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Surviving New Orleans

Surviving New Orleans

Rolled in to New Orleans on Saturday afternoon. The Amtrak station is off the centre of a town, and I had to get a taxi to the hotel (which I would come to despise) on the south of the river. The hotel turned out to be a converted motel. Partially converted. My room was on the ground floor, literally next to the street parking lot. No other rooms available (allegedly). Various signs warn guests to use “Every available security device”. Hmmm. It was also a non-smoking room that had been used by smokers and not renovated, and so it stank.

Determined to get my money’s worth, I went to inspect the hotel pool. Noticed “New Orleans Police” tape around part of it. Decide to give it a miss. Inspected laundry room. Washing machines very rusty, so looks like the next laundry will be in California. Or Mexico if plans go awry. Thankfully, the hotel runs a shuttle bus through the Algiers district to the short hop ferry across the Mississippi. The Algiers district has bags of interesting architecture; lo-rise detached houses that are found across Louisiana, but with lots of flourishes and individual touches. That doesn’t detract from the poverty, which is obvious. Though many of the cars seemed of a shiny and expensive nature. My first evening in New Orleans was spent wandering. I’d had a shave (this is rare), put on a clean shirt and shoes. It was good; I wandered through the French Quarter and found my kinda bar. Low-lit, quiet, subtle attentive barman, no-one under age of 25 or so, napkins, well-mixed drinks. The place where you can watch and think and no-one hassles you.

French Quarter

Sated, I returned to the hotel and went online for rather too long. Much to write, think and do. Somewhere around 2am I fell asleep. At 2:19 according to the room clock, am woken by several people hammering on my door. Regretted handing back Grizzly Bear Repellant in Montana. After a few seconds, someone shouts “Wrong room, he on the upper floor.” The hammering stops and I listen to footsteps running away.

Exchanged tweets with several people for a while, carefully double checked the locks on the door, then fell asleep again.

Woke up alive. Bonus!

Sunday morning. After last night’s excitement, I fancy a quiet morning. Actually after the last, intense, week I fancy a quiet year.

The hotel had stopped doing breakfast at a time before that stated, so I got the bus and ferry and wandered into the first nice restaurant I found in the French Quarter. It’s in a scenic spot, opposite a white walled church, trees, and foilage.

And then … this happened.

[Side point: Why me? Why do I keep ending up in these situations?]

I start twittering as it seems best way to try and get an instant record of it (though I didn’t really think about this much). And it’s one hell of a story and on every other sentence I’m saying “What?!” or “Really?”. In the remote chance that Simon Bates reads this – it topped anything on “Our Tune”:

Sunday morning. New Orleans, French Quarter. Sunshine. Quiet. Newspaper. Breakfast tea. Louisiana and the world are most agreeable places.

Observing man proposing to partner across the road from restaurant. He’s picked a heck of a good location.

She accepts; hurrah! He looks combination of relieved, very happy. She’s crying. He’s twirling her around in the middle of the street.

They’re in here. She’s excitedly showing engagement ring to staff and customers. He’s sharing my pot of tea and he needs it.

Waiter is playing tunes on the piano for the couple.

Heck of a story, which he’s okay with me twittering. Got their own place; were literally blown out of N’awlins by Katrina a month later …

… wanted to go back but ended up in long battle with all authorities. Insurance turned out to be worthless. Moved to his parents …

… in North Carolina, as her parents wouldn’t accept him. Struggled to make income and she had whoa! scary medical bills HOW MUCH??? …

They had to split for financial and work reasons. Bad. In civilised world surely couples shouldn’t have to split to find work far apart.

He was going to go abroad; she heard, couldn’t afford plane, even bus ticket from Oregon to North Carolina. Hitchhiked while ill across USA!

Intercepted him. Obviously emotional meeting. Decided missed each other, more important than money. Decided to fight on for moving back.

Bugger, getting tad emotional here myself. Must hold it together for the tweets :-(

They’ve moved back. Literally rebuilding their house, though in different part of New Orleans, brick by brick. Clawing dollar by dollar …

… out of debt. They’ve been supported hugely by some family, work colleagues, neighbours. Lack of support from official sources shocking.

“My great ganddaddy built a house out of the dirt of North Carolina, so I’m building one for us out of the swamp and mud of New Orleans.”

Feeling very humble at this place and moment.

@shifted Thinking administration 2000-now are essentially evil “look after own” bastards. This couple like Dwayne, they just want to get …

… by, have their own home in the city they love, probably raise a few kids, be healthy.

This couple are very much like Dwayne. Have inner determination to make a go, succeed, and they have amazing support network of people.

Heck he says he had the ring but knew the time was right to propose when he saw the result at 10pm last tuesday. Dude, that is awesome.

Okay slow down ma’m I can’t type that fast.

OMG they’ve decided when she’s better and they have their first child he/she would be named “Hope”.

Mentioned was at Grant Park, Chicago last Tuesday. Now recovering from being unexpectedly hugged/crushed by very newly engaged person.

Feeling a bit shaky, physically and inwardly. Ordering more tea.

Advising couple IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that they HAVE to sort out rights to their story. Deserves to be heard, and could …

… help them out with medical bills, house rebuilding, money to support them and Hope. Making them sit and listen.

Tea is here. All three of us need it. But feeling I should leave love-smitten couple alone to enjoy their first day of engagement together.

Insisting they enjoy their first meal as newly engaged’s together. And need to compose myself a tad.

America, why do you keep doing this to me? Everywhere I go seem to meet interesting, extroadinary, determined and lovely people.

Bit shaky. Tea not providing calm. Need to close laptop, go off grid, walk, think. Thanks Twittersphere for DMs, tweets over last hour.

Paying for couple’s breakfast though they don’t know it yet. Humming “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day.” Out into the Louisiana sunshine.

I felt completely… (don’t ask, as I don’t have the vocabulary for it), while at the same time felt humble about what the couple had gone through and what they were doing.

As I type this a few days later, am still thinking about them, as I will for a long time. And I’m looking forward to the wedding invitation. I wandered through the French Quarter and back towards the Mississippi, discovering lots of interesting little bookshops on the way.

Wished I had more time to spend there. Sat on the river bank; a paddle steamer thingie chundered by; life was good. A family sat down nearby; “Where you from?” I told them. They were from Georgia, and I ended up sharing their picnic meal, while they talked about how the economic collapse was affecting their village. More wandering, through streets lined with balconied buildings, some draped with ferns and foilage. Street musicians were out in force, of a consistently high standard, as pompous reviewers would say. I found several t-shirt shops and the items I was looking for. Then I found the cafe recommended to me by the chef I met on the train out of Memphis, and had the seafood gumbo (a large pot of, well, stuff) and the three-piece fried chicken.

Connie and Gumbo

The clientele was rather diverse. Students, tourists, locals, local performers. Including a quartet of transvestite strippers who I made possibly the mistake of batting back some general smut to. An adolescence spent watching Carry On films (Sid James’s laugh is, for me, the sound that defines Britain) held me in good stead for a while. But they ratcheted it up, and as my meal was over anyway, and they were hitting the cocktails, I left.

I wandered back to the ferry, through the bawdy part of New Orleans. And possibly the smell of a hundred passing cigarettes of dubious origin had an effect as I felt quite relaxed and floaty. People were dancing on balconies. Colours were bright. I wandered, stopping for the occasional drink and tweet (Samantha is so easy to take out, tweet, then put away). Vendors offered various services and facilities that I suspect would not get trading licences in the UK. I refused them all, unlike several groups of male students who I observed being led into various clubs of an adult and intimate nature, I suspect to emerge a little later much lighter of wallet.

I get back to the hotel. Online activities occupy me till the early hours; packing left to next morning. Didn’t really look around the room at all before going to sleep. BAD THING NOT TO DO.  I woke up in the night; something didn’t feel right; fell asleep again.

Monday morning and it was time to check out of Hotel du Crappy. I tottered into the dining room at 8:50 to find all the breakfast had been put away. A member of staff informed me that due to a lack of interest they’d stopped early. Okay, then due to lack of riches they won’t mind if I stop paying that part of the bill. Attempt to shower; two cochroaches in the bathroom. Open shower curtain. Huge cochroach in bath tub that would be a match for Cletus and Bubba back in the Hebrides. Remove cochroach with the aid of an ice bucket. Shower. Notice several bite marks on me. Pull back curtain. Nasty looking spider (black with red markings) falls off it into bath.

Accelerated drying and packing. Open door. Another spider scuttles into room. Really getting fed up at this point. Stamp on it. Stamp out of room. Stomp to reception. The receptionist asks “Did you enjoy your stay with us, sir?” and probably quietly regrets asking, for the next 15 minutes. Taxi to the Amtrak station; plenty of time, as it turned out, and added bonus was that the Post Office was next door. Wondered if any employees would look like Seinfeld from Newman. They don’t. Attempt to figure out priority and express delivery to send things to the east coast of the USA; give up and let the staff do it. Very happy people. Am asked (yet again) what I think of New Orleans. Reply honestly in the positive, but don’t mention the hotel. They seem pleased.

Amtrak station; train time. No country for old men next…

New Orleans (1)

New Orleans (1)

That was … something else.

Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans

A quick description of New Orleans at night (the city is rather different in the day). Imagine Stornoway on a November Sunday morning. Now imagine the TOTAL opposite, in every conceivable social, economic, moral, diversified, service, legal, illegal, loudness, risque way.

And that’s pretty much it. Will write more soon; need to digest New Orleans experience. Like Memphis, it wasn’t enough time.

However, I have a few days of being mainly off the grid due to more long distance train travel. Which is healthy. Pictures of the trip so far are online – most recent are at the bottom. Time to get a few hours kip, then pack and ride off (on the train) to Texas and Mexico. Locations which always remind me of one particular piece of music:

Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Put some South in your Mouth

After an excessively and stupidly late night drinking with Mark, Tyrone and Oscar on the train out of Chicago, I woke up to the coach attendant banging on my roomette door as we were early at our destination. It was 5:20am. “Leave me alone; I’m British!” “Sir, you gonna need to get your shit together; we pullin into the station real soon.” After the world’s quickest shower and a bag pack where more by luck nothing was left behind, I staggered off the train into the darkness of a pre-dawn Memphis. I felt like crap. Several days with little sleep, too much drink the night before, and an awesome five days in Chicago had done me in. The lack-of-sleep aching in my arms and neck had gotten real bad and my heart felt like it was attempting to escape from my rib cage.

Luckily, there was a perfect diner, apparently the oldest restaurant still going in Memphis, across the road. And it was just opening. I went in, trailing clothes and luggage everywhere (only on the way out did I discover one of my socks jamming the door open). Holly appeared, and in the most southern, Tennessee accent possible read my mind (or saw my general demeaner), fixed me with eyes as blue as the Mississippi I’d see a little later and said “Yew wan lotsa ca-ffee, sur?”.

Holly

Best to just say that my answer was in the positive. A startled Holly brought over a pot of coffee which I started to work through, while wondering (after Brooke in Montana) if every waitress in the USA had blue eyes. In an hour I drank enough to give an elephant the shakes. I ate a huge, spinach and mushroom filled omelette and drank more coffee. A trip to the restroom and I filled up with coffee again. I packed better, went outside, collected socks and spotted trolley cars, similar to those in San Francisco. Got on; the conductor / driver informed that the cars do a large loop taking in downtown and the bank of the Mississippi. Perfect. As the car slowly trundled around, extremely well dressed people, mainly 50+, got on and off. Turned out there was a church conference going on in downtown Memphis, and people were converging on it. In three laps of the loop I had a good chat to several groups, and was invited to their gospel service that evening. Which was kinda tempting.

Off to church

Three laps of the loop later I’d worked out a plan for the day. First, breakfast number two; fried chicken, corn and soda while sitting on the banks of the Mississippi, watching the boats chug by. The food was real good, and sitting there was as relaxing as it could get. But my ticket for Graceland was for the 11am tour. I got my shit together, found a taxi, dumped (literally) my luggage off at the hotel, and continued on to Elvis’s crib. Where a surreal few hours was spent wandering around his house, cars and airplane.

Oh, and trying on the glasses in the gift shop…

Elvis is in the giftshop...

I tried to ring Scotland. There’s many things I love about America, but one thing I really hate is attempting to make an international phone call from there. An impossibly complex and contradictory set of labels on ehe phone implied that 50 cents would get me “Up to 5 minutes” for a call to the UK, if I followed the instructions. E.T. probably had an easier time phoning home than I did phoning Scotland. The call turned out to be a lot less than 5 minutes, and costed a lot more than 50c. Convinced this is a conspiracy by cellphone customers to get more people signed up, I returned to Memphis. Much of the afternoon was spent chilling on the bank of the Mississippi.

Twilight over the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee

Everyone who passed me (many joggers, a few cyclists, the odd policeman) said hello. After a while, and aware it was my only full day in Memphis, a wander around some of the streets was in order. Beale street is the main drag, with a combination of blues bars, cafes, Irish pubs (some more genuine than others), seafood and southern food. I ate ribs in one place that had the irresistable slogan ‘Put some South in your Mouth’, then wandered, looking for somewhere that sold Obama t-shirts, and ended up in a blues bar. And it was good; the band played, beer of some kind arrived, and I chilled out. Annoyingly, it was dark in there, my camera battery had given out and I couldn’t find a recharger in the gloom.

I left the bar feeling sated but even more wrecked. A taxi was waiting outside. I got in the back and possibly rudely demanded to be taken to my hotel. Turned out it wasn’t a taxi, but a Memphis police car which has similar markings to one of the taxi companies. Words were said between the policeman and me (we won’t be exchanging Christmas cards). I got out, as it was preferable to a night in a communal cell, and found a legitimate taxi. I got back to the hotel with the intention of doing lots of admin things, repacking, organising, whatever. But was too out of it so literally crawled into bed with my laptop, gave up checking emails or doing Flickr stuff, had a twitter conversation about digital library researchers with an imsomniac in London and fell asleep.

The next morning I felt sharp and truly awake for the first in a long time. Hit the shower (Mmmm, hotel shower, nicer than Amtrak train shower) singing Ash’s “Shining Light” loud enough to wake most of the hotel. Getting said hotel to get a taxi to the train station was problematic. “It’ll be here in 10 minutes”. It wasn’t. “Here in 5.” It wasn’t. “It’s just pulling up now, sir.” “How? Why are you sayin this? We can both see out there for miles. There’s no traffic! Is this an invisible taxi, pulling up?” I gave up on the hotel and got my own taxi. Got to Memphis station just as the sun was rising, and the smokers from Chicago were outside puffing away. Here I met Dwayne and Martin and took their picture with the sun rising over Memphis behind:

Dwight and Martin

Dwayne, on the left, had an interesting story. He was heading back to New Orleans, where we used to live, earning a living as a landscaper. Hurricane Katrina came along and destroyed his house and the neighbourhood. He had a pretty graphic account of the days after the hurricane; people shooting over a bag of ice; the neighbourhood he lived in literally floating away; people disappearing when the alligators came; the breakdown of law, order and society.

Dwayne and Martin both speculated on whether the hurricane had caused all of the damage, and the levee that seemed to have exploded inward; they both noted (and I’d heard this from others down from Chicago) that more than a few people wanted extreme “solutions” to New Orleans “issues”, with Katrina coming at an opportune time. Three years on and Dwayne still hadn’t gotten his FEMA compensation, and was only now starting to seriously plan on returning. He seemed like a decent, hardworking kinda guy who just wanted to get by and raise his family well.

“Git your asses on board, sirs”, so we did. The train trundled through the Mississippi countryside and for a while it bizarrely reminded me of … Worcestershire, with little copses of trees, ordered fields, small houses and tractors. But then the countryside changed to something very un-Worcestershire like, with cotton fields and swampy woods. The trees were still the star attraction, leaf turning bronze and red in the fall weather.

The nearly nine hours to New Orleans was spent doing admin, processing pictures, looking at the countryside of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana go past, and inevitably talking to people. One group of four people were off to New Orleans to jump on a cruise ship for a friends wedding in Caribbean waters. The teccie of the group, who not surprisingly took an interest in Samantha, told me he hated weddings and usually avoided them. But in this case, on a cruise ship with unlimited drink and many bridesmaids, he was reckoning on a good chance of being laid. I wished him luck and suitable precautions.

A chef from a New Orleans restaurant sat at my table and we ended up chatting for several hours. He was pretty useful in marking out where to go, where not to go, which taxi companies were legit (few) and which were not (many), and where to eat and drink. I now know what a tap rat, and several other things, are. After a while, the cottonfields gave way to different trees, and smaller shacks, often on stilts. The trees changed, to more tropical varieties, and the swamps increased in volume and number. The land flattened out; parts of Louisiana reminded me of Norfolk, just with hotter sun and alligators in the water.

Louisiana swampland

The last hour in to New Orleans was spent looking for the bitey creatures (my count: just one lazy one). Then, we slowly came in, through inhabited suburbs of lo-rise detached houses. So this is the Big Easy. I get the feeling this is going to be fun…