Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Drove My Chevy to the Levee

And the levee was GOOD!!!

Okay, so here’s the story. Last Friday was not a pleasant day. It made me weary and grumpy. Naturally I called my friend MKA so I could share the weary-grumpiness over the phone – isn’t that what friends are for? Turns out MKA was having the exact same kind of day, compounded by the fact that her boyfriend’s back was out and he was not going to be able to accompany her to their home town of New Orleans for Memorial Day as they had been planning for months. And then (cue choir of heavenly angels) MKA showed me what friends really ARE for – she took me with her to New Orleans instead!!

I had never been to New Orleans. I was lucky enough to go this time with a native, who showed me all her personal historical landmarks, as well as narrated all the things that have changed since Katrina. I confess I was a little nervous to go, given that the footage following that hurricane was so horrifying, but it was beautiful. It was marvelous. It was SUCH a good weekend. We had a great time, and the city is rebounding so amazingly well. New Orleans looks good, and I felt so much better for having seen it. It was a feel-good weekend all round.

The weekend started with a rental car. A rental car the color of fake cheese. It was the yellowest Chevy I have ever laid eyes on. We played the Yellower Than game until we found the exact equivalent. “I think our car is yellower than the sun.” “I think our car is yellower than Big Bird.” “I think our car is yellower than Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.” And then we saw it, rising in the distance over the hood of our yellow car – a Best Buy. Turns out our car was the EXACT same shade of yellow as the Best Buy sign.

In case you were wondering, neither MKA or I is really ‘street’ enough to pull off a car that color. We were ludicrously mismatched with our wheels for the weekend. It is REALLY hard to blend in with the surroundings when you drive a car that yellow. Also, when drunk people on Bourbon Street look at you disdainfully driving your Vehicle of Poor Taste, you know you’ve sunk to a new low. I mean, when they guy wearing a giant condom on his head publicly expresses disdain for your taste, you have to wonder if you’ve stepped through the looking glass somewhere…

So. There we were in our Big Bird Yellow Car, driving through New Orleans. We parked it (an adventure of its own that really just won’t bear repeating) and went to the apartment of MKA’s friends. We stayed in their beautiful apartment near Jackson Square in the French Quarter, and I fell in love with wrought-iron balconies on the spot. And with the sounding horns of riverboats in the night – so Mark Twain! The French Quarter is more my speed during the day, but it was certainly worth a visit at night. It’s a phenomenon you just have to experience at least once, at least as a looker-on (which was my preferred method of experiencing it). Bourbon Street at night (any night) is a combined frat party, street party, bachelor party, parade, freaks-and-geeks circus, and peep show. Big Daddy’s has these fake plastic legs that swing out over the street repeatedly – I assume this is supposed to be sexy and alluring. Maybe it was once upon a time when they had a real burlesque girl on the swing, but now that it’s fake legs in fishnets, it just seemed kind of sad to me. Karaoke bars compete for the loudest and most successful rendition of ‘Living on a Prayer’ or ‘Blister in the Sun’. Strip bars and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ – an oxymoron if ever I saw one – compete with photographs, neon signs and real girls dancing in silhouette on shaded windows to lure in customers. Dueling pianos and vat-sized hurricanes at the piano bar in Pat O’Brien’s. Street performers – gifted and otherwise – playing to their own mental concert halls on the sidewalks. Restaurants selling pizza and daiquiris side by side with demure or swanky places that serve mouth-watering crawfish étouffée. Dixieland music pouring brassy phrases out of Preservation Hall. Tacky gift shops shoulder to shoulder with crowded antique stores and art galleries. People walk the streets with their beers and hurricanes in hand, cheering the police officers as they walk by. It’s so weird for that to be legal. But what struck me the most about my strolls down Bourbon Street at night, were that some people were out in the middle of all that with very small children. Of all the things I saw – the poor taste, the overtly sexual signs and behavior, the blind drunkenness – the thing that offended me most were people walking through it all at 11 pm with little kids ranging in age from 1-10 years. That’s just wrong.

What is absolutely and perfectly right about New Orleans is the food. If I lived there I would not be able to live in one of the darling little cottages in the French Quarter because I would soon outgrow it. New Orleans is where good food goes to heaven so it can be even better. We ate at the Gumbo Shack my first night and had all sorts of tasty treats: étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, maque choux. We ended that evening with beignets at Café du Monde. Beignets (pronounced ben-yay, or in my world, ben-YAY!!!) are deep-fried pieces of dough served hot with about a bucket of powdered sugar on top. At a café that NEVER CLOSES. For food that lacks chocolate, beignets are surprisingly close to the top of my list of all-time favorite foods. The next day we ate two meals at Mother’s. Mother’s from the outside appears to be a red-brick shack, and from the inside a sort of bustling greasy-dive food joint, but for me, Mother’s is a name I shall always utter with reverence. The food there is DIVINE. We had shrimp and debris po boys – and we had them properly dressed with mustard, mayo, butter, pickles and cabbage, as God intended. Mmmmm…. delicious.

Okay. So I have to stop talking about the food or I’ll get homesick. On Sunday MKA and I hit the road in the Bright Yellow Menace, heading out of town to see a real plantation. We drove 60 miles up the river to see Oak Alley, a sugar cane plantation that was built in the 1840s (I may have the date wrong by a few years). It has an alley of massive 300 year old live oaks in front. Despite limbs lost to the hurricane, the alley is still stunning. In fact, the highlight of that side trip for me was seeing those trees. They were awe-inspiring. The house is beautiful too. In fact, the grounds and the day were so beautiful, that MKA and I ducked out of the rather stilted tour we had paid to join so we could wander on our own. Before leaving the plantation we stopped at the nearby levee – I was extremely tickled to note that we drove our Chevy to the levee – and had a moment of communion with the mighty Mississippi. Then we hit the road with our Sonic Cherry Limeades and headed back to town. I was glad to have seen a plantation, and to have seen one that acknowledged its history of slaves, although I wasn’t really comfortable there. Beautiful, but disturbing.

We went to the New Orleans Museum of Art when we got back. Stood in the sun for 30 minutes to get in – I got a slight sunburn but MKA proved that she’s still more reflective than anything else. The girl is pale, and that’s coming from ME, a girl whose sister charitably refers to my skin tone as ‘bisque.’ The government of France has put together an amazing exhibit of paintings of French women from the mid-19th century to Picasso, as a way of helping Louisiana recover from the devastation of Katrina. Judging from the line we stood in, it’s definitely boosting cultural tourism in the area. The paintings assembled for the exhibit are great, and they come from more than two dozen different museums in France, so it’s not likely they’ll ever be in one spot again. I recommend Femme, femme, femme for those who are interested. The museum didn’t really control the number of people in the exhibit halls, so it was frustratingly crowded, but the paintings are the focus and they were worth it. My favorite was a painting of Rosa Bonheur, a French woman who was the most famous female painter of her age. The painting was done in 1895, a few years before her death at age 77. She’s sitting in her studio wearing men’s clothes (considered shocking at the time – she had to get permission from the police to do so!), surrounded by her paintings of lions and horses (painting animals was not considered feminine), looking right at the viewer. She looks like a lady with a dry sense of humor, little patience for idiots, and a lot of spirit.

Back in the French Quarter we went to the Blue Dog Gallery, where the artist Rodrige shows his work. His paintings of what appears to be a very soulful smurf-blue Corgi have become iconic in New Orleans. I’m a big fan of the blue dog now. Rodrige also sells some prints of his Blue Dog series online as a means of raising funds for post-Katrina aid.

Katrina has made its mark and the city will definitely never be the same again. It silenced me to see the searchers’ marks still spray-painted on some of the buildings – marks that indicated that the house had been searched, how many people had been accounted for dead or alive, if there were gas leaks, etc. But on reflection it seemed striking that I didn’t see more of those given how little time has passed since the utter devastation of that storm. Most of all I was impressed with how far New Orleans has come, and how energetically it seems to be renewing itself. The haves and have nots still live cheek-by-jowl in New Orleans, sometimes jarringly so, but everyone seems to be joined in the effort to recreate their home, to restore it, or to make it better.

I had a grand time in New Orleans. It was such an unexpected gift, to have a weekend away with a good friend, in a place so removed from my daily routine, and in such an appealing place. New Orleans is recovering, y’all, and I recommend you enjoy it if you can. The streetcars aren’t back yet, and the Spanish moss may take a few more years to return to its former furry glory, but there are mardi gras beads hanging from the trees in every neighborhood, and the beignets are calling your name.


Frazzled Farm Wife said...

Sounds like a glorious weekend. I am glad you had a great time with a good friend.

L-Bean said...

I'm of the opinion that cars should not be yellow. My husband thinks that's irrational, especially since yellow is my favorite color. However, he's biased-- his drives a yellow car.

jen said...

Oh my, have you brought me back to our visit to New Orleans in 1994! Ben-YAY, indeed. They've been on my 'Best Foods Ever' list since my first taste at Cafe du Monde.

For me, the most memorable thing about that trip was how amazing the city SMELLED. I have no idea whether Katrina has messed that up, but we were there in the spring and the scents of river, good coffee, baking, flowers, spices -- everything merged to create the most amazing smell. Coming from NYC at the time, you can imagine the shock of finding a city that smelled like THAT!

LaLa said...

Totally agree that cars should not be yellow. I'll go you one further: neither should couches or shoes.

Jen - the best smell was the magnolias. I miss them up here, but they were in full bloom in NO. I took one lemony petal with me so I'd have a little souvenir.

Jolandi Kerstetter said...

Glorious, indeed. New Orleans is the gem of Louisiana, there's no question about it. The French Quarter is the best. It's so nice to go bar hopping there, drinking fine French wine while listening to smooth New Orleans jazz.

Carson Wininger said...

“I think our car is yellower than Big Bird.”--- Haha! And there, I remember Sesame Street! :D Well, you may not get used to the attention, but when you have a car that is as bright as the sun, you should really expect to have all eyes on you. The next time you have a car like this, I think it’s better to enjoy and have fun. After all, the trip is more important, right? :)