Road Trip: New Orleans Style
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Still recovering from that bender known as Katrina, a road trip to the Big Easy reveals how New Orleans isn’t letting a little hangover prevent it from enjoying life, just like it always has.
By Ted Hesson
We decided to take a road trip for several reasons: moving, freelance work, sightseeing, hell-raising, escapism, rock and roll — the usual motives. Since it was freezing cold in New York, the three of us thought it would be smarter to move southerly before hanging a right towards the West Coast. While my two friends ventured on to California, though, my final stop on the trip would actually be New Orleans, a city that I had always wanted to visit. I expected to find, among other things: heaps of spicy seafood, Bayou-tinged blues, unparalleled architecture, non-stop debauchery and the remnants of one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. For better or for worse, it was all there.
From Atlanta, we took the slow road to the Big Easy, making a few stops along the way. We spent an hour in Montgomery, where we discovered a Disney-esque downtown devoid of inhabitants, save some chatty pharmacy workers, with whom we talked about New York, Alabama’s quiet capital and, eventually, New Orleans. “Y’all goin’ to New Orleans?” one worker said. “Na, I wouldn’t go if I were you. Y’all gonna get boogled.” Our Yankee ears must have translated it poorly, because I’m sure what she meant to say was that we would get “voodooed,” but either way, I got the point. She thought New Orleans seemed pretty freaky, and as a childhood fan of Anne Rice, I didn’t disagree. But, to put things in perspective, it was rush hour in Montgomery, and I hadn’t heard a honking horn or shouting pedestrian yet. Seemed to be just as good of a chance of getting boogled here as anywhere else. We hopped back in the van and decided to take our chances with whatever witchcraft might lay in wait.
As we drove along Route 90, the strip malls and stoplights became a bit repetitive, but we never lost the ominous feeling inspired by the uprooted oak trees that flanked the road, part of the scars and scabs on the debris-speckled Gulf Coast. This stretch of highway was hammered by Hurricane Katrina but apparently had been restored in November 2007. If there was anything else worth seeing as we drove through the rest of Mississippi, I probably missed it. Relegated to the back of the van, I crashed out on a couple of beanbags until we hit Louisiana.
When I woke up, the landscape had changed dramatically. Sand, surf and palm trees had morphed into swampy bogs. The bayou. Wide-eyed, we rolled along 90, taking in the gray-green landscape, which was occasionally accentuated by an abandoned wreck or roadside fire. It wasn’t long before we came across a hunting party, with dozens of cars parked along the sides of the road. My first, more romantic impulse was to guess that they were shooting gators, or perhaps hunting a swamp rat of mythical proportions, but they were probably after ducks or quail. When we stopped to take some photographs a little farther down the road, we heard gunshots.
* * *
By the time we reached New Orleans around 5 p.m., we were ready to stretch our legs. Well, that or hunker down on the nearest barstool. Turns out those stools were at Fat Harry’s, a smoky pub with sticky tables and friendly faces, where we planned to meet our friend Sara whose house we’d be crashing at that week. Uptown — the neighborhood southwest of the French Quarter — where Sara lived was one of the places that didn’t flood during Katrina because of its higher elevation, and although some of the buildings in the historic area suffered wind damage, we didn’t see any visible reminders of the storm.
We met Sara at the bar and ordered a few bottles of something called Purple Haze. If the uprooted trees on our ride towards the city felt foreboding, a beer named after a Hendrix song seemed quite the opposite. As it turns out, the Haze, a light, raspberry-flavored wheat beer, is made by the local brewing company Abita, so we were getting a taste of the native drink as well. After we chatted with Sara for a bit (Her thoughts: “Wow, these guys look balder and fatter than I remember them”), she suggested we walk to Casamentos Oyster House for dinner. We wanted to finish our beers first, but soon realized that chugging would be unnecessary: we watched as the locals poured their drinks out of their pint glasses and into plastic cups.
Beers in hand, we headed toward Casamentos (4330 Magazine St., 504-895-9761), about a five- or ten-minute walk down Napoleon Avenue to a part of Uptown that was closer to the Touro neighborhood. On the way, someone pointed out St. Elizabeth’s, a former orphanage that was purchased by Anne Rice in 1993 and transformed into the kind of vampire-esqe lair that you might expect to find in one of her books. The entrance to the enormous red brick building — heralded by Corinthian columns and guarded by stone seraphim — hinted at the incorporeal, despite the fact that the property had been sold a few years back and converted into condominiums.
When we got to Casamentos — one of the best oyster houses in the city — we ran headfirst into a 45-minute wait. After some discussion — and fresh beers from the bar next door — we decided to head elsewhere. I was a bit disappointed. With its tiny tables and tiled walls, Casamentos seemed to have a lot of character. “The tiled walls make it easier to clean up after mob hits,” I overheard someone say as we were leaving.
Outside, a friend of Sara’s pulled up in an SUV, and we all crowded inside and headed to Frankie & Johnny’s (321 Arabella St., 504-899-9146), a traditional Nawlins Cajun joint in the southwest section of Uptown. From the neon beer signs in the front windows to the drop ceiling and checkered tablecloths inside, the restaurant felt homier than my grandmother’s living room (although I don’t ever remember her serving beer in pitchers). We sat down at a big table in the back of the restaurant and asked our friends to help us order. More than anything, we wanted to try food from the bayou, so for appetizers we settled on a mess of broiled crawfish, gator nuggets and fried pepper rings.
When the crawfish came out we felt a bit helpless. Here we had a heaping pile of blushing crustaceans in front of us and not the remotest idea of what to do next. Luckily, Sara demonstrated for us, pulling the head off on an inaugural critter, squeezing the meat out of its tail, and then slurping the spicy juices out of the detached head — all the while maintaining the posture of an airline stewardess. On my first try, the crawfish juice exploded on my shirt and glasses, but before long I got the hang of it and I was pulling, squeezing and sucking as if I was the star of a seafood-lover’s fetish film. The gator bites, which came with remoulade sauce on the side for dipping, were good, but pretty much tasted like chicken and perhaps weren’t as exotic as we had anticipated.
For dinner we ordered po’ boys of all different varieties: oyster, catfish, chicken, hamburger. Po’ boys are essentially subs with some sort of fried fish or meat in the middle, but make no mistake: these are po’ boys — not subs, not hoagies and not even “poor boys.” These are po’ boys. Respect. I ordered mine with fried oysters and asked for it “dressed,” meaning that I wanted the sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles. During the course of the meal, I took a bite of just about everyone’s po’ boy, and I have to say, they were all pretty delicious. It’s hard to go wrong with fried fish on full-bodied, flaky, baguette-like bread.
After a nightcap at a local watering hole (it was only 10 p.m., but the beer had been flowing unsparingly all night), we retired to Sara’s place, which was what they call a shotgun house. Yep, you guess it: that essentially means that you should be able to stand at the front door, shoot a firearm through each room of the house, and have the bullet go out the back door without hitting anything. Imagine the real estate deal: “Can I shoot my gun through it? I’ll take it.” Aside from the structural points, the house felt time-tested, as if it could speak to a century’s worth of hurricane parties, crawfish boils and Mardi Gras parades. There were even impish little gargoyles decorating the front door, and I got the feeling that one could get boogled if he or she wasn’t careful.
* * *
The next day we woke up with a few cobwebs in the brain, but soon realized that a late-night rainstorm had given way to a bright and temperate Sunday morning. Sara and her husband had some social obligations to tend to, so the rest of us decided to relocate to a hotel on Bourbon Street and spend the afternoon and night carousing there. Though before parting ways, Sara took us out to breakfast at The Trolley Stop (1923 Saint Charles Ave, 504-523-0090), an affordable greasy spoon in the Lower Garden District where I treated my hangover with a plateful of biscuits and gravy, sausage, and intravenous fountain Coke. As we ate, we watched an occasional streetcar pass by the window. Sara explained that streetcars are never called trolleys in New Orleans, despite the restaurant’s moniker. Afterwards, we all felt a good deal more healthful (strange that sausage can have that effect), and we climbed back into Sara’s car for a quick drive around the city, including what she laconically called the “death and destruction tour” of neighborhoods that had been damaged by the storm.
We worked our way down St. Charles Avenue, fawning over the magnificent rows of houses on either side of the road, and occasionally flabbergasted by a library or school that looked more like an aristocrat’s mansion. From there we passed through the CBD, which sounds like a government agency or a venereal disease, but in actuality stands for “Central Business District.” The CBD is where you’ll find New Orleans’ high-rise office buildings and hotels, not to mention the Superdome. After that we continued on to the French Quarter, passing by dozens of eye-catching but quaint Creole cottages, painted pink, peach and turquoise.
Eventually, we reached the Upper Ninth Ward. During the ride, we passed some storm-wrecked buildings and a few homes with black X’s spray-painted over their front doors, a relic from the days after Katrina when rescue teams marked the homes that had been evacuated. But it wasn’t until the Upper Ninth Ward that we got our first taste of the devastation that the storm had wrought. The neighborhood had been restored, but most blocks still had houses in disrepair, slumping and battered ghosts that would hang around until the owners could scrape together enough money to repair them. We passed a section of new houses called the Musicians’ Village, where Habitat for Humanity built over 70 homes in the Upper Ninth Ward for working musicians and their families. Although there weren’t many people around, the on-going construction let us know that the rebuilding process was making headway.
As we approached the bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward (the two areas are separated by the levied canal), I felt a bit stunned and shell-shocked. It was hard for me to imagine that so many people had lost their homes, and that even after more than three years time, this neighborhood (along with many others) still bore the imprint of the disaster.
Compared to the Upper Ninth Ward — which was battered but in the midst of restoration — the Lower Ninth Ward felt more like a vast vacant lot. We saw the homes that had been built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which set out to construct homes in the area that would be weather resistant, ecologically conscious and architecturally bold. The homes stuck us as pretty ugly, but the fortress-like designs gave the impression that the buildings could withstand the Gulf Coast’s yearly onslaught of storms, if not another Katrina. Raised on concrete legs, each house had its own strange geometric shape, reminiscent of a Martian settlement dreamed up in the 70’s, while the colors — asparagus, sun-bleached banana and cerulean blue — evoked the shades of the small cottages that were washed away by Katrina. They might be an eyesore, but there was something fresh about the houses, and they hinted at a hopefulness that was harder to see as we passed by the empty concrete foundations and piles of scattered debris that made up the majority of the neighborhood.
After the tour, we said our goodbyes to Sara and found a hotel room on Bourbon Street. While my friends went off to take photographs around the French Quarter, I holed up in Bourbon Rocks, a serviceable, open-air sports bar where I planned to watch a playoff football game. Some might think that was a waste of a beautiful afternoon, but I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience Bourbon Street then at a dingy bar with three-for-one drink specials (three bottles of light beer for $4.50). Needless to say, I was feeling boisterous by the time I met up with my companions at the end of the game, and I was glad that they had brought me a beignet — a deep-fried local pastry that comes blanketed in powdered sugar — to offset the last round of Miller Lite.
We wandered up and down Bourbon Street for the rest of the night, marveling at the hordes of spots to hear live funk, blues and rock bands, as well as the prevalence of dance clubs. Well, not dance clubs exactly, but clubs where the dancers are paid to dance. Around 10 p.m., we refueled at the Oceana Grill (739 Rue Conti, 504-525-6002), a kitchy, somewhat pricey dive just off Bourbon Street, where we made short work of a fiery plate of jambalaya and a bowl of shrimp gumbo. Afterwards, we wandered back down Bourbon Street, entranced by the rambunctious energy of the music, booze and overall good times.
And that was New Orleans: spectacularly spooky architecture, addictive food, the ever-present memory of a calamitous hurricane — all those things that defined the city. Yet on Bourbon Street, a carotid artery of soppy locals, wide-eyed tourists and pushers of every sort, you felt the pulse of New Orleans, a city that will always be ready to embrace the next day, headache or no headache.
The three of us, on the other hand, had been through all we could handle, and Yankee that I was, I boarded my flight back to New York the next day with a feeling of fulfillment and relief. A few hours later I landed safely at JFK Airport, a little tired, but to the best of my knowledge, free of any voodoo curses.
By Ted Hesson
About the Author
Ted Hesson is the online editor of Long Island Wins, a website devoted to immigration news, policy, and culture in Nassau and Suffolk counties.