Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the Big Easy

I spent about four days in New Orleans, the Big Easy - or, as Cletus Purcell calls it (in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels), the Big Sleazy. The city always seemed to have a rakish charm, Old Money rubbing elbows with Young People out to have a good time. This is not to ignore the poverty that surrounds the affluence, or the winos and drug addicts nodding along to their own rhythm. Crime is a terrible problem, unless one is a crime novelist, but the casual tourist usually sees little of the truly dark underside.

Eating and drinking seem to be the two most popular pastimes, and I will most assuredly come back to those in a moment, but there are other attractions. The World War II Museum, on Magazine Street just a few blocks from Canal, provides a good overview of the war from the American perspective. Part of the museum's recent expansion involved a large theater that plays a 48-minute film, "Beyond All Boundaries," that provides a synopsis of the war.

New Orleans, by virtue of its high water table, has unusual cemeteries. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, just north of the French Quarter, is perhaps the best known, and includes the tomb of chess champion Paul Morphy and, supposedly, that of voodoo queen Marie Laveau. (Given the size of the cemetery and its location, taking a tour is strongly advised for one's safety.) This trip I visited Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, in the Garden District, just across the street from Commander's Palace restaurant, more on which below. This is a smaller site, in a better neighborhood, but we decided a tour was possibly the better part of valor, as well as educational.

Our guide was a crusty Cajun and history buff who has been giving cemetery tours for over 20 years. This tour was more history than graves, and ran nearly twice the estimated one hour time. I can attest that, even in November, the Louisiana sun can be hot at noon. (The guide made a plea for CNN to stop showing pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: too many CNN addicts would say in wonder: "I thought this area was still flooded!" To his credit, the guide also had boundless contempt for Hollywood, and noted the whiny behavior of Tom Cruise on the set of Interview with the Vampire some years ago.)

The grave below - never used - illustrates a typical tomb design: space for two coffins, above and below, and a dropoff behind. This allowed the tomb to be reused, removing the remains from the coffin, pushing them to the back and past the dropoff, and the coffin discarded, leaving room for the next decedent. One such tomb had a record of 65 different interments, with an unknown number lost to history. (You have to hope you like your relatives to spend eternity cozied up like that!)

We did not neglect the eating and drinking aspects of the city. Below, Commander's Palace, dating back to 1880, and one of the top dining destinations in the city. The mansion is divided into a number of rooms, both upstairs and down. Dinner there was as good as ever, though I badly needed a soothing drink after the cab ride that, thanks to some unexpected street closures, took us across Rampart Street through some dicey neighborhoods, once again showing that wealth and poverty live side by side in New Orleans.

One cannot go to New Orleans without eating beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, near the French Market by the river in the middle of the French Quarter. Beignets - puffy doughnuts, essentially, and usually served covered in powdered sugar - come three for a little more than $2, and are the only food served. People wait in long lines, though coming early or in the middle of the day is helpful. (Or, one presumes, in the middle of the night - it's open 24 hours a day - though I've never tried that.)

Two other local specialties that I can't leave without sampling are the oyster po' boy (fried oysters on a long roll of crusty French bread) and crayfish etouffee. It's hard not to gain weight here.

Just as the food options range from down and dirty to elegant, so do the drinks. At one extreme is the spectacle of Bourbon Street, home to randy frat boys whose goal seems to be to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. If the evening does not end with vomit in the gutter, it was not a success. Bars serving $3 frozen daiquiris in tall plastic containers are prevalent and, thanks to Louisiana law allowing open containers of alcohol, can be carried in the street. Many bars have live music played at ear-bleeding volumes. Punctuating these watering holes are places that advertise women on display or, in at least one case, cross-dressers. One can hear the random "woots" several blocks away. This is Boys (and some Girls) Behaving Badly territory.

At the other extreme there are lovely, quiet watering holes, such as French 75, a small bar attached to Arnaud's (another old-time restaurant in the French Quarter). If one can get past the astronomical drink prices, one can have a more civilized, adult time. (In talking to a regular at French 75, I discovered he spent several years working in the small town in which I was born. Small world sometimes.)

I couldn't help but take the picture below. I wondered if they had regular poetry slams in which projectiles were thrown, but chose not to ask.

I traveled about the time that the press became heated with TSA's excesses. Both Baltimore and New Orleans had the infamous nekkid machines (at least, that's what I think they were), but neither was operational. In Baltimore, a TSA employee insisted that not only shoes but belts had to come off before going through the magnometer, creating interesting challenges for passengers whose belts were not just ornamental. I'm certainly willing to put up with security hassles for the sake of safety, but it's not clear that the long lines, partial disrobings, pat-downs, and manhandling infants is really making the skies safer. Creating the illusion of safety is one thing if it's costless, but TSA ignores the huge costs on passengers. I don't fly much, so it's less of a concern to me; if I flew regularly for business, I would likely be mighty steamed.

(As an aside, I find my fellow passengers to be more annoying than the bureaucratic hassles. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Touchy, who decided that taking the shared armrest was insufficient and raised the darn thing to invade more of my limited personal space. And if you need to get the seat belt extender, madam, you might want to reconsider your lifestyle. And if you have trouble counting to two, the number of carryon items permitted, you are either seriously math-challenged or insufferably rude; you choose.)

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again. New Orleans was never a home, but I enjoyed the charm and was able to ignore the riffraff. Age seems to have made me less tolerant to the latter, so the former is less effective, and that saddens me. Still, if one cannot have a passably good time in New Orleans, one is not trying very hard.

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