Maybe it’s pretentious, but I’ve got this “thing” about traveling. I like the fun, tourist attractions as much as any other fanny-pack-wearing, camera-toting visitor, but I hate being perceived as a tourist.
Perhaps it stems from my need to fit in, or a curiosity that ranges outside the realm of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but I want to go where the locals hang out. This is how I discovered Frenchmen Street in our sister city of New Orleans.
On a girls’ trip to The Big Easy, after two evenings roaming Bourbon Street in search of some strong, frozen concoctions poured from a churning machine on a wall of Technicolor alcohol, we’d met our quota of obnoxious drunkards, bare breasts, expensive drinks and mystery moisture that lies in the crevices between the sidewalk and the street. It was time for a different view and a less obnoxious, touristy crowd.
On the advice of a friend who's a New Orleans regular and a great concierge at our hotel, we decided to make the trek to Frenchmen Street, just past the intersection of Esplanade and Chartres Street and found ourselves amongst the sounds of several bands whose chords mingled in a muddled distortion between the clubs they were playing. It is, after all, the largest concentration of live music outside of the French Quarter.
Slightly overwhelmed by the two-block long array of establishments, seemingly all filled with live music and locals (I only assume, since no one was wearing beads or wandering aimlessly), we stepped into a quaint little bookshop to get our bearings and catch some calm before the storm. After browsing a few titles and scanning plenty of pictures of frontal male nudity (not that there’s anything wrong with that), we decided that braving the crowded, loud clubs was a better option.
We ended up at Café Negril, packed in like sardines with Loyola and Tulane students, a local bachelorette party and several middle-aged couples. The band playing had a young, handsome lead singer and it was cranking out an eclectic mix of funky, upbeat bluesy tunes that kept the entire dance floor undulating with sweaty couples — with a few free spirited hippie dancers passing around a tip jar for the band.
The drinks were reasonable, but the crowd was stifling. On to the next place.
Heading back up the street back towards Esplanade, an enterprising fellow spotted our group (all white ladies) and yelled “Hey, ya’ll, come on in if you’re not afraid of black people.”
Naturally, we were caught off guard. I responded, “So, if we don’t go in, it means we’re afraid of black people?”
To which he responded, “Yes.”
Inside we went, partially due to racial pressures, but a decent amount of alcohol pumping through our veins, no cover charge and some bass beats that make a booty shake involuntarily completed the lure. We stayed for three hours, dancing the night away with complete strangers and an endless flow of drinks with nary an obnoxious tourist (except for us, of course) to speak of.
I can’t say that I’ll never visit Bourbon Street again — after all, it is the quintessential New Orleans experience of debauchery that is inherent to the city.
But I can say that I’ll be back to Frenchmen Street on my next visit and recommend you do the same ... if only to feel like a native, escape the obnoxious crowd of tourists and catch an eclectic mix of people, live music and a lot less mystery moisture.