America at Last – Part 14
By Parson Thru
The Frenchmen Hotel was a little up-market by our standards, but we had picked up an on-line bargain. Anyway, we were due a treat. Even on the tightest budget, you need to treat yourself once. It was located at the end of Frenchmen Street – the river end, close to the wharf. Heeding the warnings about street-crime, we’d looked for something in the French Quarter, not too far from Bourbon Street. A couple of blocks in the other direction was what looked like a housing project. Not a good place to wander into at night lost.
The hotel had the look of an old French colonial building – clapboard-built and painted in something pretty close to pink. The reception block gave way to a small patio area with swimming-pool and Jacuzzi that was overlooked by two floors of drunken balconies with rooms leading-off. We hauled our bags up to the second floor and along narrow undulating boards to the furthest end. Our room was last-but-one and was sumptuous, if a little tight. A large double-bed filled it. We dropped our dusty cases and dived on the mattress.
Pretty soon we were wandering along Frenchmen Street. I recently read New Orleans described as a museum – Burroughs, I think. To me, the French Quarter felt like a district in an Indian town, or maybe somewhere in the south of Hungary. Ancient transformers buzzed out their 60 cycle hum from the power lines above the pavement. The roads were narrow and dimly-lit and car headlights emerged from under trees growing in the road divider.
We passed music bars and wholefood shops next-door to chic cafes and restaurants. Life along the sidewalks and porches was youthful and Bohemian, and spilled into the narrow side-streets. We were hungry and it was time to eat, but some of the restaurants looked expensive and we didn’t want to blow the budget on one meal.
We eventually settled on a small place on a street corner that was advertising local cuisine. Once inside, the atmosphere was none too relaxed and we felt decidedly under-dressed. The room held around a dozen small round tables, each covered with a starched white table-cloth. A waiter led us to an place in the middle of the room. He could have been working the tables of a Parisian restaurant.
Earlier, on the bus, Jude had recommended ettoufé. Our memories were failing with tiredness and I flicked through my notebook to find where I had scribbled the word down. Natasha ordered a crawfish ettoufé. I just had to try a jambalaya while I was in town.
Our fellow diners would never struggle to pay their bill, while for us this was pushing the boat out a little. The food was ok. What more can I say? It wasn’t the best we’d eaten. We finished the night off in a bar around the corner watching an acoustic open mic night. It wasn’t a bad way to end the day, but where was all the jazz and Cajun?
We woke Tuesday morning in our cotton-wool nest to the intrusive sound of air-conditioning fans. But the sun sent a bright invitation through the curtains and we grabbed our remaining clean clothes and headed down for breakfast. The hotel felt less formal in the morning – somewhere between Hilton and backpacker – certainly a cut above the motels and hostels we’d used so far.
The obligatory breakfast-room TV rolled through images of flooded towns and farms. The Army Corps of Engineers are charged with managing flooding countermeasures – hence the military vehicles we had seen near Vicksburg – the civil authorities making the hard decisions. The water was still rising rapidly and the debate was all about which flood-ways should be opened to protect the cities.
Each decision means farms, homes and businesses somewhere get flooded – a heavy responsibility. It looked like President Obama might fly down to take a look for himself and avoid Bush’s mistake of appearing aloof during the aftermath of Katrina. Vicksburg was now badly flooded downtown – looking much worse than just the day before when we passed through.
We finished up with coffee and took a walk outside. Igor’s Checkpoint Charlie bar just around the corner from the hotel had a launderette inside. How cool! We shot back to the hotel for our laundry. Inside Igor’s, the bar was open and the tables had ashtrays.
Our dirty clothes were bundled into two machines as we struggled to work out the quarters and dimes situation. Once the machines were rumbling we ordered a couple of beers and kicked back in the bar for a while. After all, this is the Big Easy. It was just before 10 a.m.
Later, we wandered up and down Frenchmen Street and the small streets off. The buildings were just as we pictured them, in that Louisiana style with ironwork balconies. Outside one of them was a huge 1960s Chevy Bel Air in matt black with a silver roof. That car would become an icon over the next few days.
We wandered past the shot-gun houses – a New Orleans speciality – so-called because if you pulled open the front door, you could hit someone with a shotgun as they ran out back. We headed into town along Decatur Street and cut down to walk through the French Market, with its stalls and eateries, and then out along the big wide Mississippi.
As we walked along the river, we became aware of the sound of a steam organ, like the ones you hear at old fairgrounds and steam rallies in the UK. All we could see was the riverboat “Natchez” moored alongside the jetty. Soon, we could make out small plumes of white steam shooting up into the cloudless sky in time with the music.
When we drew near we could see a woman sitting at the roof organ producing Huckleberry Finn era riverboat music. The ghostly sound floated above the river and drifted across the city in the wind, doing just what was intended back in Mark Twain’s day. We bought tickets for the afternoon sailing.
The “Natchez” wasn’t as old as she looked, being built around forty years ago. But the two steam engines that power the huge sternwheel came out of a much older boat and are relics of the heyday of the Mississippi riverboat.
We found a table high on a sundeck and were glad of the breeze as she swung away from the jetty and out into the river – the temperature was touching 91° F. Just alongside, the small Algiers ferry was slewing across the flow carrying traffic from Canal Street underneath the great girder bridge.
“Natchez” slotted herself into the shipping lane and rode the swollen current down past the 9th Ward, badly flooded by Katrina. The river appeared to be almost brimming the levee, which stood at roof-height to the residential streets below. It seemed a precarious existence even without all this extra water.
Great ocean-going cargo ships were plying up and down, guided by local pilots who took them sideways through the tight bend known as Algiers. One mistake could cause a collision with the levee – right now, even their wake was a risk. We continued downstream past two huge US Navy supply ships lying at anchor, then swung around into the stream to head back. Looking over the side we could see whirlpools reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.
At the bar, the local speciality Bloody Mary was being concocted. A Bloody Mary is essentially tomato juice, of course. I have a strange relationship with tomatoes. If I eat them, I am sick – except for those in tomato sauce, salsa, pizza purée and a couple of other odds and sods.
So I thought it was worth chancing my arm to try a traditional Bloody Mary on a traditional Mississippi riverboat. I have to say, I wasn’t keen on the taste, but I drank a fair bit down in the spirit of adventure, before throwing the plastic glass in a bin. Why do I never learn?