Halloween in the land of life and death

Halloween revelers take over Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Halloween revelers take over Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

It’s been said in various ways that death always stirs just beneath the surface of life in New Orleans, therefore it should come as no surprise that this city has thoroughly embraced the celebration of Halloween.

Of course, New Orleans is famous for finding a way to celebrate virtually anything. “If there’s a festival anywhere, this city will adopt it,” said the Haitian cab driver that my husband and I flagged down after a rainy Halloween night in the French Quarter last year.

The rain didn’t dampen the Halloween party, and even added its own glitter to streets crowded with revelers. We weren’t alone in seeking shelter under the broad umbrella of the Quarter’s iconic balconies, but overall the city’s mood was: water be damned, and let the party roll.

With its foundation mostly below sea level, NOLA (shorthand for New Orleans, Louisiana) has perched on the verge of catastrophe throughout its history. Yet faced with that, its citizens have responded by building a vibrantly idiosyncratic culture.

NOLA doesn’t only embrace death; it dances with it — elegantly, flamboyantly, to some of the world’s greatest music, quite often fortified with an extravagant amount of alcohol. A popular accoutrement is the “to-go” cup, which comes in especially handy when exploring NOLA’s lively street life.

I’ve loved NOLA ever since I was a college student. My family lived in the Panama Canal Zone, and twice a year, a ship dubbed “the college special” transported students to and from the States via the port of New Orleans. It was always hard to say whether the best party was on land or sea.

My love affair with Halloween began much later, when I married on Oct. 29, 1988 and my husband and I then hopped a ferry for what we thought would be a solitary honeymoon weekend on Block Island. For a minute we wondered why there were so many other people on board at that late date. Furthermore, why were they dressed like ghosts and monsters?

It quickly dawned on us, however, that our wedding anniversary would always be linked with Halloween. And so when our 25th came, we decided to celebrate in one of the Halloween capitals of the world.

NOLA will always be synonymous with Mardi Gras, and also with its world-class Jazz Festival. But for those wanting to taste Mardi Gras Bacchanalia without gorging on the full meal, Halloween is an excellent alternative.

Both to save money and experience more local life, I looked for lodging in a private home via the travel website Airbnb.com. (The site connects visitors with private renters. Accommodations may range from a house or apartment, to a room in an occupied dwelling.)

My eyes fixed on a charming “shotgun double” on Pearl Street in the Uptown area that boasted easy access to stately St. Charles Avenue, with its streetcars to downtown.

“The Pearl at Riverbend” had high ceilings, lovely furnishings and good art. Best of all, it had hosts Dan and Jo Anne Casey, both with Connecticut connections, and their sweet rescue dog, Pearl.

Dan is a Connecticut native, a former principal of Wethersfield High School, and Jo Anne once worked in insurance for Aetna. But Jo Anne is a NOLA native who grew up in the Ninth Ward, hardest hit in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

She returned to help out her family and her beloved city, and today has her own business, producing “NOLA Girl” t-shirts, mugs and towels. Dan, now retired, loves NOLA’s warm weather and the fact that “there’s so much to do.”

Our hosts rightly advised that the best way to explore the city and find the most creative Halloween displays was to wander the neighborhoods. Residents dress up their homes as remarkably as they do themselves, and NOLA’s distinctive architectural features are an exceptional staging ground for Halloween décor.

We were entranced by spider webs threaded through the ornate intricacy of wrought iron balconies and gates, by ghosts shimmering amongst the tendrils of Spanish Moss swaying from the limbs of towering Live Oak trees, and by tree roots emerging like giant spooky octopi to wreak havoc on sidewalks.

But the piece de resistance was on the corner of St. Charles and State Street, where each year the expansive yard of an elegant mansion is transformed into a veritable bone yard of costumed skeletons, each group or individual tagged with a pun.

Quite a few were rock legends: “Bone Jovi,” “Grateful Dead,” “Rolling Bones,” “Bone-y Raitt” and, of course, “Pelvis Presley.” There were historic figures, such as “Bone-apart,” and even a geographic figure: “Dead Sea” (in scuba gear). A 2013 addition was “Dead Duck” (from television’s “Duck Dynasty”).

Several played on common expressions: “Bone Dry” (draped with towel), “Dead Ringer” (sporting a hula hoop), “Skeleton in the Closet,” and “Died Laughing.” But the biggest crowd pleaser seemed to be “’Til Death Do Us Part”; we caught several couples having their pictures taken with the amorous skeletal duo.

If every skeleton seemed to be having a ball, that’s the NOLA way. “This town is all about partying and celebrating,” summed up one NOLA devotee. “It doesn’t take much. They even celebrate funerals,” a reference to the traditional “Second Line” funeral procession in which musicians and mourners parade behind a coffin en route to its final resting place.

No visit to NOLA at any time of year is complete without visiting one of the city’s historic cemeteries, a major tourist attraction. But it would be unthinkable not to make a cemetery pilgrimage during Halloween.

Because NOLA is built on a swamp, the dead are entombed aboveground in stone crypts and mausoleums, many adorned with fancy artwork and haunting sculptures. Walking past row after row of tall tombs, it’s easy to see why these cemeteries are called “Cities of the Dead.”

We strolled through St. Louis Cemetery #1, which reminded me of a smaller version of Pere Lachaise in Paris, where many of France’s cultural heroes are buried. True, St. Louis doesn’t contain any names as famous as Chopin, Moliere or Colette. But it does have Marie Laveau, NOLA’s legendary “Voodoo Queen.” There’s no topping that, especially on Halloween.

From birth to death, “NOLA is a great metaphor for the human experience,” said NOLA artist Rebecca Rebouche, profiled in Anthology magazine. That’s doubtless why it creates and attracts so many artists.

You find them everywhere, in various genres and in various stages of ascent or decline. I wondered where the pair fit in that we saw on the street offering, for a fee, to pound out “Fast Smut or Fast Poems” on old typewriters.

“NOLA is all about the sensory experience of life — food, music, the weather, all of which are very pronounced here,” said Rebouche. “She woos you with food and music. She cradles you in the bend of the river and the patina of history. She breaks your heart, floods, empties, and fills again.”

References to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005, are commonly heard, although those most directly affected are often still too traumatized to talk deeply about it. About 80 percent of the city was flooded, and people were without power — and afraid of lawlessness — for weeks.

Uptown and the French Quarter largely escaped the catastrophic flooding, but an Uptown lady whose basement flooded said she and her husband alternately sat with a gun at the front of the house until calm finally returned.

What happens still, she told us, is that when people gather without any outsiders present and someone mentions Katrina, the stories and emotions spill out. Those who didn’t live through it, she said, can never truly understand it.

Some areas of the city haven’t fully recovered, but others, like the Bywater, have come back far better than before. We enjoyed a delightful night of food, wine and music there at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, a once-drab site transformed by youthful artistry and energy into one of NOLA’s coolest hot spots.

You don’t have to look hard for music in NOLA; music is everywhere. For many years now the music magnet for locals and savvy visitors has been outside the French Quarter, on Frenchmen Street. But from bawdy Bourbon Street to Sunday morning church services, never rule anything out.

We had just about had it with Bourbon Street, a once genuinely decadent, now garish gauntlet of commercial bands and tired kitsch, when we heard the fabulous sounds of accordion king Dwayne Dopsie and his Zydeco Hellraisers emanating from The Krazy Korner nightclub. Time to dance!

Then, on Sunday morning, it was time to sing, when a new friend took us to hear the equally fabulous Jazz Choir at the welcoming, ethnically and racially diverse Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street.

But our most sublime musical moment came mid-day in the middle of Royal Street, where violinist Tanya Huang and guitarist Dorise Blackmon had stopped even foot traffic. We heard that Huang inspired the character of Annie in “Treme,” the great HBO series about the aftermath of Katrina.

“Treme” masterfully illustrated the centrality of both music and food in NOLA. During our stay, we devoured Thai-style crawfish omelettes, Tuni0sian-style lamb chops, and a basket of traditional beignets at Café Du Monde. But in the end we felt like we had only skimmed the first layer of a rich, dense dessert.

Our last big meal was at Galatoire’s in the French Quarter, still the place for special occasions. At a nearby table, two wobbly men in paper crowns stood on chairs opposite each other offering extravagant toasts and tributes.

Throughout the restaurant there was scattered applause, but few paid the men much heed. It was just another party in NOLA.

Scenes from a veritable boneyard of costumed
skeletons on the corner of St. Charles and State streets.
Scenes from a veritable boneyard of costumed skeletons on the corner of St. Charles and State streets.
Because New Orleans was built on a swamp, the dead are entombed above ground in crypts and mausoleums.
Because New Orleans was built on a swamp, the dead are entombed above ground in crypts and mausoleums.

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