I set out for New Orleans on Monday afternoon, figuring to drive until I got tired of driving and roll into NOLA sometime Tuesday morning. In practical terms, this meant getting as far as Houston and then becoming bogged down in the hugest rush hour traffic jam this side of L.A.
After losing several rounds of “throw the lit cigarette into the neighboring semi’s gas tank”, I finally made it past the Houston IKEA and drove on through such princely realms as Orange and Vidor (Texas headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan) to spend the night in beautiful Beaumont. Beaumont, for those of you not familiar with southeast Texas, is a world-renowned shithole, noteworthy for its lack of things to do, horrible odor, and how the hotels are really expensive even though they suck.
But later for that: it’s just a quick shot across the border into lovely Louisiana, where the constant tropical storms make for gorgeous, lush greenery, the natives are friendly and cordial, the food is incredible (seriously, at one point I bought a piece of fried fish with hot sauce at a goddamn gas station, and the shit was ambrosial), and the alligators are always ready to dispose of evidence for you. Aside from one quite pleasant sunshower, the weather was good all the way in, and I finally hit New Orleans around 2PM Tuesday.
My hotel was the Hampton Inn in the CBD (Central Business District). Hampton Inns are iffy; when they’re outliers, they tend to be boring and super-generic. But this one was amazing: located in a beautiful old building (designed by Daniel Burnham, a great architect from my beloved Chicago), with ancient but well-maintained elevators and adjacent one of NOLA’s tallest skyscrapers, with tons of restaurants and services. The staff was really accommodating, the rooms were gigantic (I was on the 12th floor, with a breathtaking view of the French Quarter), and because I was there in the off season, it cost next to nothing. Of course, all the savings I realized from that, I immediately blew when I discovered there was a Joseph A. Bank right downstairs; I immediately cashed out my 401(k) and bought a snazzy new traveler’s suit. Which, naturally, I did not wear the entire time I was there.
I hooked up later on with my friend mannningkrull and his girl Marjorie. I spent most of the week drunk or unconscious or both, so forgive me if the chronology on this is screwed up, but here are some things that we did.
- Ate at a French Quarter restaurant where Manning visibly envied a seven-year-old kid’s jester hat.
- Ate lunch at a small café where the waitress, an extremely helpful if slightly overenthusiastic Boston transplant, warned us about visiting cemeteries, because local criminals sometimes lurk on top of tombs and leap down to attack tourists. I think she was confusing them with Batman.
- Speaking of cemeteries, we went to a lot of them, sometimes in the company of the redoubtable Kevin O’Mara, and sometimes not. At one of them, we actually went up on the top of a tomb, but instead of finding murderous criminals, we found an abandoned corkscrew and a leftover packet of salad dressing.
- At another cemetery – the one where we saw the grave of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, around which people had inexplicably left their hotel room keys – I spotted a huge 4x6 tomb cap which had been taken off for repairs. I dared Manning, who is roughly eighty times more fit than I am, to lift it, which he could not. I then gave it a try myself, despite the absence of any attractive single women, and got it about waist-high before I literally heard the tendons in my left elbow ripping to pieces like so much shredded wheat.
- Another thing is that Manning is really good at spotting tombs that have embarrassing surnames on them. To extend the sixth-grade fun, I forced him to explain concepts like the Dirty Sanchez and the Donkey Punch to Marjorie. In French.
- I went to this museum, which was off the fucking chain.
- Among our many wanderings in the French Quarter, we found: a rock and roll shop, which was awesome (and had a kid’s annex), but was yet another cause for me to complain about how it’s hard to find metal clothes for fat guys, even though fat guys comprise more than half the audience for metal; a little breakfast joint where we ate delicious pancakes alongside a crazy man writing impenetrable notes in black ink in his ancient Mead spiral-bound and a family of douchebags (featuring a 6-year-old with a bro-hawk, and his dad, who was wearing a Budweiser t-shirt and mirrored Oakley shades indoors at 8AM); a dippy goth “vampyre” shop; and a store that sold miniature military figurines, but also had in its display window a bunch of miniatures of the Famous Monsters of Filmland!
- Patrick took us for a drive through the upper and lower 9th Ward, the areas hardest hit by Katrina. Much of the upper 9th is looking fairly good -- for better or worse, a lot of the reconstruction has been finished there and while a few gutted houses are still around, it looks like most of the rebuilding has come and gone. It's the lower 9th that still looks like somewhere that a disaster happened. A lot of the roads are in terrible disrepair, and still flood out with a strong rain; some of the houses are disasters (we saw one that had this heartbreaking graffito on the side that said "THIS WAS HOME"), but the creepiest thing is how few houses there actually are. Tons of the abandoned or unsalvageable houses have been bulldozed and the wreckage cleared away, so you have vast stretches where there's three to five empty lots for every house that's new or still standing -- it actually looks more like the country than a neighborhood in the middle of a city. A lot of the restored houses still have the FEMA crosses on the front, either as a sentimental/memorial gesture or a warning in case it happens again, I suppose. Once you cross the river, there's hardly any businesses at all; in the empty lots, there's tons of greenery, and nature has taken over with great speed. We saw a few churches and community centers doing business under big tent-style tarps instead of in buildings. Manning says it reminds him of post-war Sarajevo.
- This happened right around the corner from my hotel. We got to see them lowering the car down via giant crane. It was fucking surreal.
- Kevin took us (twice – and I would have gone a dozen more times) to this bar called Cure. Their house cocktails were astonishing, and they’d make these incredible originals based on your basic ingredient; they also had a kid in from San Francisco doing a kind of residency who was making drinks as good as any as I’ve crammed down my booze chute. I was seriously thinking about getting an apartment near this joint.
I headed back on Friday (and did the drive straight, farmer tan be damned, lest I risk spending another night in Beaumont), but it was with a lot of reluctance – it was great to see Manning and Marjorie, two of my favorite mortal humans, again; I enjoyed meeting Patrick, Kevin, and his wife; and NOLA is a fantastic town, and one with a real sense of community and diversity, even after the hell they’ve been through lately. It’s easy to get cynical about the state of the American city, and to be sure there’s probably lots of ugly I didn’t see, but just the desire to make the place alive and lively – you could feel it, and that’s worth a lot. (Sorry no pictures; my camera got some kind of gunk on it and wouldn’t work. I’m trying to get it fixed, though, and I’m sure Manning will post some fotos eventually.)