Big and Loud in New Orleans

We took is slow that morning. Still sore and sunburnt from yesterday, we ate a relaxed breakfast at a local café before heading off on the trolley to see the Garden District. We transferred at the famous St. Charles Line, waiting with the other tourists as they cluster in awed packs. After a short trip on the old-fashioned trolley, we got off and walked over to the Lafayette Cemetery.

We listened in on a few tour groups as we wandered amongst the tombs. Apparently, after something that happened during the filming of Easy Rider, the Church now won’t allow filming to take place in their cemeteries, making this Non-Catholic gravesite the only one in town available to film crews. I haven’t seen enough movies/TV shows set in New Orleans to recognize anything, but others sure did.

“It’s just like in the movies!” I heard one tourist exclaim.

Afterwards, we ended up unintentionally following one of the tour groups around the neighborhood, watching as they listened to the guide and gaped at the pristine, 100-year-old mansions around them. We did our fair of gaping too. The houses were dripping with old southern grandeur and decadence. Besides one, which was clearly labeled as Anne Rice’s house, we couldn’t tell who lived in there and wondered how they felt about the tourists constantly gawking at their home.

Once we got our fill of architectural beauties, we hopped back onto the trolley and got off at Lee Circle. Ignoring General Lee up on top of his column, we walked off in search of food. By passing the art museums and the National WWII Museum, we found a grill/bar and settled down for lunch. We watched the waiters served bottomless mimosas as we ate our shrimp po-boys and enjoyed the A/C.

The tourist map became our guide as to what to do next. We noticed off in the far corner along the river and next to the nearly mile-long convention center was a building marked “Mardi Gras World.” We decided to check it out. After some more walking, we reached the building. It was sight to behold. The warehouse proudly named itself in loud colors and statuary. Inside 10-foot-tall paper mache famous figures and fantasy creatures towered over us and the other tourists with frozen grins. It was in this building that they made most of the fantastic decorations for the extravagant Mardi Gras floats. The place was huge, but they charged $20 each to see father behind the curtain. We abstained, instead taking photos in the lobby and then going out back to watch the Mississippi.

Fading fast, we walked to the closest trolley stop past the convention center and near the outlet mall. After transferring at the casino, we hopped onto a City Park trolley and rode it all the way to back to Bayou Boogaloo. During the previous 48 hours a fair number of locals had recommended it to us, so we made a point to go back.

It was hot and crowded as two bands competed for attention at opposite ends of the park. My mom grabbed a spot in the shade as I roamed, took photos, and bought a couple souvenirs at a craft booth. We didn’t stay long after that.

The shower called us in again, and once we were clean, we went out for pizza at a local, funky restaurant. The bar across the street was warming up for a long night of live music and beer, but we were too tired to do anything else so we went back and settled down for the night, satisfied that we had spent our time in New Orleans wisely.

New Orleans Neighbors

My mother had heard that people from New Orleans were fairly laid back and mellow, a combination of southern hospitality and eccentric flare (all fueled by a fair amount of alcohol).

We could tell by the houses in the Mid-City neighborhood that our Airbnb was located in: Brightly painted shot-gun houses often with quirky lawn art and well-used front porches. People walked in T-shirts and flip-flops along the root-cracked sidewalks, waving hello to everyone they passed. It was a beautiful sight to see as we strolled to a local breakfast joint that morning. After filling our bellies with chorizo and grits, we headed back to the Airbnb.

Our hosts’ friend had mentioned that the backyard gate opened up to the cemetery immediately behind the house.

“Our neighbors are pretty quiet,” he explained.

It seemed like as good of place as any to start the day. After wandering amongst the family tombs of St. Patrick and Greenwood Cemeteries and stopping for a silent moment at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, we took the trolley downtown to check things off our tourist bucket list.

We strolled into the French Quarter from the urban bustle of Canal Street. The famous and colorful buildings with their wrought iron clad porches stretched before us. We stopped in to look into a couple boutiques and galleries, of which there were many. There was the photography gallery full of signed prints from many giants of the photography world (including Man Ray and Ansel Adams). There was the gallery full of local artists and tended by a couple and their sons, one of which eagerly showed us around. And then there was the Historic New Orleans Collection, which looked out on the street with a windowless face and one small sign.

Eventually, we hit an explosion of tourists, artists, performers and jazz musicians: Jackson Square. A woman with a cardboard sign labeling her a cunt walked passed a woman dressed up in miss-matched period costume and street magicians. Horn players recited the classics as tourists took selfies in front of the St. Louis Cathedral.

Upon the gates surrounding the part in the middle of the square were dozens of artists proudly selling their wares to the gapping visitors. But unlike some of the art I’ve seen in other touristy hubs, the art that hung upon those gates was eclectic, striking, and inviting. Yes, there were still the cliché images of the landmarks and icons of the city, but the originality far outnumbered the mundane.

After stopping to gap at the enormous line at the Café Du Monde, we walked along the Mississippi River and watched the occasional boat pass before heading back to the streets. We briefly popped into an artist Co-op (fully of more eccentric and unique art) and then moved on to the French Market.

Like Jackson Square, the place was bursting with activity, only this time the oddities were gone and replaced with more tourists. It being lunch time, we settled down with a smoothie and some fresh BBQ-ed shrimp.

Suddenly, a man with a can came up to our table and asked if he could sit with us. We of course said yes. He introduced himself as Bob and then when on to explain, in detail, his motorcycle accident and recovery that had led to his hobbling condition. He was a veteran and former New Orleans resident who had come back to get some beignets and coffee. He went on to recount a big chunk of his most recent history and memories of his time in the force, yammering on as his wife came and left with a tired and exasperated gaze. While speechifying, he gave us a restaurant recommendation, explaining in detail their garden, architecture, and even the softness of their bread. Fortunately, another couple sat down, diverting Bob’s attention so we could safely leave without committing an abrupt and rude good-bye.

Once we successfully extracted ourselves from the table, we walked around the market some more, casually glancing at the touristy souvenirs and lingering over the art and ethnic imports. We bought a couple T-shirts and then headed back over to the food. My mom had heard many good things about Loretta’s sweet potato cookies, only when we got there they were all sold out. We settled of praline filled beignets instead.

The sugar comfortably making a home in our stomach, we walked around the neighborhood some more, escaping to the side streets to get away from the crowds and admire the colors and iron work. The thing about New Orleans that we noticed is that the city is not afraid to show its age. It doesn’t try to cover its wrinkles for the tourists, refuses to display a photoshopped image for the camera. Yes, of course there are buildings that are all dolled up and ready for attention, but they live right next to places with cracks in the sidewalk and sideboards faded from the sun. It made the place seem real, not hiding behind a mask of false glamour.

During our wanderings, we stumbled into the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park/Louis Armstrong Park. The soft green hills, murmuring fountains, and colorful statues of the jazz greats were crowded with relatively few people, so we enjoyed the quiet, soaking our feet in the water and soothing our sore muscles.

We eventually took a trolley back to the Airbnb and washed the sweat of the day off before heading back out for dinner. We decided to try the place Bob had suggested: Ye Old College Inn. It was fancier than expected, the kind of place city council members would dine, but that only meant that the food was exquisitely prepared and mouth-wateringly fresh. We filled our bellies and mom emptied her wallet and then returned to Bernadotte Street for an early night.

New Orleans’ Bernadotte Village

The Texas skies expanded, wide and blue. The East Texas pines loomed, straight and tall. The Texas highways rolled out, smooth and empty. We had never been here before but we liked what we saw. My mom and I were on our way to New Orleans, a place that we had only heard about in tales and TV shows. We were excited, but it was a very long drive.

We eventually turned off the tree-lined highways and onto the massive, honking behemoth that is I-10. The asphalt groaned, the exhaust fumes shimmered, and the strip malls surrounded us: Welcome to the modern American interstate.

Louisiana greeted us with a bridge and traffic, shortly followed by refineries and swamps. Everything was accented with violent green vegetation. After hitting traffic in Baton Rouge and an accident in the New Orleans suburbs, we finally arrived, tired and hungry, in the Crescent City.

We pulled up to our Airbnb on Bernadotte Street in Mid-City ready to take it easy and prepare for sightseeing tomorrow. But parked in the driveway was a white pick-up truck. Two white-haired and tanned people in well-worn T-shirts came out and greeted us with warm smiles and happy hellos. They weren’t our hosts. Our host was up on the second floor porch, putting things away. Instead, this duo was his friend and his sister, Dawn. They were all headed to a free concert. True to traditional southern hospitality, they invited us along. Before I knew what was happening, my mom said yes and we were piling into the white pick-up, off to see The Wailers at the Bayou Boogaloo in City Park.

It was a short ride to the festival and then, once there, it was a straight shot to the beer tent where our other host was serving as a volunteer bartender. Dawn, already tipsy, led us by the hand through the crowds of casual locals, eccentric twenty-somethings, and passive dogs. After braving the crowds and lines, we got our beers just as a rain cloud passed overhead. Dawn and I waited for the rain to stop underneath the awning of the beer tent, watching the umbrellas bloom as other people got soaked.

Afterwards, Dawn explained to me how during Hurricane Katrina this whole place was underwater, except the sidewalk we were standing on. She went on to describe the nearby hospital patients being swept away on helicopters and the confusion during and after the evacuation. No one in her family knew she was alive until a week after the storm. Then, as one does when their well on their way to drunkenness, Dawn got distracted with friends and dogs and babies before finally moving my mom and I on to the food tents.

The lights from the stage shinning out and inviting the crowd to sing-along.
The lights from the stage shinning out and inviting the crowd to sing-along.

We lost her amongst the lines and confusion over cash, but we managed and eventually got food, settling in underneath picnic tent. The Wailers had already begun playing, and we listened and talked while we ate our food (ribs paired with crab and crawfish mac and cheese…and oh boy were they good). Once done, we moved closer to the stage and the crowd that had condensed around it. With the faint whiff of pot smoke in the air and a fair share of dogs and hula-hoops, Ziggy Marley led the crowd in sing-alongs of his father’s greatest hits, including “Three Little Birds” and “Redemption Song.” He knew how to work an audience and the audience, my mom and myself included, ate it up.

We eventually found Dawn again and caught a ride back to the house in the same white pick-up. On the way back, Dawn, now drunk, explained that she lived nearby. Apparently many others in the family did so as well. They jokingly called the street the “Bernadotte Village.” Then, once the short ride was over, she took it upon herself to show us around the house. She took particular pride in the backyard, which held their own “Superdome,” a large and elaborate viewing area for Saints games complete with bleachers and a projection screen. Everywhere we looked things were covered with off-the-wall folk art apparently gathered from places and friends over the decades. It was funky and cool and little too much to take in at the moment especially after the long hours gazing into the lazy, blue Texan skies.