I hesitate to make any sweeping judgments about New Orleans (other than the fact that Café du Monde makes the best café au lait on earth) because I wasn’t there before Katrina and Rita. I’d always imagined New Orleans dripping in Spanish moss, and I didn’t see any of that. I asked to my sister and her husband about what they saw when they went there to work for Habit for Humanity over a year ago. Tourist guides promised long lines, but the only place we had to wait was at Preservation Hall, and we were the only Americans in line. It was all Europeans and Japanese.
One of the things that shocked me was the fact that the St. Charles Avenue streetcar still wasn’t restored to its entire route, and broke down when we were on it, much to the annoyance of the regular commuters. I also read in the Times-Picayune that 2/3 of the city’s population had been evacuated. Imagine 2/3 of New York being evacuated- you can’t can you?
Then a day or two before we came home, I started reading a third travel book (having completed Fodor’s and Frommer’s) that Tom had that was published by Frommer’s (I like them or Let’s Go best, usually), which is part of John Wiley, called “The Unofficial Guide to New Orleans.” It was really interesting, but I’m kind of glad I hadn’t read it before we got there. That way I had my first five days of dazed, New Orleans-drunk at the beginning.
The following is not to say I don’t want to go back- I certainly do. I doubt there’s anywhere else like it. But there were (obviously) parts of stories that you don’t tell the tourists. Like that fact that two of the Mardi Gras krewes, Comus and Momus, haven’t marched since the early 90s because they wouldn’t, and still won’t, integrate their parades. I read that and my chin hit my chest.
“The Unofficial Guide” also told us where Tennessee Williams lived- in a boarding house that’s now the Court of Two Lions, and the building near the cathedral where he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire.” We also found Elysian Fields, which was a few blocks from where we were staying. Faulkner and Louis Armstrong, not that there’s anything wrong with those two, are the two artists mentioned the most. And with no help from a book we had lunch in a courtyard where Williams supposedly used to drink, the Chartres Café, and LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, where he was a regular. We had dinner at the Tujague’s bar, where the bartender gave William Sydney Porter the idea for his pseudonym, O.Henry.
These photos are by Tom Bovo, of Preservation Hall and the Delta Queen steamboat.