Sunday, September 19, 2004

Something old is new again...

More than 20 years ago I had an adventure in New Orleans, some of which I have alluded to. My mother found a piece I wrote about it immediately after the adventure and sent me a copy. If you're interested in new old stories...

Vacation can be such an ugly word when you're stuck in a strange city with no money, very few clothes, and no transportation. In fact, vacation isn't really the word I would use. The word is nightmare. No, that isn't exactly right either. If you're stuck in a nightmare all you have to do is wake up. When you're stranded in New Orleans for the first time in your life waking up won't help. Maybe I should get right down to cases and tell you about my most memorable vacation.

New Orleans conjures visions of Mardi Gras, parties, dancing in the streets, parades, and, if I'm to be totally honest, drunken revelry.

I arrived in New Orleans with a knowledgeable friend across a bridge of light. I thought I was on the road to a romantic adventure. It was an adventure all right, but I'm still not sure what kind.

We stayed at the YMCA at Lee Circle, so named for its geometric configuration and the fact that a bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee astride a horse decorates the center of a cement circle amid a beautiful floral display.

If you're ever in need of neat and inexpensive accommodations, the YMCA in any town is ideal.

My room was comfortable and clean, if a bit Spartan. Downstairs was a restaurant specializing in healthy cuisine, a swimming pool and an exercise room all available for use very cheaply. My friend and I were quartered on different floors, which is where my trouble began. When I awoke the next morning ready to see the sights, he had disappeared. Checking at the desk I discovered he had checked out. This wasn't a major problem unless I add that when I checked on my car it had checked out with him, along with most of the money in my wallet. To be fair, I must admit that he did leave me $50, most of which I spent in a pay phone trying to locate him. I should have saved my cash.

My vacation had begun in earnest.

As I said before, staying at the Y is a really good choice. It's economic and they house an agency known as Travelers Aid, a fact I didn't know until I converted most of my money to quarters and dumped them uselessly into the public telephone. Indeed, Travelers Aid is a miraculous agency. They called all around Florida, where my friend and I had been living before the vacation, and Indiana, where his parents resided, to assist me in tracking him down.

Our friends in Florida were very helpful. They told me he had sold all the furniture in my apartment, which they were in the process of removing, and gave notice to the landlord that we were moving out. This was bad news enough, but I also discovered that he had mentioned that after dropping me off in New Orleans (a fact of which I had been completely unaware) he was heading west.

The next step was contacting his parents in Indianapolis who were kind, but of no help at all. They had disowned him several years before. The Travelers Aid representative smiled understandingly and asked me if I had anyone else I wanted to call. My first instinct was to phone my parents, but being the proud, upstanding, and thoroughly bull-headed individual that I am, I decided to tough it out alone.

Travelers Aid offered me an option. If I would like to stay in New Orleans they would offer me two weeks of help in finding a job, give me some free coupons for local fast food restaurants and allow me to use their phone and address in order to make job contacts. The hitch was that I would have to find a job. I also had to find a place to live. The YMCA wasn't free.

If I had been a man, my alternatives would have been better, but as a woman there were few choices. I could sleep on the street, in the McDonald's restaurant on Canal Street (as long as I continued to buy something to eat) or I could go to the Baptist Mission on Magazine Street, which was the rub.

As a woman I would only be allowed to stay at the mission every other night since their policy forbade women staying two nights in succession. Had I been a man I would have been allowed to stay every night for a small charge or I could rent a lounge during the day. I guess women didn't need accommodations on a regular basis. There were other options, but I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel yet.

Food wouldn't be much of a problem with my small supply of coupons ($5.00 a day). When the coupons ran out I could also go down to the monastery on Tchoupitoulas, which only housed men, and get a free meal from the monks. This involved waiting in a very long line with a motley group consisting of winos, street people, and the like. Being a woman was a bonus-finally. Being of the female gender meant I went to the head of the line. (I guess the monks were afraid of the influence of feminine wiles being used on their parishioners if we stayed out there among the men too long.) If you had a male friend you could pose as a couple and get ahead of the line together to enjoy a filling meal of bland variety and taste.

The Baptist Mission was my first stop since I must vacate my YMCA room in a couple of days-we had prepaid several days in advance. I got down to the business at hand and began pounding the streets, and the YMCA's free phone, for a job-to no avail. Every interviewer I contacted asked the same question: "Why did you decide to move to New Orleans?" I couldn't very well tell them the truth. Could I?

"Why, I moved here to enjoy the scenery?" No, that didn't sound quite right. "I have friends down here who recommended it highly." Well, that was closer to the truth, but it still didn't get me any jobs. Finally, I gave in after uncounted rejections and near misses and walked down into the French Quarter, the tarnish pearl of New Orleans.

Walking into the Vieux Carre, as it is called by the residents, was like entering a foreign world. The sights, sounds, and smells that assail you there are at once delicious and pernicious. Little red lobster-like creatures were piled high on many a platter in vivid display while inexperienced visitors smiled weakly while patient waiters and waitresses educated them in the proper handling, disposal and enjoyment of the native delicacies known as crawfish (or mudbugs to the unknowing).

At other tables in diverse establishments practiced patrons downed quantities of raw oysters on the half shell garnished with myriad combinations of chili sauce, hot sauce, lemon juice and horseradish, either directly from the shell or on saltines with expressive relish. The usual fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, and cafeteria-style menus were also represented alongside places that offered pizza slice or whole pies and a local staple-the muffaletta.

The muffaletta is a large round of hearth-baked bread which is split in half and topped with meat slices and cheese and grilled in pizza ovens. When the toasted concoction is removed from the oven it is opened once again and a salad of marinated olives, onions, and secret spices is deposited. Once the top is precariously in place it is cut into quarters and served. Only a person with a hearty appetite and a disregard for his gastronomic capacity should attempt to eat an entire muffaletta. While it is an enjoyable feast, it is nevertheless a feast which could easily feed four, or two with good appetites.

Aside from the visible victuals of the French Quarters, there are a host of more fashionable restaurants that tantalize the passerby with edible curiosities possessing names out of fiction novels from days gone by. There are gumbos, etoufees, French cuisine of infinite variety and name, and the more standard fare of mainstream enterprises. Nothing is left to chance in the Quarter's offerings. All tastes and novelties are represented in an astonishing array of cuisine.

If you have the urge to partake of liquid refreshment, there too the French Quarters outdoes itself with selections of the more pedestrian type as well as a Baskin-Robbins-style place where you can buy daiquiris that span an entire spectrum of taste and visual array unequaled anywhere. You may take your libation anywhere in the Quarter, or the city for that matter, and quench your thirst as you stroll among the shops, restaurants and sights. In some locations you may even buy a souvenir glass named for your particular cocktail, such as the Hurricane, that was first invented and distributed by Pat O'Brien's on Right upper extremity St. Peter-named for the famous actor Pat O'Brien. Don't misunderstand, you can purchase the Hurricane in any locale in Louisiana but its birthplace is Pat O's, as it is affectionately called by the denizens.

There are the usual assortment of tourist traps and scams that abound in areas where money flows freely from vacationers-or conventioneers. Racy lingerie and accessories, feather masks, Mardi Gras loot, Voodoo toys and sundry souvenirs can be found in any number of shops. If you prefer a more expensive remembrance you need only walk over to Right upper extremity Royale and browse the antique, jewelry, crystal and Civil War emporiums that sedately announce their presence in authentic storefronts dating back to the Quarter's colorful and roguish past.

Above the hustle of commercial fanfare in the cobblestone streets of the Quarter perch the wrought iron balconies where, during Carnival time, revelers drop tokens, beads and other festive trappings on celebrants in the streets. In calmer times, the balconies perch above the spectacle like decorous structures of an age gone by.

Chief among the architectural wonders of the French Quarter is the St. Louis cathedral, its gothic presence a brooding counterpoint to the riot of kaleidoscopic chaos that reigns in its very shadow. The verdant plaza that fronts the cathedral is known as Jackson Square, so named for the fenced-in sanctuary that boasts a bronze statue of General Andrew Jackson mounted on a rearing stallion.

The chief attraction of Jackson Square is not so much the converted structure of Jax Brewery, now honeycombed with eateries and shops, the Café du Monde, where the airy sugar-dusted confection of beignets hold sway, or the moonwalk, that lover's lane along the banks of the Mississippi River where you can purchase a ride on one of the paddlewheel steamers that make scheduled stops there.

The main attraction is still the conglomeration of artists who have earned the right to set up their easels to display their talents for all to see and buy. Only the most persistent and most gifted artistic geniuses may pitch their tents along the wall of Jackson Square's marble and wrought iron fence.

Many other sights and delights await the earnest traveler and the milling throngs that inhabit the reaches of New Orleans and the Vieux Carre, but they are still waiting to be discovered. Brochures and catalogs hint at the mystery and beauty of New Orleans, but only a personal trip along the city's cobbled streets among its throngs will truly satisfy the senses.

Transportation choices abound in New Orleans and the French Quarter. If you have the money, you can rent a horse-drawn carriage and see the sights beneath a fringed canopy while the driver points out the salient points of interest. Walking, of course, is the main form of transportation on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter since the only cars allowed within its confines are public or delivery vehicles, thus making it easy for pedestrian traffic. If you venture outside the Quarter you will find one of the best public transportation systems in existence, which includes the St. Charles street car, still in operation.

Even in the midst of my curious misadventures I found time to stroll those historic boulevards and drink in the ambience around me. Lack of money shouldn't be a deterrent to enjoying the carnival atmosphere of New Orleans.

If you wish you can hire on at Lucky Dog to push a hot dog-shaped cart and hawk your wares to the multitudes for a percentage of the sales. If you are of a more adventurous nature you can also opt to pass out literature or try your hand at acting in any one of the local pitch shows. If you possess a commercially artistic nature you can purchase a vendor's license inexpensively and, with a few pigments and glitter, paint faces for a fee. If you're willing to undergo a little weakness, you can sell your plasma at one of the donor centers every other day for $15 or $20 to get you through the rough times. (Since they only extract the plasma and give you back your red corpuscles, you can replenish your plasma stores with a large drink-of any kind.)

There are also the street performers who dance, juggle, sing, perform magic and mime or acrobatics, tell jokes, or just entertain you for tips and spare change. Shoe shine boys are an institution in the French Quarter. For a handful of change or a couple of dollars they baffle you with their riddles, tap dance on homemade taps made of bottle caps or bits of metal, or, if you really want to polish your image, shine your shoes. Free enterprise is the name of the game and many transients, indigents, and unlucky people find their way to the Quarter to make enough money to live, eat and bolster their dignity for just one more day.

Truly, in all the world there is no place I would rather be homeless than in New Orleans where the poor and the affluent stride side by side in pursuit of their dreams.

* * *

Amazing how someone's writing can change in a few years.

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