Port Arthur, Texas, was an eye-opening experience. We're glad we had it, but we were excited to move on to something a little less depressing and lot more vibrant. It was New Year's Eve Day, and thankfully, New Orleans - a city that Mel and I have been itching to visit for years now - was up next on our list, and just a five-hour drive eastward. On the way, we booked a five-night stay (later extended to at least 9 or 10) at Saint Bernard State Park, just a half-hour drive east of New Orleans in Saint Bernard Parish. We had finally hit the parishes - counties are so 19th century - and it felt good. It felt exotic.
At the check-in, we spoke to the ranger on duty, a very kind and motherly woman who immediately asked where we had come from, and what our plans were for the night. Before we could answer, she said, "You're not going into the city tonight, are you?" We looked at each other, then back to her sheepishly. "Well, be careful. It'll be a madhouse tonight." She pulled out a map of the city, showed us where we might find parking on such a crazy night. "On the way in, you'll pass, well, I don't know how to say it the right way, but you'll notice it. It's pretty rough looking, but if you keep going...." Though she meant no disrespect, she spoke to us as if we'd never seen poverty before; that it was dangerous and disgraceful, something to ignore and keep driving. In general, I've noticed people often act this way with Mel and I after they learn we're from Nebraska, as if a childhood in the Midwest had sheltered us from the rest of the world.
We unhitched quickly that night, showered - much needed after a calamitous few days in Port Arthur - and drove into downtown New Orleans. Somehow we found parking almost immediately, and walked a few blocks down to the French Quarter. You've all seen the photos: the brick streets, the neon lights, the street bands, the mardi gras beads, the columns and Greek Revival architecture. Of course, it's always a bit different - a bit fuller - to see it in person, but for the most part, that's what we got, and it was wonderful. Our first stop was to the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, once a hangout for writers like Hemingway, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams. On New Years Eve, it played host to hundreds of drunk Southerners, young and old, overdressed and hardly dressed, many of them wearing masquerade ball masks. A smooth jazz band played in the corner. As the title implies, the Carousel Bar itself slowly rotates. It took Mel and I several minutes to realize this. In the meantime, we appeared like idiots, constantly defending ourselves against aggressive bar stools.
After we enjoyed a drink and left the bar, we wandered the quarter, eventually landing in Jackson Square at just minutes to midnight. We pushed our way to the middle of the packed street, turned around and - with thousands of New Orleanians and fellow tourists alike, counted down from 10. The fleur de lis dropped, the fireworks shot off, Mel and I kissed (spoiler!) and, proud of ourselves for still standing after not sleeping a wink in three days, allowed ourselves to slowly wander back to the car and back to the park for some much needed shuteye.
Part of our desire to experience New Orleans was an interest in the effects wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Having heard and read about the Lower 9th Ward for years, we were naturally curious, and yet we were also very wary of becoming disaster tourists. Because of that, we weren't exactly sure how to go about it. We pondered this for a few days, until we realized that the so-called "bad" area of town the park ranger had referred to was the Lower 9th Ward. We'd been driving through it twice a day for three or four days now, bisecting it every time we drove from the park into the city.
We tagged on those extra days to catch up on work, so we spent a few days holed up in Elsie again, leaving only to walk Costello or jog off some steam. But we also found time to explore Audubon Park, a huge city park in Uptown New Orleans with ponds and live oaks and plenty of open green space. We stumbled past Ashton Kutcher feeding ducks with his baby. We prided ourselves on not being those people. We smiled and kept walking. Then we passed him again, and then again. The we googled him, and guess what? All the gossip mags said he and Mila Kunis were spotted in the city! We passed him again, and then we became those people. We asked him for a photo. He kindly agreed, said he was a professional at taking selfies, grabbed my phone, turned it around, and took the perfect selfie, just like that. I wanted to scream, "I love Wisconsin!" but I didn't. Instead, I stared him dead in the eye and said defensively, "Dude, where's my car?"
Just kidding. We thanked him and left like giddy little children.
We spent another day wandering the French Quarter in the sunlight. At the suggestion of a friend who lives in the city, we grabbed a fancy cocktail (okay, Mel got a gin fizz, I got a beer) at a very chill place called Bar Tonique. We caught a 10:00 p.m. jazz show on Bourbon Street. We perused the free sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which entirely exceeded our expectations, the works contemporary and evocative and many of them truly chilling. We made the obligatory stop at Cafe Du Monde and ate enough beignets for a family of five.
We also spent a morning on the campus of Loyola University, where I met with writer John Biguenet, author of - among others - the novel Oyster, perhaps the best book I've read this year (though it was originally published in 2002). I wanted to interview Biguenet because this book oozed with Bayou culture. To read it from the inside of a trailer in Saint Bernard Parish--it just felt so right. By the end of the second paragraph, I was hooked:
"Though it was nearly midnight, the air was still thick with heat. Later, before dawn, a chill would settle. Sleepers, waking under the slow blades of ceiling fans, would reach down among their feet to drag sheets over cold bodies. Wives would sit up to put on the nightgowns their husbands had stripped from them hours earlier. Children would crawl into each other's beds. But until then, for another few hours, the heat would continue to ooze up through the floorboards of the houses, to drip from the needles of the pines. And a man's hand would cut through the humid air like a fin splaying the water."
Damn! Right? More from that interview to come. Stay tuned!
Simply put, we loved our time in New Orleans. Prior to our visit, mentioning New Orleans around our friends and acquaintances in Nebraska seemed to be a fairly polarizing topic: they either loved it, or they hated it. We fall squarely in the "loved it" column. We can't wait to return. In the meantime, it's very high up on our list - if not right up at the top - of places we could see ourselves living in after this whole crazy adventure is over.