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July 9, 2010 > Travel: New Orleans, the City of Who Dat?

Travel: New Orleans, the City of Who Dat?

By Denny Stein

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 Cafˇ du Monde's dark-roast chicory cafˇ 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 cafˇ 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 Cafˇ, 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:

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.

End of Part 1; to be continued...

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