This painting is in the indoor part of the original Café du Monde, in the French Market. I think it’s fantastic. I tried to find a reproduction of it, but couldn’t. I begged Tom to take this photo, which was glare-y and the painting itself has chandeliers in front of it. But post-Photoshop, I’m glad he did.
This house was on Esplanade, a few blocks towards the lake from Decatur, where we were staying. I thought it would have been the perfect setting for a Williams play. Or maybe a horror movie.
We hadn’t been to the Coney Island Aquarium in years, and it was quite a hike from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to the Zoo, so we went to see fish instead. There were a pair of lazy sea otters, who looked quite well fed, penguins and puffins, and some frogs. There was also the biggest collection of jellyfish I’d ever seen. One room housed a Mississippi environment, with an owl- you saw a lot more there than the actual river. Another was supposed to be the Amazon- I got the sense that this had suffered badly in the hurricanes, and what we were seeing was what they were able to cobble together with what was left.
One day we took a ferry from River Walk, across the Mississippi to Algiers to see Mardi Gras World. It was kind of silly. At the beginning they let you dress up in costumes and take one another’s photo. That was less interesting to me than the guide explaining how the king and queen’s trains were so heavy, they had wheels built into the undersides to take some of the weight off the parader’s shoulders.
The artisans work a lot in Styrofoam and plastic, but still use papier-mache once in awhile. Mardi Gras World is quite large. We were walk through much of one warehouse, and there were at least four more. They provide floats for parades all over the world. While what is on the float changes many times, the floats themselves are recycled over and over again. They start designing Mardi Gras floats a year ahead.
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.
I had meant to get around to finishing “Eat Pray Love” sooner than this past week, but in the midst of New Orleans reading and my obligations to the New York Public Library, it didn’t happen until now. I just looked at Elizabeth Gilbert’s website, to see her “Thoughts on Writing”- no two writers seem to agree on that. It threw me that she referred to a 40 year old novelist as a “woman of a certain age.” Damn! 40 is old? I thought 40 was the new 20, 50 was the new 30, etc. A poet friend of mine died last year- he was in his 80s, and he finished his last book in 2006. What does that make him? Gilbert herself is 39.
So I have three additional favorite parts. One is her quote from a very old lady who said people fight over two basic things: who has the power, and “how much do you love me?” The second is her description of family reunions and her place at them, and the odd position a childless adult is in. First, you’re a child, then you’re a parent, and finally a grandparent. But if you aren’t a parent, perhaps even more than if you’re single I think, puts you in an odd place on that family continuum. If you are a parent or grandparent, no matter how bad things get, you can always say, “well, I did something with my life- I had a child.” If you’re not, “what did I do with my life?” can be harder to answer.
And finally, the story of the four brothers that Ketut the Balinese priest tells Gilbert. When a baby is born, it has four brothers born with it, who will be with the baby wherever she goes. When it dies, the brothers will take her to heaven. The brothers are Intelligence, Friendship, Strength and Poetry. How cool is that?
Since I knew almost nothing about New Orleans (other than “The Big Easy” and “Pretty Baby”), I did some reading before we got there, and more after we arrived. I reread “Confederacy of Dunces,” since I hadn’t read it since college. I also read “Dinner at Antoine’s” by Frances Parkinson Keyes. Mrs. Keyes wrote a lot of novels, but I read somewhere that one had the most New Orleans local color. The racism in it, particularly the way the white male characters refer to the victim’s mammy, is pretty harsh, even given the fact it was published in 1948. I’m not surprised it’s out of print.
We went on a private tour of Mrs. Keyes’ house, which I suspect is held in higher regard because for a few months it was the home of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. At any rate, I envied Mrs. Keyes such a gorgeous place to write in the winter. A photo of the garden is above (photo by Tom Bovo).
There is a wonderful bookstore on Pirates Alley, near the Cathedral, called Faulkner House Books. I ran amok there, and among other things bought Herbert Asbury’s “The French Quarter.” I really like Asbury’s “Gangs of New York,” all about the Plug-Uglies and the Dead-Rabbits. Last night I finished reading “The French Quarter.” He really gets into Storyville and the brothels- even to the point of photos of the public rooms. But I want to touch on a few things that struck me.
The Code Noir: Several places we visited made reference to the Code Noir, which was drawn up under the French. I understood it to be a code of conduct for masters’ behavior towards their slaves. According to Asbury, it’s a 50 point code which first deals with expelling Jews from the colony, banning any non-Roman Catholic worship, allowing masters to legally free their slaves and permitting freemen to own property and marry.
Duels: Dueling was incredibly popular in antebellum New Orleans, to the point where there were multiple fencing schools. Duels were usually held in the garden behind the Cathedral.
Jim Bowie: Bowie earned his living for a time by reselling slaves (it was a scam) in New Orleans.
Basin Street: Where Basin Street is now, there was once water, which you could call a basin. As opposed to Canal Street, where there was only talk of have a canal.
Eighty years ago tomorrow in Washington DC, a woman gave birth to a baby boy named Edward. He was adopted by a couple from Westchester named Albee, and went on to become the greatest living English language playwright. Mr. Albee has also helped hundreds of artists (the Hound included) through his decades of work with his Foundation and the William Flanagan Center for Creative Persons. Far from retired, he is directing “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, which open March 25th. Which I think is a pretty good birthday present in itself.
The Dramahound has been on vacation in New Orleans for the past week. Lots of stuff to eat, drink, see, and listen to.
The first day that we were there, we saw a wedding band come down the street from the Cathedral, with the “second line” dancing behind them with their handkerchiefs in the air. It was really great.
We also walked past the French Quarter to Armstrong Park, where the memorial to jazz greats is supposed to be built some day, and the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center is still being repaired, post-Katrina. The park is where the famous Congo Square is located: it was here that New Orleans masters allowed their slaves to dance on Sunday afternoons, and was also frequented by the famous voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau.