Let’s fly down, or drive down, to New Orleans,
That city, with its pretty historic scenes;
I’ll take you, parade you, on Bourbon Street,
You’ll see all the hot spots, talk to all the big shots,
Down on Bourbon Street…
We were camped in Fontainebleau State Park, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain and a short hour north of New Orleans. That morning as we ate breakfast, the excellent WWOZ-90.7 played (of course?) Louis Armstrong’s Christmas Time in New Orleans. Louis’s voice, so rich and tied to so many memories of my early life with my parents where jazz figured prominently, filled me with nostalgia. OK, maybe we should go see New Orleans, we agreed. I know, you’re probably thinking “What! An hour out of New Orleans and they weren’t going?!” Dare I admit we were actually considering bypassing it? Too many reasons, but suddenly none of them seemed good.
I did some quick recalculations of our route and called the office at Bayou Segnette State Park, about thirty minutes from New Orleans. In a conversation with the incredibly taciturn woman who answered the phone and gave up information as if she had to dispense it against her will, I managed to confirm they had space. That cemented it.
Then, as we were getting ready to leave Fontainebleau, doubt showed up. Roland was outside disconnecting the various umbilical cords and I heard him get into a conversation with someone. It turned out to be a guy named Charles, whom we’d already run into at two other state parks, both in Florida. He didn’t remember us, or maybe he didn’t recognize Roland with his newly-shaved face, but we remembered him. And Charles was talking about his visit, or non-visit, to New Orleans.
We drove into New Orleans, he said, and we drove around for half an hour, and then we drove right out again. My wife said she was scared from the minute we got there and she didn’t start feeling safe until we got out. They must have done some walking around though, because he also told us about a terrible lunch they had in some place recommended to them and also said a guy in one of the places on Bourbon Street told him not to camp in the campground downtown and not to go out at night. No place was safe, warned Charles. I hate to say it, but coming from a man who, by his own account is a seasoned traveler, someone who’s full-timed for several years and suggested all kinds of places to visit as we head west, the warning gave me pause.
I heard Charles’s story and the “rag man” came out of the darkness and started rattling his bag of bones inside me. Fear. What are we doing, taking ourselves and our little vulnerable doggies out into a place full of danger? Of course, as Roland so sagely reminded me, we can’t and won’t live our lives in fear. We said goodby to Charles, this time probably for the last time, finished packing up, and programmed Louis Armstrong Jazz Park into the GPS. Later on I wondered, if the city is really so treacherous, how anyone manages to get out and see any of the superb live music shows WWOZ kept talking about. It obviously can’t be as bad as all that because manage they clearly do.
We drove into New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain on what must be one of the longest bridges in the world: the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. For over twenty minutes the only thing we saw was the long ribbon of the road stretching into the sunlit nothingness in front of us and the choppy grey lake on either side of us. Imagine being on this bridge during a hurricane, I said. I’m sure they’d close it down, Roland answered. But neither of us felt wholly at ease. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the city skyline emerged – misty and mysterious – on the still-distant shore. I felt as if I’d been a long time at sea and finally saw land for the first time in years and I thrilled at the sight of it.
As soon as we “docked” and started navigating the highway system I started looking for signs of anything that might inspire fear. Anything that might make me want to turn and run in panic. Nothing. The sun was out and the people milling around looked anything but fearsome. We found parking at the Mahalia Jackson Concert Hall and then found Louis Armstrong Jazz Park adjacent to it. The day seemed golden. In the park, a sunlit bronze Louis Armstrong, horn in hand, beamed down at us benevolently against a backdrop of blue sky. Whatever apprehension I still felt vanished right there and then.
The historic French Quarter, a place of ornate buildings and streets with iconic names, was buzzing. Mostly tourists but also locals just going about their business. And there were dozens of street performers: mimes, musicians (solo or in groups), a guy who’d insult you if you paid him, a Darth Vader imitator doing some kind of weird dance to When the Saints Come Marching In. It was a vibrant, dizzying, mesmerizing show, a show probably almost entirely staged to entice the throngs of visitors to part with some of their cash.
On the streets or inside the hundreds of shops – you could get your fortune told in one place and then buy an expensive chichi gift in the one next door – it felt like a big “sell”. And, surprisingly, a big heartless sell at that. In a store selling Christmas ornaments I bought Roland a cute little replica of an accordion. It seemed like a nice way to commemorate our visit: an ornament for future Christmases. I told the couple running the store about Roland, about how he plays accordion and how the one he has with him now got lobotomized, but they didn’t really listen. It was just me in the store so it’s not like they needed to deal with another customer, but they rushed the sale and couldn’t care less about me or my story. As soon as my cash was in the till I ceased to exist for them and they went back to discussing something between themselves, in what sounded like Italian.
And they weren’t an exception. Other than a couple of locals on the street – a biker who told us where to park for free and a young tour guide and then a cop who gave us directions – the New Orleansers we met were not the friendliest bunch. I walked into a handmade praline shop, drawn there by the rich sugary smell. Man, that’s gotta be the most wonderful smell on earth, I tried to engage the two women behind the counter in a bit of conversation. No go. Nothing more than the required level of response and a patent lack of interest in whether I came to buy or not. I didn’t.
Later, at the state park campground office, I met the woman I’d talked to that morning and she too made me feel like a nuisance. She was, actually, the most unpleasant campground attendant I’ve met in the more than one hundred and fifty campgrounds we’ve stayed in. With her, despite a half empty campground and countless vacant sites that stayed vacant all around us, my request for somewhere a little more remote bombed. All our sites are the same, she said with a stone face and flat delivery that invited no further debate and then assigned us to a spot right next to the toilets. Well, it’s just for one night, we told ourselves.
That night, as we sat inside listening again to the wonderful music offered up by WWOZ, we puzzled over why most of the people we met here seemed so charmless. Was it me? Did I do something to rub them wrong? But I haven’t met with such treatment anywhere else and my own approach doesn’t change much from place to place. So I wonder if it’s just that the locals in New Orleans are sick of the visitors. The shops depend on us, and on the mighty tourist dollar, but maybe they resent that dependance. Being the magnet that it is, there are so many people in New Orleans all the time that maybe it wears on the people who actually call it home. In the same way I used to get bugged by the summertime crowds congesting downtown Vancouver and making my lunchtime walks an obstacle course, it’s likely New Orleans locals get tired of having to maneuver around throngs of people who only come there to skim the cream off the surface. Maybe, after so many years, the hospitality gig has worn thin.
Yet I was sad to leave New Orleans the next day. I even suggested going back and wandering around the French Quarter again, just to feel the electricity of it one last time. We didn’t. We drove away from the razzle dazzle and back to our camping life. Going back to city again wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. I don’t believe NOLA is the type of place you can get under the skin of too quickly. The Paris of North America – it’s too iconic, too rich in textures and history and music. Still, listening to that awesome local radio station the night before we left, I felt that maybe I actually did get a tiny taste of the real, behind the scenes, New Orleans. That’s the memory I will take with me.
And for Roland’s take on our New Orleans visit…