The Soul of the South or the Jersey Shore? (Part 1)

New Orleans has many nicknames, and I haven’t chosen to title this entry using any of them.  I found the city to be a living, breathing entity, dripping in culture and things to see, do, and take in.  The city had soul.

I had never been to New Orleans before, and nearly everything I had heard about the city, both from general sources and from the many people who made recommendations to me on what to see and do there, indicated that I was going to have a great time if I was to make it out of the city alive.  All cities are dangerous though, and I’ve been to rough areas of many cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, Rome and Shanghai.  That short list doesn’t include the dozens of other cities I have visited in which I was lucky enough to avoid the rough areas.  Bottom line is that I am no longer scared of any area of any city at any time of day.  I don’t have a gun (and don’t want one), wouldn’t know what to do with a knife and have no formal training in any type of hand to hand combat.  I’m just simply not intimidated by the horror stories that I’ve heard regarding rough parts of cities.  I’m a large young male, but not a (despite my common self-deprecation) fat one, and that fact alone acts as a protector.  Of course it is naive to have no fear, but I have yet to have even a close call in any large city, and those years of positive experiences have empowered me with a spirit of confidence when taking to a new city, even if I’m by myself.

I had to choose where to stay in New Orleans.  I had to be mindful of my wallet, as I could not afford to break the bank while I was there, either.  Saturday evening through Monday morning, however, would be acting as my first substantial break and time for rest on the trip, and I didn’t want to be driving to see everything.  I love driving and have made a point of the trip to enjoy drives, but driving, particularly in a new city, can be stressful.

With all of this in mind, I weighed all concerns and decided to go for the gold and stay somewhere in the French Quarter.  After calling numerous hotels, I finally found one that had vacancy, was not more than a block and a half from Bourbon Street, and also had a rate I could live with.  Sight unseen, I booked the hotel, and while the rate of $109 a night was higher than my daily budget, it wasn’t outrageous.  Now I could set my sights on the city.

I rolled in around 9:30-10, and immediately upon arriving at the hotel realized I had made a phenomenal decision.  Hotel St. Pierre is on Burgundy Street, just north of Bourbon Street, and well within the limits of the lively and enticing French Quarter.  I checked in in the old building, which dates back to the late 18th century (and was added to the NRHP in 1965), and to my surprise was told that I would be staying across the street.  I couldn’t have asked for a more authentic New Orleans experience with regards to the hotel.

Now these photos were taken the next morning, and so the aura of the unknown for me, at night, in the dark of a dark corner of the Quarter, was viscerally strong; I was in a special place.

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This is the main building of Hotel St. Pierre.  A somewhat typical building of it’s period and style, what is special about New Orleans is not the presence of this particular building, but of thousands of them.  However, I was staying across the street.  I was given a key to get through this wrought iron gate across the narrow Burgundy Street:

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After wending my way through the narrow, plant lined walkway, I came to a courtyard with a table and a few chairs and a fountain.  My cottage, however, was further on, and through another narrow pathway, water dripping from the plants above, I went.  I had reached my destination:

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My room, named the “James ‘Bubber’ Miley” cottage, is on the right.  Each cottage has it’s own name, and is entered through a small, old, wooden French Door.  Between the deadbolt, the standard lock, the security lock commonly found on the inside of hotel room doors and the two sliding locks which anchored in the floor, and ceiling, respectively, there were 5 separate ways to keep the doors closed.  Despite this abundance of protective devices, I’m fairly certain I could have pushed the door open using just a slight bit more pressure than required to open a door at McDonald’s.  This place was cool, and it was authentic.  How lucky I was to land at such an authentic New Orleans inn.  Right off the bat, I was impressed with the city.

I figured it was time for Bourbon Street, and within 5 minutes, I was there.  It was close to 11 on a Saturday night, and Bourbon Street was roaring at full bore.  My initial reaction was a tragic one; what had once likely been one of the most unique cultural treasures of our nation had been thoroughly commercialized and was destroyed by tourists.  At every turn was a “Wisconsin Frat Boy” (as my buddy Billy, whom I met Monday morning for Breakfast called them), or a couple of pruny old southerners who would be just as happy at a Buffett concert, looking to get as drunk as possible.  Movement was hindered and club music boomed from all angles.  I found what seemed to me to be an inner city boardwalk; neon lights as far as I could see, beckoning tourists to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of New Orleans.  Nearly every bar with a band had either a cover or a drink minimum, and the ominous presence of bouncers worked only to drive me onward.

After spending a few minutes just taking it all in, I saw a huge sign praising Jesus, and stumbled across some evangelical types spreading the word on Bourbon Street.  One of them, an older fat guy with a big white beard, was having a discussion with a young Asian fella from California.  I stood there and watched for a few minutes, asking questions where appropriate, and took the opportunity to stay still on Bourbon Street, and take in what was happening around me.  Nearly everyone had a drink in their hand, and nearly every reaction to the preachers was negative.  Of course, most people didn’t have any reaction, but numerous folks stood to stop and observe, always leaving with a smile on their face.  Some people yelled that God wasn’t real, others asked if the guy believed in Santa Claus, and some just took pictures.  Taking this rest, even only a brief one, was crucial though.  It slowed down my mind, and grounded me.  I had finally become “one of them,” not merely an observer, but a participant in the madness.

Now that I had entrenched myself in the Quarter, it was time to get some food.  Tradition and finer dining could wait for tomorrow if I was unable to find something authentic on Bourbon Street, and my primary goal was getting something in my gut as quickly as possible, as I was starving.  Club and club were thumping, and the finer restaurants were full and would not offer the quick service I was in need of.  After walking a few blocks, I got to a place called Bayou Burgers, and took a seat at the empty bar.  The front of the establishment was open to Bourbon Street, and a nice stool towards the street offered me both a place to eat and drink and a place to sit and watch some the activity.

I ordered something known as “The Croquer,” which was two beef patties topped with ham, swiss cheese and mustard on toasted French bread, and topped with a fried egg.  While this mass of fat, grease and flavor was cooking, I sipped down an Abita Amber, and started chatting with the barhop – nothing special about this conversation, just your basic where are you from, where should I gos turning into small talk.  My feast arrived.  I ate it.  I enjoyed it.  All the while, I kept the brews flowing – after all, I was on Bourbon Street!

Towards the end of my meal, the bar began filling up.  To my right sat down two young women and a young dude, who I found out were on a “siblings retreat” from Waco, Texas.  Their own witty term for a getaway, one of the sisters and the brother were simply accompanying their older sister to New Orleans on her trip to town for a conference.  Already half way in the bag themselves, the conversation wasn’t particularly intriguing, but was noteworthy as the older sister worked for Baylor University.  A huge smile came to my face, I remarked “Griffin! My boy – Hail to the Redskins!” and held out my hand for a high five.  This was met with a pout and a reminder that I was talking to a Texan, for whom rooting for the Redskins was verboten.  Football is serious business, and for some it’s more serious than others.  After wishing me luck on my travels and recommending some courses (they were all golfers) in areas of Texas I won’t have the opportunity to get to, they were back out in to the night.  A few more drinks later, I got one for the road, and was back out there myself.

Lubricated properly, I was far easier on Bourbon Street than I had been earlier.  The lights and sounds coalesced into a stream of sensation, and the pungent odor of stale beer, urine and garbage characteristic of the street waned in my nostrils as I ventured on towards Canal Street, the western terminus of the Quarter.  I turned around, and walked back towards my hotel on a different, less densely traveled street. 

While walking back to the hotel, I ran into some horses shackled up to the wall.  They belonged to the New Orleans PD, and stood stately and proud while waiting for their officers to return from their dinners.  In the meantime, they acted as a tourist attraction in and of themselves.  Drunk people fawning over the horses, this may have well been the Kentucky Derby.

I stopped by the horses for a few minutes, petting them and allowing them to lick my fingers, and using the opportunity to talk to passers by.  No one was from New Orleans, and no one was from the North.  I met folks from Georgia, Alabama and Texas during my equestrian adventure, and I was slowly coming to the realization that New Orleans is the primary vacation destination for the south.  The city is where the South vacations.  All of the charm from the entire region is brought to this city, itself a treasure trove of various cultures, and is unleashed on those from other areas; it’s a spectacle and an experience I recommend to anyone, specifically though to Northerners.  You will feel as if you are in a foreign land, and you will love it.

The friendly nature of the people is the same all over the South, and every group I ran into was wide eyed and eager to strike up a conversation.  Most memorable though was the Texan woman, about 40 years old, who was only able to repeatedly advise me to cut my hair.  “I love ya hon, but you gotta cut that hair!”  I heard that about 5 times in 1 minute before her mates dragged her onward to retire for the evening.

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A powerful and proud horse waiting patiently to be ridden again

I meandered my way back to my hotel, and upon eventually opening those French doors, laid myself down for the evening, all the while wondering where exactly I had come.  Had I driven to the sponge of charming Southern culture, or had I driven a few hours from Central PA to the Jersey Shore?  As I awoke Sunday morning and began New Orleans round two, the answer to my query came into clear focus.

Unfortunately, that story is going to have to wait.  I am in Russellville, Arkansas, just south of Ozark National Forest, and I have probably 2 hours of daylight left.  The drive is beckoning, and I hope to find a setting sun over a vista within the forest.  I’m off to Fayetteville for now.  New Orleans and the remainder of Louisiana coming soon…

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