|This old postcard view captures the Pontalba Apartments, built by Baroness Michaela Pontalba, who also convinced city officials to turn Jackson Square into a European-style pleasure garden|
“I know I’m not wrong... this feeling’s gettin’ stronger / The longer, I stay away.”
As have others across the generations who have dashed under the block-long balcony of the Pontalba, North America’s oldest apartment building (1850), to skirt a Jackson Square downpour, I was smitten beyond redemption by languid, decadent New Orleans. Even one-time tourists commonly fall in love with the Crescent City – so named because the Mississippi River wraps so outrageously around it that the sun actually rises on the west bank, and South Rampart Street finds itself upriver of North Rampart.
Those downpours – which can be a mere block long while the sun shines brightly down the street – have carried sorrows ever since, in a death roar, the breached levees of Hurricane Katrina drowned the city two Augusts ago.
Town of Tribulations
|Strip-club lights illuminate Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. In the distance, Hibernia Bank tower lights approximate the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.|
On the streets of the French Quarter, and in a few clubs like Preservation Hall, they still play Dixieland jazz, but, to my ear, with not quite the conviction of old. The musicians, and the wounded city, are going through the motions for the tourist trade.
|Legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain is not a national landmark, but comes close. Now 78, he still performs but no longer leads his “Half-Fast Marching Band” in parades|
|This was what the floodwaters loosed by broken levees during Hurricane Katrina left behind in the Lower Ninth Ward|
As my middle daughter, Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, wrote in an article about “the Forgotten People of New Orleans” in the December 2007 Journal of American History, “As the weeks passed and the water drained away, rotting corpses, shattered houses, and muck-caked tricycles rested in the silence.” A Tulane University graduate in history, Juliette, like the rest of the family, had lived in and loved New Orleans, which we all likened to America’s Paris, or at least Marseilles.
The Lower Ninth Ward is a wasteland still. Relief tents remain all over town, and you see kindhearted volunteers from across America still hammering and drywalling and whistling optimistic tunes. New Orleanians parade and stage festivals again, but not more of them than there are days in the year as they once did. But the City That Care Forgot may never again be the place where laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll! – was a way of life. Cares blew in with Katrina and stayed.
Infiltration of Influences
|Ronnie Virgets prepares to indulge in a favorite New Orleans activity – eating, in this case oysters (he pronounces it “ER-sters”) on the half shell – at Casamento’s Seafood Restaurant|
New Orleans has been changed in other, subtle ways. The arrival of northern transplants like me, the imposition of syndicated radio formats and TV anchorpeople from Illinois and Oklahoma and the like, and the influx of contractors and aid workers – including many Latinos into a city that had known very few of them – have overwhelmed many of the city’s cherished idiosyncrasies, including these:
- Nicknames like “Moon” (Landrieu, a mayor), “Pud” (Jones a legendary jazz musician), and “Ruthie the Duck Girl,” (a French Quarter wanderer). In New Orleans, “You don’t want your friends’ children to call you by your first name, but ‘Mr. Marrero’ or “Mrs. Schexsnaidre’ seems too formal,” writes S. Frederick Starr in a book I will describe later. “So you become ‘Mr. Pud’ or ‘Mrs. Banana.’”
- Strong coffee laced with chicory – an herb so bitter that New Orleans’s brew must be served with frothy milk to be palatable.
|The elegant Garden District, where many sugar plantation owners built homes in the 1800s, came through Katrina with relatively minor damage|
|The long causeway between New Orleans and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain used to be more of a commuter route than it is today. |
|Spearmint is one of the best-selling flavors of New Orleans sno-balls, not to be confused with sno-cones. Sno-cones are made with crushed ice; special machines shave the ice for sno-ball|
(Gastronomic aside: Elsewhere in America, people talk about the weather. In New Orleans, people talk about food. There’s an old saying in town: “When you go to breakfast, you talk about lunch and think about dinner.” Even basic peasant food like slow-cooked red beans and sausage over rice is so delectable that people travel hundreds of kilometers to taste it. I know that I do, every chance I get. Ask me about muffulettas sometime.)
And as long as I’m interrupting myself, I should note that that jaunty chapeaux that you see in my photo is no “cowboy hat.” Having stuck a fleur-de-lis, the lily-flower symbol of New Orleans, smack in the front of it, I prefer to think of it as my “Louisiana swamp hat.”
A Piquant Gumbo
But bruised, diminished, and dejected though it is, New Orleans is still seductive, still a mélange of international backgrounds and tastes and sounds, still a “checkerboard city” where blacks and whites and now Hispanics live cheek by jowl, often eying each other warily but mixing like long-lost relatives at a family reunion any time there’s a festival or parade.
The Queen City of the South seemed destined to be colorful. Peaceful Choctaw Indians eked out a living on the little high ground they could find above steamy, mosquito- and gator-infested swamps until the remnants of a Spanish expedition passed by in retreat from the upper Mississippi in the 1500s. More than a century later, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed the length of the river from the Great Lakes, came upon the fertile land near the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed it – and all the territory drained by the Mississippi clear to Canada – for France. He named it all “Louisiana” in honor of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Two other sieurs (sirs), Bienville and Iberville, founded and named the first settlement, La Nouvelle Orléans – New Orleans – for which they are remembered with street names in the French Quarter.
The Vibrant Vieux CarréThat little quadrant of narrow streets; lacy, wrought-iron balconies; beer halls and imitation-jazz joints; fine-art galleries as well as topless/bottomless tourist traps is less French today than Spanish in architecture, owing to the days when Spain ran the town in the 1700s before turning it back to France. Then in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte gave up on his colonial Louisiana outpost as well. For a territory that instantly doubled the size of their young country, Americans paid $11 million in U.S. bonds.
|Fire destroyed much of the French Quarter during the 38 years of Spanish rule in the late 1700s. Rebuilding ushered in the Spanish style, including ornate wrought-iron balconies|
So you see, New Orleans drips with history as well as plump drops of tropical rain. And a lot has transpired since rowdy Americans moved in: the rise to prominence and wealth of mixed-race “Creoles of color” despite the thriving trade in black African slaves at Congo Square; Yankee occupation during our civil war; the growth of brazenly corrupt political machines – white and black; an oil boom more than 160 kilometers downriver, out in the Gulf of Mexico, for which Orleans and surrounding parishes supplied most of the boats and crews and gear.
|Cotton was king in the Deep South in the 19th century, and New Orleans was a boom port. In the first half of that century, one of the imports was human beings during the slave trade|
Jazz was a back-o’-town New Orleans creation, too, though most artists had to go to New York or Chicago or Nashville to find someone with the money and studio to record it. Jazz began as music of the streets and small clubs. The first sensational personas of the sound were Buddy Bolden and his African-American ensemble in 1895. But plenty of white musicians, especially Italian and Sicilian immigrants, also played “ratty music,” “gut bucket,” and “ragtime,” as they called it, with flair and distinction.
|New Orleans Dixieland-style jazz used to be a fixture in clubs through the French Quarter. But as tastes change, one can find everything from country to heavy metal there as well|
And let us not dare to omit Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of New Orleans’s month-long Carnival, a phantasmic celebration unmatched in North America. That Tuesday is “fat” because it’s the last day before the forty-day Christian Lent, with a thin tie to the ancient times when a fatted calf was slaughtered and everyone feasted while the feasting was good.
In New Orleans (and Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, which stage smaller Mardi Gras fests), this thin pretext for a party morphed into amazing pageantries and spectacular overindulgences that end precisely at Mardi Gras midnight, upon which the city turns magically somber – and clean – for the Catholic Ash Wednesday holiday.
|This photo gives you a good idea of the time and expense involved in preparing Mardi Gras floats and costumes. Some floats become crowd favorites and reappear almost unchanged every year|
The organizations, called “krewes,” including Bacchus, Endymion, Zeus, and Orpheus, that sponsor the most lavish Carnival processions, love to flaunt Homeric symbolism. They fund every shred of their extravaganzas, down to paying the marching bands and flambeaux carriers whose torches brighten the path for the nighttime parades.
|Masked riders prepare to toss trinkets to the crowd from an elaborate Carnival float. In the early days, mules pulled the floats. Now, tractors or small trucks do|
One prominent citizen, usually a wealthy businessman, gladly slips into tights and a crown and a bejeweled jacket to ride the streets of New Orleans as Rex, King of Mardi Gras. The exact date moves around between early February – when even a rare snowflake is possible in New Orleans – and springlike early March. The fluctuation is due to the wanderings of Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before the ever-moving Easter Holiday.
|A New Orleans business leader may be a reserved and private person. But if he’s – and it’s always a man – chosen to be Rex, King of Carnival, he leads the city in revelry for a day|
If you thought you had business in New Orleans, Louisiana, next February 24th, you don’t. Half the city will be out on the streets in colorful masks and bizarre costumes, parading and picnicking and drinking – it’s allowed from plastic containers, any day of the year – and hollering for beads. The other half will be out of town, avoiding the tumult.
“Mardi Gras is the best thing for the psyche since the long defunct but now partially resurrected local soft drink, Dr. Nut,” wrote Frederick Starr in New Orleans Unmasqued, a series of insightful vignettes that is one of my treasured possessions. Already a fine clarinetist in Cincinnati, Ohio, Starr was riding the riverboats and playing his horn at age 16, all the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. He ended up there and was writing New Orleans Unmasqued as a Tulane University vice president when I was there in the early 1980s.
Check out the rest of his paragraph about Mardi Gras:
“Is it not vulgar and tasteless nonetheless? Some learned professors of revelry answer yes, yes, a thousand times yes. They wallow in the sleaziness of the streets, the tawdry masques, the drunkenness. All vulgarity is not equal, they say. Mardi Gras is the genuine article, true-life vulgarity rather than the fake and sanitized version dished up to American homes by television. It’s real, and therefore good.”
Or if not good, still a useful release from the daily woe in a city that care forgot but has lately visited too often.
Have you seen a street spectacle comparable to Mardi Gras? Carnival in Rio, perhaps? Tell me about it.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Gris-gris. Voodoo charms or talismans. They are usually small cloth bags, sometimes made in Voodoo rituals when the bags are filled with herbs and spooky stuff like hair and bone bits. Louisiana Voodoo is a folk religion, steeped in the traditions of Africa and French Haiti, and full of mysterious rituals. Having a gris-gris handy is supposed to keep evil spirits and bad luck away. However, “putting on the gris-gris” is said to have just the opposite effect. It casts a spell on the unsuspecting.
Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.
Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.
Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.
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