New Orleans, November 2013
I had been thinking about making a trip to New Orleans for the past six months or so, inspired by a series of serendipitous connections, resulting in my trip, November 1 to 4.
A few months ago, while at my friend Ty’s birthday party, a song Steely Dan performed, Pearl of the Quarter, was sung by his singer/friend Kristen Sergeant, with the line Voulez, voulez, voulez vous sticking in my head for days and sparking my interest in things New Orleans. A few weeks later, I went to Oakland to hear the Funky Meters play, an old Aaron Neville band, wonderful New Orleans rock and roll. And that led me to downloading some of their songs, some Neville Brothers songs, and some John Fogerty songs, including Born on the Bayou, all ramping up this mood of mine. Then, what pushed me over the edge, was the night I showed up late for a wine tasting event in San Francisco and took the one remaining seat, next to Marian Margetson, who told me that after a lifetime living in California she and her husband were moving to New Orleans. At some point during our 30 minute talk about life there, we exchanged contact information which resulted in her sending me a coffee table book called the Obituary Cocktail, Great Saloons of New Orleans. It was holding that book in my hands that ended any question of whether or not I was going.
I chose November 1 for my trip and called my friend David Best in Portland and asked if he wanted to meet me there. As I suspected, David being David, he said he was up for some fun. So, we went.
We arrived around 5 PM on the 1st*, hopped into a rental car and drove across the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, above the 12 foot deep Lake Pontchartrain to the town of Lacombe, to visit the cemeteries at dusk on All Saints Day; the celebration of the dead. We went to two cemeteries, attended by a smattering of people who came and went. It was spooky, especially the second cemetery surrounded by Baid Cypress trees, dripping in character, up lit by the massive number of candles. Eerily beautiful.
Afterwards, we took off for New Orleans and were comfortably sitting at dinner by 9PM, feeling like we had set the proper tone for the weekend. There are an endless number of choices for food in New Orleans. It was our intention to explore the possibilities. I had gathered suggestions from at least 6 people, listed below.
I will not go deeply into the many amazing meals. But, I would be remiss not to mention the drinks. It is not a matter of bar tending any longer in New Orleans, it is all about mixology, fresh and unique ingredients, fascinating recipes, and slow, focused, attention to detail in the making. The idea of a Dark and Stormy, a rum/ginger beer/lime juice cocktail, takes on new meaning when the ginger beer is replaced by a ginger syrup, a high end dark rum is used, bitters are added (local bitters you have never heard of), and an herb or two thrown in. Below is a typical cocktail list (not an extreme one) from a place all about food. Even a sandwich shop we went to one day had four amazing cocktails, with unique names, another part of the fun. This is the new normal for drinking.
Saturday was spent walking through the French Quarter, Marigny, and Bywater districts.
I saw signs, colors, characters, and contrast from one extreme of life to another. A guy walking a dog that could fit in your hand, with an exposed knife on his belt, and bottle of alcohol of some sort in his loose fitting back jean pocket. One street was poor, the next every house was restored, people moved slowly and many sat on porches and balconies, enjoying a beautiful day. There was an easiness to it all, comfortable, and calming.
I came to New Orleans to discover and music was high on my list. The big surprise was the variety and quality of the music in the streets, especially in the French Quarter. The Quarter was busy and commercial, and there were plenty of people in town due to the Voodoo Music festival. Some friends told me to avoid the Quarter, but I was drawn in by the music, the bars, and the food.
Getting to hear great music in bars takes effort and planning. I went to Snug Harbor and heard a great jazz trio and watched some dancing one night at Mulates to Zydeco music. I did not get to hear Trombone Shorty or others I was told to track down. The street music made up for it though.
On Sunday morning the piano player/singer’s rendition of Sunny Side of the Street in the hotel restaurant was soulful and sweet beyond description. I closed my eyes and felt transported to an era long before my time.
David arranged for us to have dinner with Joe and Laurel, friends of his, who have lived there for decades, New York and northeast Ohio transplants. Over dinner, they described their Katrina experience.
24 hours before the storm hit, long after early warnings but at the point where people were told to evacuate, they left heading east. Barely out of town, the alternator on their van died and they turned around hoping to get home and switch cars. As they pulled off the freeway drifting into a deserted area, a flatbed truck pulled up and offered to take their van to their house. They did so, picked up their small SUV, hopped in with the dog and not much else and headed for Houston. They were in the car along with the rest of New Orleans for 19 hours, with nowhere to stop for food or gas, as the road was massively packed. Fortunately, they had friends to stay with, and they finally arrived, totally stressed out. They could not return to their house for weeks.
One thing I was curious about was the weather before the storm, 5 days, 3 days, 1 day. Each time I asked throughout their story, I heard the same answer, calm and sunny, a little breezy on the last day. Imagine that sense of calm, before a hurricane warning that comes multiple times per year, and then it turns into Katrina. Many people thought they were leaving for two days and left pets behind.
Their home, being on the west side was relatively undamaged by water. The wind damage and the refrigerator full of food were a different story. And of course, no power for six weeks, the displacement, the time to recover, the end of income for a long period, the work to be done with little in the way of services available and the length of time it took to recover. Just finding an electrician to deal with fallen wires for instance was nearly impossible. Joe spent the next few months working with neighbors to recover. Laurel took some time away to cope, to emotionally recover. Fortunately, the federal government (FEMA) subsidized people during this period. Had they not, things would have been much worse. FEMA's investment in New Orleans recovery allowed many to return and get their lives going again. That said, there are horror stories about the government's handling of this disaster, none worse I imagine than that told in the book Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, which I read during and after my trip.
David's friends' story is typical according to them, not by any means close to the worst, those with no money whose houses were ruined by flooding, nor the other end of the spectrum. But in all cases, basic services took weeks or months to be restored where they could be restored. And basically, every refrigerator in New Orleans had to be replaced, originals picked up, freon removed, and then scrapped. All this, and then weeks later, another evacuation for Rita, the next storm.
This was the wrath of Katrina. Population of 450,000 dropped to under 200,000 post storm. I was moved by the pain, the tone, the look in their eyes. But the description of how people pulled together, the incredible sense of community that developed, and the resolve in the aftermath. This is a story of renewal, the optimism they share today within their community. Survivor’s syndrome maybe, something additive to what makes New Orleans special.. I felt lucky to hear this first hand.
Now, the levies that control the water in and out have been properly built to avoid this sort of disaster. However, hurricanes are a way of life here and evacuations still take place, wind knocks down trees, some areas are prone to flooding. It is thought of as part of life, nothing more, nothing less. This was an eye opener for me about hard times, struggle and recovery being part of life.
I was told by many to take a swamp tour. Thankfully, we took an excellent one in the Jean Lafitte Bayou with Airboat Adventures. I learned a great deal about life in the Bayou and some history of Louisiana in those three hours, along with other useful and useless information. We did the air boat tour, the ones that reach 55 miles per hour on the water, that get 2 miles per gallon from those big V-8 engines, that when moving sit entirely on top of the water except for the ¾ inch deep rudder.
Our tour guide, Little Lou, was 7th generation Bayou, a swamp tour guy, shrimp fisherman, alligator tracker and killer once a year when their population is managed as it needs to be to protect other species, and all around entrepreneur and story teller. Oh, and oill spill impediment as well. He and his fishing neighbors used their boats and BP equipment to keep the big Gulf oil spill 30 miles from the Bayou, even capturing oil back into barrels. He claims they have done this many times. His stories were amazing, his finding of alligators excellent, his character impeccable. Lou was the real deal.
The swamp area is natural, but in the period where the French turned Louisiana over to the Spanish, during the 18th century, the Spanish cut down much of the forest that is now just water. Those trees are what built New Orleans back then. Ultimately, this area was returned to the French and became part of the Louisiana purchase of 1803, one of the largest land deals in history, Louisiana to Canada for $15 million, or $.04 per acre sold to the US. In the early 18th century, much of this area was ruled by Jean Lafitte, smuggler, pirate, swashbuckler who controlled the swamps with his fleet, impacting much of the economy of this area.
The Baid Cypress tree that grows here, the state tree of Louisiana, is water and insect resistant, resulting in it being the strongest possible wood for building. Lou was telling us that whenever they need to replace wood on his house, they dredge for fallen, hundreds of years old Cypress, bring them up, put the big saws to work a few days later, to cut boards for repair and replacement. They last for centuries.
Lou has a modest shrimp boat he has partnered with his father on for the last 30 years, same as his Dad did with his Father for the prior 70 years. Their boat is a 35 footer and they pull out tons of shrimp during the season. His neighbors have bigger or smaller houses than him, directly proportional to their boat size he claims. This is how life rolls on the Bayou. A cooperative community of fisherman. The white freshwater shrimp season is their busy time. There is of course crab season, and then the 30 day period where they hunt alligator, using decayed meat (chicken, possum, armadillos, or other), pulled along at a certain height above the water so only alligators of a certain size (they are not allowed to seek small ones, 7 feet or larger as I recall), up to 100 per license per season. The alligators jump out of the water, using their sense of smell to detect the decaying meat, bite the hook laden meat, then are pulled aboard and instantly shot, just the right way. If not, they often crawl away a few minutes later, back into the water. By the way, alligators are not dangerous. Crocodiles are dangerous, a true predator. That is why you never hear about anyone wrestling a crocodile. There are no crocodiles in Louisiana. The heart rate of alligators can fluctuate from above 30 beats per minute, down to 1 beat per minute when the water is cold, like a state of hibernation.
By the way, the armadillo (sometimes alligator bait) is known by two terms in the Bayou; chicken on the half shell, or Louisiana speed bumps.
Sunday in New Orleans
The concept of a day of rest is alive and well in New Orleans. Many restaurants and shops outside of the Quarter are closed, and a sense of calm envelops the city, except of course during a Saints game.
In two days and three nights, a lot of ground was covered. It was an adventure of sorts, with a main goal accomplished; discovery. I was drawn to New Orleans, and I am drawn to go back. More to learn, more to discover.
When I was walking in neighborhoods, people looked me in the eye and said hello, random people passing me on the street. Black or white, poor or rich, everyone I spoke with in stores, behind bars, on bar stools, the guy who shined my shoes, without fail were some of the most open, friendly, and generous of spirit people I have encountered anywhere. Underneath the openness, lies a sense of challenging recent life experiences, enveloped in history; French, Spanish, Indian, Cajun, Creole and it all seems to meld together in a way that is uniquely American on the one hand, and something I have not found anywhere else in America on the other. I understand why people love living here, or choose to move here, even late in life. It is fun, it is rich, and it has magic and mystery. On my long walk Sunday down Magazine St., another part of New Orleans, I only saw one Starbuck’s. How nice.
I hope it all stays this way. I will come back as I barely scratched the surface of the fun and discovery available. I will not wait too long though. The population is back to 350,000 and the projection over the next decade is that New Orleans will grow to 50% more people than the pre-Katrina population high. Lots of people have figured out this is a special place to be.
* November 1 was a Friday, the day that a man with an assault rifle entered LAX and shot several TSA employees, killing one. I flew from San Francisco to LAX, to switch planes to New Orleans during that event. I got off the plane in Terminal 6, not 3 where the shootings took place. It was strangely quiet, no one at the security checkpoint, only people transferring planes mulling about. Once I learned what was going on, I instantly doubted that I would get on a plane that day. The big issue for leaving was whether or not they could get a crew and attendants together as no one could get into the airport. However, for whatever reason, they rustled up a crew and we left 30 minutes late, probably one of the last planes out of LA that day.
I was lucky to get there, but more importantly fortunate to have so many good friends who offered suggestions, ideas, books, inspiration and in David's case, companionship to make this a special trip. Thanks to all who contributed.
In case you decide to go.
Bars chosen, some visited, identified from the book, Obituary Cocktail
Lee Circle bar
Pirate’s Alley for Absinthe
Vaughn’s – late night music
Tipitina - music
Snug Harbor – Frenchman St. live music
Old Absinthe Bar
Jean Lafite’s Blacksmith Shop
Restaurants - each recommended by at least two, typically three people
Gautreau’s Soniat Street
Herbsaint – ate there, delicious
Cochon Butcher – sandwiches for lunch, ate there, delicious
August – ate there, high end dining, not overpriced, great sommelier, very good
Sylvain – ate there in Quarter, delicious
Maurepas – in Bywater, casual, fun, simple, delicious