I just returned from five days in New Orleans — my first visit to the city — and wanted to share some random experiences and photos from a very condensed and exhausting introduction to one of the coolest places I’ve been anywhere. Period.
I stayed with my wife in the French Quarter in a nice three-star hotel on Royal Street — the Andrew Jackson. Immediately upon arriving she dragged me out into the Vieux Carre (it being her second visit) and introduced me the Cafe du Monde for chicory coffee and beignets covered with powdered sugar, so covered with powdered sugar that I left the place looking like Tony Montana. Then to Antoine’s Hermes Bar for a Sazerac (rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud bitters chilled in a glass rinsed with Herbsaint and garnished with a twist), Arnaud’s for gumbo, shrimp and grits, and a table-side serenade of “I Only Have Eyes For You” by a banjo, trumpet and bass trio who talked about playing My Father’s Moustache on Cape Cod and the late Dave McKenna of Yarmouth, arguably the peninsula’s most famous jazz musician.
Then down Bourbon Street and its crazed chaos of Giant Ass Beers, Larry Flynt’s Underaged Strippers, the cloying miasma of upchucked stomach contents, and a louche doorman who told me, as I walked hand-in-hand with my wife of 30 years that he could show me “Lots of Ho’s in No Clothes”
That was night one.
Day two — more beignets and coffee and then a cab ride out to the Garden District and Commander’s Palace, the foodie mecca that lists Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme among its ranks of alumni chefs. I cannot argue with $0.25 lunch time martinis (and a perfectly made Ramos Fizz, the drink that always eluded me as a bartender), and some of the most exquisite cooking I’ve ever tasted. A poky, langorous street car ride back down St. Charles to the city center, a walk back through the French Quarter, teeming with pre-St. Patrick’s day revelers, then a brief rest before an evening at the Rock N’Bowl — a combination bowling alley/hamburger joint/bar/music venue off of Carrolton Avenue where we saw (or is it “heard?) Bonearama, a wild jazz-funk bank fronted by three trombone players who killed the best cover of the Beatles’ Hey Bulldog I’ve ever heard.
Day Three was mostly spent on the banks of the Mississippi, sitting on a park bench watching the barges and tankers and jazz boats go by while eating a muffaletta from Central Grocery and washing it down with a Barq’s and a bag of Zapp’s potato chips. Bluebird skies, clement breezes and the amazing spectacle of humanity that marched before us on the riverside Moon Walk (named after former New Orleans mayor “Moon” Landrieu). Between the bells of the St. Louis cathedral (the oldest continuous church in the USA), the cartoonish sounding calliope on the decks of the sternwheeler Natchez, and snatches of buskers’ music floating over the levee from Jackson Square came the sound of a Second Line, that wonderful New Orleans tradition of a brass band marching along, followed by a dancing and jiving mob of umbrella-pumping, hanky-waving fans. As it got louder and crossed the street car tracks, it became apparent it would proceed down the promenade past our bench. This is what we saw:
I managed to completely fry my face sitting in the sun all day, and spent the rest of the trip looking like a suppurating lemur with bright red cheeks and forehead and pale Cape Cod white eyes. That didn’t deter me from doing my best to damage my liver and fail my pending cholesterol test with too many Abita Ambers and boatloads of steamed shrimp.
Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, I attended the 9 am Mass at St. Louis cathedral in an attempt to revive my somewhat moribund “52 Churches” project of 2008-09. Other than looking like I was suffering from an incipient case of lupus, with my blistered cheeks and nose, I sat through the service marking the fifth Sunday in Lent, listened to the deacon’s reading and interpretation of the story of Lazarus, and as always, slipped out the back during Communion due to the first rule of 52 Churches which is not to participate in any rites or reading foreign to my non-denominational, ecumenical, atheistic beliefs. Nice church, packed with tourists and locals, again the oldest continuously used church in the country, declared a “minor basilica” by the Pope during his visit in 1987. At night, from Bourbon street, an immense shadow of Christ is projected onto the back of the nave by a spotlight silhouetting a statue of Jesus, arms outstretched. The incongruity of sinner/saint is, I suppose, quintessentially New Orleans.
Later that morning we headed out to Central City and the A.L. Davis Park for Super Sunday — the annual gathering of the Mardi Gras Indians on the Sunday nearest St. Joseph’s Day. This was mind blowing to say the least. As a fan of the HBO series Treme, I’ve been fascinated by the Indian culture through the great portrayal of a “tribal Chief” by Clarke Peters as Big Chief Lambreaux. Sunday I got to experience about twenty of the tribes as they marched with their contingent of be-feathered warriors around the streets of the Central City.
Indians were followed by Po’ Boys at the Parkway Bakery and Tavern. I did my level best to kill myself with a large “surf & turf” which combined roast beef and gravy with fried shrimp. This was frightening and will drive all pentinence post-trip.
St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans puts St. Patrick’s Day in Boston to shame. The city has a big Irish immigrant population, but the degree to which a holiday centered around alcohol is taken by Bourbon Street is beyond crazy. From bodypainted 60-year old ladies to frat boys shouting at their shoes on the side streets, it was a scene out of out of some demented painting of post-apocalyptic hell. So we took refuge in the oh-so-classy French 75 bar, and wheezed back a couple Sazeracs before calling it a night.
All in all, an amazing place that I had to experience to get beyond the usual cliches of mardi gras beads, masks, and gumbo.