Baltimore to New Orleans.
The plane gets me all the way across the South in half an afternoon.
Outside the airport, the taxi driver’s name is Chowdhury, a good old Sanskrit name meaning “head of caste”. He takes me to my overpriced motel, where I’m checked in by a guy in waist-length dreadlocks. It’s around sunset when I hit the streets.
I’ve been to New Orleans before.
I tried to go to college here, actually. That lasted about 9 months before I ended up back in Arizona, unimpressed with the reality of a Liberal Arts education.
(Short version: it was basically pointless, like high school, but with more superficial rich twats.)
In any case, I remember the basic scene. The French Quarter, the area around the university, a few surrounding neighborhoods. The cracked streets, uneven sidewalks and huge oak trees. The humidity. The diverse cast of local characters.
Leaving the motel, I walk down Canal Street toward the Quarter. The area seems a bit dilapidated. Some of the buildings are missing large chunks and look abandoned. Some buildings which are clearly not abandoned still manage to look like ruins.
A billboard along the way says “Trouble getting a hurricane settlement? Call now!”
I guess if a whole city is hit by something like Katrina, the insurance companies probably do whatever they can to avoid paying out. Even 15 years later.
Like many places in the US, people will say hi to me on the street – even though I’m an absolute stranger, and probably look a bit out of place.
In half an hour I’m drenched in sweat and in the Quarter.
Busted down on Bourbon Street
If you picked up the French Quarter and moved it to Europe, it’d be a third-rate neighborhood full of drunk idiots. The architecture sucks. It smells bad. You probably wouldn’t go there.
But in the US, any walkable place is an immediate tourist attraction, especially if there’s public drinking to be done. I wander down Bourbon Street, but after a couple of blocks I’m totally over it. The garish neon and over-priced everything. The middle aged tourists having way too much fun, stumbling around with drinks called “hurricanes” or “hand grenades” in plastic cups.
Luckily, there’s more to the French Quarter than just Bourbon. I walk a couple of blocks over and end up in a dive bar run by some deep-south biker-looking guy. His head is wrapped in bandages and he’s got a straw hat on over them. He wants to see my ID. Flattering, considering I’m almost 40.
I pay $8 plus tip for a pint, then wander around the corner for a Po’ Boy – or, as they call it in other major cities, a “sandwich”. This one has beef, green beans and “debris gravy”, which is apparently made out of all the giblets you wouldn’t otherwise serve at your bar. It’s a bit heavy, but good.
That’s enough for today.
I take the streetcar back to the motel. The New Orleans streetcar seems to be the only thing in America that’s the same price as it was 20 years ago. One trip, $1.25. Exact change only.
The old college try
I have a draft article about 5000 words long sitting around here, unpublished.
It’s basically about how trying to get a “formal education” sucked the life out of me for more than a decade, until I quit. Well, for the 5 or 6 people who may be wondering about my illustrious academic career, the place I finally quit was Tulane University in New Orleans.
Tulane always encouraged us students to think of it as the “Harvard of the South”, but now that I’m older and have Google, I find that it’s not even among the top 20 southern universities.
Also, as I mentioned before, it was full of superficial rich twats, and going into $40,000 debt just to have somebody give me a list of books to buy every few months didn’t seem like a great financial decision, even when I was 19 and had my whole future ahead of me.
(Although I must now admit, this was a long time ago, and $40,000 sounds like a great deal compared to what people are paying today.)
But I was broke enough, in those days, even without the loans.
In fact, it seemed like I was one of about two students at the whole place who couldn’t afford a computer, which was a bit shocking to me, since “teenager with his (her) own computer” was just not a concept I’d grown up with out in the desert.
I’d write my eight-page papers alone in the computer lab late at night, or use my roommate’s desktop rig while he wasn’t around. (Thanks, David!)
Like I said, I lasted 9 months, and then I quit. So I don’t exactly have fantastic memories of Tulane. It was just the place where I became aware of my lowly position on the social hierarchy called “America”, in ways I wouldn’t have if I’d just stayed home.
The neighborhood sure is nice, though.
I’d remembered New Orleans as a small city, but maybe I was just comparing the distances to those in Phoenix. Turns out, it’s not that small, and walking across town is not something many people are doing this morning.
I walk all the way down St Charles Ave, starting from Harmony Circle, which used to have a statue of Robert E Lee on top of a big white column. Actually, it used to be called Lee Circle. I didn’t think much of it, at the time. Just the South being the South. What did I know?
Now Lee is gone, the column is empty, and the place is called Harmony Circle.
Heading down to the Riverbend
St Charles Ave curves in a long arc across the city, roughly following the U-shaped curve of the Mississippi river about a mile to the south.
It’s got a lot of old houses (some small mansions), expensive hotels, and some seedy bars that are open for breakfast all day. If you follow it for a couple of miles to the west of Harmony Circle, it’s also got Loyola and Tulane Universities, before it ends at the levee that runs along the Mississippi.
By the time I get out of Harmony Circle, I’m sweating like a pig. It’s 8 AM, hot and humid. But the clouds are building, and a couple of hours later, it’s raining heavily when I finally get to Tulane.
On the plus side, I’m not sweating, and it’s a lot cooler. I duck under the overhang of one of the first buildings on campus to wait out the rain. And wait, and wait. Finally, I’m so bored I decide to just get wet. I walk up and find it’s pretty much abandoned – maybe summer school hasn’t started yet, but there are only a few dozen people on campus today.
The coffee shops are open, though, and I have a cold brew just outside the dorm where I lived back in those heady days of late 2001 and early 2002. Walking off towards Maple and Oak streets, the rain gets harder. I hide under overhangs when I can, then duck out and walk / jog a few blocks when the drops get lighter.
One overhang is a bar that I seem to remember hearing about back in the day. It’s a bit after 11, there are people working inside, and I’m hoping they’ll open soon so I can get a beer and dry off. At 11:29, a woman walks out.
“You openin’ soon?”
“Not until four!” That’s hours from now.
“Well, I might still be here, tryna stay dry.”
“I can give you a garbage bag if you want. Use it as a poncho.”
“Nah, I’m alright. Thanks anyway.”
She shuffles off. I decide to make one last effort. I’ve got a destination in mind: Cooter Brown’s Tavern, a classic dive bar (according to Google) that opens at 11:00, with food and a large selection of beers. And honestly, the name. I’ve come halfway around the world for this.
How can I not go to a place called Cooter Brown’s Tavern?
Getting wet in the Big Easy
Soaking wet, I go in the basic direction of Cooter’s, getting up to my calves in the water flowing down the streets. Finally, rainwater dripping off my hat, I find a bar at the edge of the levee that I figure must be Cooter’s, but when I walk in I find it’s a daiquiri shop, with lots of slushy machines on the back wall. I order a beer and sit down. (What’s so great about daiquiris, anyway?)
The TV is on, showing disaster porn about the rain. Flash floods everywhere. A potentially deadly situation. How to avoid drowning in your car.
I don’t know what to think. I figured this was just normal New Orleans weather. But a few minutes later, I get a push notification from the government. Potentially deadly situation, etc. Do not attempt to travel unless escaping from a flooded area, or under an evacuation order.
I finish my beer and find that the real Cooter Brown’s is just a block or two away. The rain seems to be getting a bit lighter as I walk / jog into the dark bar where a few deep-south-looking people are hanging out drinking beer and eating fried foods. Behind the bar, a portly gentleman is shucking a big sack of oysters by the light of an LED headlamp.
I get the catfish and the pickles, both fried and heavy and delicious.
By the time I’m done with lunch, the rain has mostly stopped and the streets are no longer flooded.
One streetcar ride and one bus connection later, I’m walking back to the motel.
Life after the deluge…
Just up the street, there’s a guy with cornrows and a track suit standing outside a bright pink house, smoking.
He calls out to me.
“Hey man, where’s the strip at?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir.” I picked up the habit of calling people “sir” back when I was a teenage bagboy at a supermarket, but I don’t get to use it much out in the Spanish-speaking world.
“Where’s stuff happenin?” he clarifies.
“Oh, uh, Bourbon Street?” I say. Maybe the pink house is an AirBnB. I’m surprised that he’s made it to New Orleans without knowing about the Quarter, at least.
“Bourbon Street…” he repeats, apparently hearing it for the first time.
“Yeah, take the streetcar down Canal. $1.25, exact change only.”
“You say take the bus?”
“No, the streetcar. It’s like a little trolley.”
He turns back and shouts to whoever’s in the living room. “Yo, this guy says we can take a bus down to Bourbon Street!”
And that, as the saying goes, is that…
That’s the end of the rain. The rest of my time in New Orleans passes uneventfully, a series of Po’ Boys, beers, and walks in the blistering heat.
Here’s a video I made for the English learners…
That’s the area of the French Quarter and Bywater. The barbecue at The Joint was really, really good, and you should definitely try it if you’re in town.
Tennessee Williams once allegedly said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
That’s a good joke. And possibly even true. I’m writing this a week later in Portland, Oregon, which (despite its reputation of being of being some sort of Euro-style utopia right here in America) is basically Cleveland.
New Orleans, though, is definitely not Cleveland. It’s got a whole lotta personality, and it really doesn’t seem like other places.
Anyway, I started this US trip in Philadelphia, looking for the Great American Dumpster Fire – the country on the verge of Civil War that I’d been promised by the politically-obsessed wackjobs on Twitter.
I didn’t find the dumpster fire, but I have found a country with a wealth gap, and (this is much more ambiguous, but still apparent) a values gap.
Let’s just say that there are people living close together in the same cities, but who might as well be on different planets. This doesn’t seem to be causing too many obvious problems, because largely, people hang out with others like them. But if you take the time to walk across whole cities like I’m doing, you’ll definitely see it. It’s enlightening. And also a good way of getting some light cardio.
That’s about all I’ve got for today.
I hope you get wet in the Big Easy someday – hopefully in a consensual adult way that doesn’t leave you dripping brown sludge on the floor of a place like Cooter Brown’s Tavern.
Unless that’s what you’re into. Who am I to judge? You do you.
Yours most truly, sincerely and faithfully,
Daniel AKA Mr Hot-Dog AKA Po’ Boy in Nawlins.
P.S. I’m actually considering Cleveland for the final leg of my American adventure, before returning to Barcelona. Let’s say it’s shortlisted. So we’ll see. Coming soon, my reports from Phoenix, Portland and Las Vegas. Have a good one!