A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

a trip to New Orleans

A WALK IN THE FRENCH QUARTER, NEW ORLEANS

Our travel agent had told us that we had to contact Inez and go on one of her walking tours. His stay in New Orleans had been boring until, on the second to last day, he went on a walking tour of the French quarter and it made the stay . We had to locate Inez through the Hogs Breath Cafe and as it was the first place we found in the French Quarter ( a shop opposite was tempting with alligator sausages for $4.50 but the garlic lovers dream at the Hogs Breath won out) but the tour and the restaurant had a falling out and we were directed elsewhere for the right contacts.  As the French quarter is so intimate it wasn’t too much of a hassle and we were booked into Inez’s tour on our second day in New Orleans. The walking tours are a popular way of seeing the French quarter as the streets are so narrow that tour buses cannot get into the quarter at times. Some streets such as Bourbon are closed off at times and the numerous sights  would give the most lazy tourist a rubber neck after a block. Thelma arrived puffing and sweating as we waited in the courtyard of one of the quarters more elegant hotels, the Hotel St. Helene on Chartres St.  I somehow imagined that Thelma drove an enormous late 1950’s American car with gigantic fins and I could picture her tiny five foot frame atop a pillow behind the enormous wheel as she negotiated the streets of the quarter, running over the curb on the corner and getting more and more flustered as she realized she was a good half an hour late. We didn’t mind. The cool courtyard and the fountain and the elegant  surrounding were very relaxing. All walking tour operators have to be licensed in New Orleans and they go to tour school where they learn the history of the place and the correct interpretation of it. Thelma was obviously well versed in the history of New Orleans and she was a mine of information that quickly turned the most ordinary of streets into an alladins cave of hidden wonders. The French/Spanish housing was first built from wood but as most of New Orleans is built on a swamp the wood quickly deteriorated until the spanish settlers discovered cypress. Cypress grows in the swamp and is therefore very resistant so it made the ideal building material until another problem  reared its head that necessitated a move to bricks. The typical housing basically has two lower level rooms intercut with a carriageway that traditionally the household drove into the center of the house, disembarked and then entered their living quarters. There was often a kitchen at the back of the courtyard and stables etc. Out back was often the ‘garconette’ where young male of the family lived in separate quarters, often with a mistress of his fathers choice from age fifteen. An upper story contained sleeping arrangements for the rest of the family. The windows of most of the residences had louvres and shutters for the heat of the city and often a small open, turret room would be atop the building for additional ventilation. The upper storeys were surrounded by elegant wrought iron or cast iron work and you could often age a residence by the in intricacy of the balconies. The quarter had a fair number of fires in its early life and so the buildings were mostly brick with massive firewalls between residences. Each building had a seal prominently displayed on its frontal aspect that historically signified that it subscribed to a particular fire service and when fire occurred the they were eligible for assistance. The city of New Orleans has wisely preserved this unique part of America and no residence can be altered in any major way. The law is such that anyone even contemplating repainting a residence must obtain paint that is in keeping with the turn of the century. There are obvious exceptions but the french quarter is unique in that it has maintained its turn of the century look and feel. You venture from the street into a building with ancient wallpaper, ancient pictures on the wall and elegant furniture which has seen better days.

We wandered into Pat O’Briens bar from the hot , intense heat of a New Orleans morning to a cool , dingy bar where two pianists sat at instruments covered in beaten copper and belted out a reasonable version of lounge music. The bar is famed for the Hurricane cocktail  served in a special glass that tourists lap up, then buy the glass, and cherish as their memento of New Orleans. In the evenings there are queues waiting to get their Hurricane glasses wrapped . That evening, Harry Connick Jnr was to play. The alleyway into the bar is lined with a variety of muskets and guns and it is indeed a place to remember.

Our tour was somewhat shortened as a film company was in town making the ‘The Pelican Brief’ so several streets were blocked off. It was interesting that the local newspaper ( The Times Picayune) went to great lengths to explain that John Grisham had the heroine lawyer going down to the Cafe du Monde for coffee and bagels. Of course, the Cafe du Monde would not be seen dead serving bagels when the local beignets can be regularly seen gracing its tables. New Orleans has had several films set in and around the French Quarter and I was interested to see that ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ was set in the Garden District   in place of Argentina.

Thelma kept up a brisk pace as we entered restaurants and bars and various architectural delights were pointed out. The slave holes were particularly fascinating and bought back a slice of American history of the not too distant past. Here slaves would be kept in dark, frightening imprisonment while the Southern plantation owners bartered over them. In fact the French quarter has some larger elegant buildings  where the gentlemen owners had their holiday/city homes, from where they socialized and did business.

We spent a large amount of time in Jackson Square and were entertained by Thelma of the story of the southern belle  who was divorced and decided to build a square to brighten up the French quarter. Women were allowed to own property in Louisiana but had no voting rights and were expected to keep a low profile. This lady certainly didn’t fit the mould and firstly called for tenders then dismissed them all and had her builder build the apartments and square based on the best of the tendered plans. She was often seen climbing up the ladders to the buildings to make sure that no nails were wasted or wood shaved off. Because of this outrageous behaviour she was scorned by the menfolk of New Orleans and even General Jackson was known to cross the street if he spotted her coming down . In her contempt for this man she put his statue in the middle of her new park and , instead of having him facing the horrendous invaders for the North, in the Battle of New Orleans,  he was squarely facing her apartment and doffing his hat to her. Eternal revenge from someone who obviously was a cut above a lot of her fellow womenfolk.

A RIDE THROUGH THE GARDEN DISTRICT

The Garden District lies on the American side of  what Thelma jokingly called the neutral zone. In fact, the same euphemism was used by John , our driver for the swamp tour for the next day so I gather that it is a familiar term. Thelma said that there were certain things that had to be done in New Orleans. A ride on the riverboat ( we decided not to as thousands upon thousands of tourists clambered to get on the sailings), a walk through the French quarter with a stop for coffee and beignets, a muffletta sandwich, and a ride on the Charles St tramcar through the Garden District.

The Charles St tram probably is most famous for being the title of Tennessee Williams ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ which was made into a successful film by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando. Tourist brochures actually have the famous streetcar with Desire in the little name window. The streetcars run from Canal St through part of the French quarter, the American quarter,  and then out through the Garden District for some ten odd miles, a journey that takes about three quarters of an hour. You pays your dollar and you can go just about anywhere.

The contrasts are marked. Palatial southern mansions with impressive columns marking the doorways are side by side with vacant , boarded up buildings that look as though they breed poverty. A young girl alights from the tram and at one of the numerous stops and one can imagine her either going to work as a servant at one of the rich houses or surreptitiously sneaking into one of the hovels for a meal of cat food and rain water.

Picked up at our hotel by John Welch who is our guide for the swamp tour.  John proports to be  a genuine Cajun but I am somewhat bemused how someone called John Welch could claim roots like these. Surely he could call himself Jacque and control the uncomfortable habit of propelling his teeth out to the tip of his tongue whenever he starts to get excited. John talks passionately of things Cajun. His driving position is adorned with the usual American placard of ‘Gratuities not part of the fee’. The fee is $70 for the two of us and in order for John to earn his 20% tip he is going to have to work some pretty good hustle. Judging by the fact that we have been kept waiting for nearly 1/2 hour while John sorts out the logistics of arranging 36 people into two 18 seat minibuses he is going to be up against it today. Indeed, his efforts are rather perfunctory as he drops us at our first destination just out of  Westwego. Westwego is across the Mississippi from New Orleans and is in the center of the Cajun district. This is supposedly one of the homeports where the Cajun fishermen work the bayou and the gulf to catch catfish, crawfish, shrimp and other goodies to feed the thousands of New Orleaneans and tourists each day. In actuality I have read that almost the whole catch is eaten locally. At one time blackened redfish became so popular as being representative of Cajun cooking that it was threatened with extinction. Two largish boats which look capable of venturing out into the Gulf  stand resplendent around the shoreline but the most conspicuous sight is FOR SALE signs everywhere.

Our skipper is Captain Alex who seems to have more Cajun credentials although his Mexican origins may cloud the issue somewhat.

The tour turns out to be quite the highlight  of our stay in New Orleans. The swamps and the people who frequent them are indeed  a romantic lot and Captain Alex fills the boat with enthusiasm for a subject that he has great passion. We see numerous alligators, and some  birdlife while getting a splendid commentary on the state of the environment.

The presence of man is very obvious in the swamp from the rotting hulks of shrimpers to discarded plastic and the Xmas tree oil wells. We return much informed about Cajuns and their difficult life but one which is largely self chosen and a fierce pride surrounding it.

John now really goes into his hustle as he smells the tourist dollar and we are provided with a song and dance routine  and some unusual dashboard magic . This is all centred around the dead in New Orleans and why they are buried above ground. He is largely unsuccessful in eliciting any  money as the only American tourist who feels in anyway obliged only has a $100 note and John doesn’t look the sort who gives out change. Our last sight of John is an outstretched hand with some day old $1 notes crumpled up in it in a vain attempt to make us feel guilty enough to part with some of our precious money.

THE CAFE DU MONDE  off the French Market

The Cafe Du Monde. I have ben reading James Lee Burke since I left New Zealand. He writes extensively about Louisiana and New Orleans and numerous scenes in the books are set in Cafe Du Monde. This is apparently world famous like Pauls Louisiana Kitchen where people queue for blocks waiting to get in. Paul is the rotund giant of a man who appears on Cajun herbs that are sold worldwide. The Cafe Du Monde was one of three places where we had the famous beignets and its all very simple.  $3.95 gets you a coffee and three beignets and that , a round table, and thirty or forty napkins are all you need to pass away a pleasant hour resting from shopping or simply eavesdropping on conversations.

Cafe Beignet. Just off the famous Jax Brewery and the New Orleans version of the Hard Rock Cafe. The waiters and waitresses ( like the Cafe du Monde) are dressed in black trousers and aprons and the icing sugar from the beignets(bey ‑nays) quickly turns their uniforms into a smudgy grey. The tables and floors are likewise splattered with this mixture so it quickly becomes apparent who has had their daily fix of cafe au lait and beignet as they have deposited about them somewhere a characteristic smudge.

Cafe du Monde , 110 Lower Alhabama Suite 11 Atlanta. Probably a subsidiary of the famous New Orleans version. Here I got a free copy of Mid Gulf sailing and we experienced our first beignet. Served by an afro‑american with the peculiar bright yellow hair over the top of a darker base. She was not amused at our inability to pronounce beignet but we ended up with the wonderful end product and despite the heavy fried taste they were delicious. The Underground in Atlanta is an underground market place with blocks of shops and stalls selling everything. Magicians and street performers entertain thousands of shoppers as they spend a leisurely Saturday afternoon browsing and buying.

” Twenty minutes till landing at Auckland International Airport Folks. Please fasten your seatbelts , stow all handluggage under the seat in front of you , put all seatbacks upright  and extinguish all cigarettes. Its a fine day in Auckland ; 15 o C, with a light wind coming out of the southerly quarter. You will be required to wait in the aeroplane while personnel  from New Zealand Agriculture and Fisheries spray the aircraft. You can then  disembark through Customs.  We at United Airlines thank you for flying with us and if you are returning to your own country we welcome you back. If you are a visitor then we welcome you to this beautiful, unique and unusual country”

My throat, already lumpy from a sighting of the moon over Northland, could not hold out any longer and the tears flooded to my eyes. The hand towel, thoughtfully supplied by the cabin crew, quickly saved me from embarrassment but the relief and emotion of arriving home was overwhelming and would come again and again over the next few  hours.

The flight from New Orleans to Fort Worth, Dallas was uneventful and it was difficult to get any view of the country below. America seems to be shrouded in a permanent veil of haze, fog or smog . The portholes of the aircraft were also dazed from something and this added to the murk below.

I arrive in Los Angeles and, true to form, instantly got lost. The handcarts which had been free when we arrived now cost a dollar and were obtained by inserting a dollar note in a machine and then retrieving the trolley from a long line as the locking mechanism was tripped. I was unsure whether there was a time delay on the trip mechanism so I studiously retrieved a cart up to the point where the tripping mechanism locked so that I would have the minimum distance to move the cart. Just as I returned to work the mechanism another customer appeared on the scene with a Delta lines ‘helper’ and inserted her dollar and there went my cart which I had hauled a good 20 metres. Back to the start and to my horror it happened again. I thought I was trapped in some horrible Loony Tunes cartoon . Destined to be Wiley E Fox for a lifetime!

By the time I had retrieved my cart I was already frustrated and I was then given the wrong directions to United Airlines International departure terminal. I trudged, with my 200lbs of luggage, halfway around the airport before catching a shuttle bus back to where I had originally started and found the right terminal almost beside the Delta airlines lounge.  Visitors beware!- the seemingly helpful American is a mixed blessing . They don’t listen. You end up having to repeat everything ten times and they seem to have a real problem understanding the New Zealand accent.

Walking into the International departure lounge of Los Angeles airport was like walking into an oasis is a huge, ugly, demented desert. On one side of the glass walls   aeroplanes bank up waiting to land and queue up waiting to depart. Hundreds of buses , shuttles, cabs, cars, pickups and trucks form a constant hive of activity at the gates. Indeed the scene is reminiscent of the insides of a wasp nest with humans falling over each other in a mad scramble  to make the exits. On the other side of the glass walls , relative sanity prevails and the lounge is full of the slang of  Australia and New Zealand. The pace seems to have slowed down and departing visitors lounge on airport seats in stocking feet and braces, seemingly having their first breather since landing in this strange land. To assess the difference between America and the rest of the world you don’t even need to leave the airport. Its all right here! Busy Americans with dinner and coffee in hand scream about doing millions of things at the same time and the rest of the world looks on in bemused indulgence.

Walking into the International departure lounge of Los Angeles airport was like walking into an oasis in a huge, ugly, demented desert.

Walking into the International departure lounge of Los Angeles airport was like walking into an oasis in a huge, ugly, demented, desert.

1

THE HOMECOMING

Leaving Auckland at 0830 and we ascend into thick cloud but at 24000ft we fly above a thick blanket of cotton wool  that covers the North Island apart from Mt Egmont which pokes through. Its beautiful and sunny up here and the sky is so blue. Suddenly just south of Mt Egmont the cloud thins  over the lower half of the North Island and we have a beautiful view of the  Marlborough Sounds and Wellington. Looking backwards I can see Nelson, the Sounds, Cook Strait and the lower part of the North Island and again I have to fight away the tears. , After the last two weeks this seems like paradise. Clear air! When I walked from Auckland International airport to the Ansett domestic terminal the air smelt different. Blackbirds fought over grubs in the early dawn light. Even in the most back to nature place we went to in the USA I could not recall more than half a dozen birds in one area.

Some things still jar. The New Zealand accent is quite a shock when you hear it. Even after a short absence it is strikingly different from English and Australian. The ambivalence of some service people is hard to take. The girl behind the counter in the airport shop shrugs her shoulders in obvious annoyance and assures me that they definitely do not sell chewing gum in the airport because people have a habit of grinding it into the carpets. I found that I had quickly forgotten how currency worked and it took a few transactions to get back into the swing of things.

The lost look of tourists wherever you are in the world remains the same. A group of elderly Americans  have just passed  by and I wonder what our part of the world looks like to them as they are gaily entertained by a bus operator . I wonder if they tip him?

The delight of the long separated family members meeting each other and the tenderness that often accompanies that. The inflight movie was ‘The Scent of  Women’  which had a particularly nasty family reunion and this has probably alerted me to any touch of niceness.

And on the other side of the coin, the lonely traveller be they male or female, staring vacantly at promises of holidays in distant, exotic lands for $999 and displacing themselves mentally to sunnier climes. Women looking at young children and imagining their own being looked after by a granny or aunt or an au pair and they temporarily bemoan  their life choice until the next deal closure.

The lonely bespectacled , overweight male looking forlornly at tourists gaily queuing for the next exciting component of their holiday. He wonders when he will be able to afford the money, or the time, to do the same.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Rather than the eagle, the crawfish should be the symbol of the United States. If you put an eagle on a rail road track and a train comes along, what the eagle going to do? Has going to fly away, him. But if you put a crawfish on that railroad track and what’s he going to do? He’s going to put up his claws to stop that train, him.

James Lee Burke ‑ The Neon Rain

2

Admirable , though the thoughts may be that are expressed in the test box it should also be pointed out that the crawfish would be squashed and the eagle would be able to fly away and then shit on the train from a great height which is probably more the American way than anything else.

I have heard that I had a jaundiced version of the American dream. The south and in particular Atlanta and Louisiana are backwaters and violent backwaters of the USA. Washington, Chicago, Denver and Texas where Alison has been visiting seem to be much nicer places. However, what I saw is what you, dear reader, get.

The vastness of the country means that it can support a large number of service industries.

America has been described as a military,‑industrial complex. It was the hot tub in New Orleans where I met Arch. Arch was from Cincinnati and at seventeen stone and five foot ten he looked as though he had had a few Budweizers in his life. In fact, Arch and his wife had spent a fair amount of most vacations touring the local beer plants and sampling the wares. He reckoned that  he had singlehandedly provided at least a few brewery executives with their personal fortunes. Arch worked at an engine assembly plant and was on his first organized vacation since he started work. He normally holidayed in his RV bus which he and his wife drove to a likely spot, visited the local brewery and wound down from the rigours of assembling engines ten hours a day, six days a week, 47 weeks a year. He was one six month stint off retirement and he had been looking forward to this holiday for a long time. Despite the fact that he was being pulled around from one t shirt shop to another and was wasting valuable beer drinking time he was having a pretty relaxed time. They had met some good people on the same tour and made plans to meet up again maybe next year in Florida or Mexico. Arch said that America was going to hell in a dog basket. Unemployment was rife ( a publically acknowledged seven percent unemployment rate but that did not include the many thousands who did not even bother to register for the unemployment) and that industries were closing down all over the place. The South was already suffering the recession but it was slowly being felt in the North of America. His place of work handled several big military contracts . They rebuilt aeroplane and tank engines and with there being not so many wars that America was involved in they had to lay off staff as a result of less contract work. Around Atlanta two military bases were to be closed down and this was typical of the rot seeping into the country. I couldn’t work out whether Arch was a raving military nut or just the plain working stiff he described himself as who saw his livelihood being eroded away and sought simple solutions , without thinking of the long reaching consequences.  He rather cynically told me that all the wars that America had been involved in had less to do with preserving democracy as spreading markets for Coca Cola, Texaco and Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonalds. If profits were down or a market was threatened by nationalisation of a foreign industry, the CIA or the military organized a little hanky panky and the status quo was restored. It is the American way.  As American as mum, apple pie and the atomic bomb, I thought cynically.  Arch thought it a crime that newly graduated college students worked at MacDonalds for $4.00 an hour. I thought like I should introduce Arch to some of the realities of living in a country where unemployment was probably around 20 percent and that for a large part of the population work was something that their grandparents had done. It did serve to show the difference between the rich and the poor in America. Those who have, worry about what model car to buy next year, what color to paint the mansion this season, where to holiday and how to avoid paying those extra taxes. Those who don’t have,  worry if their supermarket trolley which contains all their  worldly possessions will be overturned by the local street gang and then they themselves randomly slaughtered for someones ten seconds of fun.

It is the American way.  As American as mum, apple pie and the atomic bomb, I thought cynically.

3

BASEBALL

Sport reflects the national character of any country. In New Zealand the All Blacks show our national heritage of  farming with the modification of the black singlet. The silver fern merely represents some tool of instrument that once attached the ubiquitous key and eventually assumed the mana of another national anthem.

In America it is the baseball stadium that represents the National image. Green walls , brown or beige ground with the most prominent American on an  grossly elevated mound. Nowhere , in any other other sport have I witnessed  such arrogance. We drove past a game just outside  New Orleans, on the way further south, and this guy was about four feet above all the other players. Screaming , he dictated the whole game despite his inability to perceive what was happening outside his small universe contained within a fefty metre pace. Typical! Focussed! Effective!

As we flew over America I had not connected the green and beige with the national game. Some stadiums have different ways of setting out the field / This adds to the game. For a novice sitting in his bedroom in maintown New Orleans it is not always apparent.,, I watch the game and miss these intricacies. Some stadiums have low walls so that any reasonable hit becomes a home run. Others have walls which tower over the outfielder and he may stretch but the ball is far beyond his reach. Home runs scored depend on grounds played at. Some , cleverly, have walls paced so that balls bound for home runs deflect off at odd angles and allow the outfielder the remote chance of  catch. Others have walls which are obviously impenetrable and players just throw their hands in the air as the ball sails over their heads.,

I have no idea what the striped uniforms or the spitting and posturing in  the dugouts is all about. Maybe in another trip and I will discover. It probably related back to the origins of the American dream. Spitting tobacco, chewing gum, talking in that peculiar southern accent which is a mix of many settlers such as Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. Girls , boys, men , women, the world over , collect these strange icons of a culture.

I sit on my hotel bed and watch the flickering images as hey hit and run. hit and walk ,. hit and miss.

I listen the next day to an American businessman sum up the worlds problems. First you have ‘ Rave , rave rave ‘. second you rave ‘rave , rave ‘ third you have ‘ rave, rave rave’.  and then you strike ! . I wonder how much we have grown as human beings from our primitive beginnings as creatures from caves.

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