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.