October 25, 2004

New Orleans

I was impressed by a couple things about New Orleaners, though I know one can hardly make judgments on such a micro trip. One was how friendly they were. And the other was the great facility they have in separating money from wallet while not technically pick-pocketing you. One woman gave us fine New Orleans ballcaps, seemingly gratis. Then she asked for a donation. I gave her one and she frowned and said the cap was $10. I handed back the cap. Later a panhandler with an image of a baby pinned to her shirt began polishing my tennis shoes. Now there’s a first. How can you not give a few bucks to someone who’s polishing your Sauconys while her ill baby looks up at you?

Some vacations have more of a cumulative effect about them, a piling up of brush strokes that form a larger impression rather than a heightened single memory. This first trip to the Big Easy was like that. Time was taut since we were taking one of our ‘speed travel’ trips, trying to see as much in 72 hours as possible.

First thing we did was walk down the infamous Bourbon St. in the French Quarter. It was tacky and trashy and I could already read my wife’s thoughts: “I came all the way from Ohio for this? Walking in ninety degree heat to see smut show signs?” The day was steamy hot, hotter here in late October than any Ohio August day this past summer. One fellow later told us it reached 99 degrees but he might have been just a “sayer” (my wife’s term for truth-embellisher). We came to a shop called “Jazz Funeral”, whose mission in life appeared to be to mock the traditional “remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return”. Everywhere there were skulls and skeletons, some placed in obscene positions. I recall a church in Rome where the monks had arranged their bones in artistic representations of Christian symbols like the crucifix and the sacred heart and “Jazz Funeral” seemed the flip side of that in arranging reminders of our mortality as “party, for tomorrow you may die” instead of a “pray, for tomorrow you may die”.

After a meal at Tu Jacque, a handsome old New Orleans bar full of atmosphere where the barkeep looked the part – like a method actor preparing for a role. Our group of four looked like cardboard cutouts of tourists; if there was a “Preppy Handbook” for tourists, we’d have a page.

After a few hours walking in the heat a tour bus looked very attractive. It saved our feet and we got an overview of the whole city, including a visit to Cemetery Number 3, the safest of the cemeteries, which I’d marked as a disadvantage. (A tour of a creepy cemetery combined with a lack of personal safety has a certain panache.) Our droll guide was in his late 20s and looked like he’d been doing this for awhile based on the occasional stifled yawn. He had the eccentric tic of humming a few notes when he was done pointing out something historic, as if to fill the vacuum.

He also gave the tour a Catholic-centric cast. “New Orleans was 110% Catholic and is now 80% Catholic,” he said as he pointed out some seemingly trivial sights such as local Catholic high schools and smaller Catholic churches, while ignoring non-Catholic institutions along the way. He pointed out Notre Dame seminary and said, “we’ve held our breath but so far it hasn’t been in the news” and in the silence he said, “do you get it?” and yes we nodded. No scandal news. Our stop at Cemetery number 3 was pleasingly Catholic. A large statue of Mother Teresa over a gravestone led Mark to jokingly say, “I didn’t know she was buried here!”. But this was merely a memorial, with a quote engraved in the stone: “If you pray, you will have faith. And if you have faith, you will love. And if you have love, you will serve. And if you serve, you will have peace.” All the sky tilted with the white-stoned angels and virgins in this above-ground cemetery, looking like beautiful immobile birds resting on pedestals. The tall monuments lent it the atmosphere of a town, a peaceful “City of the Dead”.

Drove by the author Anne Rice’s “Mardi Gras home” on the parade route. Beads dance in the trees long after Mardi Gras since the branches catch strands thrown from the 20-foot tall parade floats and there they remain, silently like a reveler’s Spanish moss, the only lasting trace of parties past. Our guide said that having access to a toilet is the key ingredient in a Mardi Gras home but Rice’s digs were far more than that. This beautiful white-pillared mansion was representative of the fine homes in the Garden District of the city. A surprising number of the homes were marred by large political signs. Imagine Tara in Gone With the Wind with a 5’by7’ Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards sign affixed below a second floor window. Louisiana isn’t even a swing state, since the polls are decidedly in Bush’s favor, but maybe in New Orleans there are so many swing state travelers (like us) that they feel the need to assert their opinions.

The architecture is spectacular but I feel blasé. Wonder is more elusive as we age but it is only critical in the realm of religion, although I suspect there is a carryover from life in general. Can awe at the beauty of the pageantry of a Mardi Gras parade set the plate for a more religious awe? Father Joe Warrilow, the saint in Hendra’s “Father Joe” had an awe for the natural world that was almost inseparable from his awe of God. When we are young we may have a great respect for human authority, be it priest or president. This has eroded on a macro scale within the culture (JFK was a saint until the biographies came out in the late ‘60s) and I wonder if this erosion of respect for human authority has carried over to the Divine. We are not disembodied spirits, so an incarnational religion like Christianity can’t afford to lack models in the flesh.

We ate at Mike Anderson’s that night, a seafood restaurant, and I had the obligatory alligator appetizer. I’d forgotten how it tasted. Not that great. Rather chewy. (I’ll avoid the ‘tastes like chicken’ gibe, which is now older than Methuselah, which, come to think of it, is a pretty old cliche itself.) The “Big Easy” is in many ways our opposite: loose, spontaneous, heedlessly lustful. One gets the sense they don’t live in their head so much. At the restaurant I spotted a table that looked like four locals. Late 50s-something guy with a Southern ballcap with some strand (not hair) trailing from the back. 20-ish year old girl wearing lingerie and who looked like a hooker in the old timey brothel sense, rather than the Brittany Spears sense. Another woman in her 40s and a man in his 30s. Good mix of ages and there was warmth and listening and eye contact and toasts. A special occasion? Perhaps. Perhaps not? Travel is most interesting when we listen to what another culture is telling us.

Went to a hoppin’ Cajun music playing joint on Bourbon Street that night, which was okay except that audience participation was the rule, not the exception, and we were stiffer than a grove of knotty pines. The lead singer of the cleverly-named “Mitchell Cormier and the Can’t Hardly Playboys” eventually got around to personally inviting me to wear an aluminum washboard played with spoons but I declined and he said he would refuse to beg. Observers tend to like to observe rather than be observed. Or so I rationalized. Mark and Sandy were smart enough not to make eye contact and so weren’t asked.

Day 2

We boarded a streetcar not named “Desire” and headed down St. Charles Ave to the Garden District for a self-guided walking tour, a very enjoyable experience in the fine sun amid the majestic homes. The Garden District Book Shop, or Anne Rice bookstore as I came to refer to it, contained a heady bouquet of prose. I was sorely tempted to buy early and often. Rice’s “Pandora” looked interesting, as did David Lodge’s new “Author, Author” based on the life of Henry James. James lived a very full life, full of travel and friends and gustatory pleasures. Been everywhere, met everyone but never had sex. Died a virgin. Can we imagine a popular author now who hasn’t had sex? Oh yeah, I forgot - Andrew Greeley.(?)

We took a walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (safe if in groups) and along the way our guide took us to an 1880s brothel with pictures of some of the prostitutes on the wall. “They were well-fed” was my wife’s funny comment, as we looked at the very stout-legged women.

Voodoo is big down in New Orleans, and I, at least, got the impression our guide was a practitioner and a subtle proselytizer. At the tomb of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, she left three rum cigars and put her hand against the tomb while “making a wish three times”. Maybe forty-five seconds passed while she closed her eyes. “It was a big wish,” she said afterwards. She invited us to do likewise but I don’t know that any did.

The Catholic Church has refused cremation until a few decades ago and her explanation of this was not out of respect for the doctrine that we will receive resurrected bodies but because “they thought if the body was torched your souls goes to Hell”. This seemed to me to be a sort of Da Vinci Code spin to make the Church look silly but I could be wrong. A quick Google search: “The practice of burying the body dates to early years of Christianity. The Catholic Church forbid cremation because our bodies were seen as temple for the Holy Spirit and the belief in the resurrection of the body. Catholics believe that at the end of time, everyone that goes to Heaven will get their bodies back in perfect condition. Therefore, cremation was seen as a pagan activity and denied the doctrine of the Resurrection.”

But one can easily understand how appealing this Marie Laveau must be to modern women like our guide, who was a short gal with a pug nose, fair hair, blue eyes and was built like a fire plug who looked like she could probably benchpress my weight. Vodoo Marie commanded respect. Six foot tall when men averaged 4’10’’, she was of a mixed, multicultural background in a time when the usual prejudices prevailed. She was a devout Catholic who became interested in this “earthy” religion of voodoo (our guide gave parallels to Native American and new age religions). A romantic story was Ms. Laveau’s. A white naval captain renounced part of his freedom when he married her, since at that time intermarriage had legal implications.

We had lunch at a micro-brewery, in the shadow of the large gold vats where the bier was made, just behind the bar where “To Go” cups are offered. The Black Forest brew was sumptuous and rich, the best of the five we received as samples. One could get lost in that Schwarzvald. I had one to go, and we walked some more, briefly losing Mark who was on the nearly fruitless mission of finding a non-raunchy New Orleans T-shirt for his brother.

I walked into an antique shop that specialized in old religious art objects and I was struck by how they seemed to have some indefinably different quality over those of more recent vintage. They seem more somber, more realistic somehow. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d recently been to a religious gift shop at the Retreat center, and everything was light, airy, and Hallmark-y. I was never arrested in my tracks at that store as I was in this shop.
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We eventually made our way back to Bourbon Street to see if we could find one of those policeman on horseback like you see on Cops at Mardi Gras. (We don’t get out much; had to get a picture of a cop on those tall horses.) We walked up and down the long street, our legs aching and dodging the drunks and weathering the wretched masses of vomit before deciding it was a lost cause. We turned left on Toulouise to go to our final evening destination: an Irish pub. My wife loves horses and was sorely disappointed, but the show must go on. I took one last look at the street jammed with people and in the distance saw the faint blue helmet of one of New Orleans’ finest, and we hustled after him like Vladimirs who had found Godot. Pictures were taken, peace restored, and we headed to the Irish pub off the beaten path.

The singer was named O’Flaherty and he came from the Aran Islands forty years ago and he reminded me again of how lucky I am to be an American, how I’m just one-hundred and sixty years removed from desperate poverty, the poverty of the Irish before and during the Great Hunger. He seemed a throw-back, a moist-eyed sensitive soul who thanked his doorman as if he were his best friend. Perhaps he is. He said his wife made up a website and you can tell he wasn’t the computer type. The internet is a somewhat cold and impersonal medium. He was a popular folksinger from the ‘60s and 70s and played at large venues then when folk was held in high esteem. He said he wasn’t a “pub guy”, wouldn’t play them anymore, because he was “too controversial” despite saying nothing that was controversial as far as I could tell. This pub was his pub and so it didn’t count; he could enforce the rules which appeared to be no smoking and no loud talking. I think he might’ve gotten used to the attentiveness of the crowd in the 70s and now has had to experience the painful withdrawal symptoms when something is taken away. He reminded me of John Denver in that sense.

Day 3

Took the drive out to Cajun country, towards Lafayette, ground zero of the French Acadians. I always notice and appreciate church signs and I wasn’t disappointed on this trip: “Praise God for 1100 in attendance at Drama” and “Over 10 Trillion Served” (the latter referring to Communion services at an Episcopalian church).

We were headed for Zam’s Swamp Tour, a brochure for which was providentially found in a taxi cab on the way to the car rental. We arrived just after noon and I was elected to ask what time the 1:30 tour began. (The brochure had said so, but idiot tourist questions are my stock-in-trade, and I did not disappoint. The coup d’ grace is when your fellow tourists say that you asked idiot tourist questions.)

Instead of waiting till 1:30 we visited the more yuppified swamp tour across the street (is ‘yuppified swamp tour’ an oxymoron?). They advertised a web site, which no self-respecting Cajun swamp tour would. There was nothing Deliverance-y about this set up, no siree. It was a clean, well-lit place with a modern home, red truck in the driveway, cut grass, graveled driveway with nary a gravel out of place and run by a mother and a son.

By contrast, Zam’s was populated with old live oaks and three good ol’ boys who looked like French Acadian fur trappers swapping stories with thick-lipped accents. They had little animals in small cages; a black dog lay silent in his 2’ by 2’ cell. Rabbits hung suspended in cages from the tree branches. It lent an atmosphere of menace, or at least authenticity, to the extent bunnies in cages can add authenticity to anything.

The weather was sweetly hot. Summer was out on furlough and we’d timed our own furlough perfectly. On a beautiful sun-drenched day we lived in the body here in slow-moving water amid the gators and herons and egrets and eagles. It was soporific, the hum of the engine and sun on the face. We received a private tour and our guide provided lots of information about regulations on alligator hunting and the business side of living in South Louisiana.

We ate at a Cajun-style restaurant at which “rack of elk” was offered. Wouldn’t an elk’s horns be a bit hard to chew? Rimshot. One nice thing about writing is you can airbrush personal embarrassments by ascribing them to other people. For example, Mark never could figure out why many like shrimp cocktail. It was unpleasant, biting a hard tasteless shell. Steph mentions how you’re supposed to remove the legs and shell first! Ahhh…it tasted better to Mark, but still not quite worth the effort, even assuaged by a couple Shiner Bocks.

Afterwards we made our way to a Zydeco joint. Benches lined the dance floor and it reminded me of an old roller rink. The music blasted, Randol’s Salle de Danse was the legend over the dance floor. The motion of the squeeze box was hypnotizing; this one was a beautiful tinsel green the color of Christmas wrapping. How nice to be outside the stifling world of politics! Vacations like this that involve exploring another geography gives me a thirst for a good history book. History is non-utilitarian since I’m not a policy-maker and thus not doomed to repeat macro historical events. The danger in writing about trips is that it can becomes experience for writing’s sake instead of experience for experience’s sake. It’s hard to shut off the prose-making part of the brain, which is buried in the reptilian part which also controls breathing and reflexes. (rimshot.) The problem with talking vs listening and writing vs reading is that in the first instance you put others to sleep while in the last you fall asleep. At least I do, when reading good prose like Percy’s. My theory is that if you’re not well-rested, you’re not listening.

So what’s it like in a city where they memorize a strange area code and in a geographically distant place so foreign they call their counties "parishes"? A Lafayette dance hall might have had certain associations in my mind previous but now I was in one and now know what I’d previously only conjured. My lasting impression of the hall is how the sheer amount of good will and happiness there could've powered a small city. This seems a place where the children dance joyfully, the men love their wives and the bands are all above average, to borrow from Keillor.

Sunday morning we went to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. A fine sermon about God’s love, and about the tension between reverence towards God versus too much familiarity. The Church, he said, in her wisdom has us stand to receive Christ in Communion because God insists we receive him in mutuality. We are utterly unworthy to receive the Eucharist, but God’s love is of a piece that he wants us to meet him as friends.

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