Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
It was an absolute sauna; mid-to-upper nineties, with ridiculously high humidity. In the French Quarter, where we stayed, the smell of weed competes with the smell of vomit, and neither odor ever quite goes away, even though the fine citizens wash down the streets every morning. Musicians - most of them ne'er-do-wells lacking in talent - play on almost every street corner, looking for that one big break. On Bourbon Street, the tourists stumble around, glassy-eyed, and convince themselves they're having a good time. Massage parlors, tarot readers, bars, bars, bars, and some of the finest restaurants in the world compete for your hard-earned dollars. Go Bucks. And they do, quickly.
Nevertheless, I genuinely love New Orleans. Tennessee Williams once wrote, "There are three cities in the U.S. - New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland." Tennessee is an asshole, but I know and understand what he was getting at. In an increasingly homogenized, franchised, big-box world, it's refreshing to come upon an actual place, a few square miles that are unlike anything else you might encounter in a big, big country. And New Orleans is such a place.
We stayed in the French Quarter mainly because it's close to everything; the music clubs on Frenchmen St., Treme - the first African American neighborhood in America, downtown with its museums, the Garden District, with its antebellum mansions and snooty Old Money Republicans. But we mainly walked through the French Quarter on our way to other places. It's the ultimate tourist trap, Disney without the mouse, and with absinthe bars instead of lemonade stands, and with actual as opposed to pre-fab architecture. Still, I'm not much of a fan of the French Quarter. The ironwork was magnificent. Many of the restaurants are fabulous. Go, by all means. But keep going.
I loved Treme, a wondrous, gritty neighborhood known as Backatown to the natives, the place where the Lyft and Uber drivers told us not to go, and where we encountered upraised eyebrows and smirks. It's rundown, more than sketchy, and sometimes downright murderous. It's the equivalent of hanging out in the housing projects on the south side of Chicago. But I'd go back in a heartbeat. My favorite moment involved crashing what appeared to be a party behind Kermit's Lounge. Kermit is Kermit Ruffins, a Grammy-winning trumpet player who runs a seedy bar in the seediest of neighborhoods, where a couple hundred African Americans and about six white people, including, yes, two 60+-year-old white people, listened to the raw, funky, and I do mean raw and funky, sounds of a hybrid brass/hip-hop band. It was a blast. There was a fistfight behind us. There was a thick cloud of weed smoke overhead, and all around us. And people could not have been kinder and more welcoming. It was, honestly, one of the musical highlights of my life, and I've seen more than my share of musical highlights.
Going to the 10 a.m. Jazz mass Sunday morning at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Treme was an absolute highlight. I was there, I kid you not, because I wanted to be at Mass, but yeah, also for the music. The choir was good, but there was one Aretha-level soloist who took it to another level. Holy Ghost Shivers down the spine great.
The soulfood at L'il Dizzy's Cafe was extraordinary. Gumbo. Skip the omelets. Get the fried chicken and the mac and cheese and the gumbo.
Treme, I love you.
And the rest of the time was fine, and fun. We saw the big mansions in the Garden District. They were big, and it was hot. We ate po boys at Johnny's Po Boys, where we stood in line in front of a dive diner for forty-five minutes or so in order to experience the privilege of inhaling wondrous fried food. Yes, the diet took a hit over the past four days.
We went to the big World War II Museum and Multi-Media Extravaganza. As museums go, it was fairly impressive, and we sat through something called a 4D Movie Experience where the big, big screen gave me vertigo and where our seats shook (literally) when the atom bomb detonated. It was kind of like being at Cedar Point in northern Ohio.
And we hung out and talked to people. At church. In restaurants. On the street. On buses. Just walking around. They were, to a person, friendly and helpful. There's such a great vibe to this city. People are understandably proud of it, and they understandably have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after Katrina. To that end, people are crazy, absolutely nuts, about the New Orleans Saints, who played their first game while we were in town. And now I remember why they're crazy. In the weeks after Katrina, a drowned and destroyed city rallied around their football team, which ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. I'm not much of a fan of the NFL. For the most part, I don't really care. But you can mark me down as a fan of the New Orleans Saints because I'm a fan of New Orleans and what the team represents to the city. Who dat.
I want to go back. Tomorrow.