Tag Archives: New Orleans

The Crescent City Diaries #15

As the airboat approached the docks at Jean Lafitte, our tour guide gave us some parting advice. “Listen up y’all: Bourbon Street sucks. Where y’all wanna go is Frenchman Street. It’s much better. Go to a place called Dat Dog, and get the alligator sausage po’boy topped with crawfish étouffée.”

I had already been recommended Frenchman as a happening kind of place the day before, and with my stomach grumbling as the minibus crossed back over the Mississippi, I knew that my course was set. When I arrived, I found that the street was exceedingly quiet. Sleepy– that’s the word I’m looking for. There were no buskers, no beggars, and no orators narrating tall tales of vampire-BDSM to throngs of drunken tourists. And I realized, as I searched in desperation through increasingly-aggressive slants of UV-radiation, that there were benefits to such noise. Opportunities are made abundantly clear to the solo-traveler via the whims of crowds. I didn’t see much on offer on this famous street, but perhaps I didn’t know quite where to look. I ended up going way past my intended destination and finding myself in a deserted residential neighborhood. I walked back the way I had come and found that Dat Dog was in fact near to where I had started on Frenchman.

Dat Dog was exactly the kind of place I sought after, but which I had struggled to find during my stay in the Big Easy. It was quirky, inexpensive, and it served good food. It was the kind of place perfect for a solo traveler on a budget. And I realized that the best way to find local favorites was to talk to locals. Shocking revelation, I know. Too often I had ended up at restaurants way above my price range (and scruffy demeanor), because that’s what happens when you rely on guide books and Google reviews. As I annihilated the alligator hot dog before me, I made a note to inform my future solo travels: ask locals for their recommendations more often.

With just an afternoon left with which to enjoy the city, I decided to make another attempt to get to the zoo. I tried the same streetcar stop I had waited at to no avail the day before. A trolley came along and I asked the operator if he were bound for Audubon Park. No, was the answer. I had to get the St Charles Streetcar, which was green. This, I should also note, seems to be the most historic of the city’s trolleys. To get it was a bucket list item in and of itself. So I set off at a brisk pace and saw that a green streetcar was escaping west. I attempted to chase it, but it always seemed one block ahead of me. I was reliant on the unrealistic expectation of it stopping for a long while, perhaps as some granny made her way down the aisle and tripped on the last step. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

It was hot, and after walking several blocks I had to admit the madness of my plan. At this rate I was going to end up walking the whole way, which could be a good hour or two. Remembering that fancy hotels often had taxis waiting outside, I sought out one of those big-ass skyscraper hotels. The driver was absorbed in his phone (no doubt he had just found out you can farm Bastila Shan shards and was using up his bonus energy), so I tapped on the window to get his attention.

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Within 15 minutes I was at the zoo. I love animals, but seeing them in enclosures just doesn’t capture the wonder of doing so in the wild. And just that morning I had seen a dozen wild alligators up close. I’ve never been crazy for zoos to be honest. I figured it was more of a family environment, and I’d enjoy it more if I was a kid- or if I had kids. It wasn’t overly busy; it was late afternoon by this point. I liked the Sun Bear, because I got a good view of him, and he was majestic. I waited for the orangutan, but he never showed. A guy told me that earlier the ape had been running around with a cardboard box on his head. I moved on, making a concerted effort to stop at every enclosure and read the plaques. I had to get as much out of it as I could, and justify coming all the way out here.

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When I reached the giant anteater, I was joined by a little girl and her grandma coming the opposite way. The grandma glanced at the animal, but carried on walking. I studied it for a while longer. I couldn’t tell if the little kid realized her grandma had gone off when she asked over her shoulder: “What animal is that one?”

It would be rude to ignore her right? So I answered.

“It’s an anteater,” I said, speaking in a slow, clear voice, and masking my British accent. I wanted to say it right- the burden of education had been thrust upon my shoulders- so I put emphasis on each syllable, as if anteater were two words and not one. The girl stared up at me, and I detected a tremble of fear or awkwardness in her face. Maybe she didn’t know what to say, I don’t know. Maybe I look dangerous? I offered her an encouraging smile. The girl stared at me with wide eyes as if debating whether it was right to talk back or not. Then she abruptly ran away.

At that point I hurried in the other direction, as though I had committed a crime of sorts. I felt awkward, as though looking scary was enough to convict me of something. I imagined the grandma chasing after me through the bamboo forest, pepper-spray in hand.

The zoo goes in a loop, and as I reached the halfway point, I could really feel the humidity getting to me. I was ready to go. I can’t remember ever feeling that overwhelmed by humidity. It was certainly the hottest day of my trip. I passed by a little waterpark for kids within the zoo and lamented that there weren’t such facilities for adults. Perhaps the zoo was a bad idea, I thought to myself. I don’t make much sense here, sensitive, introspective solo-traveler that I am. I should have stuck to the solemnity of museums and art galleries. I’ll come back when I’m in company and enjoy the zoo as it’s meant to be enjoyed; via the energy of social intercourse.

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As I exited the zoo I thought about how best to get back to the French Quarter. I could walk, but I’d probably succumb to the elements before I made it halfway through the Garden District. I was already feeling massively dehydrated and my feet hurt. Walking also ran the risk of getting picked off by serial killers and gangbangers. I couldn’t call a taxi because I don’t have a U.S sim card. My phone was also out of battery, so I got my map out and realized the nearest streetcar stop was on the other side of Audubon Park, which is huge. So I started walking, wondering what time I’d make it back.

The park seemed to go on forever. It was mostly deserted, but I did pass the odd shirtless maniac braving the heat to go for a run. When I reached the end of the park I saw this shelter, designed it seemed, for those like me struggling in the humidity. An intense relief washed over me at the sight of a bubbler. I was going to make it after all. After drinking my body weight in fresh water and pissing it out like a racehorse watching looping footage of Victoria Falls, I found the stop and hopped aboard the famous green streetcar. I recovered very quickly. The Garden District passed me by as a series of historic mansions and ever-so-sylvan family neighborhoods. I read the fiction of Sylvia Brownrigg, enjoying the slow ride. With my last day in New Orleans all but complete, my thoughts turned to Texas, and the long train ride that awaited me the following morning.

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The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

The Crescent City Diaries #13 – Shrunken Heads & Sugar Factories

My fourth day in the Big Easy began with a steamboat tour of the Mississippi. I’d seen the large crowds waiting in line for the Steamboat Natchez several times during my walks around the French Quarter, but for whatever reason I wasn’t tempted to join in the fun implicit in the vessel’s authentic steam calliope, whose merry tunes follow you all around Jackson Square. It was on the day before, after my return from City Park, that I decided I needed to book more tours and activities, and so I took a chance on the steamboat. I’m glad I did. The ticket was a very reasonable price and I paid extra to get a buffet lunch onboard. By noon, August 6th, I was chomping down on several helpings of fried chicken inside the Natchez’s historic dining hall.

Not wanting to miss anything, I went up to the deck soon after finishing my food. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m obsessed with the industrial aesthetic. And New Orleans has warehouses, cranes, shipping containers, and tugboats for days. We passed by the immense Domino Sugar Factory in Chalmette and I marveled at its crude grandeur. It was spectacular. When the Natchez turned around I went back to the dining hall where the jazz band started playing. This was good shit, some real Nucky Thompson shit, that they had going on down here. I was thoroughly entertained.

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My aim for the afternoon was to go to the zoo. I’m not particularly crazy about zoos, but it seemed like one of the city’s main attractions. Clouds gathered, and as I stood at one of the stops on Canal Street hoping to find the right streetcar, I began to question the whole idea. I abandoned it abruptly, and headed back to the Quarter. I wandered north a little and ended up at the strangest place I encountered on my entire trip: Dauphine Street’s “Museum of Death”. An apocalyptic bang precipitated an orgy of rainfall, and I staggered into the building with my hair about my face. I asked the guy at the desk what the rules were about taking photos. He answered in an overly-calm monotone that were I to take any photos, I would be “thrown out onto the street”. I thought that such an image was a little unnecessary, but he nonetheless answered my question. No photos. So I therefore have nothing to show you from this part of my day. I asked him if his museum would give me nightmares and he replied with “That’s a risk you gotta take”.

I entered through this curtain that made me think of houses of mirrors you would see at carnivals. The museum itself is a lot like the Black Museum from the fourth season of Black Mirror (minus the cyberpunk technology). The displays included graphic crime scene photos, prison shivs, the underwear of executed death row inmates, letters and poems written by serial killers, death masks, mortician apparatus, mummified remains, human skeletons, hair recovered from a crime scene, Jack Ruby’s business card, Manson family photographs, 9/11 stuff, and a Kevorkian “suicide device”. At the back there’s a “Theater of Death” which has gory autopsy footage on loop. At this point I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a little fetishistic, and had to double-check that no one in the back row was furiously beating their meat. The last exhibit was devoted to tribes in Papua New Guinea that engage in cannibalism and headhunting. I admit to finding this rather interesting, and there were several shields and spears on display. There was also a good number of shrunken heads from the Amazon rainforest, which, upon leaving, I decided to ask the guy at the desk about. The man was delighted that I had a question. He told me that genuine shrunken heads are very expensive, and that if I see one in a shop window, it’s probably a fake. What the tribes do is take off the skin and put hot coals or something inside to keep the shape. It was strange to think that this little head on a shelf had once been a human being, that he or she had once laughed, cried, stubbed a toe, farted loudly, fallen ill, dreamt, kissed, fucked, felt awkward, gotten lost, held regrets, and expressed their thoughts in a way entirely their own.

Outside it was still hammering down with rain. I followed the sound of jazz towards Bourbon Street. There’s something about the synergy of jazz and rainy sidewalks that seems so natural. I passed a fancy, upscale restaurant with a bar area at the front. Without really knowing why, I turned around, doubled-back, and entered it. I sat down and asked for a Hurricane. The bartender was a pretty blonde named Ashleigh. I was her first customer of the day. We ended up chatting for over an hour and she told me all about her passion for Lord Byron’s poetry and a road trip to Ohio she was about to take with her dog. It felt nice to make a friend and have an extended conversation with someone new and interesting. It’s what I always want from a solo trip to a foreign city but can rarely find. People are more interesting to me than landmarks and exhibits. Given my taste for Hurricanes, she recommended I try a cocktail called the Planter’s Punch, which I also liked a great deal.

My final stop for the day was just around the corner from my hotel- the Historic Voodoo Museum. I wanted to learn more about voodoo culture, especially all the stuff about zombies. It was an interesting museum full of beautiful voodoo art pieces- however it is pretty small. The whole thing is two small rooms, but what there is, is excellent. I stepped back onto the street to find that the rain was dying down, and headed back to my hotel. It had been a great day, and I knew that the French Quarter would be a part of me forever.

The Crescent City Diaries #12

My first stop in City Park was the New Orleans Museum of Art. The temperature in NOLA had been steadily increasing since my arrival, and at this moment I felt like I was getting a taste of Louisiana’s tropical climate for the first time. I had barely been in City Park five minutes and already I could feel myself longing for the air con of the museum ahead.

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Like most of the museums in New Orleans, the Museum of Art is big enough without being too big. It’s not one of those labyrinthine monstrosities like the Louvre or the Victoria & Albert, where you have to prioritize what exhibits you like best. How long you spend here more or less depends on your interest in the pieces themselves. I decided to take my time and try to think about the pieces I found most striking. My interest in art has massively increased this year. I’m Pinteresting the shit out of my favorite Renoir paintings, I’m watching Youtube videos on the meaning of Edward Hopper’s work, and my appreciation for modern art forms has grown exponentially. My favorite exhibit in the museum was that devoted to the Storyville Photographs, a haunting series of portraits taken by John Bellocq in the 1910s of the city’s famous red light district. In many of the Storyville Photographs, the faces of the nude prostitutes have been scraped out, and in others, the women are wearing masks. It remains a mystery why exactly the faces were obscured, and whether it was Bellocq himself or someone else.

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Upon leaving the museum, I walked the short distance across the canal bridge to my next stop: the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. I liked the sculptures on show here; there was something twisted and macabre about them that made me think that each one revealed some kind of repressed trauma on the part of its creator. The giant spiders looked like Castlevania bosses before the textures had been added in. There was one statue of a man smiling as birds pecked away at his skin, eating him alive. I saw what looked like a torii gate with a Japanese guy hanging upside down which disturbed me to no end. And the horse skeleton fashioned out of gnarled branches was suitably reminiscent of the zombified horse the Night King rides upon. Even though I’m more interested in paintings than sculptures, I couldn’t help but feel that the latter was the more powerful medium. If I wanted to convey something that would ignite a discussion, I think I would hire a sculptor before a painter. I think the way sculptures are right there in front of us, existing among us, instead of hanging on a wall, makes them really striking and expressive. It seems less passive and more demanding of one’s attention.

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I left the garden and went south, feeling now quite parched. I ended up at the Morning Call coffeehouse where I got myself a Powerade and some shaved ice. I then continued south, going past the bandstand and over another canal bridge to the Historic Oak Grove. There I walked in solitude beneath a canopy of Spanish Moss, admiring the dramatic, spiderlike growths of the live oaks. I stopped briefly at Goldfish Island before crossing the canal and going north again.

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My next destination was the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. The gardens here are lovely, with sections that reflect both the English desire to illuminate the wild beauty of nature and the French philosophy of ordering it into geometric symmetry. There were fountains, statues of lovers fondling each other in bushes, bamboo groves, and a greenhouse full of cacti. The garden was awesome, and as I stood before the range of bright flower-heads, I thought to myself that even the most beautiful painting would fall short of the splendor of nature. Gardens are an interesting form of art, for the reason that they are neither wholly natural nor wholly man-made. A garden is the intersection between the floral world and the human mind. They represent the unique ego of our species, which attempts to remake the world according to our desires. Even the English gardening style, which celebrates the randomness of nature, is built around framing certain aspects of it according to the vision of the gardener.

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At this point I had grown tired. I wanted to see more of City Park but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was very hungry and couldn’t see any restaurants in the vicinity. I knew that the park continued northwards, stretching all the way from Mid-Town to Lake Pontchartrain, but I didn’t see anyone heading that way, nor any clear path there. The green fields and live oaks just seemed to go on forever. Unsure, I walked north, abandoning the sidewalk and continuing across the grass. The ground beneath my foot was hard and dusty and I got stones in my sandals. I reached an empty, quiet road through the park that went past a deserted stadium. I kept going, hoping to stumble across another attraction, but there was nothing in sight. I was moving away from the touristy areas. Eventually I said screw it and headed back to the museum, where I stumbled upon the Zemurray Trail that loops around Big Lake toward the streetcar stop. It was at that moment I thought to myself: Big Lake? City Park? Who named these places, an accounting intern dying of boredom?

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While on the streetcar I identified a spot for lunch on Canal Street. The Palace Café is a famous restaurant in a three-story, high-ceilinged building. I went up to the second floor and got my lunch at the bar. The service was impeccable and the Shrimp Tchefuncte I ordered was delicious- but a little pricey. Whenever I enter an upscale place like this I feel both curious and uneasy. The bar specializes in rum and the shelves of rum go all the way around the wall. It’s amazing. As I ate my bread pudding for dessert, a middle-aged man that seemed a little tipsy came over and sat down a few stools adjacent to me. He asked the bartender for his recommendation. The bartender served him a glass of highly expensive rum. The man said he was a “scotch guy”, and never really drank rum, but that this rum was the best he ever had. They then had a lively conversation about how rum was making a huge comeback in the world of spirits. The man then told the bartender that he was from Baltimore, and asked if he had seen The Wire. He said that the city was undergoing some redevelopment, and that he was involved in buying up cheap real estate in the ghetto which was in the process of skyrocketing in value. I listened with keen interest, before finally paying my bill and leaving the opulence of the Palace Café behind.

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The Crescent City Diaries #11

Day Three. I’m eating breakfast in a little café across from my hotel on Royal Street. The waitress brings me a cup of joe and a hard bagel filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I eat ravenously. I’m still riding high from the excitement of the day before. At this point, I’ve fallen wholeheartedly in love with the French Quarter. I’ve shed any doubts I had about whether I ought to be here, whether I could fit in, whether I could be happy here. I’m moving with more purpose. In short- I’m enjoying myself in New Orleans.

I had planned on getting the Greyhound to Biloxi, Mississippi for a shrimping expedition, and then another one to Mobile, Alabama, where I’d spend the night and come home late the following day. I decided against this course of action at the last minute. Instead, I would double-down on the Big Easy. I booked a couple more tours and chose to spend the intervening time getting to know this beautiful city as best as I could.

My third day in NOLA was going to be at a slower pace. I savored my breakfast and walked at a leisurely pace down to Canal Street. It was time to discover the city’s famous streetcars. I took a red streetcar north toward City Park- the final stop. The seats can be a little uncomfortable, but on the plus side it’s nice and cool once you’re onboard. The streetcars here are a lot different to the ones I encountered in Budapest. They function much in the same way as a bus; you get on at the front, pay the driver, and when you want to get off you pull a cord. In Budapest however, you just hop on and hop off with no questions asked.

I watched the driver do his thing. No pedals, just a lever. You push the lever forward and the streetcar goes forward. Pull it back and it stops. It struck me as an extremely interesting profession, because it’s not one you can take with you anywhere. You’re tied to the city. The streetcars and their drivers are as much a part of New Orleans as the Spanish Moss and the abandoned warehouses. I began to see them in a romantic light; the city was alive, and these streetcar operators were its spirit guardians. They depended on the magic of the Big Easy, and as such they were its anthropomorphic incarnations.

The passengers were a mix of tourists and locals. The tourists on the streetcar were going to the same place I was- City Park, and stayed onboard the length of the journey. The locals got on and off at various points along the way. We went up a long boulevard lined with palm trees. A man got on and I saw that he was moving very gingerly, as though he were in a constant state of pain and agony. I figured he must be really old, but when I looked closer I saw that he was middle-aged. He was wearing these thin, brightly-colored pants not unlike pajamas, and when he turned around to pay the driver I saw that there was a circular hole cut into them by the anus. I could feel some of the tourists near me tense up. The man seemed to be in a dispute with the driver about his ticket, but not an angry one. The man seemed confused and the driver, while being very firm with him, nonetheless seemed like he had encountered this situation before. The man eventually found the right amount of quarters and took his seat near the front of the streetcar, sitting down very slowly. He appeared to be spaced out, or in a trance-like state, and kept mumbling to himself. Everyone kept an eye on him. After a few blocks he got off near a building called Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinic, somewhere in Midtown.

I thought about the man limping off towards the clinic and our streetcar continuing north without him. Sonder is defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” and I think that’s what I experienced in that moment. Sometimes I do this thing where I think about how every memory in my life doesn’t exist anymore, like I’m walking in a constant linear path across a rope bridge and the planks behind me fall away one after the other with every step I take. I think about how nothing exists except the moment I’m in- the present- and how this moment is the latest point in my life so far. I don’t know why I do it, but I’ve done it ever since I was in school, when I thought about how far away adult life was. So far away that it seemed like it would never come. But now here I am, at the age of 25, and I’m starting to look back at the past instead of dreaming of the future.

I wondered about all the little moments that brought that man to limping across the street. I probably ought to have been worrying about his future, given that he was obviously injured and heading towards a clinic. But I couldn’t resist dwelling on his past. The past doesn’t exist, and yet the present is the total culmination of it; every moment we’re in is everything that came before it. The anxiousness of the people around me faded and the tourists started talking cheerfully again. The man was forgotten, an extra in each of our lives, as each of us were in his own story. The streetcar approached the vast green expanses of City Park and we got off, maps in hand, excited for a day of exploring. A few girls took selfies with the streetcar in the background. A couple of women asked me if I had any idea where we were. I pointed them in the right direction and looked at the immensity of the park in front of me. The sheer vastness of the place separated us quickly, and we each continued forward, on our own respective pathways.

The Crescent City Diaries #10

As I sit down to write the tenth entry into my New Orleans travel diary, I find myself following some rather amusing associative thought-processes. It’s all a complete accident, isn’t it? A coincidence? For a week now I’ve been listening to the Chopin Nocturnes as I go about trying to make sense of my impressions of the Big Easy and refine them into something ordered, coherent, and written. The complete nocturnes run about 2 hours, which is about how long it takes me to write a post. It was a decision I made, to have this piece of music accompany my thoughts of New Orleans- but why? Some part of me decided that it was appropriate, that it would “get me in the mood”, that it related specifically to the subject. I like the idea that this piece of music can help me understand my subject and facilitate the process by which I draw out something that is muddled, conceptual, imagistic, and weave it into a structure of sentences and paragraphs. The only thing is, Chopin and his Nocturnes have absolutely cock-all to do with the subject of my writing. For one, Chopin was Polish, and to my knowledge never stepped foot on Bourbon Street. And what’s more, the nocturnes couldn’t be further from the musical identity of the Big Easy.

New Orleans is debauched and bluesy, a carnival of bombastic trumpets and ever-so-sultry saxophones. The nocturnes are a series of 21 piano solos, using gentle, harmonious notes that seem to “tumble” over each other, rising and falling like the belly of a sleeper, to evoke something deeply introspective, contemplative, and personal. Now that I think about it, it’s a very introverted piece of music. New Orleans, by all accounts, is the exact opposite. It’s not one sound, nor one voice- it’s many. It’s energy. It’s every color at once. It’s inclusive, extroverted, rambunctious. Multicultural, interwoven, blended. It’s the antithesis of the old world and the classics. It’s not brooding, it’s playful.

I realized then, that the only possible connection that Chopin had to New Orleans was his surname, which he shares with the writer Kate Chopin, of no relation. Alas, there was nothing complex and interesting about his work that drew me to associate it with my subject, but merely the coincidence that he had the same surname as the author of the great novel The Awakening. And now that I think about it, Kate Chopin established a lot of my preconceptions about New Orleans and its culture. I had been assigned the book in 2012 during my time at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. It tells the story of Edna Pontellier and her slow abandonment of the orthodox notions of femininity and family. I was too lazy then to actually read the novel, but I was inspired and intrigued by my professor’s lectures on it. So it might be that my perception of New Orleans is a little warped, but my memories of those lectures provided a kind of framework through which I constructed my own image of the city and its famous French Quarter. When I arrived there, I too would be on a voyage of discovery like Edna.

At this point I want to come back to the idea that music can reveal in a very affecting and unique way a place’s temperament. It may not have been true of the Chopin Nocturnes, but by investigating that random thought-thread, I’ve considered more what makes New Orleans the place it is- and how Jazz might just be the best way to understand it.

The Big Easy. That name alone is indicative of a place that celebrates the quirky and free-spirited. As I’ve written in previous posts, there is perhaps no trait that’s endeared this city to me more so than its commitment to art. And hand-in-hand with that is the rejoicing of decadence. New Orleans is a decadent place, from its music to its food. The ingredients, seasonings, and recipes of the city have their roots in the colorful cultures of France, Spain, and the Caribbean. The dishes I had were hot and spicy, to the point that I worried the mild tastes I had grown up with as a resident of the U.K would prevent me from properly enjoying it. I had deep-fried jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon, alligator sausage po’boys, crawfish étouffée, chicken & seafood gumbo, and the city’s famous blackened redfish. For dessert I had pecan pie and bread pudding. I realized that a lot of these dishes were what I had considered Cajun food. A little research told me that the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine was not the dishes themselves, but the people making them. Creole food was the food of the city, and Cajun the food of the country. That also explained why all the restaurants in New Orleans referred to themselves as Creole restaurants, and not Cajun.

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I also noticed that the French Quarter has a huge smoking culture. It’s the first American city I’ve been in where I’ve noticed people smoking. It’s something that’s commonplace in Europe, as evidenced by the shock Americans have when seeing London and Paris for the first time. Tobacco is something the Americans have done a much better job of eradicating than we Europeans. But in New Orleans, it’s being kept alive. The French Quarter is full of cigar shops, tobacco and snuff-box specialty stores, and hookah bars, and down the street you see plenty of people holding cigarettes, roll-ups, vaporizers, cigarillos, et cetera. Smoking has always freaked me out, but I couldn’t deny it seemed at home in the Quarter.

Throughout The Awakening, Edna has to ask herself if she can be brave enough to let go of her inhibitions and embrace a playful and passionate lifestyle where she is free to pursue her desires. The French Quarter seemed to be asking me the same question. I looked at the painters and the drunkards and the buskers and the smokers and I wanted to be brave like them. The Quarter is an environment that encourages indulgence- for whatever sin, vice, or pastime you please- and as such it’s an environment that challenges you. Like Edna, I viewed the free-spirited existence of these people as an invitation. And to accept it would require overcoming my shyness or self-consciousness. The Quarter is a place that wants to hear your voice.

It’s also a place where artists feed off of each other for creativity and inspiration. Rather than feeling competitive or intimidated by another’s talent, one is made stronger by it. Seeing someone honing their craft and demonstrating their skill encourages one to join in and put him or herself out there. I learned quickly that a lot of the artists in the Quarter knew each other. On Instagram, I discovered local painter Lauren Breaux through the cabaret singer Angie Z I admired so much from the night before. I contacted Lauren to tell her how much I liked her paintings. She replied that she too found Angie Z especially ravishing, and that she was one of her favorite muses, having painted her several times. I then asked Lauren if she could create a digital portrait of me to use for my blog. I was eager not just to support the local art scene, but to be inducted into the community in some small way. Here’s what Lauren came up with:

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If you want to find out more about Lauren’s work, check out her Etsy page here!

The Crescent City Diaries #9 – Blues, Booze, & Burlesque

Somehow- quite inexplicably- I had fallen drunk in the short window of time between paying my bill at Pere Antonie’s and exiting the restaurant onto Royal Street. Perhaps the boozy, anything-goes atmosphere of the French Quarter had loosened whatever valve was keeping me from embarrassing myself inside Antoine’s. Since my first night in the Big Easy, I’d grown quite fond of its famous Hurricanes. I’m referring, of course, to the drink- a sweet cocktail of passionfruit juice and rum. I spent many an evening staggering down the middle of the road with a Hurricane in hand, which now that I think about it might be the quintessential French Quarter experience. Like I said, anything goes here, and the roads are used less for passing cars and more for drunkards to make asses of themselves.

At some point I ended up on Decatur Street, where I was lured by a siren’s promise of free fudge samples. Everyone in this city lets flourish their inner artist. The girl handing out samples outside the creamery was an exceedingly talented singer.

“I got what chu want, I got what chu need, I got free fudge!” she belted out.

Inside, her coworkers were placing bets on how many hugs the girl would receive from the many admirers of her voice. I got a large dish of orange sherbet ice cream, and left. I walked in circles around Jackson Square as I ate, swaying from side to side, feeling oppressively light-headed, and now and then giggling at nothing in particular.

A short time later, I approached the will-call booth at The House of Blues. The burlesque show didn’t start for two hours. Once again I found myself with time to kill. I decided to hit up one of the bars on Decatur Street. To me, the bar I chose was every bar in America. Wood paneling; a narrow but long room; the bar runs down the left-hand side, booths down the right; at the back are small tables; above us ceiling fans. A couple middle-aged women are singing a jaunty number evocative of a decade long before I was born. The place was classy but not pretentious. But moreover, it was American, and that’s what appealed to me.

I sat at the bar and asked for a rum and coke. I felt like I was in an Edward Hopper painting. I liked the place because it had an atmosphere that was lively but not so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think. I hate any place where I have to yell at the bartender to give my order.

Around 8pm I left and headed back to the House of Blues. It was still an hour before the show began, but doors were opening and there was the promise of more rum inside. I was shocked to find that at this early stage, the line for the show extended all the way around the block. At the same time, I was excited, because it meant the show was popular.

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One thing I love to do when solo-traveling is book a show of some kind. In London, it was The Book of Mormon with my friend Elizabeth. In Paris it was a night of whimsy and wonder at the Moulin Rouge with Aaron and Anne-Marie. And in Budapest last April I treated myself to a concert of classical music and folk dancing. In New Orleans I chose an authentic, 1950s-inspired burlesque. When looking into things to do prior to my arrival in the Big Easy, I was informed by my guidebook that one of the city’s famous burlesque shows would be a much more worthwhile cultural experience than taking in one of Bourbon Street’s strip clubs, or indeed that swinger’s playhouse that kept catching my eye. To me, burlesque was a niche art form that evoked a very specific era; when I think of burlesque I think of bootleggers, brass bands, Gatsbys, and Capones. I think of coiling cigar smoke rising from cabaret tables. I think of Interwar angst and alienation- the showgirl takes it all on her shoulders, tends to their wants and needs and insecurities with a maternal strength; the rowdy sailors are sitting at the front, and off to the side, leaning against a wall, the shy and impoverished Bohemian poet, who wants to immortalize her in his work. She’s not like anyone they’ve ever seen or dreamed of before- she’s an angel- and while she’s on stage everyone in that room wants her for himself. The bartender looks like Humphrey Bogart, and he knows all their little secrets. He tends to their weaknesses in a much more quiet- but no less significant- way. That’s what I had in mind as I waited outside The House of Blues on Decatur Street that night.

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But I also thought of burlesque as a clandestine thing, something insulated from the street by a series of hidden doors and secret passwords. And this wasn’t that- this was a celebration of a bygone era. Perhaps everyone in line wanted the image I had. There were no sailors or pinstriped gangsters in sight; I was joined on the sidewalk mostly by groups of young people and middle-aged couples. An entirely wholesome demographic, and so I figured that taking in a burlesque was no different than catching a West End musical was for the people of London.

Inside, the theater was very intimate. It reminded me a little of The Globe Theatre, only smaller. The proximity of the audience to the performers encouraged participation. Most people had to stand- but luckily I had paid for VIP seating. A guy that looked like a bouncer for a Magic the Gathering convention escorted me to a small table in the front row- right next to the stage. I shared the table with an old couple, and I was delighted to find out that we were allowed to take photographs and videos, so long as we didn’t use our flash. I didn’t bring my camera with me, so the only photos I have are from my phone, and most of those I can’t upload because of the nudity.

The theater began to fill up, and I could feel myself cushioned by a wall of noise behind me. The crowd were extremely rowdy, and as it got closer to 9pm they started whistling and hooting. This led me to conclude that they were, by and large, locals rather than tourists. The curtains opened to reveal a jazz band, playing a rambunctious number that set the tone for an evening of playful decadence. I felt like Nucky Thompson sitting at that table. When the band finished, a stand-up comedian entered the stage wearing a top hat. He was the quintessential 20th century American comic- a slick, sharp-tongued jokester one step ahead of everyone else.

He needed a volunteer to help with a magic trick. He pointed to the guy next to me and asked if he had a dollar. The guy said no. The comedian then looked squarely at me.

“How about you, sir?”

I rummaged through my Abe Lincoln wallet and stood up to hand him a dollar. Before I sat back down, he quipped “Say, you haven’t got a fifty in there by any chance, do ya?”

Behind the curtain we heard a ba-dum-tss sting from the drummer. The comic turned around and thanked him. Then he focused his attention on me again and asked me my name. I told him.

“Where are ya from, Michael?”

“The U.K,” I answered.

“Sorry?” he said.

I repeated myself, louder.

“No, I heard you…that’s why I said sorry,” he said.

Ba-dum-tss.

He then made a joke about my having to learn English or something now that I was here. I was already used to these sorts of barbs from my years of living in the USA, and I was surprised how calm I felt being the butt of his jokes. It’s always been one of my worst fears to get targeted by a stand-up comedian, since I am a frequent consumer of Frankie Boyle’s work. But this was okay. I was rolling with it as well as I could hope. It’s funny how well we adapt to a situation when it’s thrust upon us without warning. I think that helped- the suddenness of it. The comic ended up referring to me several times throughout the show, and I couldn’t help but realize that everyone in the theater had been looking at me and knew my name.

As he folded my dollar bill in front of me, he winked and said “Cheers.”

I snapped my fingers at him in approval and he said “See, I can speak English!”

It reminded me of the guy I met at Faulkner House Books. It was the chosen way for Americans to try and ingratiate themselves into British company.

“Don’t worry, Michael. Today we’re all here to laugh and have fun…at your expense.”

Ba-dum-tss.

He ripped up the note into quarters, fiddled with it, and presented it to us good as new. Then he turned it around to reveal the secret: tape. Somehow he’d glued it back together without us noticing. Then he handed it back to me. Right now I’m keeping it for my scrapbook.

He then introduced the first performer: a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who flaunted her hourglass hips to screams of delight from the crowd. The vast majority of the audience were women. The performer then started the striptease, removing layer after layer of clothing until she wore only a G-string and a couple of tasseled pasties over her nipples. She then started doing circus tricks with her breasts, the tassel spinning around like the bowtie of a clown. The whole thing was not unlike what I had seen at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The only difference was that the Féerie show had its emphasis on the extravagant costumes of the performers more than anything else. The dancers were topless, but they weren’t performing a striptease. This, however, was much more erotically-charged- but not to the point that it could be considered seedy.

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It’s elevated from mere voyeurism by the fact that it’s very much a show- something with an artistic vision. It combines the bawdy dancing with jazz music and interesting fashion design. We also got some more stand-up comedy, a pair of acrobats, and even a snake-charmer. In a strip club, there isn’t the same sense of vision. Don’t get me wrong, the pole-dancers are very skilled gymnasts, but they aren’t performing in the context of a show. They are more or less trotted out on stage to go through the same motions they go through every day, and their bored expressions are unsettlingly reminiscent of the dead end desk jobs we’re presumably trying to get away from on a Friday night. There’s just no energy or excitement in a strip club- no passion. By contrast, the showgirls of the Bustout Burlesque were allowed to flourish, to spread their wings as artists. Each routine had an intensity to it; the showgirls had agency, they had power, they had artistry; something close to their heart that they let loose on stage for the world to see. That’s why I liked the show so much. I had no doubt that these performers’ first loyalty was to the art they had dedicated their lives to, and it was amazing to witness their talent firsthand.

The comic returned for a little skit between each dance.

“This next performer has a voice that makes my knees sweat. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Fairy of the French Quarter: Miss Angie Z!”

A slim Flapper with a big bob-wig came onto the stage. She gave a sultry rendition of Dean Martin’s “Sway”, and the entire theater gave her their unblinking attention- and undying affection. I realized, before the song was over, that I had fallen hopelessly in love with this woman. It was the biggest cliché in the book: wannabe writer goes head over heels for cabaret singer.

The comedian came back- known professionally as Dante the Magician- to give us a Chaplinesque vaudeville act. It’s a silent routine where the comedian performs tricks to the accompaniment of upbeat jazz. He kept pulling cigarettes out of his mouth and out of his nose, and there were always more bananas up his sleeve. It was great fun.

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The show ended, and I hurried back to my hotel to hydrate myself and catch some sleep. In retrospect I wish I had hung about and gotten to meet the performers- although I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to approach them. It had been a fantastic day however- seeing wild alligators in the afternoon and catching some authentic Big Easy entertainment in the evening.