Sue and I had initially intended to spend five days at the Kerrville Folk Festival in south central Texas. Kerrville is the granddaddy of all singer-songwriter festivals, and Sue had never been. She had been visiting friends in Oregon and I’d been working like a dog at home on renovation projects. I desperately needed a real break – a do nothing, easy vacation. The plan was for me to drive out to Texas, pick her up at the airport in Austin, then go on to the festival from there. Anyone in Texas during Memorial Day in 2007 knows from experience that it rained, and rained and rained. Flood rain, mud rain, rivers over roads rain, lakes of parking lots rain, floating cars rain, put on your flip flops ‘cause shoes won’t keep your feet dry rain, head for the hills rain, and this ain’t a sunny vacation kind of rain.
We arrived at the Kerrville Music Festival to behold a soggy scene of drooping tents and tarps. Campers were making the best of it clothed in rain jackets above and shorts below. “The meadow” was mostly washed out and not fit for camping. Kerrville has always had the look of a refugee camp for folk singers, but this was comical. Campers had given up their guitars for boogie-boards and were taking turns surfing down little drainages that had turned into creeks. Now, one day of this is not so bad. Things dry up, warm up, spirits lift, and songs from campsites fill the balmy nighttime air; but rivers were already flooding, and four more days of rain were predicted. Sorry folks, I needed to rest and recover, not hunker down and slog through the mud to the stinking latrines. I suppose I’m getting old and soft, but this was my vacation and I was looking for plan B. We climbed into our Caravan and hit the highway – Interstate 10 East. My most sincere hat’s off to those who remained.
Suddenly we found ourselves on the road and without a plan. Obla Debla Da (Latin for “obligation is gone” – made popular by the Beatles in the 1960’s). Our choices became spontaneous again – where to eat, where to get gas, what do we do with all the camping supplies we just bought? Road trip! As we crossed the border from Texas into Louisiana the rain fell behind and the clouds diminished. Our spirits lightened. It dawned on us that New Orleans was sitting pretty just off I-10 on the way home, and neither of us had been before. At the Louisiana Welcome Center we found a coupon for a hotel in the French Quarter. Sue made a reservation on her cell phone and the die was cast.
Driving into the French Quarter I felt as if I had just entered into an old European City – Amsterdam, Venice or, of course, Paris. My mind reached to make American comparisons. I found none. A friend later described New Orleans as a black lotus that drifted up from someplace far away and exotic and attached itself to our southern coast where its tendrils and fragrant flowers flourished, and found it could grow nowhere else. What amazed me about the French Quarter was its size – block after block of two and three story buildings that sidle up to the street leaning into each other at subtle angles. Wrought iron work decorate the balconies like a black veil obscures the face of a woman mourning. Stucco and brick settled with age suggest intimacies that only old cities attain. It is a place lost in time, an old urban ecosystem, and what inhabit it are social organisms that can only thrive in an old place. It is an old growth city.
While unpacking our bags in our hotel room we heard the sound of a New Orleans style jazz band grow in volume. We went to look off our second floor balcony just in time to see a wedding train emerge from around the corner. First came two horses pulling a wooden carriage, driver in top hat, plumes upon the horses heads, the bride and grooms ride no doubt. The carriage was followed closely by friends and relations dressed in tuxedoes and gowns. Children and grown-ups moved together down the street with a jaunty, silly walk in step to the music. Last to round the corner was the band itself, tubas, trumpets, trombones, a big bass drum and a snare, bobbing and swaying with the beat. As the entire procession disappeared down Conti Street another music emerged. To our right, a half block up, the sound of a live blues band was drifting down from Bourbon Street.
We put on our walking shoes, and descended down to ground level. The blocks of Bourbon out to Canal, which represent the western border of the Quarter, reminded me of Amsterdam. There were strip joints, and novelty shops selling colorful beads and t-shirts with stuff written on them you can’t find anywhere else – one-stop shopping for Mardi Gras. Our ears drew us toward a club that had the appearance of a dark cave that opened out onto the street. Before we knew what was happening a waitress ushered us to a table and took our order. I thought two Buds would be safe. She returned with two cans and two napkins – fourteen bucks. I gave her fifteen and called it even. Meanwhile, the “Rooster" was making his rounds. This tall and elderly black gentleman was wearing yellow polyester slacks, a Hawaiian shirt, and a sailor’s hat. He had a Les Paul slung over his shoulder on which he was blazing out classic blues. He’d take his solos walking out to the sidewalk to entice people in from the street like bait while the waitress reeled them in to the tables. All the while his four-piece band (drums, bass, baritone sax, and B3 organ) supported him up from the stage. For each verse he’d choose a woman and sing to her through his headset microphone. Together they’d be the subjects of some highly suggestive scene – everything extremely metaphoric, of course. He’d make them all blush and giggle like teenagers. The $7 cans of beer were no longer an issue – this was high entertainment value.
We spent the afternoon and into the night ambling about the streets, stopping into a café or a bar every time we needed relief and refreshment. The Mississippi River borders the Quarter to the south. We crossed the railroad tracks and walked through a park to stand on the levee and behold the powerful, wide river in all its glory and industry. Still, with the exception of a few notices on restaurants announcing their reopening, there was no real sign of Katrina – it was like a shadow in the back of my mind. The evening was a feast of beautiful weirdness – the shops, the streets, the bars, the people, the parks, all the nooks and crannies.
As we peered into an art gallery window, the owner came out with his bicycle. I asked him about where to find the best Creole food. He said, “That’s a common misconception. Creole is western Louisiana; it’s not native to New Orleans. You can get Creole here, but it won’t be the real thing.” He then went on to tell us about all the best local places to eat, his favorite being Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street. He was obviously proud of his New Orleans, and expressed how glad that we were here enjoying ourselves, spending our money, and participating in the life of the city.
By midnight we rounded back down Bourbon from the east where shops with faded advertisements and homes with peeling paint stood quiet and shuttered as a vacant movie set. As we grew nearer to our hotel on Conti Street the lights got brighter, the noise grew louder, and more people filled the streets. For a nightcap we stopped into a club where a jazz band was in full swing playing the standards. We sat at the bar next to a couple that was actively digging the music. We exchanged where we were from. For the past fifteen years they had lived just three blocks away, and could not imagine being anywhere else. Like the gallery owner, they thanked us for coming to New Orleans, and made us feel like welcome guests in their home.
We drifted off that night with the sound of music and primal human nature coming through the windows cracked open just so. By four in the morning I put in the earplugs and actually got some sleep. By nine I was up to retrieve the car from the garage and it was evident that the Bourbon Street party was still underway. The bar next door to the hotel was full of patrons and each block seemed to have at least one person wandering down it with a plastic cup of beer in hand. A garbage truck was making its rounds through the back alleys, and restaurant dishwashers were hosing down trash bins laying in rows on the sidewalk. The smell of stale beer, wet cement, coffee, and morning sun was in the air of the French Quarter.
It wasn’t until we drove north out of the Quarter in search of the onramp to I-10 that we began to see signs of Katrina. There were whole rows of vacant houses with a bruised and battered look. Many roofs were covered with blue tarps, and on the wall of one house we passed, spray painted in large florescent orange letters were the words, “one dead – two dogs.” Just out of town we began to see the bigger picture. There was mile after mile of topless trees and ripped up signs. Whole neighborhoods and shopping centers looked ragged, chewed up, washed out and stranded. In contrast, shiny white FEMA trailers hooked up to power and sewer lines seemed like pods inserted into the landscape from another world. Mind you, this is more than a year and a half after Katrina, and this was only the view from the interstate.
I see in New Orleans shadows of Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was founded in 1837 and built on the spit of land where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers join. Bordered by Kentucky and Missouri, it is a southern city in a northern state, and occupies a sensitive place socially, and geographically. Cairo was a bustling port town with a customs house and was a central hub for all river and railroad commerce in the Midwest. Being the most direct route from the South to Chicago it was also an essential station on the Underground Railroad. There was a cosmopolitan and affluent air about Cairo. It had a reputation as being a party town – a place you went to sin – and had dancing and gambling halls on every block. The hotels were large and magnificent. Trolley cars provided public transportation, and the streets were lined with trees.
If you were to walk through Cairo today you might think a bomb hit it. It’s an urban ghost town. Whole city blocks are empty lots. What buildings remain are testament to what a grand place Cairo once was. You can see how the money flowed. Ornate woodwork and pressed tin cling to empty four-story buildings, their facades intact, yet behind windowless frames are roofs caved in, abandoned and open to the elements. There were eight floods between 1901 and 1937 – the biggest being in ’37 when the Ohio River crested at 65 feet. If floods and the Depression didn’t bring Cairo down, then it was civil unrest and the race riots of the 1960’s that did. Through the years, people with money and means slowly ebbed away leaving Cairo to be an all but forgotten city.
I hear now at the beginning of the second hurricane season since Katrina that New Orleans is no more prepared for a hurricane than it was two years ago. It could happen again. The federal government could be doing more – should be doing more in the way of flood control and wetlands protection. As I said earlier, New Orleans is an old growth city. Things inhabit it that are unique to this country. The French Quarter is a jewel and needs to be celebrated by all Americans. I would hope that we could learn from our history and not take New Orleans for granted and not, like Cairo, relegate it to the history books.
We drove back to North Carolina that next day in one eleven-hour shot, our heads swimming with all we had seen, heard, tasted and smelt. We vowed to return to New Orleans to explore further and make a real vacation of it. I guess you don’t know until you’ve been, and experienced it for yourself. I didn’t. How fortunate we are to have something like this in our country that we can call our own. A city like this so rich and diverse and complex it’s difficult to fathom. How good is it that New Orleans is still very much in tact, to walk and revel in, to sing and dance in, to eat and drink in, to wed and expire in (I hear the funerals are to die for), to take and be taken in, hopefully for many generations to come.