Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Good Times in the Big Easy

My feet still hurt.  In my defense, though, I did a lot of walking last week.

New Orleans, like most old cities, is a pretty walkable place.  At least the older parts of it are, anyway, and the rest you can get to by streetcar.  Kim was one of the legions of chemists giving presentations at the ACS meeting last week, and I got to tag along as the Trailing Spouse.  The glorious part about being a Trailing Spouse is that it comes with essentially no duties.  She does all the work, and you get to wander around the city visiting things.  All you have to do is meet up at the correct time and place.

Sweet deal.

I’d been to New Orleans once before – 22 years earlier almost to the day, in fact.  Kim and I went there on our honeymoon, and I had fond memories of the place even beyond the whole “honeymoon” aspect of it.  There’s a lot to do there.  It’s not hot in March.  It’s almost always feeding time at the human zoo in the French Quarter and thereabouts, and there are few things I enjoy more than people-watching.  You also cannot find a bad meal anywhere in New Orleans, or at least I never have.  Win all around, I say.

We arrived in New Orleans pretty much the same way we did the last time – on widely separated seats on an airplane.  We were young marrieds when we first went down and had little money to spare so we flew standby, which is an interesting way to travel in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are “interesting.”  On the way down I sat next to a guy who gloried in outlining the prodigious amount of coffee he consumed every day (if he’s still alive today I’m sure he’s on his second stomach transplant and hasn’t slept a night since we spoke), and my seatmate on the way back spent the entire flight – the entire flight – telling me how “you Nawthunas nevah conquahed the Cajuns!”  Mostly I remember thinking to myself, “I guess we didn’t have to?”  It hadn’t seemed to have affected the outcome of the Civil War any that I could recall.  Let them have their damned swamps.

This time it was because we were flying in different classes.  Kim was in the regular economy class, which works as well or not well as it always has, but I was in the “Basic Economy” section, which is about half a notch above baggage.  They just randomly assign you a seat 10 minutes before boarding, and the seats are, um, narrow.  Really, really, narrow.  On the plus side, my seatmate was from Philadelphia so we got to talk about old times a bit, and that was nice.

And then I took my very first Uber ride. 

I’ve never been all that sure about Uber.  I’m old enough to remember being told a) never get into cars with strangers and b) be careful meeting people on the internet, and now here we were using the internet to get into some stranger’s car.  It’s a different world.  Turns out the guy is from South Jersey, though, so we spent the entire ride discussing the Eagles.  He and I agreed that the recent Super Bowl win was a Very Good Thing. 

We dropped off our stuff at the hotel and then wandered the couple of blocks over to the French Quarter to find some dinner, which was admirably supplied by a place called Felix’s, I think.  We ate well throughout our visit, as one does in New Orleans, from lunch at Antoine’s (which has been serving since 1840 – our waiter, a friendly soul, appeared to have been an original hire) to breakfast at Majoria’s Commerce, a diner in the Central Business District where the waitress calls you honey and pats your shoulder, and where nothing on the menu is remotely healthy even by the generous standards of 1945 when the place probably opened, but it’s all good.  Really, really good.

The first night we spent some time wandering up and down Bourbon Street with the rest of the tourists (hey – when you’re a tourist you might as well do some touristy things) before finding a lovely little bar about the size of your living room where the music was live and the Sazeracs where tasty.  Friends told us that we were not allowed to leave New Orleans without having a Sazerac and a hurricane, and by the time we left for home we had succeeded.  I have to say that while hurricanes are really good when you’re 23 and seeking Maximum Alcohol, you just can’t beat a good Sazerac.  I think I may have found a new favorite drink.  We liked them so much we found another a couple of nights later in one of the bars that seems to cater more to the locals than the tourists, where the guy at the end of the bar droned on at some length about something unintelligible and the bartender knew him by name.

Kim spent most of the time at the conference, which is why she was there after all.  That meant I had a great deal of time to myself and my only real goal was to wander around the French Quarter.  That’s how I spent Tuesday and Wednesday.  On Tuesday I zigzagged through the streets paralleling the river and on Wednesday I zigzagged the streets perpendicular to the river, so I figure I walked pretty much all of the Quarter, in addition to a couple of hikes over to the Convention Center.  It’s a walking sort of place.  You have to do that, to burn off all the food.

Things I noticed while walking about in the French Quarter:

1. People actually live there.  You forget that if you’re not paying attention.  There are grocery stores – actual grocery stores – and laundromats and post offices and all that sort of thing.  There’s at least one school, with parents who crowd the street in the afternoon to pick up their kids.  It’s an actual working neighborhood, and that’s one of the most interesting things about the place.

2. If you’re out there early enough – and I was generally walking around by 9am or so – it’s pretty quiet.

3. Once you get outside of the truly touristy parts – and even within them, to be honest – you realize that New Orleans is a poor and old city.  The housing is run down, the sidewalks are uneven, the streets are potholed and dirty.  And yet it has a certain charm to it, in large part because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is.

4. There are few other places in the world where street musicians exist in such numbers and quality.  You can’t be a mediocre musician in New Orleans – the competition is just too severe.  Particularly along Royal Street, they will often just blockade the street and set up shop on their folding chairs.  The first time I saw this, I watched for a bit before a police car came slowly cruising up toward them.  “Well, that’s that,” I figured.  And then the band leader stood up, slid his tip buckets back a bit, and the cop cruised on by with a small wave, swerved around the barricade, and headed off down the street.  You have to appreciate that.

5. Everywhere on the sidewalks there are these silver metal discs about a hand’s breadth across.  Apparently they are attached to long metal rods, and at the bottom of the rods are chunks of wood.  City workers will pull up the wood to check for termites, and if they find any then the building they’re standing in front of is in deep trouble.  As the guy who explained this said, “When it comes to termites, we’re the interlopers here.”

6. When you’ve been trying to eat less salt for a few years, you can’t just ramp back up all at once.  I stopped in a battered little sandwich shop for a muffaletta and it was really good but I couldn’t finish it.  I am officially old, in just so many ways.

7. Apparently haunted real estate costs more.  Free history lessons, as Tabitha put it.

8. I never did get to the Cafe du Monde as the lines were just ridiculous.  But there are other places to get beignets.  I found one right next to the NOPD, where you can get three fresh hot beignets covered with about half a cup of powdered sugar and sit outside while random street musicians serenade you on a sunny day in New Orleans.  There is a certain satisfaction in that.

9. Sometimes the places you remember are just as you remember them.  On our honeymoon the B&B guy recommended a diner called The Clover Grill, and I stumbled into it for lunch one day.  They still grill their burgers under “a genuine American hubcap,” the waitress still doesn’t give a shit about your day, and the whole place still feels like you stepped into 1954, right down to the pink walls.  Glorious.

10. Everywhere you look there are hot pepper stores.  Hot sauce is the new trend, and I for one heartily approve.  How a place as small as the French Quarter can support four different hot sauce stores is beyond me, though.

11. We did go to a couple of museums while we were there.  I spent a charming half hour in the New Orleans Mint – a site so unassuming that as far as I could tell it didn’t even have a gift shop – and Kim and I went to the Pharmacy Museum, a true labor of love for whomever set the place up.  It’s fascinating but completely overwhelming.

12. There is nothing quite like walking by a steamboat moored by the side of the river and listening to a concert performance of the greatest hits of the 1920s performed on calliope from the top of the boat.

We didn’t spend all of our time in the French Quarter, and I wasn’t always on my own.  Kim generally had the evenings free and after her presentation Thursday morning she was done with the conference entirely.  We went to a jazz festival in Lafayette Park for a while – the one act we saw had serious overtones of klezmer to it (klazz?  jazzmer?) – and for our last evening there we took the trolley up to the Garden District and had dinner at the Camillia Grill, another revisit from our honeymoon.  The place is more surrounded by other things than I remember it being, but inside it’s pretty much the same.  And you can’t escape Wisconsinites no matter where you go – there was a dad and his daughter from Madison who were on a college visit to Tulane, and even though they left well before us we ended up sitting with them on the trolley ride back to our hotel, talking about college visits and the like.  It was nice.

We got back home on Friday, after one of those multi-pronged days of travel that you get on trips like these (car, plane, bus, car, couch).  My seatmates on the plane were from China and had their faces covered with those surgical masks that are inexplicably popular there, so there wasn’t much conversation.  I read my book, and eventually we arrived.  If our baggage had come out one minute earlier we’d have made the early bus, but as it was we sat for a while waiting for the next one, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world really.

It was a lovely trip.

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