Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I Learned in New Orleans

It's my last morning in New Orleans, and in a couple of hours I will trundle my suitcase downstairs to the cab stand and spend the rest of the day in airports. I've only been to the city twice, once with friends and once alone, so I don't claim to say that I know the city now and that my word is law. These are just the things that have occurred to me since Sunday.

1) Some of the city is really pretty. Like I posted the other day, Jackson Square and parts of the French Quarter are really pretty, as is the riverfront. Yesterday, at Kristin's suggestion, I took the St. Charles streetcar:

st. charles streetcar (2)

down to the Garden District, and the houses were beautiful:

the garden district (3)

the garden district (6)

the garden district (7)

the garden district (9)

the garden district (11)

They're Anne Rice houses, with columns and trees and gardens and statues. More than anything, I want to go home and reread The Witching Hour (but not the books after it because Jesus, she sure went off the rails with that series in a hurry).

And the houses aren't the only thing that's pretty. Even the inside of the streetcar is charming:

streetcar interior

with their wooden benches and brass handles and old-fashioned windows that slide up and down. I've been on mass transit systems in a number of cities, and I've never gotten on a subway and thought, "Oh, this is so cute!" I could have been Melissa on "The Real World: New Orleans" (season nine, not season twenty-four, which I had no idea even existed before googling this morning) riding to the house on the trolley to meet six strangers with my suitcase and my huge bag of rice.

Also, if you live in the Garden District, this is your Fresh Market:

the garden district (5)

It is inside of a mansion, and has a porch.

And your trees are covered, year round, with beads:

the garden district (10)

So, to sum up this point, New Orleans is not ugly. It has some rough spots, but there is gorgeous scenery here, beautiful neighborhoods, random statues everywhere:

joan of arc (2)


Molly Marine

and a lot of charm.

2) Some of the city is really ugly. And I don't mean the lower socioeconomic areas. Every city of any size has those. I mean the tourist areas. Maybe I've gotten old, maybe I've become conservative, or maybe this just really is in poor taste, but there's no excuse for things like this:

drunk lady

That lady is drunk at three in the afternoon. I, and everyone else on the sidewalk, can verify that she is wearing neither a bra nor underwear, because we have all seen her breasts, butt, pubic hair, and some of her vagina. She gleefully pulled her clothing up or down for people walking by, and a gang of guys working on some road construction kept egging her on. The really ugly part is that the city seems to welcome this, and they haven't even tried to class it up with a cheesy tagline like the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" people. New Orleans tourist culture doesn't just want you drinking; it wants you drunk. It wants you to have a shot or ten from the shot-gun:

shot gun

and then flash the world your breasts for some beads:


and then drink some more.

The tourism industry here, which I thought was fantastic in my youth, now strikes me as sad and slightly vulgar.

I've gotten old.

This brings me to my third point, which is:

3) I shouldn't come here again by myself. I'm not good at navigating strange towns. Some people wade gleefully into traffic and strike out, plan-less and map-less in the spirit of adventure, but I'm not one of those people. I want to know where we're going, how we're getting there, and if we might get shot on the way. I want to know where the things that I like to do are, and I don't want a thousand suggestions from people who want me to conform to their idea of fun, especially after I make it clear that I don't want those suggestions.

Take your own trip, people, and skip as many conference sessions as you want, get as drunk as you want, and eat as many beignets as you want. That's not why I'm here.

My school paid to send me here for a specific purpose, and that means I have a responsibility to follow that purpose. I have to go to sessions. I have to go to meals. I have to avoid skipping things, and I have to bring back ideas and contacts that will help us to better serve our students. I might get to squeeze in some sightseeing and a nice dinner out, but that's a bonus, not a goal. Maybe your employer doesn't care if they spend a couple thousand dollars sending you somewhere and you squander the money on Hurricanes and vomiting, but I feel like mine does. Maybe I'm old and square and rule-following, but if you're my friend you already know that, and just because the conference happens to be in New Orleans rather than in Scranton doesn't mean that it's ok to fling everything out the window.

In closing, I'm not saying that I'm not coming back. I would love to come back on vacation with someone who knows the city better than I do and wants to do something besides drink. We'll see if that happens.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dinner at Grand Oaks Mansion

Last night we had dinner at the venerable Grand Oaks Mansion, strolling the terraces and gardens as we ate traditional New Orleans cuisine (most of which I didn't eat because seafood is vile, but interjecting that is ruining the mood) beneath the stars:

grand oaks mansion

We meandered over the paths and grounds beneath the stately oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, shivering in the air conditioning that was set too high.

The mansion grounds were air conditioned because there is no mansion. The grounds are fake. The stars are tiny lights in the painted ceiling. The oaks are made of plaster. The entire venue is inside a warehouse, down by the river in a neighborhood filled with barred windows and burned out lots.

And yet it was still somehow magical.

The best part of the night wasn't even dinner, or the mansion. It was exploring the warehouse complex, Mardi Gras World, where they make and store the floats that are used for Mardi Gras parades. We didn't really know what to expect when we pulled up:

mardi gras world (1)

and when you first enter you can't see very much, just an entrance and some random large figures:

mardi gras world (2)

mardi gras world (3)

mardi gras world (4)

mardi gras world (5)

but then you go around a corner and you're in the warehouse and it's huge and full of figures!

mardi gras world (6)

mardi gras world (7)

mardi gras world (8)

Some of the figures are easily recognizable:

mardi gras world (9)

and some are pretty famous:

mardi gras world (10)

mardi gras world (11)

mardi gras world (12)

but mostly they're just random:

mardi gras world (13)

mardi gras world (14)

I have no idea how they keep track of them, because there didn't seem to be any pattern to the way they were placed or stored and, as I said, the warehouse complex is huge:

mardi gras world (16)

It was like being on the backlot at Disney World, and even though everything was completely fake it was still sort of magical.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Nobody says I'm pretty!": My First 24 Hours in New Orleans

I'm currently in New Orleans for a conference. My hotel room has a small balcony, which I ventured out onto since it doesn't have a sign warning me about "desert critters" like my balcony in Arizona did, and took in the view:

hotel view

which is a tiny crack of the city, visible between the tall buildings surrounding me on every side. Since I couldn't actually see any of the city from the balcony (I can see the pool, which on Sunday was filled with dudes and bros in their twenties, but I felt sort of old and creepy staring down at all of the pectorals from my secluded perch) I went out yesterday, walked around with my camera, and took in the sights, right before things got weird.

The weirdness wasn't totally unexpected, though, because this is New Orleans, and I've been here before.

The other time I visited New Orleans was in 2003. We went to a football game, went on a cemetery tour, and drank pretty much continuously for a four day weekend. I also met this dog:

Photo Dog

He sat quietly on his crate while people put money in his cup and posed with photos with him. You were supposed to think he was there all by himself, a street-performing canine panhandler, but I figured out pretty quickly that his owner was standing a few feet away, watching to make sure that nobody hurt him and directing him to keep sitting with hand signals. He trembled a little when people touched him, but overall he was just adorable, and it's the part of my trip that's stuck with me the most in the decade since. This probably makes me a horrible person, but when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and death and suffering rolled continuously on the news for weeks, I thought about that dog every time I saw the press coverage, and hoped he was ok.

I bring up Katrina because I had a discussion about it with someone who tried to sell me tour tickets down in the French Quarter yesterday. When I came down before, there were Ghost Tours, Cemetery Tours, Haunted Tours, Historical Tours, Swamp Tours, and Plantation Tours, but now there are also Katrina Tours, and I'm wasn't sure how to feel about that, so I asked the tour guide.

"Do people ever ask you if those tours are, you know, kind of in poor taste?"

"Those tours help people. People lost their homes, their jobs, those tours help those people."

I can sort of see that. If there are no jobs, I guess making some money by touring people through the wreckage of where your home used to be is the kind of optimistic "life hands you lemons, so make lemonade!" spirit that Americans love, but at the same time it still seems kind of terrible and exploitative.

"How, exactly, does it help people?"

"Well... the tourists come. And spend money."

"So some of the tour money goes to the people who lost their homes?"

"Well, no."

I see. The Katrina Tour helps people who already had money by exploiting people who need it.

Needless to say, I did not buy a ticket.

I did take a cab down to Jackson Square, though, in the heart of the French Quarter, so that I could walk around and see the psychics and performers and artists and pretty buildings:


band (1)

andrew jackson

saint louis cathedral (1)


random view (1)

random view (2)

saint louis cathedral (2)

robot statue

Later I saw one of the robot guys taking a break:

on break

I guess after a while you just get used to walking around covered in silver body paint.

I passed on having a psychic reading, on going on a French Quarter carriage ride:


and on visiting Café du Monde:

cafe du monde

because I've done that before.

I called my parents, letting this duo serenade them over the phone:

band (2)

and then I walked over to the river:

bridge and steamboat

heron? crane? egret?


and the French Market:

french market (1)

french market (2)

french marketplace

joan of arc (2)

and then I ran into the devil:


Watching Satan pose for photos on the steps of the church wasn't even the strangest thing that happened to me yesterday.

The strangest thing was the crying girl who gave me a hat on my way to Bourbon Street.

As I was walking toward Bourbon Street, I passed a girl leaning against a wall, sobbing, and screaming into her phone:


She was probably slightly drunk, and probably relatively safe since she was in a tourist area in the middle of the afternoon, but I was still a little concerned because she was so upset and distraught, so I stopped.

"Are you ok?"

She was so into crying and screaming into the phone that I don't think she was even aware that I was there until I spoke.


"Are you all right?"

"MY BOYFRIEND IS A JERK!" Possibly, although you may not be an unbiased source. Is that him on the phone? "NOBODY SAYS I'M PRETTY!"

"I'm sorry."


And then she gave me a brand new New Orleans baseball cap with the tags still on it.

I didn't think I should take it, but she was already walking away, and hey, free hat! I took all of the tags off and put it in the pocket of my cargo shorts, but ultimately did not keep it. Instead I have it to Richard when I met him and his wife for dinner, where I had an authentic New Orleans muffaletta:


Before I did that, though, I did do one other thing to commemorate my previous trip.

I walked down to Bourbon Street to the Tropical Isle:

tropical isle

and even though it wasn't yet four in the afternoon, I ordered myself a Hand Grenade:

hand grenade

On my previous trip to New Orleans, we drank a ton of these. I had so many of those little plastic grenades in my suitcase when we got home that I could have played "war" and been my own plastic army, so I figured that if I was back in New Orleans again there was no better way to experience nostalgia and attempt to recapture my lost youth than to wander Bourbon Street in the middle of the afternoon with a delicious Hand Grenade in my hand and a song in my heart.

Except that I discovered yesterday that I must have already been drunk to the point of tongue numbness the last time I had one of those.

Hand Grenades aren't really all that delicious, and wandering the streets of New Orleans with a drink in my hand at four in the afternoon just seemed kind of sad.

I drank the whole thing anyway.