New Orleans. Called the most disorganized city in the United States or alternatively, and just as accurately, the most organized city in the Carribean. The unofficial capital of
It has given us Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Louis Prima, the cocktail (the Sazerac - the official State drink) shrimp scampi, craps and yes, Jazz. It is the home of the beignet
and cafe au lait, which, despite what a misguided British tourist proclaimed to his fellows in the Cafe Du Monde one morning, does not mean "coffe without chickory". There is no such thing at the Cafe Du Monde - short of missing the
entire purpose of coming to the place at all - unless you go to the extraordinary trouble of asking for "French roast". That's the equivalent of going to Naples and asking for pizza without tomato sauce.
It had been nearly ten years since we had been back to The City That Care Forgot. I know, as The Fat Man, sang, "What It Means To Miss New Orleans." What I forgot was how much I missed it and how much I love the place.
The first night we got a ride from a Hatian cabbie who had lost his mother and two sisters in the recent earthquake. He pronounced, in the lilting sing-song of the islands, the city as "crazy", where men dress
like women and "have titties". It was like no other place he had ever been and he'd been lots of places. He talked of having recently returned to Haiti, noting that essentially nothing had happened since the earthquakes some weeks ago. Bodies
were still mouldering in the rubble. Many Haitians believe, he said, that there was no "earthquake" at all but that the disaster was something the United States had concocted. Some grizzly experiment.
After a Marine invasion (at the behest of US banking interests) in 1915 and the subsequent occupation of the island through 1934, support for the Duvaliers (father and son) and their heinous thugs, the tonton macoute (creole for "boogeyman")
is it any wonder that the US is viewed with some suspicion by Haitians?
There are perhaps 5,000 native born Haitians in New Orleans and many more descendants of the French whites, their slaves
and free men of color who fled Haiti (then Saint Domingue) in the early 1800's during and following the only successful slave revolt in the history of the Western world.
From 1791 through
1803, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a slave born in France, organized an army of former slaves, defeated the British and Spanish forces, drove the French from the island and established the second republic in the New World. In the process he bankrupted Napolean's
France - leading to the bargain basement giveaway of France's holdings in North America - the Louisiana Purchase. The "closing" on the greatest real estate transfer in history was held in the Cabildo in New Orleans, a building still standing today in
The Haitians gave New Orleans red beans and rice, gumbo, sugar (the collapse of the Haitian sugar plantations after Toussaint's revolt lead to the boom in Louisiana sugar) the
city's first newspaper, first opera company and, of course, vodou - or "voodoo" as the non-believers say. They are also responsible for the Creole cottages and shotgun houses that are omnipresent in the Vieux Carre of modern New Orleans. The "cottages"
are prized as some of the most desirable real estate in any urban setting and house some of the most upscale restaurants in town (where not a plate of red beans can be found).
was the victim of infanticide after Thomas Jefferson, as President, instituted, along with the British and French, an economic blockade after 1801. Rebellious "nigras" with pitchforks, axes and guns have always given white folks the heebee jeebees.
Even demi-gods like Massa Tom.
In 1811, starting at a plantation about 50 miles up the River Road from New Orleans, along what was then known as "The German Coast" (the legacy of the 3,000 Germans
who were persuaded to settle the area in the early 1700's and who ended up owning many of the large sugar plantations - and the slaves that worked the plantations - along the Mississippi) a slave named Charles organized a force, which eventually reached as
many as 500, of rebellious slaves and began a march to New Orleans. Inspired by accounts of Toussaint's success in Haiti, he was bent on establishing a similar black republic. Bear in mind, there were probably five times as many people of color
in New Orleans and environs as whites during this time.
It did not, however, end well for the slaves. The locals planters organized militias. The revolt was crushed. About 60
slaves lost their heads, most summarily but some after show trials in New Orleans a few weeks later. Those heads sat atop spikes in the shadow of the St. Louis Cathedral in what is now Jackson Square for weeks thereafter.
The slaves went back to cutting cane and singing field chants and what the docents in the few antebellum mansions of New Orleans and along the River Road plantatiion homes call "The Golden Age" was ushered in. Of course, while
the tour guides do acknowledge the existence of slavery, they neglect to mention Charles.
So much for the history lesson.
the Haitian cab driver will always be remembered as the guy who delivered us to one of the great nights of our lives. While Cajuns are not a particularly prominent group in New Orleans (the center of Acandiana is in Lafayette, about 100 miles to the
west of NO) they do run maybe the best saloon/restaurant/dancehall in town. Mulate's is a spin off of their home base near Lafayette. We went. We drank. We ate. We danced. We laughed. We cried. Old men in their
80's and 90's danced until their old wives could dance no more. Then the geezers started picking new partners out of the audience. We'd never seen the likes.
A man at least 80 was
dancing with a teenage girl with braces and orange hair. I thought they might be on roller skates so fluid was their traversing of the dance floor. I actually bent down and looked through the tangle of dancers' legs to make sure. No
skates. Later, I talked to the girl and congratulated her and her partner on their elegance. She passed it off as "really smooth shoes". Yeah, it must be the shoes.
years I've had the privilege of meeting some Cajuns and going back in the woods of Acadiana. The world as we know it could end tomorrow and many Cajuns would not know, care or be disrupted.
le bon temps roule." Let the good times roll. That's a pretty good motto.
For lots of New Orleanians, of course, the world as they knew it did end after the floods of Katrina.
It was the flood, not the hurricane, that nearly drowned one of the great cities of the world. Nearly five years later we still saw signs that said, "Blame The Corps". That would be the Corps of Engineers and their defective levees. The sense
in New Orleans in 2010 was that the city that once was would never be the same, but that, by and large, it would still be recognizable. The battle between widely divergent visions regarding the city's future was, and still is, ongoing.
They gave the world gumbo. We gave them poisonous Chinese plaster board. They gave us Satchmo. We gave them formaldahyde soaked FEMA trailers. They deserved a lot better than that.
But still, I've yet to meet anyone who is from New Orleans who had anything bad to say about the place or anyone who left, beyond those who had to leave. Lots of those came back. Lots more, unfortunately,
had nothing at all to come back to. The city shrank from around 500,000 to less than 300,000 after Katrina. Baton Rouge nearly doubled in size overnight and is now the largest city in Louisiana.
While I lived in BR while going to law school and have been back about as many times as I've been back to NO, it still seems that Baton Rouge has only two reasons for its being - LSU and the Exxon refinery. Except in football season, when
LSU football obliterates everything else.
We sandwiched a week in NO between two weekends in BR. We saw a baseball game on what may have been the coldest day in about 100 years of LSU baseball.
No, really, we had to spend a couple of hundred bucks to buy enough clothes just to stay warm for five innings. Cindy's a native and I've spent most of my adult life in Maine and it was as cold as I've ever been - anywhere. Still, 4,000 people
showed up for the game.
We also saw the Spring football game. This is simply a glorified practice, marking the end of spring practice (one of the four seasons in Louisiana - Spring practice,
Summer practice, the Fall football season and recruiting season). The Spring game has never been a really big deal at LSU. So only 22,000 people showed up (it's free) on a beautiful 70 degree day in early April. At places like Alabama and
Oklahoma, 50,000 or 60,000 people show up.
I owe my career to LSU and always enjoy walking around the campus which is extraordinarily beautiful, graced with Italianate buildings and hundreds of
live oak trees.
But in the end, it's New Orleans that keeps me coming back to Loozianna. As the guide at the Old U.S. Mint in NO said when I told him I had gone to LSU and have been back
to New Orleans many times since, "That bayou water must have been pretty good to you."
Indeed, brother. Indeed it has.
we've got a new supply of Cajun music and a couple of cases of Dixie beer are on the way.
Lezze le bon temps roule!
Gary and Cindy