Not everyone who goes to New Orleans wakes up with a hangover. That can be a very good thing, especially if you like to observe how a city works. Mornings in NOLA are worth getting up for.
Despite its reputation as a rowdy place where locals and tourists party till dawn before staggering home to sleep all day, wise visitors know that the early hours can provide a quiet glimpse into The Big Easy’s daily life.
Set your alarm to get to the French Quarter at dawn. Leave your comfortable bed and head to Bourbon Street. Wear water-resistant shoes, because there’s a whole lot of cleaning going on.
Washing away last night
Sanitation Department workers are on the job before the sun comes up. Walking beside a truck with a tank filled with hundreds of gallons of soapy water strapped on its bed, the men power-wash their way down the street. They move slowly and methodically, back and forth, from sidewalk to curb, then into the street, their heavy-duty hoses pushing away the broken beads, abandoned clothing, and discarded cups. They remove other signs of over-indulgence, as well. Fragrant suds replace the odors of party-goers who could no longer control themselves or their bodily functions.
Street sweepers rumble behind the Sanitation workers, collecting the debris and scrubbing the street that was packed with revelers just a few hours ago. Pigeons swoop in to grab any food scraps before jumping out of the sweepers’ path at the last second. It’s clear they have the timing down pat; both birds and men have developed a pattern that keeps each out of the other’s way.
Meanwhile, shopkeepers and bar staff do their own hosing and sweeping. City Code states that property owners are responsible for keeping their own public sidewalk areas clean and free of debris. Walk down a side street in the French Quarter and watch the morning clean-up from a proprietor’s viewpoint. It’s barely 7 am, and their day has already started.
In his book, “Madame Vieux Carré: The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century,” Scott S. Ellis describes the morning scent of the vieux carré (an old name for the French Quarter): “The parfumeurs of old Paris could not imagine the mixed smell of beer, urine, and chlorine bleach that is the signature of the early morning air.”
To be present during the daily cleansing is to stimulate all senses. Yes, that means the sense of smell, too. But the fresh scent of a new day ultimately prevails.
A city with no alleys
New Orleans was not designed for efficiency. Although it began as a French military-style grid plan in 1718, lack of interest and subsequent transfer to the Spanish in 1762 left the city without direction. It developed European-style, with narrow streets. Buildings sit side-by-side, without an inch of spare space.
There are no alleys, which causes logistical challenges in a modern urban setting, especially when removing waste from a city where “a year-round Mardi Gras” means more garbage than usual. During Mardi Gras itself, 46 tons of beads are pulled from the drains on Bourbon Street.
The Sanitation Department has strict regulations regarding trash pick-up. Given the heat, humidity, and pest problems, there is a constant challenge to keep the French Quarter as clean, as well as pest- and stench-free as possible.
Seven days a week, starting at 4:00 am, mornings in NOLA begin with solid waste collection. All garbage must be on the curb in either the standard 35-gallon cart that the contracted disposal company supplies, or in a fastened, 3-ply thickness black plastic bag. No cardboard boxes. No exceptions. Collection must be completed, and carts off the sidewalk, by 10 am.
The garbage trucks inch their way down the narrow streets—some less than 22 feet wide– stopping every few feet for the mountains of black bags that overwhelm the small green trash carts. The amazing thing? They will repeat the process between 5-7 pm.
Meanwhile, delivery trucks dart in and out, parking in front of bars and restaurants. Hours and parking areas throughout the day are limited, so early mornings are best for parking near the drop-off points. Drivers move their supplies over the wet sidewalks to make their deliveries. Instead of its usual neon, Bourbon Street is lit by headlights and intermittent red brake lights.
The pace is fast, yet calm and steady. It’s fascinating to watch the early morning activity of the French Quarter and to think that in just a few hours it will be ready to serve a new batch of guests.
Beignets before the rush
Everyone who visits New Orleans wants to stop by Café du Monde. The 155-year old icon sits in Jackson Square, serving café au lait and beignets, 24 hours a day. But during mornings in NOLA? Most of the 400 chairs are turned up; by the time the day is in full swing, they will be filled and there will be a line.
Locals sit at the tables closest to the take-out window and drink their chicory-blended coffee while checking email or reading the paper. During the week, they’re dressed for work, stopping for caffeine before heading to the office. A few tourists have arrived; they seem surprised that they don’t have to wait for either a seat or their order of three beignets, buried in powdered sugar. It’s peaceful now, watching the milk truck deliver the many gallons of whole milk used to make the signature coffee drink. Even the servers are relaxed when they deliver orders.
Jackson Square itself seems slow to wake up. Only St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, seems to shine. Yet few photographers are there to take advantage of the perfect morning light. The artists who will sell their works around the square trickle in and begin to set up their displays, stepping around homeless people who are still sleeping. Horses and carriages are getting prepped for the day; drivers chat among themselves, too busy adding “flair” to their horses to begin to hawk their tours.
Explore the French Quarter during one of your mornings in NOLA. The humidity is always present, but the heat hasn’t started to build yet. There are no crowds, no con artists, no cacophony. Nothing but the authentic start of a new day in New Orleans. Observing the people who work hard to make a visitor’s NOLA experience memorable.
How about taking the train to New Orleans?
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