By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
NEW ORLEANS -- When you tell someone you're spending nine days in New Orleans to write about Super Bowl Week, they usually respond in one of three ways:
- "You're not coming back alive."
- "Nine days? Nine? NINE? Are they trying to kill you?"
- "Do you need an intern?"
Festive, spooky, rowdy, insane, disjointed, surreal ... pick an adjective. All of them fit. As far as I'm concerned, New Orleans is one of three American cities that passes the Movie Test. In other words, when you're spending time in a certain city, do you feel like you've been inadvertently thrust into an actual movie?
For instance, walking around Vegas feels like the greatest IMAX movie of all-time; the entire experience doesn't even seem real. Same with walking around downtown Manhattan: mammoth buildings, crazy people, stores galore, random celebrity sightings, one recognizable landmark after another ... it feels like you should be walking around with three cameras trained on you, as the director barks out orders and you struggle to remember your lines.
As for the Big Easy, New Orleans feels like another country entirely. Is this city really
in America? How is this possible? Consider the following:
The natives speak in some sort of Creole jibberish that's nearly impossible to understand. Remember Adam Sandler's old "Cajun Man" skit on SNL? He wasn't kidding. Over the past three days, in conversations with various cab drivers, waiters and people on the street, I had absolutely no idea what some of them were saying. None.
When you arrive in New Orleans, you feel like you're entering a foreign country.
Not to be mean, but this isn't the most sophisticated city you'll ever visit; I can't even imagine the collective SAT score here. It's the kind of place where you ask for change for a $20 bill and the waiter will give you back a 10 and three fives. And God forbid you ask one of the locals for directions ... you might as well ask them for the square root of Pi.
True story: My cab driver actually got lost taking me from the airport to my hotel, which was located about three blocks from the French Quarter. I actually found myself barking out orders and giving him directions, and I haven't been here in 10 years. Swear to God. This might be the only American city that could double as a Third World country.
There's a reason why they call this place the Big Easy -- it's just a big, sprawling, lazy place. You'll probably see Jerome Bettis take another painkiller injection in his groin before you see somebody in a hurry in New Orleans. Does anyone even work here? People just amble around ... you're not even really sure where they're going. Usually they aren't carrying anything, and they don't seem to be headed in a specific direction. I've stopped trying to figure it out.
The weather doesn't help matters. During the summer, it's positively oppressive, but the winters feature a chilly/humid battle that never gets resolved from day to day. Wear pants during the winter and you're too hot; wear shorts and you're too cold. There's no middle ground. This place is more up and down than Aaron Brooks and Melissa Joan Hart combined.
I'm just guessing here, but apparently there are no laws in New Orleans. Porn shops stay open all night. So do liquor stores. And some restaurants. And most strip clubs. Strippers get butt-naked and allow you to grope them within reason (um, not that I'd know or anything). Sex clubs feature performers actually having sex with one another (although they're pretty gross in a "Real Sex on HBO" kind of way -- lots of hairy backs and potbellies ... um, not that I'd know or anything).
You can walk around carrying beers or mixed drinks (vendors even sell them on the street). You can expose yourself in public, without any ramifications or repurcussions (more on this in a second). And just so gamblers wouldn't feel left out, they opened a casino (Harrah's) about three blocks from the French Quarter, which happens to be within walking distance from my hotel. As if my job weren't difficult enough this week.
(I'm getting the shakes just thinking about it. Is this some sort of test? I feel like Job.)
From what I can gather, drugs and murder are still illegal in New Orleans, but that's about it. Not that I'm arguing ... it's just a little strange, that's all.
There are some laws in this city ... right?
The downtown shopping scene has to be seen to be believed (don't walk around looking for one of those classy streets of stores, because you're not finding it downtown). For instance, on one section of Canal Street, an Ermenegildo Zegna clothing store directly faces Popeye's Chicken. I'm not making this up. You can buy a $200 tie at Zegna, walk across the street and pick up a four-piece chicken dinner for $4.99.
The downtown area exudes a voodoo/full-moon vibe that makes you feel like Mickey Rourke in "Angel Heart" -- sweaty, creeped out and wondering why you keep having flashbacks of Lisa Bonet covered in chicken blood. No city boasts a higher number of fortune tellers, street performers and homeless people, or more people ambling around aimlessly who look like they might or might not be up to something. Walking around on Saturday night, I kept waiting to glimpse a homeless guy turning into a werewolf or something. Never have I felt so safe and unsafe at the same time. I can't explain it.
Another example of the "This place is a whole other country" argument: The food. Over the past two days, I have eaten gumbo, penne diablo with crawfish, turtle soup and something called beignets (miniature pieces of fried dough covered in powdered sugar). I suspect there isn't a ton of calorie-watching going on here in the Bayou.
And the drinks are just as goofy -- 32-ounce beers, multi-daiquiris, all kinds of shots you've never heard of, and everything else you can imagine. They love to push "Hurricanes" on unsuspecting tourists, which taste like doctored cherry Hi-C and contain four shots (yes, four) of rum. Drink one of these and you feel like Larry Merchant. Drink two of these and you feel like Sebatian Janikowski. Drink three of these and ... well, don't drink three of these. Not a good idea. Bad times.
The steamboats on the Mississippi make the New Orleans waterfront very picturesque.
One great thing about downtown New Orleans: the bars. There have to be 20 or 30 bars in the Bourbon Street area which double as The Greatest Dive Bar of all-time. There's a history within each of them. Remember Seinfeld's line about Rodney Dangerfield, how Rodney wore every routine he ever did on his face? That's what New Orleans is like. The bars wear every drink they ever served on their face.
Same with the buildings: Many of them look like they have been around for centuries, and it's hard to imagine some blocks or sections looking much different today then they did 50 years ago. You could spend an entire day strolling around, checking out the sights and soaking everything in; if you're into architecture and art, you have no choice but to jouney down here at some point. And parts of the waterfront are pretty scenic -- I'm talking San Fran caliber.
(As for the jazz scene, another defining trait of this city, I haven't delved into that end yet. Soon.)
On the flip side ...
Downtown New Orleans is really, really gross, especially the Bourbon Street area, which consistently resembles the aftermath of the greatest frat party of all-time (littering isn't just legal here, it's encouraged). Walking Bourbon Street, you find yourself sidestepping horse manure, puke, urine and every other bodily function you can imagine. It's the kind of place where if you accidentally drop a dollar bill on the ground, you'll decide to leave it rather than pick it up.
Temptations abound on every corner in New Orleans -- especially during Super Bowl week.
Bourbon Street is a lot of fun ... but it's also really, really gross.
And the smell ... good God. A booze-drenched, pungent, puke/urine-infested miasma. They should decorate the balconies on Bourbon Street with decomposing bodies just to complete the effect.
On the flip side ...
I mean, is there a more astounding place than Bourbon Street? Maybe the last place in America with no rules whatsover. Even the policemen have given up -- they ride around on horses and have helpless looks on their faces that say "I hope none of these drunks try to tip over my horse." You just can't even imagine what went on there last Saturday night during the beginning of Mardi Gras.
(That's right, Mardi Gras. They're having Mardi Gras this week as well. I'm telling you, I'm not coming back alive.)
Given that I hadn't been here during Mardi Gras and only had a feel for it through two avenues -- 1.) tales from my drunken buddies who have been here, always potentially exagerrated, and 2.) those captivating "Girls Gone Wild!" video commercials on E! -- I always thought Mardi Gras was overrated. Nothing could be that crazy, right?
Well, I'm telling you, it's that crazy.
No one in New Orleans appears to be in a hurry. Doesn't anyone have a job?
Perverts packed along the balconies of every bar, screaming at women to pull up their shirts, hurling bead necklaces at them when they oblige. Drunken idiots weaving around like they've just been shot. Gangbangers prowling around, always looking like they're up to something. Transvestites, strippers, hookers and drag queens intermittently wandering around (without anyone batting an eyelash). People throwing up, people making out, people dry-humping against the side of a building. About 15 interactions in the course of an hour that make you say things like "Hey, isn't this how 'The Accused' started off?" And everybody's holding some sort of drink. It defies description.
The overpowering dynamic here? The whole "Take off your top!!!!!!!" ploy, which dominates just about every group interaction on Bourbon Street. I'm not sure what amazes me more, the fact that this seems to fly in the face of every feminist advancement over the past 30 years, the fact that women actually pull their tops off just for the right to get a piddling bead necklace, or the fact that some boyfriends/husbands actually encourage their significant others to do this. Apparently, the more beads you collect, the easier it is to determine that you're a drunken bimbo.
(Put it this way: If your daughter ever says the words, "Dad, we're going to Mardi Gras for spring break," make yourself a Drano daiquiri and drink it as fast as possible.)
Of course, Bourbon Street would be much more fun if these female flashers were actually people you would, um, want to see naked. On Saturday night, I spent most of my energies trying to start "Keep your shirt on! For the love of God, keep your shirt on!" chants. At least five or six times, I felt like Danny Torrance in "The Shining," during the scene when the old naked lady crawled out of the bathtub, and Danny was trembling in fear as spit dropped from my lower lip. That's how Bourbon Street makes you feel when "Show us your boobs!" gets said to the wrong person.
Just a bizarre place. And there were two or three moments when I felt genuinely unsafe, like the street was threatening to deteriorate into a full-fledged riot -- like a European soccer crowd gone bad. That line gets straddled at least five or six times an hour, but for whatever reason, it never degenerates into disaster. Why? I don't know.
But I do know one thing: You feel absolutely, positively alive on Bourbon Street, even as you're fearing for your own life. That's why everyone needs to visit New Orleans at least once.
(Not more than once ... but once.)
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. He'll be filing "Postcards from New Orleans" every day during Super Bowl week.