New Orleans: Water and Wood

The pigs are naked today.

Andrew is a little disappointed. With superlative words and hands in the air, he attempts to paint the scene for me.

“Seriously. My neighbors decorate their pigs for every holiday. Shamrocks for St. Patrick’s, costumes on Mardi Gras!” He looks back one more time to be sure, but the two cement hogs are stolid and grey—as grey as the moving skies above us here in the Lower Garden District.

“The original house was built by a successful butcher, so naturally, they put pigs on the porch,” says Andrew. Only in New Orleans can pigs look so noble.

“There’s a real pig that comes around here. His name is Gaston, and he likes to eat all the acorns in the park,” Andrew talks faster than we walk, spilling out stories like a leak in the levee. Every story is unfinished and magical, so that already, I imagine the bristly black pot-bellied Gaston wandering out in front of us and snarfling up the tree debris off Camp Street.

Everybody wishes they could travel with a friend like Andrew Nelson. Go to any city in America or the world and Andrew will reveal the most unexpected adventures. You never know where you might end up, but it’s going to blow your mind, you won’t get much sleep, and it will be slightly scandalous.

As a fellow writer at National Geographic Traveler, Andrew Nelson is my own personal Tennessee Williams, complete with a light beard and whimsical repartee. To finish the comparison, he teaches writing at Loyola University, where he hands out journalism insight like Mardi Gras beads (“Talk to the mail carriers. They know everything that’s going down in a place!”).

Whirling his right hand like a conductor, Andrew adds music to the scene, “Some days we’ve got these two guys who come and play their tubas on the corner, they have a tuba-off—is that what you call it?”

Sounds about right to me. I am sad not to witness the Great Tuba Smackdown of Camp Street, or the costumed pigs and the wandering Gaston, but now we have come to Magazine Street and its promenade of marvelous buildings. The colors and lace on every façade resemble the dresses at a debutante ball—beauty queens lined up in a row, each with something slightly askew. More than any American city, New Orleans lacks any real right angles—the whole of Magazine Street sits just a little bit wonky, as if the houses are winking at me.

Together, we detour into a back alleyway and dance over the puddles. Water is part of the architecture of this city, both friend and foe, and even now, nearly a decade after the biggest storm, you can’t look up at the changing sky without remembering the worst possible outcome.

In the back of a shotgun house filled with old wood, I meet Andrew’s friend Alex Geriner. Dressed in shorts and T-shirt, Alex welcomes me into his studio and shows me his latest creation—a custom-built buffet table fashioned from the salvaged pieces of a wrought-iron and a 300-year old piece of cypress.

“I got the iron from the balcony of a house in the Garden District,” says Alex, adding that it takes him two to three weeks to finish each unique piece for his line of Doorman Designs. In the far corner of his studio, he’s building a bed with a headboard that was once the door of a house in the Seventh Ward that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. The incomplete furniture is already a thing of beauty and a work of art—a house that evolved into a bed.

“I love cypress because it’s soft and easy to work with,” says Alex, “But it’s strong and withstands water, too.” Cypress swamps surround this city and out in the bayous and on the Atchafalaya, the trees rise up like Greek columns from the vast brown water.

Alex goes on to show me his imminent stash of barge wood—lumber cut up north and used to build barges that floated cargo down the Mississippi. In Louisiana, the boats were disassembled and the wood used to build the kind of long shotgun houses that epitomize this city. A century later, the storm knocked some of those houses down, but the old wood is eternally young, outliving every human that’s touched its surface.

Three hundred years since it first grew, the cypress has now become furniture—a fitting reincarnation, I think. It’s our own folly to view cities and buildings as static entities that must never change. The real New Orleans is a moment of water and wood that ebbs and flows with the river below—the city is always there, but never quite the same as the day before.

Tomorrow, this piece of New Orleans will get shipped out to Indianapolis where it might hold potted plants or ceramic kittens or framed pictures of a Midwestern family, but that won’t ever erase its series of past lives down here in Louisiana.

“I feel like I’m letting a city keep talking,” says Alex, thoughtfully, stroking a giant roof beam with one hand. Born and raised in nearby Slidell, Alex appreciates his own role in creating new traditions that celebrate the old ways. His designs are the newest antiques in town.

On the other side of Magazine Street, Appartique is one of several antique shops that Andrew and I wander through, admiring the zebra skin rugs and silk cravats and glazed china, every object placed just so, presenting a staged ensemble so elaborate, I reach out for something sturdy to lean on. Blame it on the South, but I might just be swooning.

“I had a lady in here a while back,” says John Grafe, Appartique’s owner and designer, “And she asked me, “How come you have all these antiques down here?’” Listening to a southerner mimic a northern tourist is like a little gift that I wish I could frame and take home with me.

“Well, I told her, I said, ‘This is what we do. We’re from the South! We live with this stuff; we value it—when it breaks, we fix it.’”

One might argue that the whole city functions this way. Nothing is ever really broken—it’s just perpetually getting fixed.

“This is our life and culture—we have a culture of entertaining,” John nods over to the piles of fine china laid out on his tables. “This is the stuff our great-grandparents used and we use it, too!”

All over the world, I answer to critics who say America is all Wal-Marts and waste, a nation that revels in the disposable—but clearly, none of the naysayers have been to New Orleans. Down here, the rhythm of the South is renewal and reuse, a place where objects have a much longer life expectancy than you’re average American city. The oldness is part of what pulls in new converts like my friend Andrew and John.

“I only moved to New Orleans two years ago, but I know this—I’m never leaving,” says John with the surety of a preacher man. His neighbor in the in the shop next door only moved here last month, but New Orleans already feels like home to her.

“We came down here from Seattle,” says Jodell Eggbert, an umbrella enthusiast and designer whose Magazine Street shop, Bella Umbrella, sells fashionable rain shields and rents out vintage parasols.

“Why New Orleans?” I wonder, but the answer is obvious.

“It rains wetter here,” answers Jodell, “When the rain falls in New Orleans, it bounces back up at you.” Hard rain means better business, especially when your business is umbrellas.

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

“I love rain!” says Jodell, “Not only do I make money when it rains, but I find rain remarkably comforting.” Above us, the store lights shine through pastel silks and the patterned domes of sculpted custom-built umbrellas. She talks me through the style and function of her umbrellas, explaining the science of radial tension and how much the local culture appreciates her art.

“I’ve been surprised by the number of men who want to dress and match an umbrella. In Seattle, people use umbrellas, but people in this city make umbrellas part of their style!”

Yet for all the talk about rain, it never lasts long. Being a Caribbean city, New Orleans flips so quickly and effortlessly to intense sunshine that sucks up all the water from the streets and paints every house a different color. Respect for the rain pairs with an overt optimism that the sun will always come out in the end.

It’s a self-affirming belief that keeps festivals going and street musicians playing even when the rain returns with apocalyptic force.

“This will be over soon,” is what they say to me, ignoring the pelting wet, while Andrew points out the boots everyone is wearing.

“You can always tell the real New Orleanians—when it’s like this, they don’t mess around with flip flops.”

I’m glad to be wearing boots, too—not that I care about staying dry, but because it’s nice to fit in. Perhaps the real voodoo of this city is that everybody belongs in New Orleans. Whether you want to dress a pig or engage in tuba competition or make lamps from blowtorches or sell pagoda-shaped umbrellas or make doughnuts with hot sauce—you can.

It’s what keeps the city young—the open invitation to come down and take part. That and all the water.

“None of us age around here, really. It’s the humidity!” says Andrew, always young in his city of eternal youth, smiling just a little before leading me off to another wild place that I really must see.

Read This Next

'World’s worst shipwreck' was bloodier than we thought
World’s first ultrasounds of wild manta rays reveal a troubling truth
Titanic was found during secret Cold War Navy mission

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet