How We Spent the Day After My Birthday
February 13, 2011
Headed to Lil’ Dizzy’s in the Tremé for breakfast.
Amazing food – HP got French toast that was quite dreamy and a mountain of bacon that, for once, conquered him – but a dingbat of a waiter. I had to get him to recalculate the check twice and am still not sure it was right, but finally just gave up.
From there, just a few short blocks to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. It’s across the street from St. Augustine’s, the oldest black Catholic church in the country. HP and I were both struck by this on the outside.
We were early for the museum, which didn’t open til 10, so we headed to Louis Armstrong Park, home of Congo Square; slaves used to get together there weekly to sing African music and dance to it, unusual in that those type of gatherings were forbidden anywhere else. (After all, taking away someone’s roots is a great way to dehumanize them further, just in case you’re worried that enslaving them doesn’t do that enough.) It’s hallowed ground for musicians and a beautiful park, but unfortunately was completely locked up.
We headed back to the museum, and were still early. A man outside said, “You here for the museum.” We nodded. “Well, come on in.”
That man was Jack, one of New Orleans Indians and a walking oral history monument. In just two small rooms in the little Tremé cottage are packed incredible costumes, which weigh an average of 100 pounds and take a year to 18 months to construct. Jack (once again, I didn’t get a last name) showed us how the costumes are crafted, sewn one bead at a time onto cardboard patches. It’s hard to capture how jaw-dropping these things are; HP gave it a shot with the detail pix below.
Jack also told us that the monument we’d seen outside the church is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave; I don’t think any other city has one. Inside the church, the pews are all embossed with the names of free people of color, of which New Orleans had the largest population anywhere; the lovely Tremé was their neighborhood. We also told him that the park up the street looked beautiful, and we wished we could get in. He scowled. “Gonna wait a long time. They’re not givin’ us any money for that any time soon.” It’s a problem we’d understand a lot better by the end of the day.
We grabbed a cab and headed WAY uptown, through the Garden District, to the awesome Dirty Coast, which, rumor had it, had the best shirts in the city. The kid immediately gravitated toward this one.
When we left, this shirt and a couple others in hand, I said, “Do you know what Absinthe is?”
“No, I just thought the shirt was cool. What’s absinthe?”
“It’s this liquor they had to outlaw because it makes you go insane.”
We stopped at a mask/costume shop for locals; the kid would love one of those creepy bird masks that medieval doctors wore to ward off plague. Nada. So we jumped on the St. Charles Streetcar, and made our way back to the quarter to another mask shop. This one was pricey, but the masks were beautiful, and closer in line. We had a tour coming up and the meeting place was on Decatur, so we decided to check out a couple of shops there. On the way, the kid snapped these.
Decatur Street is repellent, almost as bad as the 3 or 4 blocks of Bourbon that every frat boy in the world aims to puke on at some point. Wall to wall tourists, the worst kind of crap, although we did find one shop that had a mask room in the back that wasn’t hugely populated. The kid is still debating, since we never really found the definitive plague doctor mask. But at least he didn’t want the “Happy Fisherman” t-shirt, where a guy is getting a b.j. from a fish, just one of the souvenir options on Decatur. (Dirty Coast didn’t have this one.)
Historic New Orleans Tours picked us up. Any guided tour is going to feel pretty dorky, but I’m glad we took this one. Not entertaining in the least, it was more like a lecture from a local expert who’d lived through Katrina and the reconstruction. We saw a huge swathe of the city we couldn’t have seen on our own, including the Super Dome, Lake Pontchartrain, several of the levees that had breached and have since been rebuilt (you can see the construction lines), and the East New Orleans neighborhood heavily settled by VietNamese that got pounded by the storm but has rebuilt with the help of volunteers from all over.
The last part of the tour takes you through the Lower 9th Ward, which is still devastated. One of the problems is that it’s a historic district; many of the houses still standing can’t be torn down, and they can only be rebuilt using historic materials. Despite a strong concentration of home ownership in the area, many of the families did not have the type of insurance to get their houses back in working order; add to that massive relocation with little hope of getting back.
Brad Pitt has done a lot with his foundation Make It Right which is working with Habitat for Humanity, and the odd-looking but completely green and hurricane-safe homes are popping up all around the Lower 9th. Still, going on 6 years and there’s an absolute ton of work yet to do; the tour exists to promote awareness of the situation. It’s like drinking through a fire hose, and, I repeat, not entertaining, but I understand the reality of what happened here in a way I couldn’t have otherwise.
We were both in the mood for a mellow meal and were frankly pretty tired; I knew if we hit Elizabeth’s early, it would be perfect. It’s in the Bywater, which gets dodgy at night, but a call to the restaurant assured me that the walk down would be perfectly safe as it was still daylight. On the way, the kid spotted this.
This is Elizabeth’s outside.
They serve praline bacon. Also, amazing seafood. Well, everything is just good.
We had a great meal, then called 6 separate cab companies. No one picked up, except one, who said, “I got nothin’ for ya, ma’am.”
Repeated very politely, “I got nothin’ for ya, ma’am.”
Wow. I hadn’t anticipated this was going to be so difficult. We stood outside; surely someone was going to get dropped off. But the beauty of Elizabeth’s is that it’s a beloved local joint. No cabs. After we’d tried to get a cab for close to an hour, I stopped a middle-aged couple on their way out of the restaurant, told them our plight, and they drove us the 10 blocks home. “You can’t walk here at night. Daytime, no problem. Not at night.”
I asked them both if they were from New Orleans, and they said no. One had been there 30 years, the other 20. It’s a weird phenomenon I keep running into down here; apparently, you’re only from New Orleans if you were born here. They were what’s known as “never-lefts,” they came down and just never left.
I get that.