Tuesday, February 12, 2013
My New Orleans Story
Today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. I've told this story to a number of people but I thought today would be a fun day to put it out there for those of you who have never heard it and for those who have.
I've been to New Orleans. It was November of 1993. I flew to Jackson, Mississippi where a college friend, JoAnn, had settled. She had a sister-in-law who worked for Holiday Inn and we were able to score very steeply discounted rooms across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. We made a several day itinerary. Day one was my arrival and our driving there. Day two, we did this circle driving loop that took in all these plantations that have been restored and opened for tours. One of the plantations we visited was Oak Alley. It was just as beautiful as the photos on this web site show you. We toured four plantations that day. The other three I can see in my mind's eye but I don't remember their names.
Oak Alley sticks in my head for two reasons. The first is that we had lunch there and JoAnn had me try the gumbo which had this stuff called "okra" in it. I'm not the best at trying new foods but she said, guaranteed in fact, that I would like this. I remember the soup/stew coming to the table. It was a creamy consistency with rice and these pieces of green in it. The sliced okra reminded me of flowers. It wasn't as horrible as I was anticipating. I haven't had okra since, however, but I wouldn't be averse to eating it again.
The second reason I remember Oak Alley was that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt had just, the week before we toured the place, shot scenes for Interview with the Vampire, the film adaptation of Anne Rice's book, at the plantation. In fact, as we toured about the other plantations and New Orleans, we were told, "Oh Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were here filming just yesterday" or "were here last week" or "were here 3 days ago". They were somewhere in the city while we were there. Our brush with fame. Ha.
The other thing going on was the Green Bay Packers were playing the New Orleans Saints that weekend. We hit Bourbon Street on Thursday. The point was to see the street during the day, to get our bearings and to be able to look around when there weren't crowds. Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" seemed to blare from all the bars. I love the song, but I had to admit that I found it annoying by the time we had walked the entire street. Friday morning, we drove around western Louisiana, just being tourists, following the Mississippi River north a ways. Then, we headed back to New Orleans to partake of Bourbon Street night life.
The weather was warm. Bourbon Street is one way. On Thursday, when we sat on a balcony overlooking the street, I marveled at and felt some sorrow for the delivery trucks that had to make deliveries to the bars and restaurants. It's two car widths wide but that's pushing it. On this Friday night, you combined the cars with the abundance of people and I think it's one of those "why are you driving here" type of experiences. The street caters to walkers and vehicles get in the way.
JoAnn and I started at Canal Street intending to walk all the way Esplanade Avenue as we had on Thursday. We just wanted to see the street at night. We would find a place to eat that looked inviting, not the place we had eaten at before, but some other place. We weren't going to eat in a bar. We wanted a restaurant.
The street was packed with Packer fans. A couple months prior to this, there had been sniper shootings in New Orleans. We were concerned about not being taken for tourists so we dressed down as much as was comfortable. We needn't have worried about being targets. Packer fans were resplendent in their green, white and yellow. Some of them, it seemed, hadn't been out of Wisconsin. Beer is available on street corners and if you don't have a drink in hand, you're fairly accosted by the vendors. This was a football fan from Wisconsin's heaven. They clustered around the vendors like ants on sugar making getting by without walking in the street nearly impossible. Like I mentioned, there was traffic along Bourbon Street. It really should be closed on weekend nights. There's just no room for people and cars.
What's also typical on Bourbon Street are the burlesque shows. There was the gal on a swing, wearing pasties and a g-string, who swung out over the sidewalk, blowing kisses and waving at the crowd below her. Packer fans stared with their mouths agape. JoAnn and I just looked at each other and shrugged. The reactions were quite comical.
We moved on, most of the time going with the flow of walkers. Suddenly the crowd came to a halt. One of the shows had the door open in the balmy night air, but the door didn't flatten completely against the building. So, you had to move around it and that meant walking a bit in the street. As we got close to the doorway, we could see some gal on stage, shaking her topless assets for all they were worth. There were a few people in the place, but not a whole lot. From our left came a shout, "Oh my god, Marv! You gotta see this!" and a group of about 5-7 Packer fans moved, en masse, across the street to stand right in our way and gape at the floor show.
Suddenly, this large black shape loomed in the doorway. A black man, the size of a redwood tree just seemed to materialize in the doorway. He looked at the group, crossed his hands and growled, "Ya wanna see the show. Ya gotta pay." The Packer fans froze. JoAnn and I took that opportunity to slip around them and to walk away as fast as we could. I will never ever forget the size of that man and the authority he radiated.
We walked a block away, stopped, turned around and looked back. We could barely make out the open door in the sea of humanity. We looked at each other and then burst into laughter. "Oh my god. These people are so green," JoAnn said. We walked another block and found a restaurant with a window on the street. I had a really good jambalya and JoAnn had a platter. I remember she didn't like the shrimp on it so she gave them all to me. Just a note, if cayenne pepper is used in your dish, don't itch your eye. The waiter got a kick out of me dousing my right eye with water to get the sting out.
We spent a couple more hours just walking, standing, watching and walking some more. Finally, the crush of people was too much for us and we headed back to the car and the motel. It was a great time.
Some day, I'd like to go back for a 3-day weekend. There are things, like the jazz museum and Preservation Hall, that I didn't see when we were there. It's one of those places that I don't have to spend a lot of time visiting but it's worth it to say, "Yes, I've been there."