ALONG THE GULF: Mobile, Biloxi/Gulfport, Nawlins
All along the 10, from Florida to El Paso, I kept hitting terrifying squalls. Also, Florida has a number of PERMANENT signs saying "Fog / Smoke Ahead". And they ain't kidding. At one point I had fog IN MY CAR. Very eerie. I kept waiting for it to materialize.
A blues-loving casting director recommended I stop in Mobile. Interesting city. Dolphin Street, a long narrow street packed with bars and restaurants, sums the city up nicely. Interspersed among new, active places are lots of stores 'to lease' and very old buildings, some converted for current use, some with boarded up or collapsed windows. What's interesting about this mix of new growth and decaying past is that it coexists quite casually. The newer places confidently welcome visitors. But the older places don't discourage them. The effect is a little like hanging out with a lively person in excellent health who's always accompanied by an elderly invalid relative, the latter impassively observing the other's going ons, neither adding to nor impeding them. Yet adding a sense of familial affection to the whole mix.
This comfortable admixture of past and future was actually pretty refreshing, after all the thoroughly renovated areas I'd visited. It helps too that the city is kind of a precursor to New Orleans, with the same lacey metalwork balconies - really second story porches - and other remnants of the city's French and Spanish past.
THE BIG EASY, STATE OF MIND
NOTE: There is of course far more to New Orleans than the French Quarter. Notably, a big modern downtown is visible from the highway. But still, it's a safe bet that most people who say they 'love' New Orleans are actually referring to the very small part of it also known as 'Le Vieux Carre' ('The Old Quarter' or, more literally, 'The Old Square'.)
I was halfway across Lake Pontchartrain before I had a thought: "Gosh, this is a really LONG bridge." Twenty-four miles, as it turns out. Solidly built, I'm sure. Still, it's a bit disconcerting to think that one wrong turn and [glub].
I drove directly into the French Quarter - unfortunately, on a Saturday afternoon. On a Saturday, the Vieux Carre resembles nothing so much as Tijuana: lots of souvenir shops, tourists walking around with open drinks and barkers trying to get them to come in to innumerable bars. I don't like crowds in general and I particularly didn't like these. Whatever European charm the old streets had was lost on me.
After a sudden storm, I went back to my guest house, relaxed, went back out after eight. And found the place transformed. Most of the shops were shuttered, allowing the beauty of the old buildings to show. Far less people walked the streets, which gleamed, wet with rain. Except for the regular layout of the streets, it looked much like the Latin Quarter at night.
Beyond the Vieux Carre, I found Canal Street, a broad old avenue with street cars down the middle which reminded me of similar streets in Dublin and Barcelona (though the upper part of the street actually gets a little hairy at night.) After a brief foray into the Warehouse District (where I looked for galleries but found pricey restaurants), I returned, this time to Bourbon Street.
Bourbon Street at night EXPLODES!! An unimaginable assault of sound pours out over a raucous crowd - rock, blues, jazz, barkers for strip clubs, some zydeco too. Over the heads of the crowd, stretching all the way back, is a riot of small neon signs, competing for attention.
I started the difficult task of finding a Cajun restaurant that was at least a LITTLE authentic. Having passed up one promising but crowded place, I stopped in a souvenir shop to use their ATM and ended up talking to Diana, the Columbian salesclerk. Diana showed me several areas outside the Carre that had their own character - the Marigny, Bywater, St. Charles (where she lived, upmarket as it is.) She also recommended the Coffee Pot for Cajun food. Having had a gumbo and a crawfish etouffee (both decent, neither memorable), I joined Diana after work and we walked over to the Marigny.
This area, just past the Esplanade, consists of little more than two street corners. But in that small area are a techno club, a coffeehouse, a jazz club (where Ellis Marsalis, daddy of..., plays), a wonderfully decrepit old bar, an Italian-Cajun restaurant, a bric-a-bac shop, a slightly slicker Cajun place and a gay and lesbian bookstore. And (except for me) not a tourist in sight.
We then moved on to an area near 'M' street where the stores, even closed, looked quite intriguing. After checking out two bars, we stopped in Diana's favorite, a place crowded with young locals, and talked across the noise until late.
The next day, I sat in the lovely narrow courtyard of my guest house, having breakfast, and , accidentally witnessed the following Chaplinesque scene: A Japanese man came out, scrupulously set up his tripod, then rushed to a table in front of it, whipped a cushioned chair around and sat down - immediately unleashing all the rain the cushion had absorbed the night before. Leaping up, he grinned at me, half bent over, just as his timer went off.
Should be quite a picture.
Then I wandered over to the Marigny and had coffee. The coffeehouse had a very neighborhoody feel, everybody seeming to know each other. I had catfish bits and jambalaya at the corner place, again good, but not memorable. Came back to a message from Diana, stopped in to see her, then followed her suggestion and took the street car up St. Charles (which is the best way to see all the lovely houses along that street.) The car started with such a terrifying roar that one of the young East Indian women behind me said, "We could be in a Hindi movie, you know", whereupon she and her several friends wove a whole fantasy of each of them leaning out a window and suddenly bursting into song.
I'd had my doubts about staying two days in New Orleans, but as it turned out it was time well spent. The next day I took a drive up to see Lake Pontchartrain from the shore, got there just as it started to rain. Still, it was quite an impressive sight, and my last of New Orleans.THE REST OF LOUSIANA
Pretty white statehouse. A naval museum down by the water. Was there anything else I missed?
This is touted as a French-speaking area, but seemed pretty all-American to me. In general, I realized I'd hardly heard any distinctive speech all through the South. Only when I stopped a bit before Lafayette to get gas ("Groceries - Bait - Gas") did I get some full-strength Cajun. I asked the freckled-faced woman behind the counter about the nasty little black bugs with red heads that were all OVER my car everywhere I stopped: "Dem is LOVE bugs. Fella goes to da college says dey broughd'em in ta kill some udder kind'a bug and dem LOVE bugs took over... Dey oughter left dem bugs where dey be-LONG." All this in a nearly childlike singsong. Delightful. I really had to pull myself away.
I bought some Cajun spicey boudin at the same place and thought I was at last on the trail of some GENUINE Cajun cooking. But wouldn't you know it, the first place I tried, right near Lafayette, proved to be a world-famous tourist-trap. Still, the fried alligator was quite delicate and the duck - though hardly typical Cajun - was very nicely made.
Though I didn't stop in Port Charles, when I approached it in the dark, I thought I'd suddenly come to a major city. A broad, glittering skyline, a little awkward in outline, spread out before me. Then, as I got closer, I realized it was an oil refinery, all lit up. If you've never seen one at night, the effect is quite surreal.
NOTE - I sure hope no fans of the soap have tried making a pilgrimage to THIS Port Charles.
At last, late at night, I reached Texas. It had to happen, sooner or later.
LAST UPDATED: March 2003