After my first three days in New Orleans, the final two were going to be a bit different.
If I was going to have a plan, it would be to wander without a plan.
The morning started with the running itch, and though I awake around 10am and peeked bright sunshine out my window, a crack of the front door revealed that it wasn’t too hot to hit the pavement. On with the running shoes, on with the headphones, on with the cool new Nike running shirt, which I just bought. Oh, on with the shorts, too. Can’t forget those. This run began around 10:15am, took me approximately seven miles on an empty stomach. I wasn’t really hungry, though, and was shooting to get back home in time to shower and walk to the French Market. I knew there was a beignet-eating contest at 12:30, and honestly, I figured why pay for some when you can join a contest for free? I took my time on the run, however, ran across the French Quarter and down the St. Claude Ave. neutral ground where the streetcars go. On the way back, I felt great and extended my run through the French Market, but when I got back home, I knew I wouldn’t have time to shower and get back to the contest.
I did go back into town, though. I did get some coffee, I looked through some shops intending to buy some Mardi Gras masks, but not doing it yet, looked through some art galleries, and people-watched.
I passed Cafe Beignet which for the first time since I arrived, didn’t have a line out the door. I got an order of beignets and I wanted to try the chicory coffee, but I assumed that is the New Orleans standard. I ordered a cafe latte assuming it had chicory, then saw a separate carafe to the side, labeled “chicory.” The regular latte was kind of plain – it didn’t add anything to the beignets, but without having tried Cafe du Monde, I can say the beignets here are delicious. As they should be, right?
I spent the next while getting some nice pictures with my camera. I was on the waterfront across from Jackson Square right at sunset and played around with the light in some photos. I strolled through the local artisans, and in particular watched a caricature of a guy and his two kids come alive from nothing. Besides a grocery store stop for water, I really just sort of wandered, with an occasional rest on a park bench. My lunch/dinner of choice was a nice little restaurant called Kingfish, and their smoked rabbit gumbo. It was tender and flavorful, and it’s possibly the first time I have had rabbit. Interesting story: as I waited in line for the restroom, another patron pointed out the glass cabinet full of wine bottles just to our side- the area was sort of hidden from the main dining room. I conveniently mentioned that the lock on the cabinet was not actually locked and joked that surely there was a camera pointed on us. After I exited the bathroom, she pointed out that there was in fact a camera and that staff had come over and locked the cabinet. Note to self. Don’t give possibly criminal ideas to someone who has been drinking.
I didn’t have anything to drink at Kingfish but I realized my time in NOLA was slowly winding down, I headed up to O’Brien’s and dealt with the crowd to get my Hurricane. This drink is so popular they pre-make the sweet, rum concoction. Even after a meal, drinking this hurricane caused my first buzz of the trip. Just next door is a famous, though not ancient, jazz institution known as Preservation Hall. What it lacks in outward appearance, it more than makes up for in quality and renown. I think it actually looks really cool outside -just neutral and understated versus bright and flashy.I thought it looked like a barn, actually. There was a 6pm show just starting and I was excited to see a show, but these shows cost $15 and it’s cash only. So, I walked backed to my go-to ATM and got some cash. When I got back, however, the line had already grown waiting for the next show and I really wasn’t in the mood to stand for the 45-60 minutes that is typical for these shows. How to solve the problem? Go enjoy Frenchmen Street again and maybe try the Preservation Hall again tomorrow.
It was getting dark as I approached Frenchmen Street from the river side and began peeking into the clubs, reading the schedule boards, just getting a sense of what would be most fun that evening. Around 7:30, I admittedly wasn’t hungry but I passed the flashy hot dog place – “Dat Dog” – again. I thought that fries would be a good snack and potentially I could take the leftovers to snack on later. I went up to the balcony which overlooks the hubbub of the street and after a short wait, I ordered the “white trash fries.” I think they had bechamel sauce, pulled pork, but I don’t remember anything else. The thing is, it took me a long time to get these fries. I really wasn’t complaining because I was enjoying the view and it was nice out. It did seem really inconsistent on the balcony about who was getting their orders quickly and who wasn’t. Anyone can order for takeout downstairs – that’s what I did the other day – but I assumed people who are paying for waiter service would have priority over takeout. Apparently not. In any case, my 55 minute wait for a single order of fries was better than the fate of those sitting at the next table over who were told after 45 minutes the kitchen never got their order. I don’t know what was up, but the one waiter upstairs was clearly overwhelmed. In the end, he comped my meal.
I’m not sure at what time in the day this story continues, but it was perhaps the setting that made me feel most at home. Just up past Adolfo’s restaurant, before the Spotted Cat Music Club, and across the street from d.b.a. was a local artists’ market in a paved driveway/open space. It reminded me of the Portland Saturday Market which is under the Burnside Bridge. That market has about 300 vendors, this one maybe only 30. I really enjoy this market; it had a different feel. It seemed more like a social space than a retail space and I could feel the passion of all these artists who were selling everything from clothing to jewelry, from metalwork to photography prints. I really enjoyed perusing and talking to some of the local artists, especially one who is building his own clothing line and one who superimposes gel prints of local buildings over old maps. In fact, I bought his print of Preservation Hall over a map. I would have left right then, but as I was leaving a lady caught my attention. She was sitting near the ground and her deal was that she would make a poem for you, printed, on the spot, for a donation. We talked for maybe fifteen minutes – actual chatting with a local, which I think is just as rich a cultural experience and strolling the streets. Ultimately I asked for a poem, she let me choose the paper she would use and as she fed it into her typewriter, I told her she could choose the topic. She said to come back in about 15 minutes and I went back in the market. This is how I had the opportunity to cross Josh Hailey’s stand, which incidentally was closest to the street. His photo art was based on traveling the US and taking photos – the “Photamerica” project. He had six photo collages from each state and I immediately went for the Oregon stack. I really liked the work, narrowed down the six and ultimately chose one that I think will look great framed in my place. He even packed it in cardboard for my luggage. Two great pieces of local art in hand, I went back for my poem. She read me the poem – I really like it, especially for coming up with it basically on the spot, and paid her some cash. Into my bag it went, carefully, and I decided it was the right time to head back home. I was going to type up a blog post. Except not.
As I passed the Spotted Cat Club, turned the corner and approached the next intersection, a major street which basically begins the not-so-great part of town, I recognized the woman standing on the corner – she had been at the booth where I just purchased the Oregon print, but she wasn’t a customer, she was behind the scenes, a friend of the artist, perhaps, who was just stopping by. I was heading home, but she said something to catch my attention, so I stopped. It was a red light after all. She was concerned that I was entering this area of questionable safety with an expensive camera hanging off my shoulder and gave me some insight and tips for how the locals stay safe in this area – walking down the middle of the street, staying in the light, etc. I found out Chelsea is actually an independent marketing consultant (I think?) for some of the local events (like JazzFest) and artists, including Josh Hainey.
In any case, we were walking the the same general direction – me toward the far end of Marigny and her just past that, into the Bywater. It’s not that long of a walk – 1-2 miles? – but at nighttime, we agreed that the safest move would be to walk together. Don’t they always say to stay in groups when you’re in a questionable location? So we walked for a while and while I appreciated her concern for my safety, I also really loved the insight I received, on the neighborhood, the city, it’s triumphs and failings, what Southern life is like, and I was especially interested in hearing about the community politics and how Hurricane Katrina changed life there. And , oh yes, it was spoken with an Aussie accent. Conversation was easy and fun. Seriously, though, we grow so much richer – especially those of us who love to travel and experience new cultures – by hearing firsthand accounts from people, real people who live there. It was great. My “tour” of the area also involved learning about her preferred store for 24 hour shopping and the better (and safer) restaurants and bars in the area. Very useful info, since I had tried to find a store that was open late just a couple nights ago. I didn’t get to work on my blog as expected, but this surprise more than made up for it. After my journey home had now turned into several hours, we eventually parted ways. I hope that if I even come back to New Orleans, which incidentally will likely happen this summer on a road trip with friends, that I will have a new friend, tour guide, local expert, great person to hang out with, there. Thanks, Chelsea from New Orleans for the unexpectedly awesome evening.