Something happens to me when I approach New Orleans and see Lake Pontchartrain in all its vast, swampy grandeur, whether I’m driving over the causeway, as long as a marathon, or flying above it as I come in for a landing at the airport now named for Louis Armstrong.
I feel lighter. Happier. Like my old self. It’s hard to explain.
For me, there is no such thing as a simple trip to New Orleans. Every corner of the city triggers sense memory to the point that I can’t even go into a random bathroom in a French Quarter bar without having a flashback.
I can’t enter the Superdome without visions of my first Saints game there — 1989 — superimposed on everything I see. I can’t walk the streets of the Marigny without peeling back the layers of my time on these streets. I can’t look at the Mississippi River without feeling it flowing through me, too.
When I walk down Burgundy Street I still feel like I’m in my twenties, slightly put off that no one in the neighborhood seems to know who I am anymore. And when I pop my head into all the old places, I can’t help but look for faces I know, even though most of them are long gone from this place.
Sure, the city has changed a lot in the 18 years since I’ve been gone. Katrina passed through, bringing hordes of new people and construction. But there are 200-year-old restaurants still doing what they’ve always done, and as always there is music flowing through the streets.
It’s me who has changed.
I’m older and smarter. I have made a family with the woman I met in a bar on St. Charles Avenue on beautiful spring morning. I have gotten a handle on demons that in New Orleans I allowed to drive my whole life.
The demons still live in New Orleans, only they don’t recognize me anymore.
On Sunday night, before we departed, my wife and I sat on the banks of the Mississippi where it turns toward Algiers, watching the cars pass over the twin-span bridge, listening to the tannic water lap against the rocky seawall.
The river changes every minute of every day. And yet here it is, exactly where I left it.
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