Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In New Orleans

In New Orleans now, first time since '99, so obviously first time after Katrina. In town for a few days of Jazzfest, that family and friend's rite of the 80's and 90's, as well as just a break. Arrived at the hotel late morning and immediately set out to see how things had changed, if they had changed, and wary already as the few staff that I'd met at my edge of the quarter hotel did not, absolutely did not, have that New Orleans talk.

Half a block of walking and I was reassured. A hole in the wall Pakistani run take out shop not only offered gulf shrimp curry but also a daily special of goat brain with a choice of rice, fries, or onion rings. I was not yet hungry. Then the concern began again as a series of local dive bars still had their signs intact but all were closed and looked at closely were a shambles inside. The strolling was pleasant, however, as I walked to find personal landmarks, restaurants, hotels, corner groceries and an attic that had once meant enough to remain favorite memories. Walking over from Bourbon to Royal on St. Peter I heard some great blues, guitar, piano, harp, but saw no club. I followed the sound and walked into a small shop of artwork in the middle of which was a big piano with a young man on the keyboard and a rail thin older guy with ZZ Top style white beard sitting on a chair playing an electric guitar. I leaned against a wall to watch. They stopped and I was immediately just part of the conversation. Amzie was the guitar player and it was his store and artwork. In telling some New Orleans story I mentioned the NOLA Express and Amzie was shocked that anyone remembered that alternative newspaper from the late 60's early 70's, saying he was the art director. After half an hour or so I walked on, knowing that I would see Amzie again.

Hungry now, I went further up Royal and went into a corner grocery across from the elementary school. Unless it's name was OPEN, the store had no name. It did have a poster with a magic marker listing the lunch counter specials of the day. I got a big cup of gumbo packed with fresh shrimp, fish, chicken and hot sausage, four bucks. Walked across the street and used a Times Picayune box as my table and had a wonderful standing lunch.

The border area between the heavily commercial part of the quarter and the primarily residential part seems to be prime busker space. Highlight of the early afternoon was two young tatooed women on guitars playing songs that were part bluegrass, part folk. They had a small crowd which gave the opportunity for a few chats. There are still a lot of real characters rambling around the quarter. Few, however, were as unusual as a tour group that I ran into next when I went into a cooking school shop somewhere between Royal and Decatur. They had just had a class and I waited in line for a purchase surrounded by them, all women of different nationalities with nametags identifying their country---Thailand, Zambia, Gabon, U.S., Denmark, China, and U.K. were around me. I asked the U.S. woman behind me what conference or event they were part of. She lowered her voice and said that they were sponsored by the U.S. Army and their spouses were "military attaches" in their home countries. One can speculate.

Oh, and Bush was having his NAFTA summit in town. Police, military, heavy duty vehicles everywhere. The rooftop lounge area of the hotel was closed the desk clerk explained because "the CIA had stationed snipers there". Traffic is a mess, vehicular and foot, and streets seem to be arbitrarily blockaded. It's ok, as I'm glad to be back.

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