New Orleans, Louisiana.
An open-air art market off Frenchmen Street, New Orleans.
I had never felt the full neurosis of my “east coastness” until New Orleans. That esprit de laissez les bons temps rouler is supposed to be liberating. But that wasn’t the case for me. Upon touching down at Louis Armstrong International Airport I felt my muscles seize up like a disturbed quahog. New Orleans was trying to woo me with its balmy weather and oozy music, and my limbs were too stiff to receive the vibes.
The paralysis set in upon entering my first bar of the trip, d.b.a., on Frenchmen street. Or rather, it set in as I was attempting to leave:
“What do you mean I don’t have to chug this drink before leaving? I can take it WITH me? But that’s so….civilized!”
My stiff little heart went into shock.
(I should clarify that I was aware of New Orleans’ loose open container laws before arriving. Hell I had been here before! But that prior knowledge did little to ease my nerves as I scuttled, head down, drink in hand, out of the bar. I was prepared to be reprimanded by a bouncer, apprehended by an officer, struck down by a heavenly thunderbolt. I could almost feel the little plastic cup searing the word “sinner” into my palm.)
Across the street from the bar, strands of white lights crisscrossed the sky above an open-air arts and crafts market. Past the stalls of jewelry, wood carvings, and bric-a-brac, outdoor “living rooms” had been arranged with painted metal couches, coffee tables, and lamps.
Charlie and I plopped down on a rocking bench and reviewed the events of the day. We had listened to a street-performing brass band and watched a barefoot old woman pick up a child which was not hers and dance with him. We had seen purple clouds envelop a church from all sides but never besiege the steeple. We had inadvertently filled our lungs with the powdered sugar of beignets. And we had been invited to a cocktail party – the compulsory houseguests-of-the-neighbors-of-the-party-throwers invitation – where we gathered in a cream-carpeted living room to watch a certain Dr. John, aka “the Night Tripper,” jam away at a grand piano. His name sounded familiar but I couldn’t identify it precisely. Charlie assured me he was a big deal.
With memories tallied and to-go cups depleted, we returned to d.b.a. where Walter Wolfman Washington & the Roadmasters were jiving onstage. I studied the photographs which hung beside the bar: portraits of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday. One portrait struck me as eerily familiar: the tipped hat, the distinctive pony tail. I swilled my whiskey and thought, “Didn’t I just see that guy at a house party?” I felt myself succumbing to the time-warped voodoo of New Orleans.
Like anywhere else, it takes time (and more than a little booze) to ease into New Orleans and synchronize with its urban clock. Each city ticks along at its own pace. New York is frenetic and unrelenting, Paris is erratic (so many jours fériés, grèves, and manifs to disrupt the tempo), and New Orleans sways along like a bewitched rocking chair: slow, soothing, and interminable.
Pillowy beignets and café au lait at the famous Café du Monde make for a sugary pick-me-up.
Across the street from the bar d.b.a artists and artisans sold their wares at an open air salon. “Living rooms” were scattered throughout the area, offering excellent vantage points from which to people watch late into the night.
Cochon de lait po’boys (rich pulled pork sandwiches) are a staple at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where vendors must compete in order to serve their food.
By the last day of our trip, New Orleans had so bewitched me that I bought pink vintage umbrella. What sort of traveler buys a non-collapsable moderately permeable umbrella? One under a spell.
The battered and fried catfish at Willie Mae’s Scotch House may be a runner-up to the famous fried chicken (the world’s best by many counts) but it was a very satisfying slab of flaky fish and peppery batter. We also ordered a plate of the fried chicken, but it didn’t last long enough for a decent photograph! The batter on the fried chicken was as thin and crispy as a the outer layer of a perfect croissant.
At Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar, omelettes stuffed with brie and avocado and topped with creamy crawfish sauce are washed down with fresh squeezed organic juices.
Powdered sugar coats every beignet and every surface at Café du Monde.
Antique shopping in New Orleans can be rewarding and dangerous business. If you have thrown yourself headlong into the afternoon bar scene, antique shopping should be avoided until your head has cleared up. Otherwise you may find yourself purchasing a frilly tea set like this one I acquired at Magazine Antique Mall.
Jerry Douglas tore up the Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage at the Jazz and Heritage Festival this year.
Festival-goers take in the high octane sounds of Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters.
The Rum House on Magazine Street serves up the real deal when it comes to Carribbean cocktails. The rum menu consists of over a hundred varieties. The “pain killer” is made with Pusser’s rum and sprinkled with nutmeg.
Riding on the City of New Orleans train out of town is some kinda exotic. There are alligators, egrets, turtles, and miles and miles of watery bayou to behold.