I’m sitting in my nice dry middle-class California living room watching HBO: Spike Lee’s If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise. It is the sequel to his first documentary about the besieged city, When the Levees Broke, A Requiem in Four Acts. Five years after Hurricane Katrina and there is a flurry of television re-visitations of the human disaster.
Until this year, I had been to New Orleans only once in my life and that was really another life – when I was 14 years old and passing through, accompanying my southern grandmother on a cruise ship voyage. I had no real memories of the city. This past May, almost reluctantly, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a week there. The story of that trip was printed in our local newspaper. I post it today as evidence of one more heart that the city has won, one more voice that needs to carry its song.
New Orleans, the City of Who Dat?
Riding shotgun to New Orleans, with Dr. Park, on her way to a convention seemed like a good idea at the time; an opportunity to mix business with a visit to a new city. Then the New Orleans weather forecast predicted temperatures in the nineties and thunderstorm warnings. We left behind a perfect day in Fremont, and were greeted by hot and muggy Louisiana Bayou weather. But nowadays one has to give this part of the country all the benefit of the doubt you can muster, and if our curiosity, interest, and tourist dollars would help New Orleans, we were glad of it. They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Let me add, what happens in New Orleans goes home with you, on your hips and in your heart.
The people of this city are such a mixture of exuberance and pathos, poverty and artistry, that I constantly felt like, “Who dat!?” after every encounter. There is an irrepressible spirit to the folks here, from taxi drivers to street musicians and cooks on the line. Our turbaned Hindu cabbie from the airport was terrifically proud of the Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, the first governor of Indian descent in the United States. But he wasn’t crazy about the Republicans in general, nor their handling of the Katrina disaster. Yet, he declared with no hesitation, “America is the greatest country. I love it here!” Another taxi driver, with grey corn rows and a wise tone told us, “All the food in New Orleans is great; even if you just go to the grocery store, it’s all good.”
Our first evening we were intrigued by a hand-painted sign not far from our hotel, the Royal Sonesta, on Bourbon Street. “Evelyn’s Place – New Orleans Gumbo-Red Beans-Rice-Hot Sandwiches.” The faded red walls, barred windows, scarred door, and neon beer logos did not bode well, but did seem a testament to longevity. The bar, with its parallel row of stools, stretched along one side, a long banquette and small tables ran opposite. There was a faint hint of old cigarette smoke, but not pungent enough to drive us out. “Whaddya want?!” asked the proprietor, an older man of indiscriminate age. We allowed as how we would like some lunch. “Well, listen up,” he said, “I’m gonna tell you what to do.” We wound up sharing a hot muffaletta (pronounced moof-a-latta), a bowl of gumbo soup, and some red beans and rice. When we asked for ice tea, he laughed, “This is a bar! We don’t have ice tea!” So we ordered two sodas, and he yelled, “We’ve got a couple of live ones! A coke and a ginger-ale!”
For the next hour, Frank (or The Old B*stard as he refers to himself) regaled us with the history and stories of Evelyn, “the Old B*tch” and her bar. How it came to have foreign currency, now dollar bills, pinned all over the wall, why there were hats, jerseys, and ladies underwear hanging from the rafters, what happened when he hired a five month old baby to greet customers at the door. All these stories and more just rolled out of him. (For the details, you’ll have to go yourself!) We were enchanted, whether the stories were true or not, the fact that his granddaughter tended bar, his son stopped by for a chat, and he made us laugh, gave us far more than we expected for the $20 we paid for our first Big Easy lunch. As we left there was nothing to do but hug the nonagenarian Old B*astard and thank him for a wonderful introduction to New Orleans.
If you don’t have a car, staying in the French Quarter is a must. If you stay in the French Quarter, and want to sleep, be sure to reserve a room off of Bourbon Street. Despite its fame, or notoriety, Bourbon Street activity is not attractive. Most nights, and especially on week-ends, it is filled with intoxicated students and tourists reeling and bumping down the street, loud souvenir and cocktail hawkers, and garbage trucks. If you like that kind of scene, go ahead and indulge. If that’s not your thing, walk Bourbon Street in the daylight.
The rest of the French Quarter is a treasure chest of sights, sounds and smells. The Quarter is small enough to walk everywhere and you can quickly get the lay of the land, and find yourself meandering up and down the memorable streets: Royal, St. Louis, Iberville, Chartres (“Charter”), Bienville, Conti, etc. Window-shopping is irresistible. Antique store displays tempt you with diamonds and rubies, antique and deco jewelry, fine bone china, carved and embossed furniture, even old firearms and swords. In and out of the air conditioning, encouraged by friendly shopkeepers, you can experience the richness of museums for free, unless you decide to treat yourself to a gold bibelot encrusted with jewels. Less expensive is a stop for chicory coffee and a croissant, or better yet, the Cafe du Monde’s dark-roast chicory cafe au lait and a beignet.
Ahhh, the beignet. Not to be missed. Not to feel guilty. Think fried dough, but elegant: fat little rectangular purses of sweet, deep-fried on the outside, melting-hot inside, crisp culinary sins covered with a snowy blanket of powdered sugar. The beignets come piled three to a small plate, a tidy pyramid covered by fluffy sugar. When you at last look up, the small cafŽ table is covered with drifting powder and balled up paper napkins, a scene we dubbed Carnage des Beignets. And all this while live trumpet music plays over your head, accompanied by a wailing jazz cry that mingles southern sorrow and joy. It is here that Hack Bartholemew stands by the iron railings and draws from an old battered horn the tunes for sale on his CDs, Lifting Jesus Up Down in New Orleans and Holy Ghost Transfusions. Like so many artists and musicians in this city, Hack is raising money for the children of New Orleans, though it is clear he has minimal resources of his own.
The generosity of Southerners is not to be questioned. We have friends in Monroe, Louisiana who drove five hours to spend two days with us, before returning to work the night shift. Our adventures included the New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo, lunch at the Pontalba CafŽ, The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, Faulkner House Books in Pirate Alley, dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro, a drive through the 9th Ward, and then up St. Charles Street past Tulane and Loyola Universities. And of course, many beignets every day.
The Zoo had a new installation, The Language of Conservation, a collaboration with Poets House and the New Orleans Public Library. Mark Doty, as the Zoo’s Poet in Residence, worked with conservationists and the zoo’s wildlife and exhibit staff to bring home the importance of conservation. Around corners, hanging from trees, inscribed on walls and fences, the words of poets celebrated nature and the environment. The grim, melodic words of Langston Hughes were painted on one fence:
HOW HIGH HAVE YOU GOT TO BE?
HOW HIGH HAVE YOU GOT TO BE
TO KEEP THEM COLD MUDDY WATERS
FROM WASHIN’ OVER ME?
Langston Hughes’ “Mississippi Levee”
And swinging from a tree branch, “My heart on a string touched the sky,” from Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” The Audubon Society’s Zoo is alluringly laid out, with meandering paths, streams and misting stations to cool the heated visitor. Around each bend you’ll find alligators, or giraffes, flamingoes, leopards, fresh lemonade, begging ring-tailed raccoons, peacocks, ice cream, or gorillas. Best to go early when there is some cool air, though the heat wasn’t oppressive – just a constant reminder of the southern latitudes.
It was hot enough, though, that I wanted my short hair even shorter and made an appointment, through the Royal Sonesta concierge (who was, ironically, bald) at a hair salon just around the corner. I walked through the garage-like doors into a cool industrial styled space, where the exposed brick walls and distressed plaster needed no enhancements. The welcoming owner offered me a glass of orange juice, a Mimosa, or just water, whatever I’d like. Elisa, my stylist, was friendly, enthusiastic about New Orleans and her profession, her “total keeper” of her husband (a talented furniture maker and artist), their little house, and her tattoos. Up and down her arms blue-black creatures and vine-entwined stars drifted and flashed while she cut my hair. I left with a lighter head, (a lighter wallet) and another “Who dat?” moment.
New Orleans, among other things, is famous for its food. Having traveled to many places in the world, and dined in multiple Fremont restaurants, I can swear that there is no experience that competes with the food of this city. The Po-Boy sandwiches were extravagant in their abundance of fried shrimp or roast beef and lettuce “dressed” with tomatoes, and pickles, served on fresh, warm French bread. At the Acme Oyster House, on our last night, I was urged to have the Acme “10 Napkin Roast Beef “Po’Boy served debris style. Reluctantly, I gave in and found myself faced with a bateau sized French bread sandwich filled with shredded (debris style) roast beef, mixed with juicy gravy and fully “dressed.” My first concern was how to pick it up; the second concern was how to fit a bite-sized piece into my mouth. After that . . . I had no concerns, and no leftovers.
Dr. Park partook of the famous grilled oysters and between the two of us there was no conversation until we had finished. Over the five days we spent in New Orleans, eating became central to our visit. Not because we are big eaters per se, but because around every corner, just like at the zoo, there was another soul-tantalizing experience.
We ate at first class dining establishments, sandwich joints, corner bistros and tourist-oriented seafood restaurants. I think our absolute favorites were the Acme Oyster House, and Mr. B’s Bistro, an offshoot of the famous Brennan’s. We also went to K-Paul’s, another of Paul Prudhomme’s establishments. Mr. B’s Bistro makes an amazing dish called Barbecued Shrimp. It’s not barbecued. It is in a red sauce that is so full of flavor your tongue doesn’t know where to go next. Like much of New Orleans food, the Barbecued Shrimp is complex: rich with garlic, butter, lemon, pepper and Creole seasoning, it feels deep, and spicy but not “hot.” The shrimp are served full on, so to speak, shells, heads, and creepy little feet. The diner gets a small loaf of bread, a bib, wet towels, and appropriate implements to work her way through the “scrimp” and the sauce. Nothing should be left behind in the end, except empty carapace. A leisurely, southern pace is unavoidable. When she was finally done, our server, Stephen, congratulated Dr. Park, instructed her to cup her hands and squeezed a half a lemon into them, to be briskly rubbed around, followed by a clean damp towel. Meanwhile, I was groaning in sheer pleasure over a plate of shrimp and grits with red-eye gravy. I won’t go into minute detail over the creaminess of the grits, the plumpness of the shrimp, or the surprising sweet flavor of the light red-eye sauce, suffice it to say that it lived up to, and beyond, my expectations. Stephen has been working at Mr. B’s Bistro for 25 years. I was interested to know what happened to the restaurant and the staff after Katrina and he told me that most of the workers waited for Mr. B’s to re-open after extensive repairs and renovations. Some of the staff came in weekly to help with construction, others had jobs in near-by restaurants that had not been quite so damaged, and waited to be recalled, then returned. That quality of loyalty and caring is rare these days, but the people of New Orleans are a rare breed.
And it is this quality that breaks your heart and gives you hope as you drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. The French Quarter has renewed its facades and continues to beat out jazz rhythms amidst fairy lights and street revelers and the obvious lack of an open container law. But the Lower Ninth sits quietly in the sun, potholed streets outlining yards of tall grasses, square foundations mute markers of loss, and boarded up houses graffiti-ed with the score of the living and the dead. Famous names have taken up the cause here, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Ellen DeGeneres. And amongst these urban graves, new houses are appearing. Modern, daring, innovative homes rise on stilts announcing the beginnings of resurgence. Pitt’s Make It Right home-building project is designed to construct affordable, eco-friendly houses so that the residents can return to what was once a vibrant community. After spending only five days in the City of New Orleans, I understand why it is such a tragedy to be one of its citizens and unable to return. It is not only the food that is rich, deep and complex, but it is the people and the community they create. Nowhere else on earth is New Orleans. Go. Experience it. Find out “who dat” is.
In the next few days I’ll post pictures from our trip to New Orleans.
First printed in the Tri-City Voice July 9, 2010
First printed in the Tri-City Voice July 16, 2010