The first of many presents New Orleans gifted to me was rain. As I drove into the city after nearly 23 solo hours, a light sprinkle coated Interstate 10.
Coupled with the lush grass, Arizona was clearly some 1,400 miles away.
I turned west on Broadway Street in Uptown and the rain ceased while my low-riding PT Cruiser ambled toward St. Charles Avenue, attempting to dodge Frogger-like potholes. Uptown is a beautiful and wealthy neighborhood mostly spared by Hurricane Katrina, known for the classic Southern architecture and the street car line along St. Charles Avenue.
I parked in front of an house with a red door. The house with a wide porch and balcony adorned with Mardi Gras beads was where I would live for the next three months with a rotating cast of Tulane students as I interned at The Times-Picayune, the then-only daily newspaper in NOLA.
I half-assed unpacking for a few hours, trying to figure out how I would spend my summer when I wasn’t working.
It clicked: I knew no one in the Crescent City.
Before I could dwell on that scary thought for too long, one of my housemates came upstairs. He invited me to a jazz show somewhere downtown.
He knew I wouldn’t know anybody, but the music would be good and, “It beats sitting in your room.”
He was right. The energy and rhythm of Flow Tribe was the best welcome to New Orleans.
So began a summer of exploring and lessons.
Don’t turn down friends (At least initially)
At the beginning I knew nothing about my housemates.
I’m really lucky that the variety of people moving and in out of my house had wicked senses of humor and were always open to showing me around their city. I understand everyone isn’t quite as lucky.
Until you figure out which end of the spectrum your housemates/co-workers/strangers fall into: Take the plunge with them.
Let natives show you around. A city truly comes to life when people who inhabit it are asked to showcase its best (or worst) features.
From that first downtown show to exploring Magazine Street, I met a variety of people this summer. I didn’t quite mesh with every single one, but they taught me how to live in the South — how to correctly order a po-boy (dressed, if you’re wondering), to root for the Saints and to not wear heels on the horridly cracked sidewalks.
I had no idea what I was getting into, but that was the beauty of it. New places mean new people and I am a firm believer in trying new things.
Spend money on food and drink and fun. In New Orleans, food is on par with holiness.
And for good reason.
I spent the summer trying every kind of local delicacy I could buy.
A po-boy (overstuffed sandwich) with calamari and dressed (lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise) became a lunchtime favorite while the oyster festival was an interesting addition to my taste testing. After nearly 16 years of vegetarianism, the barbeque in the Bywater neighborhood cemented my conversion.
I could go on and on about the great food I ate and photographed this summer. Sometimes I ordered my meal just for the visual without regards for my taste buds. That’s how I ended up at a café in the hipster part of New Orleans eating organic yellow grits for breakfast instead of pancakes.
Another indulgence: $10 burlesque dance classes during a time I was unpaid. The classes had it all — gloves, poles, heels, fake eyelashes. All that was missing was Cher. It was fun, at times awkward, and the later classes turned into pretty good workouts. It was also just something very New Orleans.
Indulgence also means experiencing the not so savory parts of a city. In New Orleans this means the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood most decimated by flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Houses with markings made by the National Guard to indicate deaths and hazards stand next to Brad Pitt’s futuristic Make It Right homes. At the time, it was nearly seven years later and parts of the neighborhood remain dilapidated.
You can’t appreciate all the good of a place without witnessing some of the bad. After my afternoon walking and driving through the Lower Ninth, I think I truly appreciate the growth and love the city applied after the storm. I also understand what true damage looks like — even seven years later.
Remember: Humans are actually decent
When a friend visited on Memorial Day weekend, we did all the touristy things I was not interested in doing alone because she was actually a tourist.
We drove a lot that weekend, and my car began making an odd noise the day before our scheduled trip to a plantation in the country, approximately 60 miles from New Orleans.
She convinced me I was crazy. There couldn’t be a noise because my car is from 2006. Duh.
And so we embarked the hour-long drive.
We made the picturesque drive along Lake Pontchartrain with little incident other than arguing over which Taylor Swift song to play first. Forty minutes into the drive — too far to turn around — my temperature gauge began to spike. Like my heart rate.
As the needle quietly hovered at a temperature I described as “between normal and Arizona in July,” I turned off the exit toward the plantations.
Then everything went downhill.
The red check engine light lit up and started making all sorts of ruckus; steam started to pour out of my car.
We pulled off the gravel road and I started swearing.
At this point, normal college students would call their parents or siblings — hell, AAA. Too bad, this gravel road was a perfect hole in cell phone coverage. You can look at beautiful plantations, but you can’t call anyone to tell them about it!
So, we sat. I ate my peanut butter sandwich I had packed for lunch. What else can you do?
The next thirty minutes were punctuated by the anger I felt at myself for listening to my friend instead of my internal paranoid driver.
I never pictured my knight in shining armor being a middle-aged woman without a bra driving a SUV with the windows down, listening to Rick Ross.
But there she was — offering us a ride to the service station that supposedly existed down the road.
There’s a moment when you realize accepting a stranger’s act of kindness is okay — not the start of an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.”
It’s the moment when you could do nothing, sit by your smoking car with no cell service or try to fix the problem by accepting a ride to the service station two miles away.
It’s when you realize humans are actually decent and planning every part of the day is a useless practice.
After that ride, I met a lot of great people: the mechanic, the tow-truck driver, another man waiting for his car to be fixed, and Bullet, a blue-eyed puppy.
…I also paid a lot of people money that weekend.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CaitlinRCruz