Tuesday, April 03, 2007

City of contrasts

I couldn't publish my entire column on my trip to Louisiana last month in the paper, so here's the entire thing:

One of my girlfriends and I recently took a week-long road trip to
Louisiana for our birthdays. Michele grew up less than an hour from New
Orleans, and I was born in Louisiana, though I’ve rarely been back to the
state of my birth, and I’d never been to the French Quarter and Mardi Gras.
What I discovered was a city filled with contrasts. There is faith and
immorality, devastation and renewal, but underlying it all was a spirit that
I hadn’t seen before. New Orleans is unlike any city I’ve ever visited.
The huge bag of beads I brought back from my trip to New Orleans smells
like the French Quarter – a combination of stale beer and Mississippi River
water. To me, it’s a foreign scent, but to the locals it means home.
There’s a definite vibe in the Quarter. Music blares from every open
doorway: jazz and blues and Zydeco competed with Salsa music from a Cuban
cigar shop, while down the street, I heard reggae and Gretchen Wilson’s
“Redneck Woman” trying to drown out the Scottish rock band The Bay City
And the diversity in people was staggering. Families with small children,
hippies who hadn’t bathed in days, one obviously wealthy couple who were
dropped off in front of Café Du Monde in a chauffeured car, grandmothers
wearing feather boas carrying large plastic cups of beer, couples young and
old, some heading to the several fancy restaurants the Quarter boasts, a
drunk woman with her group of friends who poked me in the shoulder as she
walked past me and said, “And I love YOU,” people who actually live in the
Quarter on their balconies just watching the tourists go by.
The heavy police presence in the Quarter was surprising, even for me.
Michele said in years past, there might have been one officer every few
blocks or so, but now, there were groups of three or four on every block.
Because of the recent crime statistics, I suppose city leaders want to make
sure tourists, whose patronage is so very needed to help New Orleans recover,
feel safe.
And I did. While I was offended at the blatant ads in the windows of some
of the sex clubs along one stretch of the Bourbon Street, I never felt
fearful for my personal safety. There is so much history, and so much to
seen and do.
And I have to mention the parades, of course. We didn’t actually go to any
in the French Quarter, because it would have been too crowded. I had to ask
Michele about some of the preparations being made along Bourbon Street
though, since I noticed huge metal supports being placed under balconies.
She explained the supports were needed to shore up some of the old balconies
that, on their own, can’t hold the weight of the crowds who gather on them
to watch floats go by.
“And they have to grease them to keep drunk people from shimmying up them,”
she said.
We did go to two other parades, though. One was the Krewe of Thor, in
Metairie, the other the Krewe of Omega in Hammond, a nearby town. Families
were in evidence at both these parades, where I learned you have to be
quick, or someone with faster hands will snag the beads flying in your
direction, and that some people go to parades to gather beads to sell back
to people for the next year. Recycling beads – who knew?
Which brings me back to smells. There were so many new smells on my trip,
things that trigger my memory, most of them related to food, which is a huge
part of the experience: the Cajun spiciness of 250 pounds of boiled crawfish
Michele’s Uncle Ricky boiled the first day we were there; the heavenly odor
of Café Du Monde’s café au lait and powdered sugar-topped beinettes. They’re
the only thing the Café sells, but so famous and so melt-in-your-mouth
delicious it manages to stay open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, serving
only that on marble tables and faded green chairs sticky with years worth of
powdered sugar.
Then there’s the Corner Grocery on Decatur Street, a dingy little 100-plus
year-old grocery and deli (home of the Mufellata sandwich). They’ve been
family-owned that whole time, and have a poster-sized photo of Pope John
Paul II over the cash register. The floor is uneven and the food is stacked
cheek by jowl, but the whole place smells of garlic, peppers and spices, a
concoction so potent and I almost feel bereft walking back out into the
St. Louis Cathedral sits just behind Jackson Square, an area formerly the
daily home of artists and street performers. Some of the performers – water
harpists, singers and trombonists – are back, as are the fortune-tellers
lined up directly opposite the cathedral entrance, who will read the bones,
tea leaves, your palm or a deck of Tarot cards. But the artists are not.
I’ve seen pictures from years past where you couldn’t even see into the
Square, there were so many paintings hanging on the black iron fence that
surrounds it. On my trip, there were fewer than 10 artists displaying their
It’s merely one example of how Hurricane Katrina changed the Crescent City.
Glen, the bartender at Pat O’Brian’s who served me my Hurricane (which was
extremely heavy on the run…I had to nurse it), admitted the crowds in the
Quarter were thinner than before Katrina.
“Forty percent of the population is just gone,” he said, at the same time
adding that crowds this year were already heavier than in 2006, when mostly
locals attended a smaller Mardi Gras celebration. “We’re already more busy
than last year.”
And though some people are coming back, damage from the hurricane is still
evident. Along the interstate you can still see rusty water lines along
walls and bridge supports where the flood peaked. There are a lot of
businesses on Canal Street that are still boarded up, as well as some
high-rise buildings with glass blown out of many of the windows in the upper
storeys. In Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans that directly abuts the city,
we saw many houses that bear the mark of police and National Guard soldiers
who went from house to house searching for bodies – giant orange Xs spray
painted on the front doors, no windows and for sale signs in the yard. I’m
not sure who will buy them.
And yet, in the midst of these derelicts, some homes have been reclaimed.
One or two have new front doors, and well-manicured lawns.
Some of the famous cemeteries were underwater after Katrina, too. And when
hey call them “cities of the dead,” they aren’t kidding. Some of the crypts
are made from solid blocks of marble, shipped from Italy and hand-carved.
Others tower 60 feet into the air. They have statues and stained glass, and
some of them are truly beautiful; miniature castles, or churches, and one
was even modeled after an Aztec temple! Multiple generations lay their
family members to rest in each mausoleum. When we toured Lake Lawn Cemetery
in Metairie, I noted some with the earliest date in the 1820’s, and the
latest burial in 2004.

There is so much more I could write. There is a determination to the people
of New Orleans, something I don’t know if I can capture in the short space I
have here.
But in the liner notes to his tribute cd to the city, “Oh my Nola,” New
Orleans son Harry Connick, Jr. said it better than I could.
“New Orleans is a city of paradox…sin, salvation, sex, sanctification, so
entwined yet so separate…the blurred lines from the dark blue of Mardi Gras
to the periwinkle of Ash Wednesday morning…”
And he’s right. Another famous singer, Jimmy Buffet, sings “There is a thin
line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.” New Orleans straddles that
line, and embraces it.


Brina Bat said...

mmmmm. Crawfish and shrimp - spicy and with the heads! Its the ONLY way to have them. So good. What a delightful article! Thanks for sharing your adventure. Have been to New Orleans several times with Joy and her family - and it is a city of contrasts.

Brina Bat said...

Tag. you're it.
List 7 odd things about yourself, please.


Laraine said...

Good post.