“I am not going to lay down in words the lure of this place. Every writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short. It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of south Louisiana in words and to try is to roll down a road of cliches, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is. It is home.” ~ Chris Rose, 1 Death in Attic: Post-Katrina Stories
If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you need to visit before you die. It is a quirky, fascinating, exotic place full of life and you are going to be dead for a long time as Bob Dylan once said, so hop in your car or buy a plane ticket and visit this urban city with the hometown feel. It is full of gourmet food, fine music, amazing architecture, and city parks that are exemplary oases of urban planning at its finest, and despite all those delights it is the people of New Orleans that are the city’s greatest asset.
Both beautiful and decadent, everywhere you turn are signs of poverty residing alongside Southern elegance; from the homeless sleeping beneath the overpass by the exit ramp that first leads us into the city streets, to the lovely homes in the Garden District where we took a four mile stroll from our hotel to the Tulane campus, to the panhandlers waiting outside the door of the convenience store where we bought bagels, to the Carousel Bar in the very elegant Hotel Monteleone where we had a drink while waiting for a downpour to pass through.
On the rain soaked streets of the French Quarter we dodged the showers by ducking into shops along Royal Street, and yes a bar or two in-between because after all, this is The Big Easy and we do enjoy our cocktails. We avoided crowded, drunken Bourbon Street like the plague but enjoyed the ever popular Acme Oyster House around the corner on Iberville where we shared a dozen raw oysters shucked and another dozen char-broiled.
There was a TV in our hotel room but we only turned it on to check the weather while we drank strong chicory coffee and ate yet another bagel from the six pack we bought at the convenience store. Our accommodations had a small kitchen but other than breakfast we dined out in this city of gumbo, étouffée, oysters (we have consumed several dozen), and boudin.
On one of our walks, I was drawn to a brick building that looked more like an alley lined with flickering gaslights, and it was here that we met Nate, a young man working the age old craft of making hand riveted copper lanterns. I had accidentally stumbled upon a young daydream believer so I asked him how he chose this profession. He explained that after college he ended up working for an architectural company where he became interested in lighting and found his way to an apprenticeship with a coppersmith. “I majored in history and I guess you could say, in a way I am using my education by making historical lighting.” He is one of the lucky ones, finding his passion early in life and a way to make a living doing it in a city where gaslights flicker day and night.
On another night, eating another two dozen oysters at fifty cents a piece during the Redfish Grill happy hour, we chatted with our bartender Glenn, a man in his early sixties who moved from Burlington, Vermont to New Orleans in 2005. He and his partner were tired of the corporate nine to five life and decided to move here to try their hand at bar-tending.
“We had no experience in a city where restaurants are serious business and it unfortunately took a terrible storm for us to land a job. So many people had left the city after Katrina and the work force was at an all time low, so we finally landed good jobs, stuck it out in the aftermath of the storm, and fell in love with our new city during some very hard times.”
Now they’ll never leave, he told us. “I don’t think I could handle the cold anymore and summer is so damn short up there in New England.”
“Yes, I’m worried about that,” I admitted, as we tell him how after Jazz Fest we are heading north to begin our adventures in inn keeping.
Everyone in New Orleans has a story, including the tourists. Something about this city turns just about everyone into an extrovert. On another rainy night we visited Frenchman Street where the sound of jazz spilled onto the streets as soon as we crossed Esplanade and turned the corner onto this vibrant, bustling street. Waiting in line for the doors to open to the Blue Nile where we had will call tickets to a James Booker tribute, we struck up a conversation with a man from Montana who was here for Jazz Fest with his childhood friend from California. This was their tenth year attending the festival together. For a half hour we traded stories while listening to the music in the bar next door, and across the street, along with the guy on the corner playing his trumpet for tips. A harmonious symphony providing the beats to our conversation. Where was the last Grateful Dead show you saw? Were the Allman Brothers ever the same after Dickie Betts left the band? What do you think of Trey Anastasia and Phish? And of course I had to share my story from thirty-five years ago about the time I was here during Mardi Gras when Etta James walked onto the stage at Tipitina’s at three in the morning.
Tourists are a big part of this city and yes, some are stumble down drunk but most are here to enjoy the sights and sounds of NOLA, as the locals call it. I don’t know how many thousands of people were at Jazz Fest the day we attended. They came from just about every state in the union and various foreign countries too, many of them repeat visitors. The fields were soaked and muddy but everyone shared dry space or room on the blue tarps the seasoned veterans brought along with them. There was no violence that day, no fist fights, no angry mobs. From the gospel tents to the corporate sponsored Acura stage (for everything is corporate sponsored these days) people danced and sang, shared their music stories, drank beer, and ate good food. If you ever make it here, I highly recommend the Trout Baquet from Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe.
Just before we left for New Orleans, on the day we moved out of our apartment in Boynton Beach, a neighbor told my husband he had worked for the DEA and warned him about the dangers of New Orleans. “Make sure to bring your gun, and watch your every move. People get killed there all the time.” But as my boss once said to me, when he was warning me of other dangers in Miami, “Oh, that’s right, you guys aren’t gun people, are you?”
Gun people. No, we’re not. Apparently there are two kinds of people in America. We are the No Gun people. Other than hunters, I don’t understand the gun people and how they live their paranoid lives. I know for sure they don’t understand me. I like to dine in restaurants and shop at Walmart without a pistol in my purse, sleep in my bed at night without a gun in the night table drawer, and I wish I lived in a world where most people felt the same way. I understand bad things happen but it is not in my DNA to constantly live in fear of the the worst case scenario. I prefer to live my life expecting to find the better angels among us.
Cable news and talk radio have divided and conquered for many years now. Shouting talking heads focus on the negative. The loudest voices in the room get the most airspace. In the meantime, average Americans go about their days; working long hours, paying the bills, helping their neighbors, enjoying good food and music. We are better than the news the media chooses to focus on. I trust the majority of people are good and kind and on the fifth day of my vacation my faith was confirmed.
At a place called Coulis, we met Sharon at lunch after wandering through Lafayette Cemetery en route to Tulane. The neighborhood restaurant filled with hospital workers and local moms with their kids in tow caught our eye, so we ducked in for a quick bite to eat, which because we were in New Orleans ended up being an extraordinary meal. Shrimp and grits for me, huevos rancheros served atop pulled pork for my husband.
Sharon was helping her niece during Jazz Fest and told us about their other restaurant near Tipitina’s. We promised to check it out, so later that night we took the St. Charles trolley to Napoleon and walked the five blocks to Dick and Jenny’s, passing through another one of New Orleans lovely, livable neighborhoods lined with inviting front porches and crooked sidewalks that easily trip you up if you don’t watch your step. Sharon greeted us at the door, excited to see us once again. This time we dined on chicken and andouille gumbo, buffalo frog’s legs, and flounder in a basil cream sauce, finishing the feast with creme brûlée and lemon meringue pie atop fresh blueberry sauce.
Sharon happened to finish her hostessing shift just as we were leaving the restaurant. The three of stood on the crooked sidewalk chatting for awhile and we thanked her for feeding us delicious food all day long.
“How are you getting home?” she asked.
“We took the St. Charles trolley.”
“You’re walking all the way to the trolley? Forget it, I’ll drive you back.”
So we hopped in her car and on the drive to the hotel, she pointed to the house she used to own before Katrina. She and her husband left for Tennessee after the hurricane, tired of the storms and the chaos and hard times that were the aftermath of Mother Nature’s wrath. “But we got bored and decided to come back,” she said.
Shortly after they returned, her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In a few weeks, because he is still feeling healthy, they are embarking on a cross country trip to see the places they’ve always wanted to visit. Her husband is receiving some type of injection every two weeks and the doctors’ in New Orleans have helped arrange this treatment along the route they are planning to travel from Arizona to California and back along the road East.
As I listened to her story, I knew she was a fellow wanderer who believed in living every day on her own terms. She knew that life was short and on this journey nothing goes as planned and often things get difficult. Violent storms disrupt your life, jobs come and go, bad things happen, so it is better to approach life with an open heart and mind. To accept the ups and downs and other people’s quirkiness and differences. There are no right or wrong answers. We all have our own story to live.
We are now on our way to Orlando to get the truck and the trailer loaded with all our worldly possessions. The ruptured brake line has been fixed by the neighbor of our friend – a kind stranger who took care of things while we vacationed. I am writing this blog from the passenger seat as we pass dozens of billboards along Route 10 shouting at us about the Narrow Road to heaven and to Call 1-555-For-Truth.
Hell…I forgot about that.
Read the bible…it will scare the hell out of you.
Jesus is the only way to God.
As always I feel uncomfortable with this self-righteous certainty, but somewhere near the Mississippi/Louisiana border I notice a sign tucked behind some overgrown trees offering a sly rebuttal.
That Love Thy Neighbor Thing. I Meant It. – God.
During my last couple of days in the Big Easy, a skywriter was sharing messages of love and hope in response to the events taking place in Baltimore, reminding us we are all in this together. The disturbing news out of Baltimore is about everything America promised and some of the things it hasn’t delivered.
America is a place filled with resilience and hope and the opportunity to keep improving. We are all neighbors sharing the same planet. During my week in New Orleans, I experienced days of music, food, new friends and kindness, and I will most certainly return to this complicated, enticing, vibrant city where I met a stranger at lunch who told me to visit her family’s other restaurant for dinner. Late at night, she invited two perfect strangers into her car and shared her story of sadness and optimism. At the curb in front of our hotel, I gave her my card and a big hug and told her if she happened to pass through New England on her road trip with her husband, she needed to stop by and visit us. I promised there would be a room for them at the inn.
Other places we visited:
Sylvain’s for mouthwatering pork shoulder, grits and greens, and the best papparedelle bolognese I have ever eaten.
Avenue Pub for the largest selection of draft and bottled beer I have ever seen.
Cafe Amelie for the prettiest courtyard dining in New Orleans. If only it hadn’t been raining. I will be back.
Audubon Park for a picnic by the Mississippi.
City Park for the Besthoff Sculpture Garden and the Botanical Garden.
Cafe du Monde just because you have to have the chicory coffee and beignets, and you have to be a tourist some of the time.
Cochon Butcher where the homemade boudin is to die for and sandwiches are brought to a whole new level.
Jazz Fest is held each year from the last weekend in April through the 1st weekend in May.