The Big Easy

There are two types of regular visitors to New Orleans: tourists, often families with children, and the ones that look like refugees from dry-law lands. It’s hard to figure out what families do in New Orleans. I should have asked but now will never know (I hear there is a zoo). The dry-landers are no puzzle: they are all on Bourbon Street, plastic cup in hand, amazed and happy that they can walk and drink at the same time in full view of a policeman, like it was pre-Gorbachev Russia. These are mostly sophomores of course, so they don’t know from Gorbachev, just from their blue-laws puritan states way up north. Unlike in Old Mother Russia, they don’t get arrested even when drunk. New Orleans’ finest don’t have a drunk-tank quota, rather they seem to have strict orders to let the bons-temps roll. One was seen chatting amiably with a hawker from an establishment called Topless-Bottomless. The hawker (or was it a hooker?) held a sign “Wash the girl of your choice”, wore civilian clothes (t-shirt and jeans, unlike her barely covered colleague across the street), and seemed reasonably well washed already.

Especially for our visit, the standard plastic cup crowd was supplemented by a heavy helping of Sugar Bowl pilgrims. The favored Illinis from, of all places, Champagne, IL, mingled with LSU Tigers, currently underdogs, from the neighboring Baton Rouge. There was no champagne for the visitors a few days later, when they were unexpectedly baton-whipped. The Royal Sonesta at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville, usually the temporary shelter for the Federal Appeals Court, 5th Circuit crowd, when the august court has an en banque sitting in the Sin City, was now lousy with football devotees virtually hanging from iron-lace grills. I instinctively glanced at the flimsy pillars supporting the wrap-around balconies of New Orleans-style buildings. They were holding up so far, draped in home-made banners with college mascots.

A block further down the street, I noticed a clutch of convention-goers not likely to be pigskin fans. I could catch the words “Yale University” on one of the badges. As The Times-Picauyne reported the next day, these people, 8000-strong, were attending the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. Animal house – meet the house that Foucault and Derrida built! This convention, as the newspaper explained, is not just an abstrusathon of the tenured, it’s the main meat market for the lowly newly-minted humanities doctors. Some of them actually have useful skills, like the ability to teach a foreign language. But these days, some foreign languages are more equal than others. Spanish is a seller’s market, the most popular language on college campuses. We are going to have to all speak Spanish pretty soon, the young politcorrectniks say. My thoughts drift to their toddler years, the 80’s, when Japanese was all the rage, what with the Toyota takeover of the world expected any day… On the other hand, pity a poor German major: 110 applications for each of the 73 tenure-track positions countrywide. Roll over, Goethe, and take Schiller with you!

Even this was not the last type of weird folks found in New Orleans. At Old Nawlins Cookerie our table companion was a woman from Vancouver. Her next travel plan included flying to Buenos-Aires, crossing the pampas, traversing Chile to Punta Arenas and then hoping to hop on a ferry to Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. On the other hand, what she actually did every year was getting to Catalina Island, a brief helicopter jump from LA, and vegetating there for a week sitting on a porch amid wild nature. She was apparently able to ignore the main attraction of the island – a huge casino in Avalon, the only town there. She had come to Canada to study back in the 60’s from the booming town of Lohja, Helsinki district, married and stayed, although by now with kids grown and a husband long since gone. She tried to get everything she could out of New Orleans – voodoo tours, vampire tours, garden tours… With ads for medium seances in newspapers and Jackson Square claiming the title of outdoor tarot capital of the world, she was sufficiently busy inside the French Quarter not to venture outside, much less across the river.

At the end of the first day, as we waited for the free hotel shuttle at the riverbank, we were entertained by stories told by newspaper photographers. Two were from Champagne and one from Decatur, Il. Our hotel was joined at the hip with the famous Superdome, destined to become Patriot-Superbowlic field of dreams a month later, but now hosting the Sugarbowl. The press from the hometowns of the contestants was sharing it with us. Thanks to the renowned New Orleans efficiency, the paparazzi from the land of the Illinis had lots of time on their hands. The guy from Decatur had a leg up on the competition: he trained his camera on each streetcar rolling along Decatur. The Champagne people, deprived of the weapons of their trade and mellowed down by a Bourbon Street crawl reminisced about far off lands: “In Tokyo, they charged us $500 for three days at first, then $5 a day, then they came to their senses and put us up with a family for free…”

We did venture across the river the next day on a ferry to Algiers Point. It promised Mardi Gras when Mardi Gras was not on in the form of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. In a vast barn hundreds of Mardi Gras statues and float decorations, the older ones from paper-mache the newer ones from god-knows-what, were assembled in jumbled proximity. Kids screamed in delight when fed gateau du roi, king’s cake, apparently a Mardi Gras special for several centuries. We quickly jumped the guided tour, got lost in distant cavernous sections of the barn, and eventually saw the light of day through an open barn door. The section we were in contained huge floats with figures like Aladdin and Sendak’s Wild Things. A small tug tractor pulled in and hooked up Aladdin to take it out for an open air promenade. We followed the tractor and found ourselves on a wide lawn next to the river, separated from it by a flood levee. Several wild things were hauled after Aladdin and let out of the barn to pasture. Was this a rehearsal or do floats need a breath of fresh air from time to time? I don’t know. Disney World it was not, so the creatures stayed silent and motionless, enjoying a warm December sun. This was their birthplace, too. A guy named Blaine Kern somehow managed to monopolize design and manufacture of Mardi Gras floats for all of the krewes and had this Mardi Gras World outfit on the side to attract some kiddy business during the down time, which is all of the year excluding the Mardi Gras week.

The levee turned out to be the Centennial Jazz Walk of Fame. No hands pressed in concrete or any signs indicated who the inductees might be. The traffic there consisted of an occasional jogger with a dog. To the left of the walk, across the feces-colored river full of brightly painted barges, rose the skyscrapers of the CBT (Central Business District – there is no downtown in N’awlins). To the right, was a row of houses with lace ironwork here and there, like in the Vieux Carre, but small and mostly one-story high. This was Algiers, poor man’s French Quarter.

The Garden District, on the other hand, was a rich man’s French Quarter. One of the villas was situated and architected a bit like Villa Rotonda, Palladio’s Vincentian masterpiece. It had classic porticos, lush greenery and a high wall. Only a back alley could be seen through an iron-grill gate at the corner of the property. There, next to a green-painted shed was a pampered black poodle. It was busily gnawing at a plastic garbage bag. Sensing our approach the poodle turned its head in our direction, but confirming poodles’ reputation as the smartest of dogs, quickly realized that we were behind the gate and thus posed no danger, and continued to enjoy the irresistible treat not normally available to somebody stifled by the conventions of the high society to which this canine Mr.Hyde obviously belonged.  We walked a few blocks on Prytania, past Milan and Marengo Streets on the way to Napoleon Avenue. Apparently, the Orleanais took great pride in the little Corsican and his achievements, even though it was he who literally sold them down the river to the uncultured Yanks. The spirit of another great man, Ignatius J. Reilly, this one great also in body, was to be found on Constantinople Street. This Louisianian Oblomov spent most of his days locked in a room off the corner of Constantinople and Prytania. Another Reilly landmark, the former D.H.Holmes department store on Canal Street, now boasts a monument to big Ignatius, although for some unfathomable reason his bronze likeness is considerably slimmed down and looks like a prize hog after several days of being hunted by dogs.

Truth be told, the Crescent City is much more famous these days for its creeps, as the already mentioned voodoo and vampire tours attest. In order to get in touch with some creepy history we ventured outside the city. In a nice local culture touch, I was fingerprinted at the car rental office, something they did not do even in Italy before a drive into Eastern Europe. At the Destrehan Plantation 20 miles away from the city, an easy question about the AAA discount turned into another clash of cultures. A hoop-skirted southern belle first tried to convince me that the discount was just $1 and thus not worth the trouble, then failed to include it in the receipt. When I pointed it out, her glance was full of hidalgo disdain as she tossed me a well-worn bill. Not a typical experience in “customer is always right” Yankee-land. A museum guide wore a black hat and a cloak and although his southern speech was mostly comprehensible, one word he said every now and then was puzzling. He was especially apt to use it when describing the quarters of daughters and sons of the owners. The word was “churin”. I guessed its meaning eventually and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to do the same. One of the rooms in the manor was especially famous. It was the setting of a scene in the movie “Interview with the Vampire” with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt doing the ghouls. In fact, the whole plantation was filmed as the vampire den of Anne Rice’s imagination. No vampire showed up, however, probably because it was still daylight, but we caught a glimpse of another nocturne inhabitant of the place, the famous earless white cat “Sugar.”

Our next destination was Barataria Swamp, part of the Jean Lafitte National Preserve. When I was five I wondered if kings and wizards really existed. Although wizards did not, kings, to my great surprise,  did. From the menagerie that made New Orleans famous: voodoo gods, vampires, and pirates, all turned out to be figments of someone’s imagination. Granted, Lafitte, “The Gentleman Pirate,” and his band existed at some point but they were almost two centuries since gone from their swamp island base. Their fierce neighbors the gators presumably remained. The woods at the swamp doorstep were tall and dark under the full moon. Even the parking lot where a National Park Service ranger greeted us on a cold, by Louisiana standards, December evening looked menacing. Strange sounds wafted from afar, some supposedly belonging to secretive owls. One dominant sound, however, was both far and near – a cat’s meow. Make it a kitten’s meow. A red kitten was now skulking in the middle of the group, now disappearing from the trail, never letting himself be touched. Soon a black kitten joined his pal. This one was almost impossible to see, leaving just the sound effects to announce his approach. People apparently thought that a humane way to get rid of unwanted pets is to bring them to the Preserve and let the rangers take care of them. According to our ranger, the fastest and the most painless outcome for such rejects was meeting one of those owls, or maybe gators. Gators again! They were nowhere to be seen. No more than any voodoo or vampire legends. Unlike boisterous locals and even rowdier visitors, winter is not a carnival time for them. Rather, like sedate burgers, they are soundly asleep in the bosom of their underwater dwellings. Meanwhile, we reached an open space on the shore of the Grand Canal of Barataria. A bridge not unlike Rialto spanned still, black waters reflecting bright moonlight. Canaletto should have seen it and painted it. He could have used a good brush, like the one presented by the only other local we came across – a fair-sized nutria silently bathing under the warm rays of the full Cajun Moon.

N’awlins Civilization (a brief laundry list):

  • Waiting 40 minutes for a St.Charles Street streetcar (OK, it’s warmer there than in some other streetcar waiting spots of the world)
  • Waiting for a Hyatt Express free hotel shuttle – 15 minutes nominal, 1½ hours real
  • Waiting to be seated at Old Nawlins Cookerie – “wait a few moments” (how long is a few?); once inside – could not move to another table (could do it even in Cividale del Friuli), could not split the check (with the woman from Lohja)

To sum up this monotonous list – wait is the price of “good times” in the Big Easy.

Streets of the Warehouse District are named after Muses  – all nine of them – although Urania, the only science muse, is severely shortchanged on length.