The Hotel Monteleone
After an hours-long drive from Memphis, I make my way into the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter and arrive at the Hotel Monteleone. It's a historic and impressive property, with grand chandeliers and marble floors and a history dating back to 1866. Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams have all checked in, and that, to me, is worth checking out.
I'm welcomed by a uniformed employee as my car is valet-parked and my bag carted off. I punch the "up" button of the shiny, dark wooden elevator and make my way to my room. It's comfy and swanky, modern and historic all at once. I quickly unpack, grab my notebook, camera, and tape recorder, and set out to see the real New Orleans. I've been before, many times, so the territory is not unfamiliar. I've done brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, the Marie Laveau Voodoo Tour, Antoine's, and Pat O'Brien's. All the famous places and names that roll off the tongue whenever New Orleans is mentioned.
This visit would be different.
Lower Ninth Ward
Gertrude LeBlanc sips iced tea from a glass slick with condensation. It's only June, but temperatures soar into the 90s. "Miss Gertie," as she's known in her Ninth Ward neighborhood, seems unaffected by the heat and choking humidity. She greets me from the front porch and invites me to have a seat. Welcoming, kind, grandmotherly, Miss Gertie is the perfect ambassador for an area that could certainly use one. It's the area that saw the worst from Katrina. A neighborhood that came to represent the worst of New Orleans post-storm.
But that was then, she says.
The 73-year-old LeBlanc owns this modest yellow house on Tennessee Street. She was the first resident of the Ninth to return after Katrina, and the first to move from trailer to house. She tells me this proudly.
She's a resilient woman.
Her home was washed away completely — save for three brick steps that once led to her front door. The only surviving piece of her old life now showcases the potted flowers she's placed in her neatly mowed yard. When the storm hit, she, her daughter, and granddaughter relocated to Napoleonville, waiting for almost two years to be allowed back into the area. She was happy to come home, even if that home meant a small fema trailer in the middle of . . . nothing. No other homes. A few trailers scattered about. Overgrown weeds choking everything. Deafening silence at night in an area once filled with neighbors gathered on porches at night, talking, grilling, living. "Katrina had done her dirt," she sighs. "But I was so restless there [in Napoleonville] because it felt so country to me. I'm a city person. I needed to get home. Even if it looked like a third-world country and I was coming back to a whole lot of nothing."
She recalls the afternoon she heard a knock on her trailer door. "A handsome young couple stood there wanting to talk to me about rebuilding the area. They were starting a project called 'Make It Right.'"
The handsome young couple? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As the matriarch of the Ninth Ward, they wanted to get her approval for what they had in mind.
"They sat with me and talked about the plan to rebuild the area with eco-friendly houses with no-interest mortgages. How the new houses would withstand storms better. Be better for the earth, all of that," she says. "He came, really, to ask what I wanted for the area, to make sure I knew how much press would be around and how I would be in the middle of all of it. 'People need to know what happened here,' he told me. 'And we're going to let the whole world know.'"
LeBlanc took it all in, gave the couple some background on the neighborhood, made one request: a front porch to sit on. A place outside where she could read her Bible in the mornings and relax at night.
"After 37 years of sitting inside a post office, I wanted to be outside as much as possible. He promised me I'd have one."
Pitt made good on his promise.
And here, on a hot June afternoon, she sits. The 2005 storm is a bad memory. The weeds are gone. A few new homes are now completed, and more are in various stages of construction. The sounds of chainsaws and hammers echo from somewhere down the street. These are the sounds that give LeBlanc hope that her neighborhood will make a comeback, though she knows it won't ever be like it was. "I have faith," she says, sipping her tea and looking out at the empty lot across the street. "Can't look back. Gotta keep moving, and looking forward." Her glass now empty, her story told, she will wait forthe sun to set, the night air to cool, and spend another quiet evening here, at home on her porch.
I thank her for her time, and leave without mentioning that today is the first day of hurricane season. For some reason, I think she's going to be all right.
The red and yellow glossy paint adorning the Lucky Dog vending cart reflects the sunlight in seemingly random patches. Scattered throughout the French Quarter, the Lucky Dog has become the mustard-drenched icon of the hot dog world. Made famous by John Kennedy Toole's New Orleans-set-novel A Confederacy of Dunces (though Toole wisely renamed the wiener purveyors "Paradise Vendors"), the carts are as much a part of the city's history as voodoo and zydeco. Each day, workers stock their carts and head out to their assigned locations throughout the Quarter. Seniority means a lot — the longer you've been with Lucky, the more popular spots you can claim with the manager. So I know when I spot Dorothea Keelen manning the cart at the bustling intersection of Bourbon and Conti, she's paid her dues.
"I've worked for Lucky Dog for 13 years," she says proudly, affably agreeing to pose for a photo. Between serving hungry patrons, Keleen tells me on a busy day she'll sell as many as 4,000 hot dogs. "Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year's Eve are the craziest times, but that's when you're going to make the money," she explains. "But you get the best spots and days when you work there as long as me," she says. "I get to be outside, not sitting behind a desk, and I've met people from all over the world" she says. "Italy, France, Australia, Chicago." She rattles off a few more places before asking if I want a dog.
I'm tempted, the tangy smell of the mustard making my nose twitch and my mouth water. "No, thanks, I'm going to dinner soon," I respond.
I promise to send her a copy of the magazine, and as I make my way back to the hotel, I hear her call out, "Hey! A Lucky Dog is dinner!"
The Hunt Room
After a day of "road food" and samples of unhealthy but delicious offerings sold out of carts and booths, it was time for a proper dinner. The Monteleone's Hunt Room had a cozy, candlelit table with my name on it. After a hot shower and a brief rest in the oversized, super-soft robes that live in five-star hotels, I head to the restaurant for what I've heard are the tastiest crab cakes around. They don't disappoint. With all five vacation food groups met (bread, alcohol, sugar, meat, something fried), I'm exhausted, but I hear the strains of a piano coming from the next room. I'm a sucker for a piano bar — so I follow the music.
Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge
[image-6] Added to the hotel in 1949, the Carousel charms instantly with its large, round bar, dark woods, and giant fan windows overlooking Royal Street. I order a Goody, a concoction of dark and light rum, Orgeat, pineapple juice, and a splash or two of orange juice, created by the Carousel bartenders. It's an older crowd tonight — all the better to hear great stories from the past. I settle in between two lively gentlemen who entertain me with tales of Crescent City debauchery.
I briefly excuse myself, and when I return from the ladies room, my spot at the bar is gone. I don't mean taken, I mean gone. And so are my great storytellers. And my favorite scarf. What the? Nothing looks familiar. I know myself well, and I'm not at the point of saturation when things should just disappear. Confused, I stand at the bar wondering if I've stepped into some sort of voodoo wormhole. I hear my name and raucous laughter coming from the other side of the room, and there are my companions.
The Carousel is a rotating bar, they tell me, tears in their eyes. It's so subtle, so slow, that you don't notice it unless you're really paying attention. Hence, the name.
When I don't notice that I'm spinning, it's time to call it a night.
Magazine and First Street
Stretching six miles and intersecting the Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods, Magazine Sreet is an entertainment district's district. South Main on steroids. Ice cream parlors, antique stores, upscale retail, art galleries, thrift shops, homes, and eateries are squeezed into every available space. Walking down one side and up the other, checking out all the offerings could easily eat a weekend, but with only 48 hours, there's no time for that. I'm on a mission.
I've got to get to the Magazine Street Po-Boy Shop.
For the uninitiated, the po'boy (there are many acceptable ways to spell this, I prefer this one) is not a sub. It's not a hero or a hoagie or even a sandwich. It's a little piece of art in the form of fresh-baked French bread bursting with, well, something, and dressed with whatever's appropriate, from gravy to mayo to remoulade.
Though there are certainly more well-known po'boy restaurants in town, my local friends tell me this one can't be beat. Always listen to the locals.
I order a fried shrimp po'boy with remoulade from Ray Movahed, who has owned the place since 1988. He recommends a cup of gumbo, and I don't argue. I grab one of the few tables on the sidewalk, and in less than 10 minutes, Angela Vaughan, the world's most cheerful waitress, brings the goods.
And they are good.
Spicy, dark roux. Crisp shrimp. Thick, rich remoulade. Fresh, flaky bread.
Properly stuffed, I pop in to return my tray to the counter. The line to order is now snaking out into the dining area, but Movahed makes sure to ask how everything was.
"Delicious," I assure him.
"Next time, get the roast beef! You'll love it. Our most popular by far!" he advises cheerfully, hands busily building another lucky diner's lunch.
I write it down. Like I say, always listen to the locals.
I know, this is supposed to be an off-the-beaten-path piece, but it's blazing hot and I'm parched. I've just driven all over the city, lost, and finally found my way back to the hotel garage. I park, then wander up and down the fabled street looking for a watering hole with three requirements: a balcony, no cover band, and no scantily clad greeters anywhere near the front door. The Cajun Cabin meets the prerequisites, and soon I'm perched above the crowd sucking down a Bloody Mary. My waiter suggests a concoction called a "Swamp Water." Reading the menu, I realize this is merely pure-grain alcohol with some accoutrements thrown in, and decline (sometimes you have to listen to your gut rather than the locals). I order another cocktail, and wave to a man on the street below dressed like a chicken. Rested and refreshed, I pay my bill, walk downstairs, and almost bump into a man dressed like Santa. Judging from his stench and stagger, I'm pretty sure he's made his own naughty list.
Raven-haired and pale, Mimi Lansou looks up briefly from her reading as I enter her shop. Esoterica is ground zero for voodoo, tarot, palm reading, potions, and spells, and I'm not entirely convinced that any of this is real. Lansou sounds suspiciously like Laveau to me, but I can't write about New Orleans without some mention of the ancient religion still supposedly practiced here.
Her bright green eyes look me up and down. I get the impression she doesn't like me much, sensing (naturally) that I'm shopping for a story, not a spell.
"People around here call me Lady Mimi," she informs me, injecting a regal quality into her persona. "For $75, you can leave with a reading and a recording of it," she says, as the smoke from her cigarette clouds her face.
"Let me think about that," I answer.
I poke around jars of potions and dried herbs, books on the occult, voodoo, hoodoo, witchcraft, and candles with various and specific purposes. Snap a few photos. I start to feel creeped out, and beat a hasty retreat to the exit.
"Do you have a card? Anything with your name on it?" Lady Mimi inquires as I head for the door.
"Nope!" I say, pushing open the door, happily leaving the darkness of the shop.
Hey, I might not believe in this stuff, but why take chances?
Somewhere in New Orleans
I'm lost again, but that's what this city is all about. Getting lost. The day has gotten away from me. I hop a streetcar and ride it to the end of St. Charles Street to a fine little bar called Cooter Browns. It reminds me of the P&H Café, with its young, artsy crowd and painted characters on the walls, and I feel at home instantly.
If you like Abita Turbo Dog, you must take the time to get to Cooters. It's served on tap, ice cold and fresh as a daisy. Delicious.
I pop into shops, eat slices of pizza from random vendors, crash a wedding, and jump on and off streetcars until the sun goes down. Walking down some street, I see a sign tthat simply reads "Live Music." For the next few hours, I am caught up in frenzied trumpets and sultry saxes, blues, jazz, and wild combinations of the two. I meet a man wearing a very bright suit who wants to dance, who later takes the stage as "Rooster." Everyone dances with everyone else. The place gets steamy.
Sweaty and exhausted but thoroughly delighted, I ask the friendly doorman where I am, and how to get home. He tells me, and I wish I could tell you, but I can't. I simply do not remember. (I'm in New Orleans, after all.) Just look for a red neon sign somewhere off the Quarter that says Live Music. It's a happy place.
I'm down to the final hours of my whirlwind adventure. I check out of the Monteleone, and steer the car in the direction of the Treme District. Someone I met at some point in the last two days (thank goodness for notebooks) insisted that a stop at Lil' Dizzy's is a must. The restaurant, located on Esplanade, is one of the Baquet family's eateries (imagine the Grisantis of home cooking and soul food). By the time I arrive, the crowd is getting thick. I grab a table and order a crabmeat and cheese omelet, then can't resist ordering a piece of fried chicken. (It's good, but nothing beats Gus's, period.)
Feet of mucky floodwater didn't stop the Baquets from rebuilding and reopening. They have people to feed, after all.
It's time to hit the highway. As I'm driving away from Lil' Dizzy's, I check my rearview to see the funkiest truck on earth.
I pull over, and so does the wildly painted vehicle belonging to Sergio Robinson, or "Mr. Okra," as he's known around town. For 20 years, Robinson and his father, Arthur, got up in the still-dark morning hours to gather fresh produce from local farmers. Now Sergio and his daughter run the business. They bring the fruits and veggies back to the city, then hit the streets.
Robinson has lived in the Ninth Ward most of his life, and saw from an early age the need for fresh, healthy foods in the less affluent areas of the city. "I start in the Eighth Ward at around 7 a.m., then keep going until about 4 or 4:30," he explains as I check out the load of apples, greens, oranges, giant grapefruits, berries, tomatoes, and anything you could want that grows in the soil. I choose two plump fuzzy peaches, pay, and listen as one of the neighborhood ladies scolds Robinson good-naturedly about not having any turnip greens left.
This is the real New Orleans. It's people like Gertie and the Baquets and Mr. Okra who don't just live here, but invest. Take care of it and its people as best they can, still loyal to a city that wasn't always so loyal in return.
Back in the car, I can't resist the peaches. Juice runs down my arm as I take my first bite, making my hand one with the steering wheel when it dries. It's worth every sticky mile.