The Mean Season
The clip-clop of the mule's ironshod hooves is so slow, the steps so far between, you wonder if it might have died mid-step and is just waiting for a hint of breeze in the hot, wet air to push it on over.
And I am relieved. The atmosphere is already thick enough here in the French Quarter in the misery of late August without throwing a dead mule into the mix. The mule, hauling a pair of parboiled tourists and a guide in a woeful, wilting top hat, creaks and creeps off toward the old St. Louis Cathedral, down a narrow street jammed with perspiring, half-drunk people. The tour guide recites a history of the city as they wobble past, but New Orleans is too old to tell about in one buggy ride, even pulled by a slow-motion mule in a steaming time warp. It takes ages before it finally lurches out of sight. The tall glass in my hand had been filled with ice when I first saw the mule; now it sits in a tepid puddle on the tabletop. I should get up, I think to myself, and do something. So I ask for more ice.
People say this is the worst time of the year to visit, that the place never was intended for August. It takes a whole lot of ice to make it so, but I think New Orleans and summer are like old enemies that have, after hundreds of years, fought to a drunken draw. Having failed to kill it outright, summer tries to smother it a little bit, day by day. I like it here, even in the mean season, the months when eating an oyster can take your life. I'd rather sweat in New Orleans, listening to the iron squeak of an old streetcar, feeling the wind off the wide river on my face, than summer someplace precious.
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Before air-conditioning, the rich used to flee, leaving the poor to swelter and perish. Mosquitoes filled the air, and malaria filled the cemeteries. Those days vanished into the cities of the dead, and New Orleans danced and staggered on. But in summer, it seems like you are closer to that deep, dark history, like you can almost feel it on your skin. Take a walk sometime, past the old houses built from steamboat timbers, through the riots of flowers, and see if you don't feel it too.
This time of year, I don't go to the zoo much, because the creatures are not that active. I doubt the lions would even rouse themselves long enough to eat me, though I did see a nutria give me a hungry look once. I don't drive out to the bayous, for it is hard, in that liquid world, to tell where the earth and water separate, and I find it tough to breathe.
It is better to walk down Royal Street with a Barq's root beer in a cup of crushed ice. It is better to find a fresh mango in the French Market and eat it off the blade of your pocketknife up on the Riverwalk as you watch massive freighters push through the brown water. Then find yourself a cool, dark place to wait out the hottest part of the day—only to realize that you might be there till October.