The Big Easy – Feb. to March 2008

The Big Easy
I’d been wanting to come to New Orleans for years, and we were finally here! I was very excited. It had been somewhat of a detour off the path we cut across the South, and Stephane was a bit skeptical about taking the detour, but he soon became convinced that it was a good choice. New Orleans was awesome! It is definitely one of the world’s coolest cities, the kind that takes a hold of you and envelopes you within its folds and leaves an impression on you. It is meant to be experienced with all five senses, and between the outstanding food, the great people, and the music in the air all over town, we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our stay.

Of course, my two biggest reasons for coming to New Orleans (known also as “The Big Easy,” “The Crescent City,” and the “City of Jazz”) were to listen to music and to eat good Cajun cookin’. The city was an ideal place for both. The music never stops in New Orleans. It is a city of never-ending, constantly changing, improvising, and evolving music. It is the birthplace of jazz, the home of rhythm and blues, the crossroads of gospel, Cajun, and zydeco music.

But, before going on about New Orleans’ unparalleled music scene, maybe I should talk first about our arrival and initial experiences in New Orleans.

As we neared New Orleans, we biked past swamps and cypress trees, oil refineries, and of course, a lot of colorful Mardi Gras beads, which had lined every road in the state, all the way to the Big Easy. Traffic increased, and then finally we were in the city itself, past the Super Dome and into neighborhoods that had obviously been ravished by Hurricane Katrina. Many people still live in trailers in front of their homes, and entire blocks of homes are still uninhabited because people either have not moved back yet or have no intention of moving back. Many stores, homes, and restaurants are partially destroyed, completely destroyed, boarded up, or in piles of rubble. People are still living in tents under bridges. And all the locals are in agreement: “Everything’s different. New Orleans is not what it used to be.”

We rode into downtown New Orleans and then uptown from there, arriving eventually at a hostel called the Marquette International House. Once we checked in, we realized it was a mistake. It was more of a flophouse than a backpackers’ hostel. Almost everyone there was on hard drugs. Most of the people we met told us that all of the “guests” (who paid on a monthly basis) were crackheads, alcoholics, or a heroine addicts. Conversation and behavior with other guests at the hostel confirmed this. The room was littered in trash and the sink had sprouted a leak, causing the worn carpet to mildew. My roommate was out all night, walking the streets in order to earn enough money to buy heroine.

We checked out the next morning. This was not the kind of New Orleans experience we had been looking for. We heard of only one other hostel in New Orleans, and we were told it was also trashy. We didn’t even check it out, but decided to treat ourselves to two nights at a romantic hotel in the French Quarter. I had found a super weekday deal at the fancy Maison Dupuy Hotel. So we left our crackhouse hostel in the Garden District and biked towards the French Quarter, stopping along the way to buy a pair of pants and heels so that I could go out on the town in something other than my bike clothes.

We stopped at the Bridge House thrift shop and found a pair of pants, a belt, and two pairs of shoes – all for the grand total of $8. The Bridge House operated not only as a thrift store, but also as a drug and alcohol rehab center. It served free lunch and gave out free clothing to the homeless on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There was a line of people stretching around the building, and we were invited to join them for lunch. It was nice of them to offer, but we passed.

We continued on towards the Quarter and our hotel. It was the kind of hotel with valets and porters in red-breasted waistcoats and the kind of marble-fountained courtyard that is advertised for fancy hotels in “Travel and Leisure” magazine. And here we were, pulling up next to shiny and expensive cars on our beat-up bikes with old saddle bags. It was a striking contrast. But the elderly man who checked us in was very professional and never batted an eyelash. It was pretty funny, though: in the space of two hours, we had gone from a dirty crackhouse inhabited by addicts and prostitutes to waiting in line with the homeless at a thrift shop to checking in at the Maison Dupuy, one of the city’s most elegant hotels.

We only stayed two nights, as the rates then skyrocketed towards the heavens, but we afterwards found a decent room at an old orphanage. We were there for a couple of days, until Tanya, a street musician who played afternoons in front of the Café du Monde, invited us to stay at her house. We spent the last week of our stay in the City of Jazz with her.

We listened to music day and night in New Orleans. It is a city that lives and breathes music. From dance halls to clubs to cafes, restaurants, concert halls, the home, and even the street, music is come alive in New Orleans. It emanates from its very pores. As we were told more than once, “Everyone can play music!” The city’s children grow up under that influence and with that attitude. Entire families play together.

A great place to go to hear live music is the French Quarter. Street musicians play throughout the Quarter, proffering their hat and often CDs for passersby. We listened to many street musicians. Some played Eastern European Jewish music, lively music played by a guitarist and fiddler. Some groups included an accordion or harmonica. We listened to jazz band classics such as “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We sat on picnic benches outside of cafes to listen to everything from jazz to pop to zydeco. We enjoyed the performance of two swing dancers who joined a jazz band playing on Royal Street. Young black boys tap danced on streets around the Quarter. Musicians in ragtag clothing ride by on bikes with their guitar, violin, or accordion strapped to their back. The best street musicians that we saw were Tanya and Dorise, a “sister” team who play violin and guitar in front of the “Café du Monde” every afternoon. Almost every day, we made a special trip to listen to them play. Their music was so beautiful that it would transport you to a different world.

New Orleans, of course, is famous for its jazz funeral processions and its second-line parades. Traditionally, funerals are somber occasions until, on the way home from the church, a brass band erupts into celebratory music. The march home to the accompaniment of music was called “the second-line.” Today, there are second-line parades in town every Sunday, and sometimes even on Saturdays, without any need at all for a funeral. We even saw a wedding party parade down the street from the church to the reception hall to the sounds of a brass marching band.

Need more proof that New Orleans is a city of music? Well, we even heard a gospel choir singing at the post office!

And I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised to attend a jam session at a home. If you’re in New Orleans long enough, it’s bound to happen. The jam session we attended was at Charmaine Neville’s house during her “fish fry” (boy, can that woman ever cook!) The famous niece of Aaron Neville, Charmaine is the next-door neighbor of Dorise. A lively woman full of character with long, tressed hair down her back, she has been performing in New Orleans and around the world for a couple of decades and is a New Orleans institution. Charmaine is a woman who dances to the beat of her own drum. She regaled us with stories of her travels, of the hurricane, and of the time that Bill Clinton joined her on stage at the “Snug Harbor” jazz club (when she irreverently improvised a song about putting a “key in the wrong keyhole!”).

To get back to the jam session, there were about a dozen of us standing around her living room, and we were all given an instrument to play. Everyone there but Stephane and myself were professional musicians, either from New Orleans, New York, or L.A. But, as Dorise reminded us, “Everyone can play music!” There was no question about opting out. Everyone was given a different instrument. I had no clue what I was playing (some kind of percussion instrument) and Stephane was given the cowbells. The music started, and everyone joined in: piano, trumpet, string bass, guitar, cowbell, violin, singing…. It was all improvised and it all somehow seemed to work out. It was a blast!

Stephane had such a good time that Dorise lent him one of her guitars for the week and when we went back to Tanya’s place, she wrote out Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for him to learn. He was good, too!

Of course, a visit to New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without visiting one of its many bars, clubs, or music halls to listen to live local music. And what better place to start out than Bourbon Street? It is the French Quarter’s most famous nighttime row, and perhaps one of America’s most famous streets. It has a lively and eclectic mix of jazz, blues, and rock music clubs, daiquiri bars and gay bars, tourist shops, restaurants, and so-called “gentlemen’s clubs.”

Men with picket signs sell “Big Ass Beers” and people slurp down New Orleans’ famous signature drink, the Hurricane. Regardless of the time of year, crowds on second- and third-story balconies indulge the illusion of a year-round Mardi Gras by throwing beads and other trinkets to expectant crowds on the streets below.

New Orleans is a city for celebrating, and the reasons are numerous. Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival are just two of the biggest festivals. But there are many others, including the much looked forward to St. Patty’s Day celebration that was fast approaching when we were in the city. Every group of immigrants had their own celebrations. We saw the St. Michael’s Day procession, an annual Italian event, pass by on Bourbon Street. It was complete with huge floats, misses, cheerleaders, and miniature cars driven by men who threw beads to the crowd and handed out flowers to the women.

And, of course, we joined the never-ending party on Bourbon Street, where neighboring bars vie with each other to see who can break the sound barrier first. We listened to traditional jazz band music, and danced to pop and rock bands, blues bands, and zydeco bands. But our favorite band was Big Al Carson and the Blues Masters, who play five times a week at the Funky Pirate bar. Weighing in at 550 lbs., Big Al and his band put on quite a show. Big Al sure does know how to work the crowd. He teased with the audience and yelled at those who talked to friends or on their cell phone (“Stop talking! I’m up here singing! Pay attention!”). He smiled coyly and flirted with the pretty ladies, always getting one to carry his tip bucket around the room (“Come on, people, show some love!”).

And he wasn’t shy about talking about his weight. He had the crowd in stitches with his “Built for Comfort” song:
You ain’t never rode an ocean/ You ain’t never rode the sea/ Til you rode a wave on me!
As the song went on, he caressed his thighs and winked suggestively at the ladies, and the crowd went wild!

Of course, New Orleans being New Orleans, there is music all over the city, not just on Bourbon Street. Other good places to go for live music is Decatur Street and Frenchmen Street, in the Faubourg Marigny quarter. One of our favorite bars was “The Spotted Cat,” which had great blues and jazz bands and crowds that would sometimes swing dance to the rhythm of the guitar, bass, washboard, and harmonica.

Another favorite was the “Snug Harbor,” which is the city’s upscale jazz club, the place to go for guaranteed good music. Tanya and Dorise first took us when they were guest performers for Topsy Chapman. Guest performing basically meant that the lead act would invite you onto stage to perform with the band. You didn’t even necessarily know the key or the song itself in order to play along – it was all improvised! We afterwards went to see Charmaine Neville, who invited us to her show. Hoo boy, was she ever entertaining!

Of course, the second reason I had been dying to come to New Orleans was for the food. We had been saving to splurge on the food in New Orleans, and it was worth every penny! We went to “K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen,” birthplace of the blackening cooking technique. This is chef Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant. If you have Creole or Cajun seasoning in your cupboard, it most likely has his name on it. The food was sublime: think andouille-encrusted redfish with glazed pecans and veal with a shrimp sauce.

We went to an old-time oyster bar to sample raw oysters and blackened oysters. We tasted gumbo, shrimp etouffee, red beans and rice, jambalaya, bread pudding, and oyster po-boys, those famous New Orleans’ sandwiches on baguettes. We sipped hot chocolate and savored French powdered beignets at the famous Café du Monde while listening to Tanya and Dorise play their sweet music. I’m not alone in thinking that New Orleans has the country’s best food. “Bon Appetit” recently named the city as “One of America’s Top 5 Restaurant Cities.”

Nouvelle Orleans was started as a French outpost in 1718 and early settlers arrived from France, Germany, and Acadia, while slaves were brought in from Africa or the West Indies. Ex-convicts from France also arrived on ships. Many slaves earned their freedom and assumed places in the Creole community. In 1762, all of Louisiana was transferred to the Spanish, who were responsible for building the French Quarter as it looks today (the French buildings – all but one – burned down in a fire). The French resumed control of Louisiana in 1803, only 20 days before Napoleon sold it to the United States. Once Andrew Jackson beat the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, businessmen from the East Coast deemed it a safe investment, and Anglos flooded into the city, building the Central Business District, the Garden District, and Uptown. New Orleans is known as the “Crescent City” because of its shape bordering the twisting Mississippi River. All of its early development was on the “Sliver by the River” because it was built on the area’s highest ground (and it is this area that was saved from the flooding during Hurrican Katrina).

The Crescent City has more National Historic Landmarks than any other city in the U.S. Many people say that New Orleans is like a European city in its culture and architecture, and this can be seen in its outdoor cafes, street musicians, and Spanish architecture in the old French Quarter (although the signature iron latticework comes from Philadelphia).

The city is wedged between Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south. The historic and most-visited French Quarter consists of eighty blocks around Jackson Square. Canal Street, a long line of stores, restaurants, and hotels, separates the Quarter from the Central Business District. Across Rampart Street from the French Quarter is the Treme District, a predominantly black residential neighborhood. It is known for its jazz funeral processions and its St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which is the city’s oldest cemetery. The remains of Marie LeVeau, New Orleans’ most famous 19th century voodoo queen, are in the cemetery.

After the Louisiana Purchase, many former plantation lands were divided, starting in the Lower Garden District and extending uptown following the steam railway on St. Charles Ave. Uptown has amazing architectural gems, including beautiful Queen Anne Revival mansions, ornate churches and synagogues, and quaint B&Bs. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar, once closed after the hurricane, is now reopened on this portion of the line. Mardi Gras bead necklaces, as in other parts of town, hang from balconies and tree branches.

Next to Uptown and still along St. Charles Avenue is the Garden District, the second-largest historic district in the country. The many elegant and stately pastel mansions in this neighborhood are gorgeous, surrounded by live oaks and palms and fronted by lush lawns and flower gardens. Most houses have balconies, tall columns, 1½-story floors, latticed fences, lawns bordered by wrought-iron fences, and steps leading to the first floor. Many houses have such charming features as castle-shaped towers or domes. The hand-forged iron balconies were made from designs mail-ordered from Philadelphia from the 1850s onward.

There are other neighborhoods, but the historic French Quarter is what New Orleans is known for – perhaps mostly for its party scene on world-famous Bourbon Street. But there is much more to it than that. The entire Quarter is a National Historic District, and the residential area of the lower Quarter has brightly-colored rows of shops and beautiful homes with lacy ironwork balconies covered in flowerpots.

Much of the Quarter’s elegant architecture comes from the Spanish, who built the Cabildo government buildings surrounding Jackson Square, which is the heart and focal point of the Quarter. On the Square, street musicians perform, artists display their work, and voodoo practitioners and tarot-card readers predict luck and fortunes. Antique shops and galleries line Royal Street. The avenues leading up to the Square are filled with restaurants, bars, and shops, selling mostly Mardi Gras masks and beads, pralines and “Slap Yo Mama” tobasco hot sauce, voodoo dolls and preserved alligator heads, statues of jazz musicians and paintings of New Orleans, postcards and shot glasses, and pirate-themed souvenirs. Men in 19th-century costume and top hats drive tourists around the Quarter in horse-drawn carriages.

At the end of these rows of shops and alongside the riverwalk (an outdoor walkway where we watched the paddlewheelers and steamboats ply the Mississippi) is the French Market, whose buildings are distinguished by graceful arcades and stately colonnades. Part of New Orleans for more than 190 years, the French Market is anchored at its downriver end by the Farmer’s Market, which is a series of long, open sheds filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. Bistros, restaurants, and cafes are located in the Market, and a live band often plays to an appreciative clientele.

Downriver from the French Quarter is the creative enclave of Faubourg Marigny, an artsy neighborhood filled with flowered balconies, many-colored shotgun houses, and flags featuring the fleur-de-lys emblem.

New Orleans is one of the world’s greatest cities, ranking right up there with Istanbul, New York, Paris, and London. It has diversity and a population that hails from all over the globe. To compare the people of New Orleans to the ingredients of a gumbo may be a cliché, but it is very fitting. In addition to its cultural diversity, New Orleans has the best food and music in the country, hands down. It is the birthplace of jazz, considered America’s one true art form. Even better, it is the home of the blues. It is a port city, and its river is a definite plus in my book. To add to its charm, the Crescent City has a street car, wrought-iron balconies and bead necklaces, street musicians, and flavorful food. Even with its poverty, homelessness, crime rate, and drugs, New Orleans has great people, a great vibe, and a laidback feel. Definitely a cool place to be….