Sinners & Saints

Part 13 of Across America, 19 Mar 2012

Crossing the Mississippi

On Friday 20th January I awoke early. I was back on a train in Texas, but the landscape was changed: desiccated ranch was out, verdant pasture was in. As we neared the Louisiana border the countryside briefly looked like England. Then it took a turn for the swampy, with standing water and Spanish moss everywhere. The swamp gave every appearance of a lost world; it just needed a smattering of velociraptors. On second thoughts it was supposed to be full of ancient reptiles: alligators. A careful inspection of floating logs failed to uncover a single toothy grin. The penultimate station was Schriever, a town of five-thousand advertising swamp tours. There were fifty-six miles and three hours to go. The impatient could get frustrated at this point; better not to be in a hurry.

A few hours later we were approaching New Orleans, but first we had to cross the Mississippi, mightiest of American rivers. The river couldn’t be seen, but its presence could be felt. The train paused to rest before hauling itself up and over the river and we finally got a view of the brown waters. Having drained America, I was surprised to find it only a mile wide.

Southern Mansion

After a month in dry desert air, stepping off the train was like having a hot towel thrown in my face. I got into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Burgundy Street. He put on his best mystified expression and said he’d never heard of it. This seemed unlikely, but he insisted, so I showed him the address. He took one look and said “you mean berr-GUUN-dee” and pulled out of the station like a Parisian after a dozen coffees. It was only a couple of miles to my B&B, but what miles. We flew through the traffic using a mixture of slalom and manoeuvres from Wacky Races. Out the window I saw three separate cases where the cops had pulled someone over. Evidently the police didn’t have time to deal with manic cabbies.

I was relieved to learn my B&B was a haven of tranquility. I lay on my bed to cool off and allow my heart rate return to normal. My host furnished me with a map of the best and worst the city had to offer and I stepped out into the fuggy air. I walked past a woman discussing the repainting of her house with a friend. The house was an intense purple that might be seen protecting your chocolate. Taking in the rest of the street, I had a hunch a chromatic arms race was under way. The purple salvo would be answered by even more outrageous colours soon enough.

I continued into the bustle of the French Quarter. Decatur Street was a disappointing tourist trap and the overcast sky ensured the Mississippi did not shine like a National guitar. Underwhelmed, I returned to Marigny for dinner at a local cafe. It was the catfish special with hushpuppies. For me hushpuppies are shoes as worn by Ken Clarke. The hushpuppies here were deep fried balls of mystery, likely something weird and fishy. But my trepidation was unwarranted; they were inoffensive balls of cornmeal that complimented the catfish. Things were looking up and I ordered another beer.

Regal Jazz

Frenchmen Street was alive with activity. At DBA I found the band Hot Club fronted by a clarinetist. Having played clarinet in a band long ago, I retain a soft spot for the instrument. The energetic swing had everyone’s toes a’tapping, though there was a reluctance to dance. The beer was excellent, especially Rogue Dead Guy, a delicious smooth beer with a style part lager, part ale. I’d not slept much on the train over, so I reluctantly left the bar before midnight. Frenchmen was even more alive with music.

Saturday morning I walked upriver looking for the streetcar to the Garden District. The queue was large and I was a little hungry, so I wandered around looking for something to eat. A guy handed me a flier advertising po’ boys and I decided to investigate. I found the shop hidden at the back of a building. The kitchen was tiny: each customer would order and their food would be prepared before the next order was taken. I opted for a dressed shrimp po’ boy and a coke and took a seat at the melamine tables. There was the usual American generosity when it comes to portions and the shrimps were bursting out of the baguette. It was tasty enough, but a little dry: it really could have used some more sauce.

Stepping of the streetcar at Washington Avenue I walked down to the Lafayette Cemetery. New Orleans’ water table used to be a few feet below the surface, which made burying the dead problematic (the coffins would pop out of the ground). The solution was to bury people above ground in stone tombs. The bright daylight didn’t allow for much of an air of mystery, but I spent a pleasant half hour wandering between the graves. The small elephant (pictured) was a nice touch.

Beloved Husband

Tomb exploration is hard work (just ask Lara Croft) so I retired to a local bar. No paralytic American teenagers with weird coloured drinks here, so naturally I had to order a weird purple drink. Lest you think I lowered the tone, it was a raspberry wheat beer. After the steam room of the street, almost anything cold would have tasted excellent, but I think this stuff was actually pretty decent. A few good pulls on the purple later, the guy next to me asked if I was a local. Being asked if you’re a local in a local bar in a foreign land is deeply satisfying. A little ego massage that makes you feel part of the real city, not some gormless tourist in another identikit street of Subways and Starbucks. In reality it means you’re in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with no real locals, but I’ll take the compliments where I can.

The quality of my drinking companion were soon put beyond doubt when he ordered a black and tan: a 50/50 mix of Guinness and PBR. I was horrified and said so. He just laughed and said he couldn’t drink neat Guinness. The TVs in the bar were showing an assortment of college basketball. My companion asked the barman if he could switch to arts or cookery (rock on) and was passed the remote. He flipped through hundreds of channels, but there was not even a snifter of cookery or arts. As he went back through the list I espied Yeti: Curse of…. It didn’t take much persuasion to switch over.

The film was an indeterminate way through, but this was almost certainly a good thing. A group of idiots were roped together in a whiteout, cunningly just out of visibility of each other. Every few minutes the line would go taut then slack and someone would say “I have a bad feeling about this” or “God! Sarah! No!”. The action became really intense when a guy threw snowballs at the yeti (hint: this isn’t a life-enhancing strategy). I’m not going to give you any more spoilers, because at this point I left the bar.

Anyone Can Play Guitar (but not this well)

After a stroll past the mansions of the Garden District, I returned to the French Quarter. On Royal I found a couple of guitarists who could really play. I grabbed a beer from a bar and returned to listen. While the band played Free Bird, a car stopped, a boy got out, a dollar was thrown into a case and the car was gone. Listening to music on the pavement was one of the highlights of New Orleans. The quality of the music was surprising: you could easily while away whole days drinking and watching bands.

Sunday I went for one last saunter along the Mississippi. Like the river, I were nearing the end of my odyssey. I was reluctant to leave such a vivacious city after such a short visit, but the warm waters of the Atlantic awaited. Prior to Katrina the train service continued on to Orlando, but it was never restored. With no sane overland route I reluctantly took to the air. The flight over the Gulf of Mexico was mercifully short (American Airlines could learn a thing or two about service and comfort) and I touched down in my final city: Miami.

Previous Post · Next Post

Tags: AcrossAmerica, Amtrak, Flight, Jazz, Louisiana, MississippiRiver, Music, NewOrleans, Train, Travel, USA