America at Last – Part 15
By Parson Thru
New Orleans – Tuesday Afternoon
In the hot Louisiana afternoon we wandered sweltering streets looking for food. We found it in Central Grocery, an Italian delicatessen and home of the Muffuletta – a sandwich upon which the guide-book and the shop’s owners confer legendary status. It’s a huge focaccia stuffed with ham, salami, pepperoni, Swiss cheese and olive salad. For dessert, we bought a beignet – the origin of all the world’s donuts.
Chilling on a park bench in Jackson Square we made the acquaintance of Roberto, who looked like a hobo, but was really an Italian footballer in the 1970 World Cup. He never told us the story of how he’d fallen on hard times. I kept expecting him to ask for a bite of my Muffuletta. He must have had the brush-off a few times and gave us his surname so we could Google him when we got home. I scribbled it onto the edge of a street map and eventually dug it out and searched for him, my hopes high that he was genuine.
Needless to say…
His name escapes me now.
That evening, we had our first sortie into Bourbon Street, cutting across from Decatur, along St. Philip Street. We weren’t sure we’d found it at first as the eastern end, close to Esplanade Avenue, is quiet and residential – very different to what we imagined. It runs roughly north-east to south-west a few blocks in from the Mississippi. Turning left, the pretty iron-decorated buildings soon give way to tourist hotels, shops and bars. A few blocks further and you are into the pulsating doorways of the sex joints, past which amused tourists wander pointing cameras and ignoring the touts. The sex-trade may not be pretty, but it’s always been the honey in the pot.
At its western end, Bourbon Street opens onto the wide modern avenue of Canal Street, plied by ancient red trolleys and shaded by trees. There wasn’t much to sell Canal Street after the sensory overload of Bourbon and we soon turned around and headed back, falling into a couple of bars to try out the Hand Grenade, Hurricane and Tropical Itch cocktails. Just the colour of them is scary – churning away in Slush-Puppy machines behind the counter. They are served frozen, sickly-sweet in long plastic beakers shaped like children's bath-toys.
It was still early on a Tuesday evening and the bars were pretty tame. Maybe everything was kicking back a little after the week-long Jazz Festival. We meandered between bars back towards the hotel – my guts were beginning to react to the Bloody Mary I’d drunk on the “Natchez” at lunch-time.
Just off Decatur Street we heard the sound of horns playing. It was a crazy brass band playing the wildest tunes, all funked up with zest and humour – the focal point was an enormous battered Sousaphone. We’d seen something similar at Glastonbury Festival’s Standing Stones the year before – maybe six horn-players playing their hearts out in the centre of an ecstatic mob. The bar was packed to the rafters and Natasha was desperate to go in, but my guts were seriously troubled, so we sat at a table outside and ordered a drink. Inside, the energy didn’t let up. If only we could have stayed. Within half an hour we were walking briskly back to the Frenchmen Hotel.
We chilled out around the hotel pool well into the evening, until hunger had us back on Bourbon Street looking for something to eat. We eventually walked into a bland but functional burger joint off Canal Street, where Natasha realised she’d lost her purse. We retraced our steps. Things were a little strained. As we passed the bar on Decatur Street where we’d heard the band, we checked under the tables where people were sitting drinking. It was the longest of shots, but there it was on the floor – cash and credit cards still inside. A miracle!
When we got back to the burger restaurant, it was getting late. A Rumanian girl served us and we got into a conversation. She told us she was travelling in the States and was looking to settle. We compared notes for a while in between her working the tables. Soon, we headed back east along Chartres Street. At around 1 a.m. we bumped into a lady by the name of Doreen. All the guides tell you to stick to the main thoroughfares and avoid the side-streets. New Orleans has a bad reputation for sticky ends.
Doreen was swinging along, having fun in her own way and crossed the street to talk to us. She offered Natasha a plastic voodoo necklace for two dollars. It looked like it had been picked up from the floor during the Jazz Festival – the small white skull all the more disturbing for its patina. Natasha gave her the two dollars. She asked our names.
“Kevin? Hey, my old man’s brother’s called Kevin. How about that?”
She called down the street and a man wandered out of the shadows carrying a large glass bottle he’d found. He sauntered up smiling and introduced himself as George. We shook hands. We strolled along chatting and giggling over nothing much. They told us Katrina had taken their livelihood and their home – they lost everything in the flood. They weren’t insured. George told us they were hoping to find work and save for a deposit for another place. The bottle was for collecting quarters. I dropped the first one in to get him started. Doreen told us she had developed a drink problem and was trying to get help.
They were just ordinary folks down on their luck and a bit lost. Sometimes it surprises me how the similarities outweigh the differences, no matter where you go. Why should I be surprised? We went our separate ways at an iron-balconied street corner and they wandered off into the night. I smiled as we passed the matt black Chevy.
Wednesday morning I woke still feeling delicate. We spent some time in the French Market and got talking to a pastor poet who was selling his thoughts as bookmarks. He was a spirited and genuinely nice man. His bookmark is saving a place somewhere on our bookshelf. We browsed through two busy halls of local produce and artisan stalls. At one point we stopped and watched a Chinese man with a long black pony-tail as he platted survivor bracelets – “for when you need to survive”. After a few passes I bought one because I liked the bright colours.
We sat at a cafe, where Natasha tried a shrimp Po Boy sandwich and alligator-on-a-stick while I looked on and eyed a Ford Mustang out in the sun. It was blue with a racy white stripe over the bonnet and roof – probably around a ’68 to ’72 model. I wished it were ours.
We needed to head back over to the bus station for tickets, so waited for the trolley into town on a piece of waste-ground by the river. We sat looking down the track for the tell-tale single headlight – and we waited. It was after lunch, the sun was high and the temperature was well into the 90s. Soon there was nothing for it – we set off to walk in the mid-day sun. Mad dogs and Englishmen – how many times have we done this?
We walked a mile or so along the river and turned up into town along Canal Street. The city has its own signature skyline with the cruciform tower of the World Trade Center prominent from the river. We carried on through the wide-open streets of the commercial district and stumbled, panting, into a small newsagent to buy bottled water. Thankfully there was a bus stop to the station right across the road. Twenty minutes later, we decided to walk it.
Bus stations and Greyhound offices were taking on a familiar look. We bought our tickets in the terminal and headed back over to a shopping complex by the river to escape the heat for a while. The Riverwalk Marketplace is a modern mall upstream of the jetty and Woldenberg Park. There are three floors of souvenir shops and fast-food restaurants but as we walked through it was empty. We soon realised that the upstream end of the mall butted against the port where cruise ships come alongside. This is the route in and out of New Orleans for their passengers.
We wandered among the shops and looked in at the cafes, then headed back out along the Mississippi in the direction of the “Natchez”. There, we sat and watched the river traffic for a while as a Stars ‘n’ Stripes-clad Union Pacific freight throbbed past on the tracks behind us – right through the park and the busy streets.
In the evening, we finally found some jazz in a small patio off Bourbon Street. Bronze statues of 20th Century jazz greats were planted as signposts to the city’s heritage. We chilled over a mojito or two in the softly-lit open space as night fell. It struck me that there was something a little hyper-real about the whole thing. Like a ‘50s diner in a ‘90s mall. It was a shame we didn’t see more “real”, “organic” performances like the brass-band the night before. Shame we missed the Jazz Festival by a week – but we weren’t aware of it until we arrived, and probably wouldn’t have got a room anywhere in the city.
That night, I lay awake enjoying a few last hours of luxury in our hotel bed and listening to the sirens of the big freighters plying the Mississippi a few hundred yards away. They were almost indistinguishable from those of the freight trains pushing through the streets. It seemed like they were calling us on to the next town.