Thursday, September 08, 2005

Beautiful, Beleaguered New Orleans

As I write this, Hurricane Katrina has wreaked unholy havok on New Orleans. The devastation is nigh-total: God knows how much of the Big Easy is submerged in flood waters, and hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people are feared drowned. Like so many people, the whole horrible tragedy is incomprehensible and overwhelming to me.

If you haven't done so already, give some money to the Red Cross, or any one of the many charities attempting to help those in need. These charities--and the people suffering in the Big Easy--need it desperately.

I'd be moved enough by this tragedy in and of itself (as I and so many others were during the horrendous tsunami earlier this year). But New Orleans seeped into my soul on a completely personal level. I'm utterly in love with the town. And for me, watching the newscasts on Hurricane Katrina's devastation has been tantamount to keeping vigil at my old lover's bedside as the reaper's scythe whistles agonizingly close to her head.

Blame my wife for this particular infatuation. Rita took a work-related trip to New Orleans about four years previous, and insisted that someday, she'd drag me there. She spoke of the Big Easy in almost biblical terms, as though her experience there had somehow transformed her. And she insisted that it'd have the same effect on me once I visited. How right she was.

We went to New Orleans together in June of 2004. It was one of our first real vacations ever. Rita and I had just shucked a massive debt off of our shoulders, and wanted our first big trip to be something special. It was.

I won't bother prattling on too long here. My intent is mostly to share some of the pictures and random experiences I enjoyed as a visitor to this magical city. Maybe some part of me hopes that someone perusing this is moved to help with this disaster in some small way. Or maybe, summoning up these cherished memories of this embattled region represents my own personal prayer at the head of my endangered lover's sickbed.

We stayed at the Magnolia Mansion, a beautiful restored bed and breakfast on Prytania Street in the Garden District. The two-hundred-year-old house was once a vanity gift to a rich socialite, and in World War II harbored the local branch of the Red Cross. The then-current proprietor, a tan and smiling woman in her early '40's named Holly, made a lucrative living as a touring Tina Turner impersonator. She was the second of many colorful characters we met during our stay (the first was the insane but inexplicably charming Cajun-accented cabbie who shattered a land speed record driving us from the airport to the Mansion).

The Garden District was intoxicatingly beautiful, with houses every bit as grand and lovely as our lodgings dotting the neighborhood for miles. Obscenely lush flora grew naturally, and in lovingly-manicured gardens, all along the neighborhood, the air thick with the aroma of southern flowers, fresh-cut grass, and earth. The heat and humidity cast a heady haze over us the whole time. During our stay, it felt like time had lazily sipped down several mint juleps. Days didn't pass; they ambled along to humid and warm fade-outs, only to rise the next morning like a weary but beautiful woman still mildly buzzed from the previous night's libations.

The Garden District maintained its stateliness top-to-bottom (even the abandoned and condemned homes in the neighborhood were ravishing), but Bourbon Street and the French Quarter sported no such illusions. If the Garden District was New Orleans' regal socialite, the French Quarter was her scruffily sexy and playfully randy party-girl sister. Ornate railings bracketed the second stories of the tightly-clustered buildings like worn-but-artful metal cobwebs. The streets smelled of moist cement and mortar. Strip clubs dotted Bourbon Street, and it was weird to see so many wholesome-looking tourists (some with impressionable children in tow) looking on impassively at the many pictures of men and women in all manner of sexual contortion and congress. And there was plenty of liquor to augment the physical debauchery; many of the bars sported what looked like Slurpee machines with deceptively sweet and tasty pre-mixed slushy drinks that went down like candy, only to hit your head like a sledgehammer minutes later.

Most importantly, though, the French Quarter's taverns, clubs, watering holes, and restaurants came to life at night with music. On our evening treks to Bourbon Street, every corner we turned revealed another joint with some local band playing Dixieland jazz, blues or Zydeco. You walked in, sat down, had a drink (or two, or more...), and got to revel in the pure, butt-shaking joy of musicians doing their thing for the love of their art and their audience, free of pretense. It felt timelessly, beautifully right--magical and perfect.

No other place I'd been to before or since offered its visitors a more abundant and delightfully decadent selection of food, all steeped in historic tradition and served with love. And spice. Lots of spice. Every third shop at the French Market sported racks and racks of locally-produced hot sauces, with dozens of cups for the sampling--absolute Nirvana to this spice-a-holic. Eating at the Court of Two Sisters in the heart of the French Quarter was like stepping back a century--a Dixieland jazz trio played tunes while patrons sipped momosas and ate a buffet composed of items like Duck a l'Orange, Jambalaya, and fresh crawdads. Even the hole-in-the-wall eateries offered terrific, stick-to-your-ribs food. My favorite meal may have been the hearty, spicy bowl of chicken and andouille sausage gumbo I got at a modest little diner between stops on our plantation tour. Cafe du Monde offered the creamiest and most divine cafe au lait I'd ever drank, and sitting in that world-famous coffee shop, sipping that lovely java and dipping soft beignets (Cajun donuts) into its amber warmth constituted one of the trip's great small pleasures. Small wonder that I came back to Seattle nine days later hauling around an additional five pounds.

New Orleans viewed death with the same easygoing nature that it welcomed so many of the earthly delights that precede it. The graveyards and cemeteries held many beautiful tombs and statuary, as well as evidence of the strangely harmonious relationship between voodoo and christian iconography. A curious combination of creepiness and comfort often accompanied the graveyard tours.

The natural surroundings of New Orleans and environs always felt exotic and otherworldly, a sensation that the heat and the humidity amplified. There were the lush swamps of Louisiana, their primal gnarled trees clothed in succulent green moss; and there was Oak Alley Plantation in nearby Vacherie, LA, a spectacularly grand Southern mansion whose walkway was lined with some thirty massive oak trees. Even the Laura sugar plantation in Vacherie , a pretty but humble structure sitting peacefully in the middle of a massive field of lush green grass, gave off this vibe.

The animal life furthered the atmosphere of the exotic. Dragonflies flitted staccato all over the grounds of Laura and Oak Alley, irridescent and alien-beautiful. At one point, a meadow at the larger plantation was dotted with what seemed like a few dozen of the insects glittering in the sun. In a moment of strange synergy I held my arm out, and one dragonfly hovered above his brethren, alighting on my fingers like an old friend for several seconds before ambling back to rejoin his comrades.

We got an eyeful of the wetlands' natural beauty, and the most charismatic and scary of the swamp's denizens--the alligators--on our Louisiana Swamp Tour. Before we even hopped onto the boat a gator sauntered out of the water and stood within ten feet of us. No barriers, no fences, just some air between me and Rita and it. Of course, the photo opportunity was too irresistible to let something as mundane as common sense stop us. The tour, which took us through thick swamplands for nearly two hours, put us literally an arms' reach away from these massive reptiles, and we marvelled as a family of nearby raccoons tempted the fates to snatch random morsels away from the 'gators.

In the wake of all of the natural destruction in the area, I wonder how many of the swamps and natural ecosystems will endure. And I realize with great sadness that the city that I fell in love with is, at best, forever changed. Frequently over the course of our visit last year, I found myself reflexively touching the plants, the grass, the trees, and the walls of those beautiful buildings. I'd never felt so strong a need to do that on a vacation before, ever. It was as though I wanted to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible; maybe the intensity and urgency of this tactile reassurance was prescience on my part. Or maybe, like any smitten suitor, I just wanted to drink in any sensory connection I could obtain from my dear New Orleans.

Mostly, though, I think of the people we came into contact with during the trip. A spiky-haired kid from Ohio waiting tables at a garden district restaurant told us that he was drawn by the siren call of the Big Easy to become a resident just months before. Josette, the retired schoolteacher who took us through several of the cemeteries, was a classic steel-magnolia southern belle, outwalking and outlasting people 1/3 her age as she took us on a long walking tour to see graves. One tour bus driver, a huge man whose big baritone suggested Ralph Kramden channelling Barry White, listened with a veteran's patience as so many of us tourists huffed, puffed, and lamented the heat. He looked back at us with a sidelong grin and drawled, "It's only June...this ain't hot."

Many of the guides on our treks to the plantations and swamps were natives of N'awlins who'd ventured to other parts of the country--New York, California, etc.--to go to school or forge a life elsewhere, only to find their hometown pulling them back. But the common thread in our contact with all of the people of the region was their easygoing friendliness; they truly loved sharing their home with strangers. Not in any ingenuous or superficial way, but in a totally natural, unforced manner that epitomized that old cliche: southern hospitality. I look at all of the beautiful pictures Rita took, of a magical region that made such a profound impression on us. Frequently I wonder what has become of all of these good people who made Rita's and my trip so very special, and hope and pray that at least some of my beautiful beleaguered lover's children are healthy and safe.

One night on our trip, while we waited for the rickety streetcar to take us back to the Magnolia Mansion, a rainstorm burst out of nowhere to saturate us in warm sheets of New Orleans rain. Up in the sky, lightning began illuminating the surging and restless clouds, and the whole pulsing mushroom mass looked like something from Fantasia. News reports pegged it as one of the more powerful storms of that season; in person, it was terrifying but beautiful (and sadly, it resisted Rita's attempts to capture it on camera).

At the time I naively thought my love for New Orleans shielded both Rita and I from the elements that frequently battered the city. In retrospect, that storm looks less like a freak anomaly, and more like the most tenuous and temporary of truces between man and nature. Would that Hurricane Katrina might have offered the beautiful Big Easy--and her citizens--such a reprieve.


JennyB. said...

A beautiful missive to your ailing lover.

Your experiences with the city were much deeper than mine. Alas, I was vacationing with someone who, though he loved the music, did not feel the pull at his soul that I did. As a result, I brushed off the tug I felt.
To be honest, though, most of what pulled at me were the darker elements of the city...I wanted to explore the death and darkness of it. It probably pulls at a part of me best left untapped.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, impressions and visions of New Orleans. It makes me want to go back more than ever.

jiri said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!

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