the museum, but surprisingly I was wrong. The exhibits were great, and a lot of information abounded; however, I have already studied WWII a lot. I really didn’t feel like I learned anything.
While I was there, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture and talk to an academic professor, and I think that was the highlight of my day. After that long day in the museum, I traveled to a local dive named Franky and Johnny’s Restaurant. (Because of the frequency of the bus system, I recommend driving there.) My host within the town suggested it, and I ended my last night in New Orleans with two house specials: chargrilled oysters and some gumbo.
Prior to traveling to New Orleans, I never expected to fall in love with this city. However, this place became a home to me. The sporadic trip to Lake Pontchartrain, the intense walking sessions, and my conversation with the Colonel made this trip my best one yet. If you ever get the chance, ignore the chatter and just go.