well, one month in boston has crept stealthily into four months. i won’t bore you with the boring details of my boredom here. suffice it to say that my weekend foray to new orleans was much needed and appreciated, even if it was occasioned by my nemesis: The Interview. but let’s begin at the beginning…
i scurried out into the snowy boston streets on a 16°F (-9°C) morning, underdressed in a thinnish sweater and wool coat in hopes of being overdressed by the end of my travels. i was victorious. in fact, by the time i laid over in the bustling dallas/fort worth airport, i was already peeling off what i could. by new orleans, i was coatless and shoving up my sleeves as i stood outside in the sunshine, waiting for the city bus to take me into town.
when the bus arrived, i asked the driver if he could let me know when we reached carrollton avenue so i wouldn’t miss my stop. he was more than happy to oblige—and to turn the question into a conversation starter. was i not from new orleans? where was i from? what brought me to new orleans? one thing led to another, and before i finally reached my stop, we had discussed everything from politics to our respective trips to hawaii. there i was, thinking myself lucky that the first person i met was so amicable. little did i know, it was a harbinger of things to come.
now on foot, my weekend bag and i rumbled along the sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes broken, and sometimes nonexistent sidewalks of carrollton avenue. i was now in the uptown/carrollton section of new orleans, heading toward the home of my weekend hosts. they turned out to be wonderful people who informed me of a genuine stroke of luck on my part, to-wit: the following night was to be the night of the…
FIRST PARADE OF THE MARDI GRAS SEASON!!!
day 2—part i
i woke up, dressed, dashed off to my interview…yadda-yadda-yadda…and i rewarded myself with a double scoop of baskin-robbins, which i ate while sitting in the glorious sunshine of a 70 degree afternoon. i had made arrangements for a second interview, one for a volunteer position, at 4:30, so i decided to change into civvies and make my way to the french quarter for a little stroll around until interview time.
i should point out that, for the most part, whenever folks would pass me on the sidewalk, most would say “hello” or “how are you” or offer some other pleasantry. so i felt like n.o. was a nice place—certainly nicer than any of the cities i’ve lived in (which include, in case you don’t maintain records on my life: richmond, nyc, los angeles, philadelphia, and (*sigh*) boston)—but the full picture hadn’t come into focus yet.
so i head over to catch the streetcar, and i ask a guy waiting there how much is the fare. remember what i told you about the bus driver? okay, same thing here. in mere seconds, this guy is ponying up his personal data on some “getting to know you” steez. at this point it’s coming clear. so here are the three things i knew by the end of my trip:
- people. by name. folks that were strangers on the street at one moment were acquaintances of mine in the next. jeremy, casey, laura, rené, patrick, jacques…and so on. these are all real people i randomly met on the street!
- it has to be next to impossible not to make friends in new orleans. i was only there for a weekend, and already i have acquaintances!
- it also has to be next to impossible to recognize when someone is hitting on you in new orleans. i was chatted up by husbands with their wives, guys who happily mentioned their girlfriends, husbands without their wives who happily mentioned their wives. i have no idea how anyone tells the difference between everyday new orleans charm and being charmed.
any-hoo, the streetcar turns left off carrollton (at riverbend) and then takes you on a long ride past the ever-so-genteel houses of st. charles avenue all the way to canal street, the western edge of the french quarter. from there, i wandered down bourbon street for a while, popping in and out of souvenir stores and generally taking it all in. i decided it would be lots of fun to come there with friends—literally carousing in the noisy, carefree streets of the vieux carré. good food, good music, good drinks, good times. laissez-les rouler, non?
day 2—part ii
before i knew it, it was time for that other interview. i hopped into a cab and made my way over to the bywater area. what i had seen up until that point had been the large, stately houses of the carrollton and uptown areas and the historic architecture and wrought iron of the french quarter. what bywater showed me was something different. on the one hand, the houses look like they’re made of cookies—lacy little abodes with sugar sweet paint jobs. pink, purple, orange, green, yellow, blue. pales and brights. houses fit for an easter basket! or the powerpuff girls! or me!
on the other hand, bywater was the first real flood-affected area i was seeing. it was far from the ravages of the lower ninth ward, which i didn’t visit, but the houses that haven’t been repainted yet all bear the mark of the storm: the spraypainted X used to indicate search and retrieval efforts. at the top of the X is marked the date the house was accessed; to the left is an acronym for the agency that did the accessing; to the right is a note on
whether the interior, exterior, or both were able to be searched hazards that were discovered; and at the bottom is the number of dead found. Click here for more details.
for an excellent interactive overview on what exactly happened during the storm, visit: http://www.nola.com/katrina/graphics/flashflood.swf. or just ask any stranger you happen to be passing on a new orleans street. i’m sure they’ll love to chat you up about it. 🙂
so i cabbed it back over to the touristy part of town, where i took a walk through the french market, which is just a little open-air area for vendors. from there, i slipped away from the crowds to take in the view from the bank of the glorious mississippi river—a disappointment, to say the least. i guess i was expecting to see romantic southern paddlewheel boats and huck finn on a raft or something, but all i actually got was muddy water and a bunch of very industrial looking stuff. i also got cold. the days may have been balmy, but the nights were chilly. it was the perfect time to pop over to café du monde for some hot beignets, new orleans’ answer to krispy kreme, to warm me up.
so i posted up to one side of café du monde to eat my beignets and wait for the parade. while sitting on the bench, i met a man who swore i was the spitting image of his ex-daughter-in-law, lisa from oakland. later, when i moved to the edge of the sidewalk, i met jeremy, who mistook me for some young’un waiting for her family (bless his heart). laura showed up after that, and jeremy and i were acquaintance enough at that point for her to think we were together. it’s all one big happy family in n.o., so much so that, upon noticing that i was shivering, laura lent me her jacket! me! a person she had known for all of two minutes. have you noticed that i find this whole phenomenon fascinating?
now, notice that, in the photo above, i am holding my camera. so how did i get this picture? the same way i got most of the parade pictures below—laura’s husband, rené, showed up a few minutes behind laura. it just so happens that rené is a photographer. it also just so happened that my camera batteries conveniently decided to give up the ghost right as the
FIRST PARADE OF THE MARDI GRAS SEASON
was starting! quelle tragédie! but fear not—during our perfectly-normal-exchange-of-personal-information-with-strangers-on-the-street, i had learned rené’s website address. so from there, i was able to get an email addy for him and ask if he would be posting any parade photos to which i could direct your attention. well, surprise surprise (or not), he just sent me along the photos. easy peasy. or big easy peasy, if you will. 😉
now, about this parade. new orleans has groups that are probably equivalent to philadelphia’s mummers. in new orleans, they’re called krewes. different krewes are responsible for different parades. this
FIRST PARADE OF THE MARDI GRAS SEASON
that i attended, is put on by the krewe du vieux and is the only parade that actually passes through the french quarter. the reason for this is that there are no motorized floats. it consists, instead, of jazz bands on foot, costumed people on foot, and smallish donkey-pulled floats.
this parade also always has a theme. as lonely planet new orleans explained, “The themes of this notoriously bawdy and satirical krewe clearly aim to offend puritanical types.” that said, this year’s theme was “stimulus package.” i’ll give you just a second to reflect on how raunchy that sounds if you think of it from a “bawdy and satirical” perspective. if you imagined things like stocks and bondage, Fannie Mae with an emphasis on the fanny, a cockmarket bailout, or sperm bank foreclosures, well, you’ve…ahem…nailed it. throw in some giant walking penises, skeletons with bone boners, and lots of men in drag, and you’ve got the picture.
okay, let me explain something about the photo above. at the start of the parade, my goal was to take pictures; however, as i said, my camera crapped out. so then i was just watching and hoping someone handed or tossed me something. i quickly learned, from the girl next to me (to the left in the photo above) that i was doin’ it wrong.
see that pair of hands holding what looks like a turd in the photo above? that’s me. with a styrofoam turd. not good. now, see what the girl next to me is doing? you can practically hear her screaming from the photo. she’s doin’ it right. it’s all about screaming and sticking your hands out. a closed mouth don’t get fed. or worse, it gets fed styrofoam turds. so i got with the program. i dropped the turd and started a little low-key participating. woohoo! over here! before long, i was caught up in the frenzy. throw me something, mister! you scream, they throw, you catch. that’s the deal. and anything that winds up on the ground is fair game. just try not get run over by a donkey while you’re retrieving it.
after the parade and joining in on a screaming frenzy of folks catching beads being thrown down from a balcony, i made my way back to the streetcar. so i’m standing there waiting to pile in with the rest of the crowd, and this young dude next to me goes, “man, i am tired.” had i been anywhere else in the world (except maybe maui), i would have thought, “why the f*ck is dude telling me this?” but this was new orleans, and my new acquaintance, patrick from nebraska, who had been living there for six months now, was clearly down with the program.
my only remaining mission for my trip was to partake of a shrimp po’ boy. i honestly didn’t know what a po’ boy was, but if it was cajun-influenced and mostly comprised of shrimp, how bad could it be? i was a little disappointed to find out that “po’ boy” is just the louisiana word for what other places call a sub, a hoagie, a grinder, a hero, etc. i was, however, not disappointed with the sandwich. i got it at cooter brown’s, and it was full of big, well-seasoned fried shrimp on a long roll that was buttered and toasted. i washed it down with an alligator ice (which, for future reference, is “rougher” than a sno-ee) and trolled the maple and oak street shops of carrollton for the last time.
i met a couple more people on my walk, including a girl who i think might actually have been crazy, not just new orleans chatty, and jacques of jacques-imo’s, which i definitely plan to check out the next time i’m in town. then, after a warm send-off via my lovely carrollton host, i returned to cold old boston. once there, i promptly put on my mittens and didn’t talk to a soul.
† photographs © rené (www.artbyrene.us). used by permission.