Friday, June 27, 2008

New Orleans and the boy who has seen it all

The boy with the ball stopped and looked up. Looked me over. Looked us over.

He was playing in the front yard with two or three buddies when we rolled up, all diesel and air brakes, in a tour bus. My fellow columnists and I were having a look at the post-Hurricane-Katrina-flooded parish called St. Bernard, where maybe one out of 20 houses is occupied, even now. The boy's house was one, and he was doing what boys do, tossing the ball around on a sticky June Saturday between thunderstorms, except he was doing it in a ghost town.

Mayberry R.I.P.

I recently joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for its annual conference in New Orleans, in an effort to give support to a city which still needs it badly. Nearly three years after "the storm," as locals call it, downtown and the French Quarter look normal, and tourists like us have come back in force, but get out of town a couple of miles and the storybook ending has waterlogged pages. Where one house still stands, 10 others are just cement slabs. Where one house is occupied, 10 more squat abandoned, untended weeds and bushes leaning to the windows like nosy neighbors.

The weekend was an exercise in jarring contrasts. We began it in style, dining at Brennan's in the French Quarter, the kind of place where they give you six utensils. (I have never been able to find a use for two spoons except to play them on my thighs). The meal was capped by their famous, flaming Bananas Foster. Suddenly cameras were everywhere. You would have thought that a bunch of jaded columnists would have seen fruit on fire before.

It did not appear so.

Local journalists who covered the hurricane told us their stories, and we were rendered speechless by a montage of Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson's pictures of that day. But our visit was not all grim remembrance. Later we were also led through the streets by a jazz band while playing our own kazoos, after which, returning to solemnity, a man from the city's aquarium told us how 5000 of their animals died after Katrina when the power failed and employees had to evacuate. That's the kind of weekend we had. Tragedy, comedy, repeat. (Probably not a bad description of New Orleans history itself).

But he also let us pet a penguin. Rubbing the penguin was even more popular than the flaming bananas, and led to many "penguin rubber" jokes, the best of which ended with the punch line, "But I couldn't convince it to wear one."

We toured the devastated areas, which are still only sparsely populated. Each place we visited, we heard how the government had failed to respond to the disaster adequately, is still failing, but how people from all over the world, volunteers, have come in droves to lend a hand in rebuilding, how total strangers have restored Louisianans' faith in people.

My mind kept going back to the boy with the ball, though. What intrigued me most was his lack of surprise, like a tour bus coming past his house was nothing big. He just watched us like I would watch a blue jay. Like he had seen it all. Hurricanes, evacuations, floods, abandonment. Like nothing could surprise him any more. Like whatever came, he would take it. Like he was lucky, even.

Then I realized why. Unlike so many others, so many tens of thousands of others, he was home.

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See Ted Jackson's hurricane photos from the Times-Picayune (click the "next" arrow after each one).

Read my fellow columnists' many different perspectives on the New Orleans trip. (On the home page, scroll down to "Blogs and news articles about New Orleans").

For more stories from my trip I could not fit in this column, and my own pictures, click here. (After you click "here," you will need to scroll down past this column).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Po'boys and Segways and lairs, oh my!

I have lived all my life within 40 miles of Los Angeles, which is so wide and flat and vast in scope, it's hard to catch details driving around, as we do, with our windows rolled up. So New Orleans on foot was like a dose of chickory-scented smelling salts to my under-nourished photographer's eye. Ouch, or fill in a worse metaphor, if you possibly can, and I would bet serious bank you can't.

Stand on any corner in the French Quarter, look up, and this picture is the kind of thing you see. (Click it to enlarge it).

Even though, in June, Mardi Gras seems like ancient history, there are reminders everywhere. Beads hang year-round from trees like some kind of gleaming, local fruit; on balconies, from street signs. The party is never quite gone from view.

I thought this balcony was unusually pretty, be-ferned and whimsical. Notice the cutout of the cat in the center. In L.A., we would probably expect that some graphic artist or hipster lives here, but I bet this is the home of a banker or insurance salesman. In the French Quarter, the scene above is just baseline, run of the mill ornamentation.

"Segway Tours!" the poster on Decatur St. cries. "Ride the future in America's most historic city!" And a few blocks away, there they were, right in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Two tourists dutifully listening to their tour guide, who had a tattoo of something huge, maybe a Segway, on her shoulder. I didn't hear much of her tour guiding, and I'm not sure how lengthy her training period was, but I definitely heard the guide pronounce the name of the famous local 19th Century pirate Jean Lafitte as "Gene" Lafitte. Like he was from Jersey or something.

But who cares? You're on a freakin' SEGWAY!

Having sampled the beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, having eaten at famous local restaurants like Brennan's and Dooky Chase, and having strolled about 30 blocks of the French Quarter, many of them on purpose, the last item on my New Orleans checklist was to eat a genuine po'boy.

So on my last day in town, after sampling the 1000% humidity of the French Market to see if my pores could be more open (no), I stopped at a corner restaurant on Decatur St. and ordered one up. I didn't want a seafood one, and I fought back the urge to get a sausage po'boy, because, well, I had eaten pretty richly for four days and, well, I had to get on a plane soon. You-know-what-I'm-saying? So I ordered a roast beef po'boy.

My waitress, who was about 25, looked like some slim kind of mildly exotic racial blend, and kept calling me "babe," shot this blurry picture of me with my bounty. Well, she was busy. I don't know what expression I was going for, probably food lust, but it came out as...what? Indigestion? Oh well, it's my po'boy on the official record, anyway. On the plate you can see the open-faced pile of beef on that sucker. I ate it all. The beef was fine, but the French bread it came on was poetry. Light, chewy and crunchy at the same time. Po'etry.

Before checking out of my hotel, I wandered in and out of the tourist lairs looking for souvenirs for my family. I passed on buying one of the seemingly thousands of actual little alligator heads that every shop sells, their jaws frozen open in a menacing snarl. Clearly they are not endangered, although I began to think that New Orleans' charm was.


New Orleans, if it has anything, or will ever have anything, it is charm. There hasn't been a hurricane made that could wipe that off the map for long. And it's not just the French Quarter, with its wrought iron balconies, horse-drawn carriages, and antique buildings. It's the feel of the place, this intangible thing, like something that has survived 200 years and will survive whatever comes, with style.

After taking my picture, my waitress asked where I was from, and I told her L.A. She looked unimpressed, and said she had never been there, said she had lived all her life in New Orleans, and she loved it. I told her that even visiting for one weekend I could tell the place had soul. Not something you get a lot of in L.A., except in flashes. She nodded like I turned out to be smarter than I looked. "I wouldn't live anywhere else," she smiled, and then she turned and left me to my po'boy. I left her a nice tip. Call it Hurricane Relief.

It was time to head home and write up my trip column for the newspaper. I'm also going to go add "The Big Easy" to my Netflix queue, so I can mock it like a local.

Some things rub off, cher.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dooky Chase and my artistic impulse

One of the highlights of my trip to New Orleans was when the columnists from NSNC and I stepped in from the steamy rain for a lunch at Dooky Chase, a famous old restaurant renowned for the Creole cuisine of 85 year old owner Leah Chase. Ms. Chase, in fact, visited us in her trademark fuschia chef's coat and thanked us for supporting the city with our visit. The restaurant had been flooded out and closed for a couple of years. She apparently lived in a FEMA trailer next door during the rehab. Ms. Chase has long been a supporter of African-American artists, and their art is what you see on the walls in the picture below. A couple of local Habitat For Humanity leaders stopped in as well, to update us on their rebuilding efforts in the area.

We feasted on crawfish etouffee over rice, greens, barbecue chicken, and the best taste I had all weekend—gumbo. Shrimp and sausage in a dark, spicy roux. My wife will laugh at this, because I am not even remotely an adventurous eater, nor much of a seafood fan, but this had about as much to do with seafood as the Lakers have to do with the ability to close. This was culinary witchcraft. My only complaint was the conservative size of the bowl.

With my belly full of Creole inspiration, and the rain past, I set out in the French Quarter with my camera to capture some of New Orleans' unsung beauties.

These hitching posts still adorn many sidewalks in New Orleans, although whether they truly go back to when horses and carriages ruled the streets, or are just for show, I don't know. Most of them are black, but a few had a nice, historied patina like this. Click to enlarge the picture.

The poster below was one of hundreds stuck to a bulletin board on Decatur St., the touristy strip along the riverfront. I like the way the yellow and black contrasts with the green of the wood, and I love the generations of rusted staples from concerts long ago forgotten.

I like to picture a guy hitting on a girl somewhere on Bourbon St.: "Ooh," the girl says. "You're in a band? Which one?" "I play bass for 'Frightened Rabbit,'" the guy says, followed by the girl's raucous laughter and a hair-flip dismissal.

The blues are tinged with gold

As part of NSNC's visit to New Orleans, we columnists were taken on a bus tour of the lower ninth ward and St. Bernard parish, where the worst of Hurricane Katrina's flooding hit. We saw block after block of abandoned homes, some with holes in the roof where people hacked their way out of flooding attics, some still spray-painted with notes from rescuers telling how many, and what kind, of dead pets were inside. In some cases, how many people, as well.

We visited Chalmette High School, where the principal talked about the Monday almost three years ago when the floodwaters came, and filled the school's main hallway you see below to the ceiling within 20 minutes.

You know those outdoor walkways high schools have? The ones with roofs over them to keep the rain off you between classes? The day Katrina hit, the tops of those were used as docks here. Principal Warner took us up the stairs to a set of second-floor windows through which they pulled people that day, off those walkway roofs after they arrived in boats from being rescued around the neighborhood. Hundreds of people survived on the second floor of the school on half a cup of water twice a day and a bowl of Fruit Loops for almost a week before they could be rescued from the flood zone.

I will go into more detail in my regular column next week, but suffice to say our visit was a study in contrasts. A half-hour drive away, back in New Orleans proper, with thousands of tourists enjoying the mostly-sunny summer day, there was little evidence that the town had ever known anything but bliss. I thought this sculpture and mural were particularly pretty. Click to enlarge it.

As befitted the dignity of our particular group of journalists, Friday night, a band paraded our group down Bienville Avenue as we played along with kazoos and waxpaper-covered combs. We stopped traffic. The saints totally marched in. We ended up at the Aquarium of the Americas, where the band continued to play us right inside and through all the exhibits to our dinner destination. I wondered what the sharks thought of the blazing jazz. The otters seemed to love it. They dived and twirled. The penguins looked a little confused. In fact, a curator brought out a penguin for us to pet before dinner. So my weekend varied wildly from seeing acres of empty, sagging homes to rubbing penguins. (This last inspired all manner of "penguin rubber" jokes which I can't repeat here).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How can you not?

While in New Orleans, I had to stop by Cafe Du Monde and drink cafe au lait ("coffee and lait") and eat beignets ("little coronaries"). When in town, how can you not? When you go to Paris the first time, you ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. When you go to Ireland, you kiss the Blarney stone. Unless you're me and just out of college. Then you're too cool, and you live the rest of your life without the gift of Blarney.

So I did the touristy thing. Those little powdered-sugary pillows below are beignets, a French word inexplicably pronounced "Ben Gays." History tends to savage language as much as anything else, I guess. Although after eating, I did notice a certain warming sensation in my shoulders and a loosening of those tight muscles. The cafe au lait ("coffee for tourists") was great, I think. I don't even drink coffee, so it was kind of wasted on me, but then again, so is "American Idol." But I drank some on behalf of my wife, who loves coffee, who would marry coffee if California had not passed a Constitutional amendment banning it. Then I got her a "Cafe Du Monde" t-shirt, so that when she wears it in the future, and people ask with conspiratorial, coffee-worshiping lust, "OH, did you go to New Orleans?" she can reply "No."

Cafe Du Monde ("Cafe of the 'please watch your valuables' signs") is in the touristy part of New Orleans. Ha ha! That's my joke for today, because, you see, New Orleans is in the touristy part of New Orleans. But the waterfront, especially, is pretty much all trinket shops and mimes. One guy, his head and body all in silver like a robot, did a routine where someone, usually a child, would put a dollar in the cup he was holding, and he would release the bottom, so the buck would fall out on the ground, and they would have to put it back in the cup, and the gathered crowd would laugh. It never got old.

I have respect for the guy, though. He was in the sun, in body makeup, in 1000% humidity. Dude was working. At least that was the impression I got, watching through the window of a restaurant where the air conditioning was blasting a new part into my hair, and I had a headache from sucking down my iced tea too fast. That guy was working.

This is what you look like when you have seen too many mimes. When you have seen one too many tourists sporting a "You look like I need another beer" t-shirts. When you have, in fact, seen it all. That is not actually a leash. That is a failed noose.

Monday, June 23, 2008

No doubt Jean Lafitte drank here

Sure, New Orleans has hundreds of years of history on display, from its fern-hung wrought iron balconies to its brightly-shuttered shops, but it has also used those hundreds of years to adopt the best of the modern world too, as you can see above. Take your hand and cover up the bottom half of this shot. Go ahead, do it. There, you've got New Orleans, 1850. Now cover the top half. Welcome to New Orleans, cruise ship visitors!

Yes, I'm back from my four-day weekend in New Orleans for a writers conference with the NSNC, and I will be posting more pictures soon, but right now I am trying to write next week's column and convince my colon I am back in Southern California. Since Thursday I have abused the poor fella with shrimp and sausage gumbo, French bread, crawfish etouffee, and peppery roast beef po'boys. Everything in New Orleans seems to have a cream sauce. Even the cream sauce comes with a side of cream sauce.

I had amazing food, heartbreaking views of the crumbling lower ninth ward, and a really extensive walking tour of the French Quarter in 1000% humidity because I didn't bother to consult my pocket map for directions. But wrong turns often bring scenes like the picture above. And ones like this:

Click it to enlarge it. It's even better. Many of the buildings are 150 years old, and you're not allowed to alter the exterior structure any more. A pretty scene like this is around almost every corner, but I also I went around shooting all kinds of crumbling brick and peeling paint too. Anywhere else it's called "blight," but in New Orleans it's considered "charm." I'm out of time, I'll post more as the week goes on, even some shots with actual humans in them, but for now, here is some lovely crumblage across the street from the open-air French Market by the Mississippi. Ugly was never so pretty, cher.