Blowin’ ‘round NOLA
Blowin’ ‘round NOLA on a 3-day family trip
The late playwright Tennessee Williams is credited for saying, “America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
In other words, our nation has only three standouts, the rest are pretty much the same. Sorry Las Vegas, L.A., D.C., et al, there’s nothing particularly special about you, according to this famous quote.
So having never been to New Orleans, I had to see for myself if it was a cut above the rest.
Going into any trip, you have preconceived expectations. For New Orleans, I anticipated great music, food, architecture …and glimpses into the seedy side of life, which might be eye-opening for my coddled teenagers.
It was the week before Christmas when we arrived to experience this town otherwise known as NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) and The Big Easy on a long list of nicknames. After an all-day drive, we checked in late to our hotel just across Canal Street and The French Quarter. We needed food fast so we stepped outside and looked left then right. We only saw a sign for chicken so we blew down a dark and narrow street to get fried chicken. Once inside, we realized it was a liquor store. I don’t know if it was because we were so hungry that the rubber sole of a shoe would have hit the spot or not but that was some damn tasty chicken. I even woke up halfway through the night to steal my wife’s leftover piece.
That’s when I must have knocked my prescription sunglasses onto the floor.
By the way, I don’t cuss a whole lot but I had a standing deal with my kids that whenever they heard a bad word uttered from my lips, they would each get a buck.
That morning, I walked through the cramped hotel room and heard plastic crack at my feet.
“Dad, you owe us both twelve dollars.” (Laughter)
“Dad, now its times two.” (More laughter)
So we went to a nearby drugstore for superglue. On the way around the corner we stepped past some sleeping bodies and weaved between those awake with their hands out. This was the business district and a whole lot of transactions were already taking place.
When we were walking out of the drugstore, a man with a burgeoning backpack whisked by us with store management hot on his heels urging backpack man to stop and return all that he took. They had him dead to rights but he just kept walking – more like leisurely strolling – along the sidewalk on Canal Street in broad daylight with a deaf ear.
Translation: “Whatchoo gonna do about it?”
The answer apparently was cease pursuit and watch your merchandise fade out of sight.
Welcome to New Orleans!
Friends of ours, we learned after booking our trip, were staying at a nearby hotel at the same time. They were frequent visitors to this storied town. We couldn’t have had better ambassadors to escort us. We hopped a couple of cabs and headed through the French Quarter to the far side of the Bywater neighborhood to Elizabeth’s Restaurant for breakfast. On the drive I had a nice conversation sitting next to our Haitian cabbie.
Elizabeth’s was as down home as it sounds. It was definitely off the beaten path and not a place we would have thought to seek on our own. This corner house-turned restaurant was at the edge of an aging neighborhood just a stone’s throw from a very high concrete levy. We walked into the joint and it screamed character from the get-go. After we read the menu we read the walls. They were littered with the works of a famed local artist known as Doctor Bob. You can see him in Katrina documentaries. By the time we left, two words were forever cooked into our brains – Praeline Bacon!
Out on the street corner, we decided to walk to the French Quarter. Our friends said we could blow up this street or down that. “That” being the one that would take us to Doctor Bob’s art studio.
It was a no-brainer.
Past a wavy metal graffiti-filled wall and across from the giant metal praying mantis lurking above a small abandoned brick building slapped with a fresh coat of paint was Dr. Bob’s place. We followed some non-lit neon arrows across the fenced in compound past a pile of debris that had old sinks, doors and who knows what else and entered the shop. It smelled like someone just finished a wake and bake.
If I had a truck filled with money, I would have dumped the money and loaded the art. Dr. Bob’s creations certainly had a twist.
Outside, I was drawn to the backyard featuring colorful giant metal roosters, a half dozen plywood tables with spray paint cans littered about. There was also an interesting old shipping container painted purple with windows and awnings painted yellow, blue, green and red.
That’s when this wiry dude appeared from across the lot with his pit bull mix not far behind. The seven of us gathered around him and his pulpit – a wood workhorse with tall weathered boards stretching high above as a backdrop next to a rusty yellow gas pump from bygone days. The wind-whipped gray-haired man with blue jeans thickly smeared with different colored paint flashed a charismatic smile and delivered a sermon full of laughs and politically incorrect commentary. We hung on his every word. It was a ball for all. And it wasn’t even until halfway through the conversation that I realized this was Dr. Bob.
A lady drove into the lot, got out and expressed exasperation about her fight for the cause. Dr. Bob explained the threat of developers bent on constructing high rise condos pointing just past his compound.
“There goes the neighborhood!”
He walked us to the curb after a hearty and memorable conversation and wished us well, making recommendations you won’t find in the tour books.
He reached for a smoke, laughing, “See that little old building there? I pelted that sucker with marbles and watched the riffraff scatter and then I gathered up about twenty packs of Marlboro.”
We walked past the black Santas near the curb, turned, smiled and waved bye to one of the most authentic and delightful personalities NOLA has to offer.
There was something about walking the old neighborhood residential streets back to the French Quarter that made me feel like I was in a town with its own identity – and we hadn’t even scratched the surface.
The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city. Most of the buildings were erected in the late 18th Century under Spanish rule. This was after the Quarter’s old French Colonial architecture was destroyed in the two great fires of 1788 and 1794. The ensuing architecture incorporated a lot of lacy wrought and cast iron balconies. Most buildings were then made of brick to safeguard against fire. It combined French and Spanish styles with a touch of Caribbean influence, too. In the late 19th Century, the French Quarter nearly became known as the Italian Quarter. It had become a less desirable area and was flooded with Italian immigrants.
A man standing in front of an Italian restaurant sounded like a carnival barker, when he yelled, “Step inside for the best cannoli in town.”
So we did. And when we told our waitress that’s all we came in for, she was taken aback and said with surprise, “Are you serious?”
Having Italian blood we make a point to taste cannoli in every town. Cannoli is an Italian pastry with fried dough rolled around a ricotta cheese filling but the quality and types are wide-ranging. Nothing that I’ve ever tried beats Mike’s Pastry in Boston and I’ve been to Italy. This place had respectable cannoli but it cost the seven of us $70, including tip.
We walked off our sugary lunch by doing some shopping in the French Market. This spanned about six blocks featuring an open air flea market accented with a political peddler with a stand in the street selling antigovernment paraphernalia and obscene political satire under a sign that read in part, “…telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The man mimicked Uncle Sam complete with loud red and white pinstripes to go with his rhetoric.
Street performers filled Jackson Square. Little did most know, there was a time when entertainment in the Square centered upon public hangings. The Square is named after former President Andrew Jackson for leading the famous Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Bustling energy danced through the throngs of people coming from all walks of life. Jazz musicians were spread about performing with hats out for donations. We took a load off, sat along a curb and just enjoyed the sounds echoing around us.
The streets were alive with the sound of music.
A magician plucked my son from the crowd to assist him in his impromptu act. A crowd wrapped around as his performance built. When it reached its climax, everyone was stunned and delighted. Then just like that, the whole scene dispersed. Walk a quarter block in any direction and similar scenes replicated on and off across the Square all day long.
Our shopping and sightseeing culminated at a couple of Voodoo shops and museum before readying for our second wind. To kick off the evening, we blew with the Mississippi River breeze to gaze out at the nostalgic riverboats and their giant bright red paddle wheels. Our paths crossed a couple of painted men frozen in time. A crowd looked on with smiles as a young boy struck up his pose facing such a man and a staring contest began. Eventually we worked our way back to Jackson Square but this time from an elevated view that had an equestrian statue of Jackson framed with the gorgeously lit backdrop of the St. Louis Cathedral.
The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France (St. Louis Cathedral) marks the heart of New Orleans standing tall amongst the surrounding historic neighborhoods with three stunning steeples. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States. You can hear its bells toll for saints and sinners both albeit probably more so for the sinners of the city.
As festive as the Quarter is by day, the activity and crowds compound at night. Bourbon Street was thumping as street musicians filled the air inside and outside with jazz performances – some were absolutely incredible drawing crowds ten people deep along the curb. Then a lonely sword swallower asked for my son’s assistance. Passers-bye stopped to gawk briefly as this man did as you’d expect to the chorus of, “Oh gosh” and “Ohhh nooo!”
We walked away wondering why our son was a favorite catch for buskers (street performers) to have assist them with their craft.
At dinner I tried to keep my eyes in their sockets as I read the menu. If the rest of our meals were going to bring the same sticker shock, I’d be panhandling by the end of the trip. But as you would expect from New Orleans faire, it was worth it or so I convinced myself.
Back at Jackson Square we just missed joining a Second Line. This is when a jazz band strikes up an impromptu parade making up the First Line. Those who fall in and follow behind are the Second Line. Nonetheless, fun was to be had everywhere. As it was the week before Christmas, we joined hundreds of others singing carols in the Square to kill time before our ghost tour.
During the ghost tour, we saw a very large Second Line parade shimmy by with loud music and lots of twirling and dancing in the street before it trailed off and our guide could recapture our attention. Not long after, he was again interrupted by a makeshift parade of drunken carolers exuberantly singing, “…O come, let us adore Him…” from the song O Come All Ye Faithful. It was a pretty funny sight of contrast. The kids found it particularly amusing and realized New Orleans was a party town like no other.
The tour itself, despite the entertaining interruptions, was chock full of intrigue. Our guide was a master at his storytelling craft and entertained us as much as he informed us.
We walked the dark streets to pause at the façade of one chilling tale after another but none as horrific as at 1140 Royal Street. This was the home of Madame Lalaurie. If you think the depiction of her in the television show American Horror Story: Coven was bad, wait ‘til you get a load of the real Madame’s story. The Lalaurie Mansion is widely considered the most haunted site in the French Quarter. And trust me, it’s in good company.
This enigmatic infamous woman had beauty and prestige. But beneath the surface she was a cruel cold-blooded murderess. After a fire, firefighters discovered a secret door to a torture chamber. In it were slave bodies found in small cages or chained to walls and operating tables. Tales say body parts filled buckets, torture tools were strewn about, a woman was gutted and had her insides wrapped around her waist, a man had a hole drilled into his head so his brains could be stirred, another was trapped in a tiny cage with many broken bones that were forced to reset at odd angles, a woman had excrement sewn into her mouth and on and on news of the hideous atrocities of Madame Lalaurie spread across the Quarter like a plague. Before an angry mob charged the mansion, the Madame had disappeared never to be seen again.
On our slow walk back to our hotel, a lone guitarist by the name of Joe Shedlo perched at a dark and solemn street corner crooning the lyrics of Christmas in Prison. I bought his CD.
Umbrellas in hand, we ventured into the elements the following morning. From the smell up and down Canal Street, there was a lot of waking and baking going on. We had another great meal to kick start a waterlogged day that began with all things – a swamp tour!
Once wrapped with rain gear, we boarded an airboat. Our Cajun guide grumbled aloud about the lousy weather and pressure to find us an alligator. That’s when I let ‘em off the hook and simply said we were here more so for the boat ride than wildlife. He smiled in relief and warmed up to us. This guy seemed to have a screw loose and before we knew it, we were stuck in the swamp and he had to radio for rescue. Back in action, damn, that airboat could fly! The tiny rain drops felt like hail pelting my face as we zoomed up and down swamp channels sometimes creating paths where there weren’t any before. I winked at my wife when we zipped past signs that read, “No Airboats” and “No Trespassing.”
When we stopped for stories, it was like this dude was an old drinking buddy who had no filter. He told stories that were probably inappropriate for our PG-13 tagalongs but hey, this is New Orleans, right? Whatever the case, he was a hoot and we enjoyed the ride …every bit of it (minus the wet and cold and not seeing an alligator). On our way back to the airboat shack we started from, our Cajun guide left the waterway altogether with our airboat and climbed onto dry land up a ridge and continued as if we were in a Star Wars land speeder. For the girls on the edge overlooking the ridge concern for them and their children rushed through their veins. I just laughed the whole way. I’ll admit, I looked back once to make sure my light-as-a-feather son didn’t blow out. It’s not like we had seat belts or anything to secure us.
We slowed to a stop, turned and the front of the airboat dangled over the edge of the ridge for a moment. Then, we plunged down totally submerging the floor which quickly popped above water again. We had to be quick to lift our feet to avoid the brief rush of water.
The guide looked at me on the sly and asked, “That is what you wanted, right?”
I laughed a reassuring, “Yes.”
As we pulled in, our guide spoke loudly as if this ride had been normal, “Please keep your hands and feet in the boat until it comes to a complete stop.”
I’m not sure if people around the dock realized why our guide’s professional sounding safety advice produced so much laughter from our group.
I tipped him pretty generously for the memorable experience.
Our combo package included a tour of a nearby plantation. But as fate would have it, the folks there were not expecting us and had closed in preparation for a large event. Our bus operator quickly problem-solved and gained access to one of the top-two plantations in the area – Oak Alley. He asked if it was okay. I resoundingly said yes because that’s the plantation I most wanted to see anyway but the combo tour was too economical to pass up.
The drive there was pretty long, clearly why it wasn’t part of a package. Our bus guide, a 73-year-old NOLA native, proved to be a treasure trove of information in that time.
The rain parted soon after we arrived at Oak Alley plantation. Just getting to see the towering oak groves of 300+ year old oak trees alone was worth the trip.
Once inside this time capsule, a Creole man took charge of our group and talked with such an authentic accent, it made us feel like we were his personal guests. He dressed the part and walked us from room to room talking about life on this plantation through its years.
Creoles are those who descend directly from colonial settlers of Louisiana prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It means Native born. Their roots are commonly French or Spanish. And they don’t think too kindly of Americans. NOLA Creole culture is most recognized in the cuisine. Many restaurants offer staples such as Gumbo, red beans and rice and Jambalaya.
What makes Oak Alley so unique is the double row of southern live oak trees stretching some 800 feet framing the plantation mansion. Oddly, the trees were planted well before the house was built. Although the variety of stories about the historic plantation’s past residents, slaves, their quarters, etc. was interesting, the fact that free blacks in Louisiana were also slave owners threw me for a loop. Granted, some bought slaves to free or care for them but some didn’t.
Back in the French Quarter, we walked to dinner. Along the way, I took note of the water running through the streets where mini trenches were designed in the brick and stonework to carry away waste tossed out by the buckets from upper story windows before modern sanitation. Maybe that thought hung with me and that’s why I didn’t find my meal as tasty as I might. Because I just nibbled at it, it drew questions from family, friends and even the waiter. I was embarrassed by the unwanted attention but even then, I just couldn’t eat what was on my plate. My wife’s plate, however, was a different story. Anyway, I insisted it was just me and not the food but against my will, the waiter removed the charge from the bill. This may have been fate penalizing me for avoiding traditional local dishes our friends had recommended. Well, lesson learned.
Our evening entertainment was at the legendary Preservation Hall. Standing in line a homeless guy asked one of our friends for money for food.
One of our friends nodded toward the pizza parlor that happened to be next to us and said, “Step inside and I’ll buy you a slice.”
The homeless man quickly said he was tired of pizza but if he had money he could get something else down the street. I don’t know that that something else was going to be food but he got his dough to do with as he pleased.
Preservation Hall was a hole in the wall kind of place but in an awesome artistic kind of way. They jammed us in until seats were gone and then lined the floor no doubt ignoring any fire regulations for room capacity I suspected. Thank goodness our friends knew to get tickets in advance so we could be one of the first to enter. Our group was split and placed in several locations within the small chamber.
This place was chewed up, spit out, flipped over, and torn into a dozen or more times over or so it seemed. But you just knew it was dripping with a history that made it one of the most beautiful landmarks in the Big Easy. Then walked in the band. They squeezed in front of everyone and let it rip. By “it” I mean Traditional New Orleans Jazz. It was music to my ears – everybody’s ears.
On our last day in town our friends were departing so we ventured out on our own. I was running low on tip cash so I used a bank machine inside the hotel and shoved some twenties into my wallet knowing I had to break those bills down.
As soon as I walked through the hotel doors onto the sidewalk, I was face-to-face with a homeless man asking me for 47 cents. I have no idea why he asked for such a strange amount unless he figured he’d end up with a buck. But I didn’t have a buck, let alone change, only twenties and he wasn’t getting that.
I would have otherwise ignored him but we were face-to-face so I smiled and said I didn’t have cash on hand but I would later so if I see him again, I’ll be happy to help out. By this time, my whole family was bunched up along the curb by this man so I began to walk away to create room for everyone.
“You won’t all always be together,” the man yelled at us, waving his finger in a threatening manner.
Now I know he probably wasn’t playing with a full deck but I couldn’t help myself.
I stopped, turned around and said, “Did you just threaten my family?”
He proceeded to shout at me and called me N-this and N-that (which probably confused the heck out my kids) and walked by us heading in the same direction as we were. For the entire block he kept turning and berating me verbally. I think the kids were scared. He crossed Canal Street so we decided to walk a block before we crossed. But first, I paused to see which way he was going to head on the other side. He turned and scanned my side of the street until he found me. Then he waved me over in sharp motions as if to say, “Bring it on!”
I laughed to myself and walked away.
Curiously, there wasn’t a crowd waiting to get inside the Ruby Slipper Restaurant. A young guy out front said they had a fire and wouldn’t be opening. We were redirected to the one on Magazine Street so we backtracked and blew that way. Once we ordered I headed to the rest room.
When I opened the door, a young employee looked beside himself and said, “You can’t come any closer, someone blew chunks everywhere.”
Miraculously, I was able to clear my mind of that and had a great breakfast.
Later, we took a cab to The Garden District for a tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. We had been warned to not explore cemeteries – even by day – unless you were with a group. Some of them are unbelievably huge and every burial site is above ground because you can’t dig down and not hit water. This created a paradise for muggers.
We watched tour group after tour group gather and depart when finally a little old lady asked in a gravelly voice, “Are you my tour?”
At first, I didn’t know what to make of our 81-year-old, four foot eleven guide. She was very kind and thanked us about 16 times for coming despite the weather.
She stumbled and said, “That’ll happen when you have too much to drink in the morning.”
I hoped that she was kidding.
“Can I persuade someone to carry my bag for me?” She asked giving puppy dog eyes to my teenage daughter. She reluctantly accepted and held the lady’s purse.
This guide was good. She was real good. I could overhear some younger guides in nearby groups and they had a command about them but the information didn’t match the level of knowledge and style of delivery we were getting. She even wobbled over and corrected another tour guide from another company in front of his group. It was hilarious.
“Watch your step. Don’t trip,” she often cautioned like a grandma might.
“Did I say I’m really glad you all came even with the threat of rain?”
“I’m glad this is such a small group so I can take my sweet time and just talk.”
Those were just a few quips of the many she dropped along the way. Her storytelling was so much slower paced and personable than the other guides buzzing about. Her tales were very interesting. We learned why burial sites were above ground and had multiple people laid to rest in each. She told us of movies like Interview with a Vampire that were filmed there.
“You can check these motion pictures out at your local library.”
We also learned the ins and outs of a jazz funeral. At times, people hung on the edge of our group – which consisted of our family of four and one other lady. They were also hanging on our guide’s every word.
“You can join our group for just the cemetery portion of the tour for five dollars,” she’d bargain.
Every time the freeloaders quickly disappeared.
We learned she was of Sicilian descent with some Irish too. And we learned she could be feisty in an enduring way when she told us of a dashing young Spanish guide who once stole her tour.
“I wanted to wring his neck!”
As we walked the sidewalks of impressive mansions in the surrounding neighborhood she told us about her chance meeting with actor John Goodman and other famous people who stayed at or owned this house or that.
During our leisurely walk with this wonder woman she even described her personal experience living through Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath and recovery.
“We have a very nice young Spanish man in our neighborhood who is a contractor and the other girls and I decided to go with him to rebuild our homes. All of us but Doris. Doris did her research and went with the best outfit. Our homes were done better than ever soon after but poor Doris. Her people took her money and blew out of town with a job half done.”
When our 10 minute goodbye finally parted us, she pointed us to where we could catch the St. Charles Streetcar to get back to Canal Street.
Still in the upscale neighborhood I noticed trees sparkling along the streetcar line. They had more beads than branches and leaves. Strings of beads are part of the Mardi Gras parades and festivities. They are often thrown from floats to parade goers. Mardi Gras is a wild season of celebration throughout New Orleans. Its biggest day is called Fat Tuesday which is the day before Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.
The streetcar stopped somewhere around the World War II Museum. The operator explained that she can’t continue because it lost its brakes. We waited a bit and eventually another streetcar came and we emptied ours to board it.
Our three-day family trip blowin’ ‘round New Orleans finished at Mother’s Restaurant where they say its cafeteria style but it wasn’t really. Basically, you get your menu, stand in a line, order your food and then they bring it to whatever table you find. I finally tried my luck at some Creole food and loved it.
So, with a three-day stay in one of America’s only three great cities, according to the late playwright Tennessee Williams, I have to say, it’s anything but ordinary. What makes it a standout is its distinct personality.
There’s just no place like New Orleans, Louisiana.