Tag Archives: New Orleans

“Some Sweetness”

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“Grab somebody, come on down/ Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town/ Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ ’round/  Catch it down in New Orleans…You wanna do some livin’ before you die/ Do it down in New Orleans…” The Princess and the Frog, “Down In New Orleans”

My final morning in the Big Easy started slowly.  I packed in a quiet apartment, before my hosts were awake, and thought about how quickly it all had passed.  I was so nervous about the trip, about everything involved, and now I wanted it to last indefinitely.  I straightened up the living room and tip-toed over the creaky wood floors, savoring each minute left in the city.

R and I drove back to the French Quarter for breakfast.  Early on a Sunday, it was just coming to life.  Families strolled the streets and vendors unloaded their wares.  It was just beginning to stretch out of sleep as we wandered in.  We walked down to the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi River.  It was surreal, something out of books and history, something huge and untamable.  We stood on its banks in the warming sun, staring out at the rippling water.  I may as well have been visiting the rings of Saturn.  It was all so mythic.  It was smaller than I thought, quieter, but still magical.

We walked the banks back to the historic Cafe du Monde.  Standing in the winding line, we watched people pass and eat.  We inched into the shade of the cafe, thankful for a little relief from the ever-hotter sun.  We picked our way to a table in the back, ready for the heavenly beignets to arrive.  We swooned over the cute children, covered in powdered sugar, being wheeled in in strollers.  Realizing that there is no dignified way to eat a beignet, I dove in.  R laughed as a fine, white dust settled on her black dress and I fought to find a way to bite without sugar coating my entire face.  Eating more than we should have, I finished my plate, reminding myself of Robert Frost’s insight: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Breakfast at the Cafe du Monde!

After  breakfast, we walked back to the car, taking a detour through the French Market.  Looking through used books, shot glasses, produce and drinks, I picked up a small souvenir to send home and we hopped back in the car and headed to church.  I was a bit nervous about going to church, but R wanted me to see it and I wanted to enjoy all of her New Orleans.  We pulled up under a tree and she pointed out that we were parked next to a few of the remaining Projects.  Even they were beautiful.  Red brick houses with old trees lining the streets made even the neediest part of the city enchanting.  We walked into the building and I immediately felt out of place.  After growing up Protestant in a Catholic school, I still feel unwelcome when I attend mass.  I sat alone in the pew as R ran to the bathroom, and looked around the sanctuary.  Transported back to my theology classes in college, I noticed a lot about the church without speaking to anyone.  It was bright, open.  The colors were light and welcoming.  The Stations of the Cross were closer to folk art than anything else and beautiful.  R pointed out that there is only one crucifix in the building, and it is off to the side of the altar, out of sight.  People walked around, some praying, others chatting.  The choir warmed up, piano music floating through the room.

The choir leader emerged from behind the piano, which was adorned with a Saints pennant.  She walked to the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a Saints jersey, black leather pants, and a gold chain belt.  She talked to those of us who were seated, explaining the new language that has been added to the mass and how to follow along.  She was lively and funny, engaging as she readied the congregation for mass.  Then the service began.  The music was enlivening.  The piano played, a horn and saxophone joined in, a drum kept time and a tambourine made appearances.  People sang with joy, the priests swaying at the altar as they did.  Everything that could be sung was, and it was sung with zest.  The mass was familiar but new, welcoming in ways it never was before.  We sang the Lord’s Prayer.  We sang “Peace Like a River” after the sign of peace, which was mashed up with Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling.”  It was a party, relevant and accessible in ways that I had never felt before.  The mass, which was the same one we crashed at the cathedral, was tailored to its congregation, meeting their passions and needs beautifully.

The priest’s homily hit me deeply.  Tears flooded my eyes as I realized why exactly I loved this city.  He talked about giving to Caesar what is his and God what is His.  He talked about life, how it is fleeting and the important things are what belong to God.  “Amens” filled the air as he continued, a far cry from the silent, formal masses I knew from childhood.  He talked about money belonging to Caesar, because it is stamped in his image, and us belonging to God, because we are created in His.  He instructed that we are to give everything to God, because our lives are His: money, time, burdens, joys.  As the mass concluded, the recessional hymn was a game day tradition: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  And then a “Who dat?” chant started.  R grinned widely, at home in room of people in love with life and their city.

We got back in the car and I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling.  We drove through New Orleans and down to the 9th Ward.  She explained the Ward system, described different neighborhoods, and prepared me for what I was about to see.  As we rolled through the streets, I caught glimpses of gutted houses, rotten porches.  Spray paint still marks homes, though I didn’t even want to ask what it all meant.  As we arrived in the Lower 9th, I was fascinated by it all.  I had expected something frightening, a graveyard of houses.  I imagined dark, decaying messes, frames falling apart, destruction everywhere.  In fact, there were cute little homes, brightly colored, all over.  They were smaller than the ones on St. Charles, but I couldn’t help but love them too.  She explained that every empty lot I saw was once a home.  I saw quite a few, filled with dirt or looking like a lawn with no home to claim it.  We crept over the jagged streets and asked if I truly understood what I was seeing.  I apparently wasn’t.  There were plenty of clear lots, but there were also countless homes in fields of grass, reaching at least shoulder-height.  These were once homes too.  What looked like a house built on a lot with meadows surrounding it was a neighbor to an un-kept lot.  Then it hit me just how much was missing, what was lost.  It was weird, driving past places where people died and entire lives were lost.  We talked about whether we would come back, if we lost everything, or if we would just rather not see it all.  She showed me the homes Brad Pitt was helping rebuild.  They were cool, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of the aged New Orleans.

We got back on the Interstate, driving toward my trip home.  We passed through a massive cemetery, lining both sides of the freeway.  White tombs litter the graveyard, housing generations of families together.  They keep the dead away from the mud and rain, keep them buried in the storm.  As I hugged R goodbye, I was sad to leave it all.

I tried to explain to her what I had fallen in love with.  New Orleans is a city at ease with tragedy.  It is violent.  Cemeteries litter neighborhoods.  Brass bands lead funeral processions.  Katrina still lurks, a scar that they cannot shake.  In the middle of all of this is Bourbon Street, children dancing in church, artists lining the street.  There are festivals and music, drinks for everyone and hospitality freely shown.  It is a city with every reason to mourn and fear, but it chooses life.  There is a choice to live the little time we have, to accept that it will end, and the determination to taste all that we can of this world.  The passion and zeal of the city are inspiring, it bursts with energy and celebration.  They dance for marriages and deaths, communion and touch downs.  It is the opposite of my life–vivid and electric.  It refuses to give up or grow up, greeting each day like a child: twirling through life with wonder and radiance.

“Mardi Gras is the love of life.  It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living.  All at once.”  Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

“Dreams do come true in New Orleans”

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“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place.  Every great 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 try to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.  It is home.”  –Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

There is a magic to New Orleans that cannot be put down in words–it must be lived.  On Saturday, R and I woke up a little later than planned and got dressed to go see the mythic French Quarter.  As we walked down the street to catch the Street Car, the sun was warm and a cool breeze sifted through our hair.  We climbed onto the full car and rattled down St. Charles.  As my curls tangled through the open window, whipped in the sun, I drank in more of the beautiful architecture.  R, being the girl she is, struck up a conversation with a lost couple next to us.  They asked where to get off for Lafayette Square and she directed them, asking what they were up to.  They told us there was a festival, so we decided to get off with them and see what was out there.  We wandered through booths and heard a little music.  R told me “I love a good festival!” and that summarizes New Orleans well.  We got breakfast–a beer for R and the best pina colada on earth for me–and walked on.  (One of the strangest, and most enjoyable aspects of New Orleans was the ability to drink on the streets.  It never felt normal to get a drink to go, but it was wonderful!)

R wanted me to see a Second Line, so we walked to City Hall for the Occupy NOLA protest, listening for the band.  As we sipped and watched, R saw some of her friends from school, who stopped to chat for a moment.  They told us that the band could not be booked, and no Second Line was coming, but they were heading our direction, so we joined them.  We were accidental protestors.  “This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants!” she said with a wide grin.  Walking with the protestors was surreal and we were glad to have alcohol on our side.  A young girl rode on her parent’s shoulders on the outskirts, taking in the scene.  Signs were everywhere, all angry about something different.  A woman marched in front of us with a sign on her backpack reading, “3 degrees, 2 jobs, and I can’t sell my house.  I’m tired and angry.”  A drummer walked next to us for a block, flanked by a saxophone player, as people shouted “This is what democracy looks like.”  As we entered the Quarter, we broke free and left behind the shouts of unrest.

We stopped in a stately hotel, cool behind its white pillars, and glimpsed the slowly turning Carousel that made up the bar.  After the pit stop, we strolled the streets, passing galleries and shops and a cat in a window.  We wandered the historic streets, older than the stars and stripes.  The corners bore tiled signs, proclaiming the names the streets were known as under Spanish rule.  Stone and brick sidewalks turn into cobbled alleys, old shuttered doors bright and warm.  We wound down to Jackson Square, arriving just as horns began to echo.  We were surprised by a Second Line!  We stopped to watch, as the band approached, and clapped as the bride and groom followed.  We walked past the artists, work strewn on tables and pinned on fence bars, and the fortune tellers, browning in the autumn sun.  Skinny streets with beautifully old names crisscrossed through history and we wound up next to the mule-drawn carriages.  Promised a cheap ride if we joined strangers, we toured the Quarter by carriage, listening to tidbits of history and lore, seeing the oldest bar in America (Jean Lafittes Black Smith Shop), the only business open during Katrina (Johnny White’s), and an elementary school just off Bourbon Street.  Back at Jackson Square, we admired Saint Louis Cathedral, popping in for a look around and a homily about economic justice.  We walked back past the art vendors, enamored with a collection of bird paintings, and then headed for lunch.

We entered an almost empty dining room at the Gumbo Shop, which I would have walked right past if R hadn’t stopped me.  We entered the cool restaurant, seated next to the window where we watched a large woman, dressed all in red, clean up her keyboard and seat for the day.  R ordered gumbo and I enjoyed my first po’ boy after we shared an order of alligator sausage.  It was all new, steps away from all that I know and have ever experienced, and it was delicious–just like the city itself.  Full, hydrated, and content, we left our first real meal of the day for more walking.  Our feet had grown tired and we had not drunk nearly enough for a day in the Quarter, so we made our way down Bourbon in and into Pat O’Brien’s, where we would stay for much longer than we intended.

In the dark, smoky piano bar, we found an empty table near the stage and sat down with my first hurricane.  Sipping and singing, we watched tables fill and empty and fill again.  We heard some songs three or four times, and grew excited when a new one was requested.  We were mesmerized by their fingers, pounding and flying, effortlessly creating every song we threw at them.  The players cycled through, as did our drinks, and we sang on.  Finally R’s roommate joined us, which called for another round of drinks, and shouted our day’s journey to her over the music.  Eventually we tottered our way out, squeezing between crowded tables, and found that it had grown dark outside as well.  We walked to the car, taking Bourbon just to say that I did, and slowly drove away from the Quarter, just beginning to pick up for the night.  We listened to her roommate’s day, filled in details of ours, and decided some food was in order.  We drove through Rally’s, another new taste, though much more familiar than alligator.  We limped home, tired and hungry, and snuggled in for a little television before sleep.

At the end of the day, it felt like we had live a week.  It felt forever ago that we climbed onto the Street Car, and we crammed as much into a day in the French Quarter as possible.  I got to see and taste the city, breathe in the pounding heart of New Orleans.  It is a place of history, rich in humanity.  The streets ring, sing right along with the brass bands marching.  People come to perform, to dance and play, to paint and predict.  People come to where the life is.  For one day, I was one of the people who came to the Quarter, one of the pulses creating the beat of the street.

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands.  Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”  –John Updike

Shakespeare, the city and me

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  –Mark Twain

On my first full day in New Orleans, I was left alone for most of my day.  R had to work, so I woke early (even earlier when I remembered the two-hour time difference) and tried to plan for my time alone in the city.  I spent my first hour catching up with my online obligations for my new job and then debated where to wander.  I checked (and double checked…or triple checked) that I had the spare keys in my pocket (and that they worked…some things never change) and headed out into the streets.  I packed a camera and went to see just what there was to see.

I started out searching for St. Charles to see the historic homes.  I stopped at the corner to watch the street car pass and dodged through some traffic.  I had big plans.  I was going to find a coffee shop, get breakfast, and take in the neighborhood.  I walked and gave myself whiplash looking at all the houses.  Everything is old and wonderful.  Houses are wrapped in cozy porches and balconies.  They hide behind twisting wrought iron.  Bricks are everywhere and broad, white columns stand tall watch.  I could look at those buildings forever.  I fell in love with the old, full trees shielding me from the sun and the bright colors splashing relief against the russet bricks.  I kept watch for my destination and kept walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I passed schools, towering and stately, and more of the delicious homes.  And more.

After a half hour of walking, my feet were sore and the sun left few places to hide from its rays, so I turned to go home.  I walked and savored the homes, the beauty of the old neighborhood.  I stopped suddenly, overtaken with a sweet aroma: floral notes, melted with a fruity scent.  I searched for what the smell could have come from, but could not determine its source.  It smelled like a summer day in the South should.  I lingered over water meter covers, the quiet beauty of something so mundane.  Every street name, tiled into the cement from bygone decades, broadened my smile.  Sweating and aching, I came to my final street crossing and looked at what I had missed before: St. Charles was the first intersection I had come to.  Frustrated that I had missed the mark by so far, and reaffirming that Charlie Brown in me, I went inside to rest.  My feet were blistered and face pink with the midday sun.  So I showered, turned on a movie, and relaxed in the beautiful apartment, tiptoeing over the dark, hardwood floors and lounging under the ceiling fan.

R came home late, so we hurried to get cleaned up and head out for the night.  We started by meeting two of her friends from school for dinner.  I continued to step into a limbo of familiar-new with cajun-mexican food at Juan’s Flying Burrito: jerk chicken nachos.  They were delicious and her friends were wonderful.  They were funny and sweet and instantly treated me like one of the girls.

After laughter and dinner, we set off for the New Orleans Museum of Art for a night of Shakespeare under the stars.  We wandered in, taking our program/fan from the children at the entrance, and got a drink.  We spread our blanket on the grass and settled in as R pointed out acquaintances and professors.  As A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened, I was more enamored with the experience than the play.  We watched the beginning on a grass slope and then moved further into the garden for the bulk of the play.  Trees spread overhead, dripping with moss and fairy trinkets, as the action unfolded in the hollow below.  As I bored of the story, never one of my favorites, I noticed the moon beginning to rise.  It was massive, yellow, magical.  R noticed it too and we were transfixed.  As the play closed, we followed the fairies around to a pond, where the cast rowed out onto the water to close.  It was such a wonderful experience, unique and tactile–theater as it should be.  We loaded up the blanket and left for a bar.

My single gripe about New Orleans is that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Gross.  But we entered and R warned me that it is a “pet-friendly” bar.  We found stools and ordered drinks as a small wiener dog ventured across the floor, looking exactly like my own.  He scampered off into the dark back room and we met more of her friends from school.  They were beautiful, smart, outgoing girls and I felt a benevolent jealousy of her world.  They are passionate and driven to make the world a better place, and have more fun than anyone I know.  We drank and talked until late and then headed home.  Smelly and blistered, my eyes were heavy and ready for some rest.

The play was delightful.  It was a remarkable experience, sitting huddled with the crowd, rapt beneath the moon.  We shared a magical night, sitting among the statues in the shadow of the museum.  The bar was fun, seeing R in her world, her life at its most silly and joyful.  I have felt recently, and my stroll through the neighborhood confirmed, that I was born at the wrong time.  The cracked sidewalks and bumpy bricks tell a story.  The houses are old, have endured and seen, adapted and withstood.  I find comfort and peace in the beauty of the old, something that new, state-of-the-art can never bring.  The steadfast trees and porch swings beckon me and welcome my soul home.  For an hour, those streets were mine, and we both loved it.

“Over hill, over dale,/ Thorough bush, thorough brier,/ Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire,/ I do wander everywhere.” –William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Big Small-Town City

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“Got nothing against a big town/ Still hayseed enough to say/ Look who’s in the big town/ but my bed is in a small town/ Oh, that’s good enough for me…”  –John Mellencamp, “Small Town”

I’m a homebody.  I’m boring.  I like routine and familiar.  I like comfortable.  I grew up in a small town and, while I have enjoyed some of the luxuries of the big city, I miss it.  I don’t fly by the seat of my pants.  I don’t do adventure.  I don’t try new things and most of the time I regret it, and then do not try something new the next time I have the opportunity.  I’m predictable and small.  Sometimes, though, I dream about being big and having stories to tell.  I think about what it would be like to be different, to be interesting, to be alive.  So, when one of my closest friend, R, left for graduate school at Tulane and continually invited me to come visit her at Tulane, I planned a trip with every doubt and reservation in the world.

Nervous and unsure of what to really expect, I left home last Thursday and took flight to the Big Easy.  I was off to see how R lives, so far from everything I know.  Sitting on the plane, I worried about so much.  Would it be too hot?  Would it be filthy?  Would I find new food that I liked?  Would it be scary to walk around in such a violent place?  Would I be boring and disappointing as a guest and friend?  Would I overstay my welcome?  What in the world would I find?  Would it be a miserable weekend?  I was calmer flying than I expected, but the nerves came as I stepped into the airport.

I am not an adventurer.  I stepped into a new place, not sure of where to go.  I felt embarrassed, lost among the people who knew these walkways.  I made my way out the doors and found R waiting for me.  I hopped in the car and drank in the dark sights along the highway on the way home.  We wound through tight streets and sped through the gaps in the neutral ground, which I never got used to during my visit.  The sun had set, but I could still make out the neighborhoods that we drove through.  I fell immediately in love with the houses, the porches, the wrought iron railings, the old trees sweeping over head.  I could not drink in enough of the streets.

Feeling a little less nervous, we climbed the stairs in her quaint, beautiful building and dropped my bags off.  Lingering a little on the crystal door knob, I pulled the door closed and headed out for my first real steps into New Orleans.  We crept down the street, past a pale cemetery bathed in moonlight, and turned down Magazine Street.  I felt a funny recognition, the shops looking like our beach areas here.  We passed bars and boutiques, yoga centers and apartments.  We stopped for pizza–familiar and safe for my first venture into the unknown.  We sat on the sidewalk and watched people walk, and stumble, by.  We saw a couple of her friends from school and watched a man’s car get towed.  We chatted and it really didn’t feel like I was anywhere but home.

After dinner, we went to a small bar, favored by locals, and had my first drink in the city.  In a number of the bars we went to, mojitos were prominently advertised.  It was strange to see something other than margaritas being pushed, and exciting.  I had a blueberry mojito, boasted as the best in the city, and quickly decided that it would be my last.  But I was brave and fought every instinct that pushed me toward the familiar.  We sat on the patio, bathed in smoke (also VERY different from California) and talked about family and boys and work–the familiar in the new.  After our drinks we went home to settle in and watch a movie.  She had to work the next day and I was getting my sea-legs, easing into the big outside world.

That first night, I was comforted by how underwhelming some aspects of New Orleans are.  I expected a sensory overload, people everywhere and no escape from the party.  On the contrary, her neighborhood is quiet and calming.  Life is simple and casual, slow and easy.  I expected big city grandeur, the anxiety that comes with drowning in traffic, sky scrapers, people and rush.  Instead I found a city that reminded so much of home, of life in a town too small for a Costco.  The city is cozy, comfortable with its smallness.  I admire that.  I revel in it.

There is much more that I saw and loved about New Orleans.  That first night, I was surprised to be drawn in and embraced by the city, not swallowed alive.  As I leapt from my comfort zone and dove into travel, I found that I landed somewhere comforting and wonderful.

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/ Linger on the sidewalk/ Where the neon lights are pretty/ How can you lose?/ The lights are much brighter there/ You can forget all your troubles/ Forget all your cares…” –Petula Clark, “Downtown”