Almost exactly one year ago, I drove into New Orleans and sprung for a romantically dilapidated hotel room in the French Quarter. I sweated my way up the stairs, dropped my bags, and walked onto the rickety wooden balcony.

"Hey, honey!" a voice called.

Three middle-aged women from North Carolina were sharing the room next door—and my balcony. They invited me in for a rum and coke, explaining that they make an annual pilgrimage to New Orleans to get away from the husbands and kids, skip church, and get wildly drunk. It was early, and they used me to warm up their flirting muscles before hitting Bourbon Street. These wannabe sirens were pretty ugly, a vision of flabby middle-class decadence straight out of an Otto Dix painting, but I was proud of them. They were frank enough to admit to themselves that small-town, right-wing living can drain the imagination and the spirit—they had come to New Orleans to recharge.

I have no doubt they all got laid. That's what New Orleans is for—it's our Paris, Rio, and Marrakech rolled into one, a place of sordid history, unexpected dignity, and a pressure valve for pathological American Puritanism. Like "the Orient" was to 19th-century Europeans, New Orleans is a repository for our deepest desires: It's where we go to dream. (Some say Las Vegas fits the bill, but they haven't got any soul. Vegas is a desiccated, fluorescent machine. The Crescent City has hustlers with grace and sinister panache. Sin City has slot machines. There's no comparison.)

New Orleans smells like vomit and gardenias. It's the most romantic, fucked up, rotten, and beautiful city in America. A Catholic town devoted to pleasure in a sea of Southern Protestant austerity, New Orleans is also a cultural crossroads where French, Spanish, African, Irish, and Indian influences were meeting and mingling before the United States was even an idea. Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Chubby Checker, Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, Huey Long, absinthe (America's first high-profile drug culture), gumbo, jambalaya, café au lait, Creoles, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams—the list of people and phenomena that emerged from (or were significantly improved by) New Orleans is nearly endless.

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It's also a poor and violent city, which is part of its chaotic romance. Its corruption and racial stratification are almost medieval. (Like many tourist and oil economies, New Orleans never really invested in its citizens or infrastructure, which partly explains its current devastation.) Graft is endemic and police only serve and protect visitors. Public schools are awful and overwhelmingly black, neighborhoods are sharply segregated and, according to the 2000 census, 40 percent of residents under 18 live below the poverty line. But New Orleans is ever a contradiction—the city was an early center of racial intermarriage and black slave owners. As a result, the city's octoroons (1/8 black) and quadroons (1/4 black) became part of the city's nobility well before emancipation.

All passion is rooted in suffering (the word comes from the Latin pati, "to suffer") and the passion of New Orleans is particularly American suffering—an Orientalist fantasy of drug delirium, black men playing trombones for pennies, Indian magic, sexual excess, savage African voodoo. This fantasy has ugly roots, but it's a necessary part of the American psyche, battling cold intellectualism on our left and intolerant moralism on our right. We need a muddy, morally confusing place like New Orleans, one tiny corner that combines European history, Caribbean romance, and African magic. We need a place where middle-aged women from North Carolina can drag a boy half their age into a hotel room to flirt over a rum and coke. Not everyone wants to do this, but just knowing that we could enriches our national soul.