Wednesday, May 06, 2009

National Lampoons Southern Vacation (sorta) Part III

July, 2008

It's been almost 10 months since I made this trip, but I promised I'd finish the story of our summer vacation/National Softball Tournament last July, and we had so many wonderful experiences in New Orleans that much of it is still fresh in my mind. It was a jewel of the trip. Bear with me as I recall what all transpired.

Getting up the next morning wasn't easy after multiple beer bongs, chicken fights, and all around heavy partying with the Extreme parents, but we managed to pack up and checkout, hitting the highway before noon. I figured on New Orleans being about 5 hours drive from Panama City Beach. As long as we could get there by sundown, I was cool with it.

It amazed me how long it seemed to take to travel down the Florida State Highway out of Panama City to get to the Interstate! Such a short segment on the map seemed to take an eternity! Maybe it was the hangover? But, before long, we hit I-10, and geared up for some serious ass-hauling in a westerly direction. This is the South, after all, everyone treats the Interstate like a NASCAR track. Shades of Smokey and the Bandit or the Dukes of Hazzard.

I'd driven this route once before, when my mother and I last visited New Orleans in the early '90's. We visited my uncle down in Clearwater, FL one summer and decided to cut across to The Big Easy on our way home, much as we were doing now. Only this was about 4 hours shorter or so. Once on the Interstate, it was pretty much a clear shot in. My mother and Father used to travel to New Orleans annually, often by Amtrak train, and more recently my mother had just been to Mardi Gras with friends. She knows N'awlins pretty intimately.

We passed quickly through Pensacola, and then Mobile, with the Gulf Coast far off to our left in the distance. The license plate game continued, and Becca was increasingly frustrated at both seeing plates that were already spoken for as the list was growing much shorter, and the inability to beat my mother to the punch at recognizing remaining states. It's like my mother has radar for these things!

We ran into a few showers as we cruised through Biloxi, and I couldn't help but think about playing poker at some of the Gulfport casinos. I dream of playing some big time tourney away from home. Every billboard I passed beckoned to me! But, I pressed on. No poker on my family vacation.

Also noticeable was the absence of any visible damage from Katrina. This was where the bulk of it actually struck, not New Orleans. But, as we crossed over into Louisiana, there were more signs of residual damage, as parts of the highway bridges were being rebuilt. So much of the area down there is swampy, wet, or just plain part of the Gulf, that much of the Interstate is a just a bridge.

As we came into New Orleans, a good part of the outer suburban ring of residences appeared to resemble a war zone. Abandon houses and apartments. Boarded up or shattered windows. Scarred roofs. Graffiti. Visible damage still left unrepaired from '05.

I actually flew over New Orleans on my way back from my first trip to Cancun in August '05 as Katrina struck. But from 35,000 ft, there was no way to see the damage it was reeking. Now I was getting a first hand tour. Sobering.

Even after 15 years since my last visit I managed to find my way into Downtown New Orleans without a map, and make my way to the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, and find the Holiday Inn on Royal and Canal St where I'd stayed the last time. I was very excited to be back. I fell in love with the French Quarter my first time there. The music, the food, the party, it exemplified everything that I'm about! Almost as if there's something eerily familiar about it.

As we peeled off I-10 to the Canal St. exit, the ravages of Katrina were still evident, and much of it looked run down, impoverished, and even deserted. The decrepit and abandon buildings we'd seen on the outskirts were prevalent downtown as well.

“Why does this look like E. St. Louis?” my observant young Sarah asked?

“Because, in a lot of ways, it is like E. St. Louis!” I explained to her.

Her eyes were as big as saucers as we passed some locals sitting on the stoops of their humble residences. I could tell this was a culture shock for her! She had to be thinking, “What the hell is Daddy doing!”

Traffic was a disaster heading down Canal Street, inching along at a snail's pace. It was 4:30 PM, rush hour. I was growing anxious as well as frustrated. My eyes would wander as we crept along, taking in everything around me, embracing it, and at times rekindling old memories. You could see beads hanging from high tension power lines that powered the cable cars which ran up the middle of the boulevard, remnants of Mardi Gras some months prior. The shops and buildings, even the people reminded me of areas of midtown St. Louis, such as Grand Ave, or Jefferson Ave. In fact, St. Louis once had street cars similar to these.

New Orleans has so much in common with St. Louis (city) that in someways, I felt like I was back. Colonial French heritage, along with Spanish occupation. Wild Mardi Gras. A majority of African-American residents. The Mississippi. Hot, muggy summers. Blues music. A very similar soul, really.

But, there is a palpable difference, particularly when you enter the French Quarter. New Orleans is a Southern Belle. A débutante. She wines and dines you, entertains you, romances you, and exhibits a stately elegance and grace that St. Louis just doesn't seem to have.

St. Louis is the steady girl you bring home to momma. A sensible family woman, unpretentious, her direct and down to earth sister. New Orleans is the face fanning, eye fluttering concubine that, while in her presence, makes you feel like a suitor attending her royal court, even though she has no crown, no title, no pedigree.

And beneath that is a soul, a pulse, a passion that flows stronger than back home in St. Louis; New Orleans is vibrant, while St. Louis is more reserved. A Yin and Yang mirror of a culture from similar ancestry. Yeah, I think of all this kind of stuff, stuck in traffic.

Checking into our high rise hotel room right in the heart of the Vieux Carre and only one block off Bourbon Street, I anxiously led my family out into the late afternoon to explore, embrace, and enjoy all that New Orleans had to offer. I wanted to find somewhere to eat, and there are so many wonderful choices in the French Quarter! I was hesitant to really drop some “dime” on something like Antoine's or Brennen's, two of it's most famous establishments. World renowned, in fact. Emeril used to work at Brennan's. Still, we were on vacation!

I also did some scouting for nightclubs so Beck and I could enjoy that evening, as during my last visit I was just overwhelmed at the wonderful Blues music and musicians I encountered wandering Bourbon Street. Club after club of wonderful, soulful Blues. I wandered from club to club with draft beer in hand, three feet off Bourbon Street. Heaven! How much had changed? Where were we to go? The anticipation was driving me crazy!

We passed down Royal for a block or two, which is mostly antique boutiques, art galleries, and some fine restaurants, like Brennan's and Antoine's, actually. They are both located on Royal. New Orleans has such an artsy, free spirited, but elegant feel to it. There's nothing stiff, mathematical, or deliberate about it. Each building has a personality of it's own, from fanciful wrought iron balconies, ornate, elaborate, decorative facades, and hidden, majestic courtyards. Each and every facet expresses its own individuality. Sami quickly began taking pictures, and I could tell she was digging it. She understood, and began to embrace it's beauty.

We turned a corner and made our way to Bourbon Street one block over. A Friday evening crowd was beginning to mill up and down the street, which was blocked from evening motorized traffic. Quickly, everything around us took on a gaudier tone. While the basic beauty of the French Quarter was still there, a tacky mask of neon and sex permeated our senses. Bourbon Street was the cheap, trashy side of this elegant village, but even still, it was quaint and fascinating in it's own way..

Amidst the night clubs and souvenir/tee shirt shops were strip joints and possibly even brothels. Blues clubs, tees and mugs, and girls, girls, girls! I made my way through, ignoring the Hustler Club and Penthouse joint, trying to recall the great places I'd heard all that wonderful blues music. But much of Bourbon Street had changed. Gone was The Olde Absinthe House, replaced with a fruit smoothie bar. And the strip joints were looking sleazier, and sleazier.

I pondered where in the word to eat as we marched down the cobblestone street, becoming more concerned that finding dinner was an imperative, and to set aside my curious desire to explore as I had a family to attend to. I also discovered we had wandered into what was quite possible the sleaziest section ON Bourbon Street! Marquees filled with pictures of couples and groups committing sex acts on display stunned me! I'm not sure if they were simulated or actual, but I suddenly felt very uncomfortable walking my two young daughters, and hoped they hadn't noticed. But, I think they had.

“Daddy?” Sarah asked in a sweet, frightened voice. “Can we go down a happy street?”

“No doubt!” Samantha chimed in.

I panned it off, told them something about New Orleans being a city with lots of facets, a dark side, etc. But, basically I was trying to hurry them out of there as quickly as I could, and started to consider moving off Bourbon Street back on to Royal as I turned the conversation to eating dinner.

About this time we approached Pat O'Brien's. We debated dining either there, or The Court of the Two Sisters, which was my mother's favorite back when her and my father would travel to the French Quarter. It was close by. But we agreed to hit Pat O'Brien's. In fact, it was a welcome relief to find more normal businesses after a block of sleaze and smut!

Pat O'Brien's is famous for a couple things. First, the flaming fountains. You heard that right. They have these fascinating water fountains in the courtyard with fire leaping from them! The main dining area was out in a beautiful New Orleans courtyard, with green ivy and wrought iron ornaments, from the tables and chairs to the balconies and such. Magnificent!

Pat's is also famous for The Hurricane. A special fruit punch and rum concoction which is very sweet and deceptively potent. They created it back in the 1940's when rum was in great abundance in New Orleans, but no really good ways to mix it.

I ordered up a Hurricane and a heaping plate of spicy jambalaya and we enjoyed a wonderful early dinner out in the courtyard. It was good to be back! And good to share it with my family. Dinner was a hit with the girls, who were beginning to feel more comfortable, and Becca was in paradise, I think I can say. She was enamored with it the beauty and the vibe of the city. For a closet Goth recovering Catholic, this was her kind of place! Like Interview with a Vampire, it seemed the hypnotic, sexy Creatures of the Night were just waiting to walk the streets amongst us!

After dinner we wandered around the Quarter, moving off Bourbon Street to please my youngest. We past all manner of shops and places. Even noted Reverend Zombie's Voodoo shop that looked very enticing! Lots of souvenirs, taverns, restaurants, and the like, coupled with beautiful balconies and weathered buildings. Katrina hadn't really hurt the French Quarter all that much, thank God. Even spotted the historic Preservation Hall, where they still play old Ragtime Dixieland Jazz. But, with the long lines, I thought we'd pass on that this trip.

We made our way to Jackson Square, located at the foot of the Gothic St. Louis Cathedral. Surrounding the tall, wrought iron, shrub covered fence that lines the square were all types of carts and vendors. Some peddle art and drawings on demand. Some are psychic fortune tellers. And interesting street market of arts.

We noticed a crowd gathering around a younger gentleman with a small tray erected before him, decked out in a derby reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, with long, straggly locks and a wispy Faustian goatee. He wore baggy trousers held up by suspenders, and a white wife-beater tee shirt. Kind of a homeless Johnny Depp meets Gallagher!

His delivery was smooth and seductive, with a wry smile and quick hands, it was obvious he was a street magician, so we stopped to watch. He moved through his routine deftly and smartly, but it still had a feel of spontaneity and improvisation, and was incredibly entertaining. I can't express how impressed I was! This guy was the real deal. His name was Dante', and I've since looked him up on the web, he actually has his own website. Outstanding is all I can say.

While I can't remember in depth all that was said and the wicked banter he developed with the crowd, he had us all in stitches as well as amazed. All just on the street, at random, for our pleasure. What a marvelous find! These are the kind of treasures that New Orleans holds.

At the end of his big “gag”, where he produced a seemingly incinerated $20 bill, signed by an audience member before he lit it's envelope on fire, from an unpeeled orange which magically appeared from under his derby resting on the tray before him, he then kindly asked for any tips, and my mother gladly tipped him $20. I think I gave him some more myself. Breathtaking magic!

The girls were now officially in love with New Orleans.

We wandered over to Decatur Street as the evening sun set, and found a table at the famous Café Du Monde, an outdoor market style café established in 1862, that overlooked the bustling Decatur Street, along the levee wall that buttressed the Mississippi. The café was quite crowded, but we managed to flag a waitress quickly, and soon we were enjoying Café Au Lait and Beignets, a powered sugar confection not unlike funnel cake. The girls thought this was the greatest thing ever!

After enjoying the delicious coffee and milk combo, we sat relaxing, watching the evening traffic pass. Sit long enough at the Café Du Monde, and the whole world will pass you by, they say, as it's open 24/7, except for Christmas, and when the occasional Hurricane passes too close. The girls were anxious to get into the hotel pool, and Beck and I wanted to hit a night club, so we picked up and wandered back to the hotel. I'd been bragging on the unbelievable blues bands I experienced the last time, and couldn't wait to take in some of that action.