Two years ago, Sharri and I got a chance to visit New Orleans. I'm
feeling a bit nostolgic, so I decided to republish my travelogue.
We began our descent into New Orleans just after midnight central time Wednesday night / Thursday morning. We dropped through the clouds over Lake Pontchartrain to the swell of Dawn Upshaw's voice, the city a constellation below us. Obviously, I don't fly much, but this vision, like a sunset, sometimes can be accelerated beyond the cliche it has become. It's about the ordinary magic of arrival first, but more than that, it was the beautiful city on the banks of Pontchartrain & the Mississippi, and the incredible majesty of the third movement of Gorecki's Third Symphony. It was quite an entrance. We got to the airport in Louisville at about 4:30 for a 6:15 flight to Chicago. We arrived at the gate to find out that the flight had been delayed. At a little after 7:00, they loaded us onto the EMB170 shuttle liner, pulled away from the gate . . . and parked. We sat in that damn plane for over two hours before we finally flew out. Fortunately, the flight crew, a couple sisters from Chicago, kept the passengers in line (sample exchange: "Another hour? Can I at least get a beer? Whadya have to do to get a beer around here?" "Well, you can start by asking politely." "Okay, can I please have a beer?" "Sure thing, sweetheart." "How much are they?" "For you, 50 bucks."). Any of the other crews on the four planes we rode this trip would have been eaten alive after the second delay announcement. The guy behind me was the one whining about the beer, and at some point he started asking about jello shots. I wanted to turn around and say "geez, what the hell? Are you a sorority girl, or what?" I contained myself to keep the peace. That, and my Tri-delt wife would have smacked me in the head. Surely we were screwed. Landing at O'Hare approximately an hour and a half after the scheduled departure of our New Orleans flight, all we could do is haul ass across the concourse and hope the flight had been delayed. Shockingly enough (or perhaps not) the flight had been delayed, so we actually made it. This time, we had a nice comfy 737 with a fairly sparse population. We despaired of actually getting our luggage, but we were on our way. Hanging in the Louisville terminal, I rocked MF Doom's Operation: Doomsday. When I got on the plane for the interminable wait, I switched over to Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weil, but that wasn't working, so I switched to Mahler's Ninth, which seemed to work out nicely. That got me to Chicago. By the time I got to Chicago, I killed the battery on my Samsung (I'm not used to recharging it regularly), so I switched over to my Motorola SLVR L7 phone, which has a mini ("100 songs") ipod. I had a "classical" playlist loaded, so I fired that up. Working through Partch, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Morton Feldman's "Jackson Pollock" series, Debussy's La Mer, Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony, I wound up with the third movement of Gorecki's Third Symphony. In these sort of rote situations, escaping into a playlist is necessary, be it Ives on an airplane or Lightning Bolt on the bike. Even when it's not rote, it's nice to have a soundtrack. Deplaning in NOLA after the reverse aerial show, we were shocked to find our bags had made it with us. A-and, they hadn't given away our hotel room! A nice bit of luck. We found ourselves at the Sheraton downtown. Here is the view from our window on the 46th floor:
or, here's this angle:
After we got the bags up to the room, Sharri moved our stuff into the drawers - it's a nice touch, like you belong more than you would if you just lived out of the duffel bag. We oohed and aahed over the view a little bit, found ESPN on the hotel's cable, and then got down to the last serious business of the day: finding a bottle of whiskey for the nightcap. There were several places open close by (I didn't realize until the next day that we were on the edge of the French Quarter), so I naturally went for the place that had big neon letters advertising LIQUOR LUGGAGE (??!!) and SOUVENIRS. Not a big selection for a bourbon snob close to Bourbon Street . . . the Wild Turkey was outragousely priced, as was the Makers Mark (they were both the same, but I'm perhaps the only person alive who thinks Wild Turkey 101 is as good as Makers), and, of course, Jim Beam earns an extra five just for the label. I settled on an $18 750 ml of Evan Williams, which is $8 more than I would have paid at home, but it was the best deal behind the counter. Bottle in hand, I scurried back up to the 46th floor, grabbed the icebucket, cursed the non-functioning icemaker down the hall, dropped down to the 45th floor via the stairway, iced up, and ran back up to the room to pour my four fingers. After pouring my drink, I stripped down and jumped into bed. A cold sweating glass of not-so-cheap whiskey in my hand, I laid back to Sports Center and, in a very short time, sleep. At last glance, the clock registered 2:15 am Central Time.
next installment: Argentina? You Speak Spanish? Como Whatever? or How Much For That Stripper in the Window?
We found out in a few short hours that our room was facing East – having left our window shades wide open, we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise over Algiers & the Mississippi River. It would have been more appreciated a few hours later. I blindly stumbled to the window to close the shades, opening the louvers a bit to allow thin beams of light into the room. There were still a couple hours before the travel alarm on the table was set to go off, so I drifted back to sleep in the diffuse red light of the bayou dawn. Soon the alarm rang, and I coaxed Sharri out of bed to get her to her morning seminar. This was, of course, a business trip for her. I drifted back and forth over the line of sleep while she took her shower and left the room. I got up, opened the window blinds a tad bit wider to let more light in the room, and settled back in to snooze with Sports Center on the TV. I finally pulled myself out of bed a bit after 10 am., threw on some clothes, and pulled back the window shades. The view looked like this:
and like this
There was a little four-cup coffee maker in the room, so I decided to brave the Maxwell House pre-measured coffee pack. Surprisingly, it turned out a right drinkable cup of coffee, though I did have to decrease the water by a quarter. Two coffees down and one for the road, I was out the door, down the elevator, and through the revolving front door into the street. "The street", of course, being Canal Street. I didn't really have time to get lost, since I had to be back at the Sheraton by 12:30 to grab lunch with Sharri. I decided to while away what was left of the morning with one of my favorite Louisville pastimes, hanging down by the river. There was a river walk / bike path that wound down in front of the Aquarium and off to the north, so I followed it for a short while. Tourists wandered up and down the path, the locals jogging and on their bikes, and big tankers chugged on the river.
An African-American gentlemen on the river walk spotted my Argentina soccer T-shirt: "Argen-TINA! ARGENTINA?! HEY ARGENTINA, WHASSUP?" I smiled and nodded as if I spoke no English. "ARGENTINA! COMO ES? YOU SPEAK SPANISH, NO? MANU GINOBILI?" I nodded and walked on. Wandering past a tourist trap / shopping center, I noticed some interesting architecture down the side street.
As I walked up and got a closer look, I thought "this must be the same kind of architecture they have in the French Quarter."
After walking a few more blocks, I passed a club called One Eyed Jack's. Quintron and Miss Pussycat were on the schedule, but long after we were to leave. A couple more blocks, I crossed Bourbon Street. I'll be damned if I wasn't already in the French Quarter. It was coming up on noon, and by this point, I had wandered a short way away from the hotel. I headed back toward the hotel on Bourbon. The shops and bars were just starting to sleepily open up, shutters and doors open to the street, a kaleidoscope of music blowing through mid-heavy speakers . . . zydeco, old school R & B, some Village People from a joint sporting a disco ball and a rainbow flag, even some Slim Harpo from what appeared to be the most obviously corporate tourist trap I had yet seen . . . the French Quarter opening up for business as noon blushed upon the clock dial. Sharri hit my cell as soon as I came back up on Canal. She had eaten breakfast at the hotel, and the experience was not a good one. Moreover, she had been warned away from the lunch offered at the conference. She wanted a decent lunch, and I wanted an oyster po' boy. Back in 1990 I made my first trip to NOLA, and my two most lasting impressions were oyster po' boys and the amazing plethora of really good drummers in the high school jazz bands at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Back at the hotel, Sharri and I hooked up and headed back into the French Quarter for lunch. We stopped at a place on a corner that was mostly empty and ordered up. She ordered a shrimp po' boy, and I ordered my oyster po' boy, and we ordered blackened alligator for an appetizer. Turns out the alligator was really good, but the po' boys were mediocre at best. Honestly, the oyster po' boy at Carolina Shrimp & Seafood in St. Matthews is better than this one, and that is just wrong. Even if the lunch wasn't bad, it was a dissapointment. After scanning the Times - Picayune (Pacers beat Hornets! Jeff Foster on page one of the sports section! Why do the Saints suck this year when the same team was so good last year?), we headed back to the Sheraton so Sharri could catch her afternoon seminars. On the way back down Chartres, we ran across our first street musicians in Jackson Square in front of St. Louis cathedral. A bass player and a trumpeter, nice funky little jazz duo, pretty good and pretty much what you would expect in the streets of the French Quarter. We didn't really have time to hang out and listen, so we hotfooted it back to the hotel and made it for Sharri's afternoon with a few minutes to spare. I want back up to the room and fired up another one of those mini-pots of Maxwell House, flipped on ESPN, and kicked back to consider my afternoon.
next installment: Exactly What Constitues '"Live Sex"? or Maybe the Saints Suck Because Drew Brees Telegraphs His Passes Like You Telegraphed That Last Chord Change
After a couple more cups of coffee, I left the hotel for another, more leisurely survey of the French Quarter. I decided to follow Chartres northeast to (what I determined to be) the edge of the Quarter, then walk back in towards Canal, zigging and zagging, catching what sites I could. The far end of the Quarter is residential and queer. It was somewhere around two in the afternoon, still early for the Quarter, apparently. There was still a slow late-a.m. sort of vibe flowing, with people visiting, lounging, sipping coffee, and hanging out front of their homes/shops/bars, engaged with the day's business, but only barely. Obviously, the real estate is expensive and specialized here, so while the expected bohemian vibe exists, it's a moneyed bohemian vibe, which isn't the kind of bohemian vibe I'm used to.
These are examples of the famous houses internationally associated with the French Quarter. Down at the far end, the Quarter is a friendly urban neighborhood, chatting happily along amongst the rainbow flags, quick with a nod to the solitary tourist.
Moving in towards the heart of the Quarter, little grocery stores are the first shops to appear, all listing homemade specials such as red beans and rice, meatloaf sandwiches, and muffuletas. Probably the biggest mistake I made was not eating at one of these little groceries when I had the chance.
Fairly quickly, commerce thickened the streets. All the shops and bars were open to the street, all were blowing music. Pretty quickly you realize that most of these little shops are variations on a theme, almost as if there was a central planner who made sure all the businesses were interconnected. All the merchandise looked more or less the same. Virtually all the T-shirts were the same, and Katrina was much in evidence: "Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was gone", "FEMA evacuation plan: run bitch run", "FEMA = Find Every Mexican Available", as well as the usual jazz/blues and libertine-themed shirts. The music pouring out of the shops was usually some variation of zydeco, and unlike the usual stereos you find in retail establishments, most of the speakers pumping the thump weren't your garden variety shelf-system plastic boxes, or even mid-sized wood-boxed home stereo speakers. No, they were filling the street with honest-to-god no-nonsense PA speakers . . . these people don't fool around: the barrage of music is part of their merchandising plan, so they need serious equipment. And, a good number (a small majority, in my very unscientific strolling survey) were staffed with folk who appeared to be owner/operators and were of . . . ah . . . of Asian descent, primarily Indian, Bengali, or Pakistani, if I am not mistaken. Oh, those damned stereotypes. The bars were opened too, some of them with counters tucked just inside street fronting french doors, where you could just walk up, grab a beer, and be on your way through the street.
Mixed in amongst the more obvious tourist traps were some more interesting/less crassly exploitative shops, including three used bookstores I found. The selection in the first was OK, the second pretty good, and excellent in the third. In all three cases, the prices were ridiculously high (I'm used to ½ cover price at the very high end, and all the used books here were priced at ¾ cover, and bunch were priced as borderline collectible even though I couldn't see the value) . . . or at least I thought they were, until I realized that I was shopping used book stores in some of the most expensive real estate in the US, so more power to them and their power pricing. In the best of the three bookstores, I was privy to a conversation between the owner and a tourist customer from Indiana. Turns out Vincennes (IN) was the owner's refuge from Katrina, and he spoke of Indiana ("beautiful country") as some exotic, if minor, little parcel of paradise. Native hoosier that I am, I'm generally don't get to hear outsider's opinions of our litte cornfield in the Midwest, and it was interesting to hear my home described in such admirable terms. I almost emerged from behind the "Beats" stack to spring yet another Hoosier on him, but I avoid conversations like that as a rule. But hey, that registered at least a 6 on the small world scale . . .
I also found a decent record store that had a huge selection of native Louisiana acts, as well as a big vinyl selection. There were plenty of art galleries, from "fine" art to folk art, and I spent some time cruising them, but with my critical functions shut down. I've not found myself in the mood to pick fights over visual art lately: I'm picking far too many other fights, and I'm just not young enough to keep up with them any more.
Of all the shops we strolled through, probably our favorite shop was a "big girls" clothing store. Cool, unusual stuff, reasonable prices . . . too bad we were traveling broke.
Rolling down Bourbon Street toward the Canal Street end, the sex joints started popping up. At first, I appreciated the existence of the strip clubs . . . there needed to be some true libertinism in the American home of license, and none of that Las Vegas Disneyland crap, either . . . but, at second glance, even their seediness seemed calculated. And, sure enough, pretty soon the corporate strip joints started popping up: I think there were three different Hustler places, each themed slightly differently, such as the "18-19 year old" joint, and maybe a Penthouse or Playboy club too, I can't remember. Tucked in amongst the corporate strip joints was an older, more authentic-looking club that advertised "LIVE SEX ACTS!", which initially piqued my curiosity . . . given the weird sex club laws around here in Louisville, which in turn are more liberal than the sex club restrictions most any other place I've been, I wondered just what kind of live sex would be on stage . . . but, I had to figure this was just another New Orleans street hustle. Underneath all this "reality" was a sort of Cracker Barrel authenticity, and it was no more legitimate for being detailed, complex, and self-aware . . . as I said earlier, even the most outwardly corporate looking store I saw had the awareness to be pumping Slim Harpo into the street.
Eventually, I wound up back on Canal. It was a slight relief . . . at least if the shops on Canal were over-the-top tourist traps, they were off the French Quarter planogram ("LIQUOR LUGGAGE SOUVINEERS"). There was a little more than an hour before I was scheduled to meet Sharri back at the room, but I really had nothing else to do for the afternoon, so I headed back to the Sheraton. Back at the room, I turned ESPN back on (my current tranquilizer of choice) and fired up yet another short pot of coffee. This time I decided to hit the Evan Williams for a nice little smoothing effect for the afternoon, as well as a tonic for the evening. I ducked down a floor to pick up more ice, came back, loaded up my glass, covered the ice cubes with bourbon, poured a coffee chaser, and settled in for Around the Horn, PTI, or some other such sport silliness. Before long, Sharri was back, and we headed down to the lounge for another drink, then out with the Louisville Habitat contingent for dinner. We wound up back in the French Quarter at Deanie's Seafood. It was a bit of a wait, but that was mellowed by Abita's Fall Ale and some seasoned potatoes from the seafood boil. When the food finally came, the others were favorably disposed to their dishes, but not exactly blown away. I, on the other hand, had a completely ass-kicking bowl of crawfish etoufee. It was my first truly satisfying New Orleans food experience, but by this point I wasn't even looking for New Orleans food experiences anymore, because I was caught in riptides of NOLA hype and decadent simulated realities . . . so Emeril, John Goodman, Dan Ackroyd, and everybody else, leave me the hell alone.
After dinner, Sharri and I wandered along the riverfront, enjoying a fresh breeze off the Mississippi. By this time, all the shops along the river were closed, so we just cruised along and watched the boats on the river. At some point we had to use the bathroom, so we ducked into the Harrods casino to relieve ourselves. It took us forever to find a bathroom, and then another forever to actually get back out of the stupid casino (they're designed that way, you know . . . all paths lead back to the gaming floor, and there's no external atmosphere to be seen). I felt almost lucky to make it out alive.
Walking back to the hotel, we passed my favorite street musician of the whole trip: a black man who looked to be somewhere between 45 and 55 was sitting across from the hotel, riffing over the top of a rhythm guitar loop he had most likely recorded himself. He was not dressed in authentic simulation street blues costume: he was instead wearing unfaded blue jeans and a short sleeved navy blue collared shirt. He wasn't playing a strategically worn archtop acoustic, a Stella, or a vintage resonator guitar, or even a Tele through an old 15-watt tube amp. No, he was playing a BC Rich Warlock through a sampler into a self-amplified speaker. It was so inauthentic, it had to be real. There was no trace of awareness, either in his comport or his riffing: it was beautiful, simple, unadorned, and real . . . and actually more Chicago than New Orleans. We drifted in his orbit for a few minutes, enjoying the riffage, slipped him a short fistful of ones, and headed back to the room.
Back at the room, we poured ourselves drinks, and settled in for the night relatively early. It had been an interesting day in New Orleans.
next installment: Do You Have a Permit for that Tattoo? or You Do Know That's the Black Section of Town, Don't You?
In my book, the Sheraton is a fairly classy joint. That probably says more about the dives that I tend to stay in when I travel (when I don't camp, or just sleep in the car) than it does about the Sheraton. But, why does the food have to suck? Like papa used to say, do it or don't do it, just don't half ass it.
Anyway, Friday morning required food at the outset, and not at the hotel. René (one of my work pals and a Katrina refugee) had recommended a place called Mother's on Poydras for po' boys, but breakfast was required, and it was a short walk from the hotel. Tucked away in an old building at the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas, Mother's has that "local legend" feel, replete with celeb (varyingly obscure) photos, carefully nurtured patina, unique rituals involving ordering and etiquette, and a gift shop. The place was known for its breakfasts as well as its po' boys, so it was crowded, mostly with locals. We didn't have a lot of time or money, so we kept it simple: scrambled eggs, sausage, grits, and toast. I got coffee, and it turned out to be chicory coffee. I had a roommate back in the day who was all about everything N'awlins, and he always drank chicory coffee black. I hated that coffee. I always thought that chicory was something you put in coffee to stretch it out when you were short. Apparently, the locals drink their coffee with chicory even when coffee is plentiful. The guy running the counter had me pegged for a northerner the minute I opened my mouth, so when I ordered coffee black, he very helpfully informed me that it was chicory coffee. I knew that meant I was in for a super bitter ride, but I wouldn't know how to mix it down properly anyway, so "bring it on" was all I had to offer.
Our breakfasts were just fine. As far as basic scrambled eggs go, they're either right or they're wrong, and these were right. Pretty much the same with the grits and the toast – it was grits and toast, and it wasn't fucked up . . . we're not talking Lynn's Paradise Cafe nuevo-Southern cuisine here. Hell, we're not talking cuisine at all here: we're talking food. With eggs, toast, and grits, if you're not trying to prove a point, it's either good or not, and this was good. What pushed the whole thing over the top was the sausage: this was one of the best chunks of sausage I have ever had in my life. It was some variation of what I know as Polish smoked sausage, probably andouille sausage. Man, it was fantastic. There is nothing like a good basic breakfast taken over the top with a great chunk of meat. Our food fortunes were looking up.
On the way back to the Sheraton and her morning seminars, Sharri spotted her T-shirt for the trip in an old-school casual clothing store: it had "Shalom, y'all" written on the front in both English and Hebrew. I was left once again to wander the French Quarter, but not before I killed the chicory taste by gargling a shot of Evan Williams & firing up the coffee maker back at the room.
* * * * *
Strolling back up Bourbon Street, I crossed paths with a large, voluble hustla shouting out the shopkeepers just opening up. I nodded a greeting, and he immediately spun toward me: "Good morning to you, sir . . . listen, if I asked you a question, you'd give me a truthful answer, wouldn't you?" (it sounded more like "Good mahnin' to ya, sah . . . listen, if ah ax'd ya a question, ya'd give me a truthful ansah, wouldn' ya?" – but I'm not going to annoy you all by trying to nail the phonetics).
Oh crap. Now I'm on the hook. "Sure", I shrugged.
"Now, if I tell you where you got those shoes, you'd tell me if I was right, wouldn't you?"
I still didn't see it coming, mainly because I was still trying to decide if I was amused or annoyed. He was a friendly guy, but my tolerance for being spieled was getting lower every second I spent in this con-job of a city. "Sure" I intoned again, with a note of impatience creeping into my voice.
"Well, you got yer shoes right here in Bourbon Street in N'awlins, Lou-eee-see-anna. Now, you notice I never said I was going to tell you where you bought 'em, I said I'd tell you where you got 'em, and you got 'em right here, standing right here on Bourbon Street, so that's where you got 'em, right? No way you can argue that, right?"
Well, if you're going to try to split linguistic hairs, you'd better be sure there's a linguistic hair to be split, and a non-sanctioned use of the past tense of "get" doesn't really qualify . . . but discussions of vernacular weren't going to go anywhere with this guy, so I just said "Okay, man, you got me, have a nice day" and started to walk away.
He grabbed my arm to continue his spiel, but I must have given him a look, because he dropped it quickly and hitched up his rant slightly. He was going on about god knows what, but managed to misdirect my attention long enough to shoot two globs of goo out of a small white plastic bottle onto my black New Balance runners. He then proceeded to clean my shoes while I was quickly deciding that 4 bucks should get rid of this guy.
"Now, think of this here as both a shoe-cleanin' and an ed-u-cation. Next time some one asks you where you got your shoes, you look up at the street sign, and you tell 'em you got your shoes in Bourbon Street. Now, such an ed-u-cation ain't free, seein's how it's gonna save you money down the road, I think 20 dollars is a small price to pay."
"That's not happening." I said dryly.
"Well now, if you happen to be short, there's an ATM just 'round the corner . . ."
"I'm sure there is."
". . . an' I could prob'ly see clear to given' you change . . ." as he pulls out a wad of bills.
I pulled out my wallet to fish out some ones, but as I popped it open, I found only a twenty: I had given all my ones to the guitar player last night. Shit, this was starting to get on my nerves.
The hustla started pealing off bills: "I s'pose ten'd do it . . ."
When the hustle is on, you've got to go Jim Rockford to cope. He had this gag he always pulled on Angel when he needed a job done he didn't quite trust Angel to do . . . I pulled the twenty out of my wallet, tore it approximately in half, and handed the hustla the smaller piece. "Here you go."
"What good this do me?"
"It won't do you any good. But I am willing to sell you the other piece of this twenty for fifteen dollars."
He gave me an annoyed look. A very annoyed look.
"I'm not going to send you away empty handed, but I sure as hell ain't going to give you 10 bucks for fucking up my shoes."
He grimaced slightly, peeled off a five to go with the ten, and handed them to me. I hand him the other half of the twenty. He shook his head slightly, and started back up the street. "Enjoy yer stay now, you hear?" The hustla trailed of, having regained his stride.
I headed back down the street, chuckling to myself. I don't usually mind being panhandled, because I only give up what I can afford to give up. The shoe man was a bit annoying, but I didn't begrudge him 5 bucks.
Or at least I didn't until I got a little further down the street: I looked down at my shoes, and the greasy crap that he had put on my shoes had matted the black suede. Now, I'm not one of those meticulous types that is going to get bent out of joint if you step on my foot and sully my kicks, even if I don't like paying 5 bucks to have them soiled. And sure, I was nothing more than a rube walking down the street, just another out-of-towner for the locals to hustle, and that really didn't bother me so much either. What did bother me was that I had been pegged because I made eye contact. Yeah, yeah, I know, when yr walking around in the city, you keep yr head down, no eye contact . . . I have no patience for that. I walk around with my head up, shoulders back, and if someone passes through my field of vision, I'm gonna nod greetings. There are obviously situations that you avoid, but by and large, I'm not going to bury my head. If that makes me country, then so be it: I'm country.
Look, I'm not going to go on some Baudrillardian "narcissistic refraction" jag, and I'm not saying that everyone has to dance down the street chipper as a bug, but I'm not about walking around with my head down. We are, for better or worse, community. If you're having one of those days, or you're the kind that wants to wander your way in silence, that's fine – no problem. But are we so weak and isolated that we continually need to buckle down and wall up ourselves in public? We're all just people out here on this street, everybody has their own burden, and even if the details are different there is the commonality of burden. I'm not interested it the social gaze, but rather silent acknowledgement of community. If you walk past me, and your eye meets mine, I'll nod. It doesn't mean that I want to know your life story, or even that I want to talk to you. It just means that I see you. It's really that simple: I see you, you are there, we are in the street together. It is the loosest of all possible connection, but it is nonetheless a marker of community . . . a commonality of space, a commonality of burden, a commonality of purpose at the most primal level: just getting through the day alive and well.
Everybody has a burden . . . but not all burdens are equal. Hanging over New Orleans like a monstrous cloud is the ghost of Katrina. It is, quite literally, everywhere down here. From the gag T-shirts in the tourist traps to the folk art in the galleries, from the husks of buildings down by the Superdome to the abandoned, overgrown shotguns in the 9th ward, from the "Katrina party" pictures outside Johnny White's (they stayed open through the storm) to the hieroglyphic X's scrawled by rescuers on the door of the Saturn Bar, Katrina is a red pulsing scar on the face of New Orleans.
Even if I could contextualize Katrina, this wouldn't be the place to do it. Suffice to say that the scar of Katrina separates the survivors from the rest of us. New Orleans will be rebuilt, and perhaps the scar will recede, much as it has here in Louisville concerning the great flood of '37 . . . but this is the Katrina generation, and this generation will always bear the mark. Everything the Katrina generation does will have Katrina at (or close to) the core of motivation: the houses they build, the songs they sing, the desperation with which they sell something, ANYTHING, to the marks/tourists who come through, everything somehow goes back to the end of August, 2005.
So, here's what the hustla was doing in the street that morning: he was cleaning my shoes, giving me an ed-u-cation, and striking back against the angry god who took a swipe at him, but didn't knock him out. And yes, he was acknowledging community. He was just making sure that I was paying my membership dues.
next installment: The Code of the Quarter, and How We Finally Had Some Fun in New Orleans.
Soon enough, it was lunchtime. I had been trying to stick with "authentic" food experiences up to now, but it was clear that the Chamber of Commerce defined "authentic" down here. We decided on a slightly less "authentic" place called the Cafe Fleur De Lis. Sharri had a killer BLT, and I scored big time with the chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. The nice thing about the Fleur De Lis is that it took its New Orleans heritage as a starting point, not as an ending point. The Fleur De Lis had good food that reflected New Orleans, not food that reflected New Orleans and was (or was not) good. The distinction in priorities is important.
Sharri went back to her meetings, and I was back wandering the streets of the quarter. It took me just under two days of inundation to become sick of the French Quarter. "Well of course!" any native of Nawlins would say, "that's New Orleans for the tourist!", and indeed it is. Short on time, money, and transportation, I despaired of really getting to know the city, so I just spent the afternoon going back through the bookstores, looking for a cheap bargain that I wouldn't find.
After the Friday afternoon meetings, the Habitat folk were busy making their final plans to tour the city before they left on the weekend. Sharri and I were scheduled to fly out on Saturday, but we had no real goals in mind. All we knew is that we didn't want to hang with the tourists.
We went down to the lounge on the ground floor of the Sheraton, where we had a couple drinks with the Louisville Habitat contingent. After the others left to find their dinners, we decided that we would hop the ferry and head across the river to Algiers.
There was a big landing for the ferry on the riverfront. The sun was starting to go down as we waited for the ferry on a steel bench. Soon enough, the ferry showed up, and we grabbed a plastic chair in the sheltered front observation deck. Sitting there, with a small bit of peace and relaxation creeping up at the end of a somewhat annoying day, I decided to opt for a little soundtrack. I dialed up the jazz playlist on my cell, and hit play. The first cut up was Charles Mingus, "Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!". The miniscule speaker on the cell phone made it sound like it was playing out a window from deep in the city.
It actually takes the ferry longer to turn around than to cross the river. At that point, I would have loved the ride to go on . . . a nice little trip down the river would have suited me. But alas, by the time we got into Eric Dolphy's "Bee Vamp" from Live at the Five Spot, the boat was docking at Algiers Point.
We didn't really know what we would find, or even what kind of neighborhood we were debarking into. All we knew is that we needed food, and soon. Another beer or two was called for as well. Fortunately, just off the ferry landing, we found a place to eat.
We went down to the Dry Dock, determined to eat and drink, "New Orleans experience" be damned. After a series of disappointments, we were due some good luck: turns out that the Dry Dock is just the kind of neighborhood joint that we always seek. And, as a neighborhood joint in New Orleans, presto! Authentic experience! Of course, by this time, we were way past caring.
We went in, ordered a couple Abitas, and moved to the plastic tables out front to enjoy the sunset over the New Orleans skyline. The city radiated a warm autumnal rose glow. I ordered the red beans and rice with smoked sausage (good), and Sharri had the Crawfish Monica (amazing!). Even better than the food was the laid back vibe of the place. Sharri, ever the social butterfly, had let it be known to a couple people inside the bar that we were down from Louisville. A couple people stopped by our table to greet us, and give us a couple friendly pokes about the UK – LSU game that was scheduled for the next day. One imagines that they would have been less cheerful in their ribbing just over 24 hours later, after LSU blew what their fans must have considered an easy win against the interlopers from Kentucky.
We spent a little time walking off our dinner through the Algiers neighborhood, though we couldn't see much, since it was after dark. It was a nice quiet neighborhood which, for some reason, reminds me of the Deer Park area here in Louisville.
After wandering aimlessly for most of an hour, we caught the ferry back across to the downtown side of the river. The city sparkled before us. Leaning on the rail, I dialed up "Bee Vamp" again, and pretended that it was coming from somewhere deep in the city. As we pulled away from the landing, a man who looked to be in his mid-50's moved up to the rail close to us. He seemed to almost sniff the air to find out where the music was coming from. It took him a minute, but he figured it out and moved down the rail slightly to hear better. Once again, the trip was too short. I would have loved to stay on the river all night.
We got back too early to go to bed. There was no question of another trip into the French Quarter, so we decided to look up the Saturn Bar, a place that Sharri found when she was looking up Quintron & Miss Pussycat info online. Little did I know that I was about to stumble across a New Orleans landmark by accident for the second time: this time, it was the Ninth Ward.
Of course, I had the bright idea that we would take a bus out. So we hiked up Canal a bit to a bus that would take us straight there. After standing around a bit, we figured that the bus wasn't going to show, and that maybe it wouldn't have been the best idea to be on it if it did, so we went back to the Sheraton. Going up to the bell station, we asked the clerk on duty to call us a cab. He said "No problem", and waved a Pakistani cab driver over. When the bellhop told him where we were going, he mumbled something along the lines of "I'm not going that direction", whereupon the bellhop berated him: "Now, you ain't got a fare, so you're going anywhere these fine people want to go". Reluctantly, he showed us to his cab.
Once inside the cab, he headed toward the address, and asked me if "we knew any people there". When I said that we did, he said "Now, you know that's the black part of town, right?" I assured him that we did know people there (we didn't), but I would stick my head in first to make sure they were there to meet us. I thought his paranoia was a bit out of hand, but then again, I was also the guy that thought a bus ride into the Ninth Ward on a Friday night was a good idea. If I checked for "friends" on the inside, then at least I could check out the scene to make sure I wasn't walking into that scene from Animal House.
Ah, and as Killdozer says, therein lies the rub. When I opened the door of the Saturn Bar, what was it that I was looking for? Well, I'm looking for signs that it would be the kind of place where we would normally hang out. Does that mean that I'm looking for white faces? It does, in part: I'm looking for a place where we wouldn't stand out. I wouldn't feel at home in an unfamiliar bar where I'm the only white person. I also wouldn't be comfortable walking into the middle of a rave. A redneck bar would be a big no-no as well. Would I feel more comfortable in the redneck bar than the black bar? Not necessarily, but I could pass for redneck to keep my profile low, whereas my blue eyes and dirtwater blonde hair (not to mention my exceedingly pale skin) would make that difficult in the black bar. My wife would be fine, since her half-Japanese half-Scottish heritage gets her mistaken for Hispanic more than anything else, and Hispanic women seem to occupy an odd demilitarized zone in race relations. Besides, the brothers always seemed fond of her, if her bus rides in from Portland are any indication. Ultimately, the bottom line is simple: when I opened that door, I was looking for a place that would tolerate me being in it.
Now, this is obviously a spurious dilemma. It's only common sense to check the lay of the land when you go into an unfamiliar situation. It's also clear that New Orleans's Ninth Ward calls for a bit of caution, and that holds true for anyone – black, white, or other. I'm comfortable going anywhere in Louisville, though not all the time. By the same token, there are parts of Anderson Indiana that scare me more than any place in Louisville. I knew what I was doing when I stuck my head into the bar, and it had nothing to do with latent racism.
On the other hand, race is at the very core of any New Orleans discussion, and Katrina has only amplified that. It starts with New Orleans being the birthplace of the single most important contribution America has made to world culture, a contribution made by a people forcibly exiled from their homeland and relocated to serve at the whim of their European masters. It orbits around the struggle over New Orleans as American cultural symbol, and the insult African Americans feel when white America wears New Orleans like a badge. It was thrown into stark relief by Katrina, which delineated the racial strata, even assuming our government was incompetent rather than racist. It is pointing to the specter of New Orleans, one of the few "chocolate cities" in America, losing that very identity as whites sweep in to scoop up land lost by blacks whose insurance won't pay off. New Orleans is populated by a black underclass who scrape out a living catering to (mainly white American) tourists, reflecting the enslavement that bound them in the first place. And yet, it is the tourist industry that puts food on their tables, and even allows some of them to make a decent living. The ambivalence of the host toward his guest is everywhere here, as is the palpability of race.
As it turns out, the door to the Saturn Bar swung open to reveal a place not unlike several joints here in the gateway to the South. As I first walked in, there were a few regulars from the neighborhood bellied up to the bar, evidently one or two more drinks away from heading home for the night. At the same time, a younger "hipster" crowd was just starting to filter in and settle into booths further back. It all looked kosher to me, so I headed back out, paid off the cabbie, and escorted my lovely bride into the bar.
We grabbed a beer and headed into the back room, which was opened up, and had a balcony/walkway running across three sides. We went up into the balcony and sipped our beers. Down below, a band was setting up. It soon became clear that the band was going to be a big one: a string section, a large horn section, guitars, bass, drums, even a conductor. A sheet was being hung over one corner of the balcony for projections. The Naked Orchestra was getting ready to play.
I had time to grab another beer before they started up. The lights went down, the projector went on, the band started up. They struck me as Sun Ra's Arkestra with Frank Zappa composing for them: the Sun Ra-esque surges, voicings, and freak outs with a Zappaesque angularity and precision. Appropriately, they were projecting footage of the Sun Ra concert movie A Joyful Noise onto the sheet on the balcony. The compositions were intriguing, the playing was first rate, and after all the tourist crap we swallowed in the French Quarter, this band was perfect.
We hung out for one set. Since we expected to fly out early, we didn't stay as long as we would have liked to – or rather, we tried to leave relatively early, but it didn't quite happen. On the way out, I decided to put down a Miller for the road. Sharri started chatting with the bartender, and then with the owner. Told that we were on our way out, the bartender called us a cab, then loaded us up with some Saturn Bar swag: a couple bumperstickers, a couple keychains. I finished my beer, and we headed out front to wait for our cab. Little did we know, it would be quite a wait: apparently, our Pakistani friend wasn't the only cabbie who wasn't fond of coming down into the Ninth Ward on Friday night. When we went back in to ask them to call us a cab for the second time, the owner himself made the call, and then came out front to check on us. We made a little pleasant talk with him, mostly centering around Saturday's upcoming LSU – Kentucky game. While we were standing out front, two separate sets of MPs on security duty stopped by to make sure the white folk standing on the street outside the Saturn Bar were doing OK. One set of MPs even offered to stay with us until the cab showed up, and only moved on when the owner assured him that he would wait with us. Finally, after almost two hours and three phone calls, our cab showed. Our cabbie was a white guy with the kind of amphetamine psych edge that I would have attributed to a Vietnam vet if this had been the late '70's or early '80's. He regaled us with Ninth Ward war stories all the way back to the Sheraton. 2:30 am, back at the room, I pulled the last of the Evan Williams and settled into bed. Sharri and I finally fell in love with New Orleans, thanks to the ferry and Algiers, the Dry Dock and the Saturn Bar. As we drifted off to sleep, we decided to comeback sometime, and not set one foot in the French Quarter.
* * * * *
We scrambled to make it to the airport well in advance of our flight. Sharri found a needlepoint shop in the Quarter, and she went back to pick up some needlepoint stuff before we left. The needlepoint shop wasn't far from the Fleur De Lis cafe, so I grabbed a muffaletta to eat at the airport while we were waiting for our flight. Another good decision! It was great, and big enough to last me the whole day. Our last minute errands run, we hopped a cab to the airport. Our cabbie this time was a lady in her fifties who, for reasons not clear to me, reminded me of a real estate agent. Actually, I do know why: she was an ambassador/saleswoman for New Orleans, just like I am an ambassador/salesman for h h gregg. Most everybody in New Orleans was on stage in the same way I'm on stage when I'm trying to sell appliances. Our cabbie was a combination tourguide/promoter/hostess who (again!) insisted on talking to us about the LSU – UK game that was only a few hours away. They were all so polite that I just couldn't share with them how little I care about the University of Kentucky . . . though, again, I'm glad I wasn't around after LSU lost; it probably would have been ugly.
Back at the airport, another interminable wait for a plane. This time I dialed up the first Modern Lovers album and listened to it as loud as I could (this was before I figured out how to over ride the volume limiter on my Samsung mp3 player). We finally got onto the plane, flew out of New Orleans, and into an insanely busy and crowded Chicago O'Hare airport.
I was flying standby, and ended up getting bumped from my Chicago – Louisville flight. That was the bad news. The good news is that Sharri got us a free roundtrip ticket and a room for the night by giving up her seat. Sharri was booked onto a 6 am Sunday flight, but they couldn't guarantee me a seat until the next Wednesday (??!!). However, as one of the airline folks confided to me, the 6 am flight wasn't overbooked, and you could usually count on a few people missing a flight that early in the day.
October finally hit us as we were waiting for our bus to the hotel. I was standing on the curb freezing my ass off in a soccer warm up jacket. By the time we made it to wherever-the-hell we were staying out by the Rosemont Horizon, I was tired, cold, and hungry, in that order. As Sharri was checking in, I was trying to lay low, since I wasn't really supposed to be part of the free room deal. I was prepared to promise them that I was only there to have sex, not sleep, and therefore shouldn't have to pay. Turns out it didn't come to that.
There was apparently some sort of ballroom dancing competition going on at the hotel, since there were a bunch of people wandering around in insanely tight spangled costumes, with way too much makeup and numbers pinned to their chests. I would have loved to hang, but was far too distracted, since I was tired, cold, and hungry, in that order. We got our carry-on luggage up to the room (our checked luggage already on its way to Louisville), and I think it was less than 30 minutes of Sports Center before I was asleep.
Ironically, the one time arriving ridiculously early paid off was on Sunday morning. Turns out a cheer contingent from Boston College (coming from South Bend, where BC played Notre Dame the day before) hit security at the same time we did. The security at O'Hare is moody and not particularly competent, and even moodier and less competent early Sunday morning. They seemed to be randomly opening and closing checkpoints, and moving people from shorter lines to longer ones. At a certain point, Sharri and I just hung back in the confusion, and slipped into a shorter line where the line monitor and one of the ticket holders were raging at each other. Besides sitting on the runway in Louisville at the outset of the trip, it was really the only negative airport experience we had.
True to the prediction, I was able to make it onto the early flight. We loaded onto the full-to-capacity plane, the whole day encased in gray. After a short delay, our plane rose from the runway into the soup, emerging a few minutes later above the clouds into a brilliant sky. The sun continued to dart through the cabin as we flew southeast, dodging through the occasional unshuttered window. I was still working on Pynchon's Against the Day, but I was actually spending more time nodding off to The Velvet Underground's Loaded.
As the plane started tracking the Ohio River, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" was on the player. The green woods and grasslands alternated with ripe and harvested brown fields. Then, the river. The day was young and radiant as we touched down in Louisville.
Big ups and sincere love and thanks to the staff at the Sheraton, Dry Dock, the Saturn Bar, and the Naked Orchestra for making our trip.