Saturday, May 28, 2005


As I sit at my computer this morning browsing through familiar sites and sights I came across a picture that brought New Orleans flooding back to me. It could also be the tree-lined street where I now live or it could be the picture I found of New Orleans lit up like a Christmas tree, but it's there and refuses to leave my mind.

Somewhere, packed away in my furniture and mementos of lives past, is a picture of me in a red-and-white-striped jacket next to a cart shaped like a giant hot dog beneath a red-and-white-striped umbrella. Luck Dogs is painted in big letters on the bun and it was the only thing between me and starvation or an ignominious retreat home with my tail between my legs.

Those were the days

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I saw New Orleans draped besides the inky waters of the Mississippi like a rippling carpet of brilliant color and twinkling lights. The window was open and exotic spices laced with a hint of some indefinable yet familiar odor teased my senses. I found the Lee Circle YMCA and checked into a Spartan room, dropped my luggage, grabbed my purse and headed out into the warm and fragrant November night. Everywhere I looked was a feast of light, sound, scent and color unlike anything I'd seen before. An old streetcar rumbled by, clacking and shaking along the iron track sunk into the asphalt on its way to Canal Street, the main drag in downtown New Orleans. Flowers and trees beneath a dark sky glittered with fairy lights. Strains of jazz and the musical sound of Southern voices led me on like a Pied Piper back down toward the Mississippi and the hidden jewel of the Vieux Carre - the French Quarter.

The head of Bourbon Street is a dim alley between two old stores on Canal. At first I wondered if I was in the right place. It is dark and cramped and anonymous, just an alley, but like the tunnel that Aladdin followed to the treasure cave, once I crossed the shadowy lane I stood in awed amazement as a heart of feverishly garish lights spilled out like a lighted Persian carpet before me. The French Quarter. I had arrived.

Each block is a heady and overwhelming mixture of mingled melodies, from rock and hip-hop to Dixieland and smoky sensuous jazz. Street people mingle with tourists and scrawny black children tap dance on pop bottle tops embedded into the soles and heels of their sneakers while street hustlers urge you to follow them inside lighted rooms where infomercials get their start.

You can get anything in the Quarter: Cajun and Creole, French and ethnic foods, condos, vacations, rips to old southern plantations, tourist mementos and even sex. Young girls and boys of every flavor and color sidle up to likely marks and whisper about furtive dates as New Orlean's finest stroll along, each aware of the other but doing their different businesses until the word is given and the sweep begins and ends quietly and efficiently; it's all part of the game. Street entertainers dance, sing, play music, juggle and mime for tips and the living blood of the trade -- tourists -- work their way to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral where artists, palm readers, psychics and metaphysicians cluster in gypsy formation around the black wrought iron bars while Andrew Jackson sits a rearing horse in an emerald square of grass and riotous colored flowers. Just across the street at the Cafe du Monde the scent of sugared beignets and chicory coffee waft along warm breezes and the Mississippi slides past like an oil slick in the dark beyond the reach of the lighted Quarter.

On nearly every street corner, hot dog-shaped carts offer eight inches of meat with a variety of sweet and savory toppings, depending on the vendor. I was once one of their number: the hot dog lady.

But that is a story for another time.

I'll shut up now.

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