Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Big Easy

Big gap in posting for the last week - due to two trips. One was to DC (more on that in later posts) and the other was to New Orleans on business - my first time there.

The back end of Ike was still overshadowing the Delta when we flew in, and the start of my time in the Hilton, down on the riverfront, felt more like night. I can't recall darker daytime sky. The first thing I saw of downtown New Orleans was the Superdome, which I knew by sight from all the horrible stories after Katrina. It didn't help that I was tired (I'd gotten up at 3:30 AM), not particularly encouraged about the turn out at the conference, and the hotel was depressingly empty. I wanted to go home before I'd even checked in.

But by 5:00 PM the sun had come out, the breeze off the Mississippi was refreshing and brisk, and everything looked different. I began to see some charm. That night I was one of a foursome, including a client, that went out for dinner at the Commander's Palace, a fancy but very authentic New Orleans spot, which our cab drivers both told us was one of the best choices possible. The dinner was amazing, and took over three hours. France is the only other place I've ever been where food and conversation is done in such a leisurely fashion. Good wine, good talk, excellent food. The turtle soup (with sherry) and the oysters were heavenly, and the New Orleans style bread pudding, with some type of spiked cream over it, was like a cross between the richest mousse and gourmet French toast. Our cab driver back to the hotel was 76 years old, born in New Orleans, and had some personal or family story about nearly every building on the several mile return to the Hilton. His accent was indescribable. He told us about serving in the army in WW II, being in Alaska at the time of his discharge, and being taken by limo to the airport to return home. On the New Orleans end of the trip the limo was for the white soldiers only.

I was only there 28 hours, and had only an hour and a half between the end of the conference and the shuttle taking me to the airport. I walked up Canal St. to Decatur, and into the French Quarter. Here was some of the real New Orleans, rather than the chain driven, sanitized business district down by the Hilton and other big hotels. It included strip clubs, bars, tacky stores of all sorts, and plenty of neon light about mardi gras, alligator tail, and jazz. But it also includes beautiful Jackson Square (with the colorful and slightly scary people that called to me from the benches, or tried to bet me six dollars to guess the city and state where I bought my shoes), the lovely wrought iron work, and flowers all over. I bought a French farm house cook book in a used bookstore on Decatur. I drank an absinthe (though it was 11:00 AM) in the Old Absinthe House on Bienville and Bourbon (very weird drink and strange preparation, with a sugar cube lit on fire, etc.). I walked some of Bourbon street and tried to imagine it crowded, at night, with a party atmosphere. It would not have been my kind of thing, and I enjoyed the quiet - but I sensed the depressing struggle to keep things open, the lack of patrons, the way the Quarter is gradually being taken over by boutique hotels, chains, and expensive clothing stores. I fear it may someday be just another ritzy shopping district, as the market area in Charleston is becoming, with some New Orleans flavor, but without the deep local personality that made The Big Easy special.

I flew away with a very complex mix of feelings. I had been turned off, pissed off, rained on, led on, over charged, over fed, alarmed, disarmed, charmed, and finally won over by this gumbo that is New Orleans. Things don't get thrown away in New Orleans; they get repaired over and over again because they're part of the story. The barge traffic on the river is exciting to see and lends some bustle. The accents, the creole French you can hear in the streets, and the sway of the ladies walking beneath the wrought iron or the palmettos all set your heart moving in a different way, a Louisianna way, that makes Jazz and Blues seem like natural outcomes. I had found myself walking back to the hotel whistling jazz improvisation to the beat of my footsteps. There is deep magic in New Orleans, in the air, the light, the water - but mostly, I think, in its people. Those people still struggling three years later to bring back what they love.


Pagan Sphinx said...

Wonderful post, Steve. Nice writing; great photos.

That dinner of turtle soup with oysters would have been just my thing. I love weird food that people cringe about. ;-)

Steve Emery said...

Pagan - I was sorry that I didn't get a chance to try gator tail. I'm with you on the weird food.

linda said...

steve, a very interesting post...thank you for your perspective on the enigma that is New Orleans...I do wonder it's fate in the future and hope to visit it someday, even if it is hit and miss....something about it I just need to see!

that bread pudding, my favorite dessert, sounds like a dream! Yum...

Steve Emery said...

Linda - Thanks for your comment. I hope you get to go, and that it's still there and maybe more like it used to be when you go.