Five and a half years after Katrina, New Orleans is still definitely one of the greatest cities on earth. December 21, 2010 to February 2, 2011, I spent just over six weeks here, reconnecting with my college years and youth and generally recovering some physical health and sanity that the past two years had left ragged. I highly recommend New Orleans as a therapeutic destination for anyone who can merely observe, and not participate too much, at least in the drinking side of life. If I had not given up “real” drinking 27 years ago, coming to New Orleans would have been suicidal. If liquor is your weakness, this is a hellish place to avoid. If you love architectural beauty and soft southern humid air that’s cool in wintertime, this is heaven.
Of course, exactly three years ago the road of my life had taken me straight into the blackest, lifeless, and driest of all modern hells: into the temporary custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for 54 days (December 9, 2007-February 2, 2008). U.S District Judge Janis Graham Jack basically provided me a government paid forced-educational journey into this country’s real heart of darkness, and I will never forget it or cease to marvel at the things I learned in those dark and dank places where society’s refuse is stored. That such places exist in the land of the free is a horrible disgrace to our constitution and heritage. That conscientious Americans are willing to work as custodians to destroy the lives and freedom of others is still nightmarish to me.
New Orleans—what is her place in all this? In New Orleans, there is real freedom, because no one really cares what anyone else does, but there are still cops and prisons. The Sheriff of Orleans Parish used to be one of the feared enemies of Civil Rights in America, but these days the repression is more in the curtailment of the city’s “joie de vivre.” In New Orleans, Walmart closes at 10:00 p.m. and opens at 7:00 a.m. The wonderful Trolley-Stop Restaurant on St. Charles, which used to be open 24/7, is now only open at night on weekends. The City has been repressed, but it is still New Orleans. Around that Walmart on Tchoupitoulas, new subsidized housing projects have gone up—and they are handsome and well-designed and attractive, unlike the dismal government “projects” of the 1960s & ’70s. Rumors have it that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have something to do with some of the renewal and construction around here. I haven’t investigated enough to be sure. The City is still a thriving haven of sin and debauchery—I suppose that will never change.
The night clerk at the legendarily Haunted Olivier House Hotel I’ve been staying at, who brought a space heater up to my room on this Cold Candlemas Eve (St. Brigit’s Eve? Imbolc-Night—90 days since Halloween and Samhain marked the last of the Celtic Calendar’s great feasts), was wearing a Sweatshirt from the Salem, Massachusetts Coroner’s Office commemorating Halloween 2010—she attended the Witch’s Ball at the Hawthorne Hotel exactly 93 days ago tonight. Apparently there is a lot of idea cross-fertilization, involvement between the tourist industries of New Orleans for winter/Mardi Gras and Salem for Halloween.
But there are not two more dissimilar states in the Union than Louisiana and Massachusetts, historically, culturally, and in terms of both past and present politics. Over time, Massachusetts has softened and become much less sternly puritanical, of course, just as Louisiana has cleaned up its act (somewhat at least) since the days of Governor Edwin Edwards (“Vote for the Crook, it’s Important”) and many of his predecessors including the fabled Huey and Earl Long administrations, punctuated by legendary oddities like the governorship of “You Are My Sunshine” Composer Governor Jimmie H. Davis… on the one hand and Sam Houston Jones on the other.
New Orleans, Louisiana, the home of so many American legends. It is a place of unsurpassed beauty in its 19th century architecture mixed with the “evergreen” live oak trees and flower season that never ends. I still have no easy explanation for how the same life that took me to the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles in December 2007 brought me here to New Orleans in December 2010 for roughly the same amount of time. I learned a great deal in both places but there’s no doubt about where the food was better—I have sampled enough good eateries in the pursuit of at least my mental if not physical health to write a miniature guidebook now—but not without the assistance of Miss Lila Griffith Herrington whose services as a tour guide, even to a city I thought I knew well, have been so very much appreciated.
On the physical side I think that New Orleans (like much of Florida I suppose) is a very good place for the weak to build cardiac health because it is so completely flat. Long and interesting walks in the Garden District and Uptown Audubon-Park-Tulane University areas are actually unparalleled for architectural touring anywhere in Florida. I cannot say enough how much I love this town or its “laissez faire” attitude towards life. The New Years Fireworks by the River were awesome. Tujague’s, the Court of Two Sisters, and Commander’s Palace continue an amazing culinary tradition. I thought Emeril’s Delmonico fairly outrageously overpriced, although the quality of the food was excellent. Unfortunately I was introduced to Delmonico some three decades ago by my Uncle Milton who knew the two old ladies who ran the place from the 1940s through the 1970s. It was then much more like Tujague’s and Court of Two Sisters (still are today) in the sense of being wonderful food and wonderful value for a reasonable price. Commander’s Palace is well-balanced, more expensive but excellent. Emeril’s Delmonico, subsidized I suppose by his years of building a television audience, was the only cautionary tale I could offer. There are many new and less famous but still wonderful restaurants, of which Domenico’s at the Roosevelt and its Magazine Street small twin deserve very honorable mention. For non-Creole/Non-Acadienne cuisine, Suko Thai—also on Magazine Street, was probably the most surprising discovery of the trip, although Sake and Biblos on Magazine also deserve honorable mention.
I will miss this town when I return to the City of Angels. I will miss its soft humid air and languid lifestyle. But I will relish the return to a place where smoking is really almost completely taboo and everywhere frowned upon, and where the rhythm of existence is not quite so very much governed by the continuous quest for alcohol which seems to rule an extraordinary proportion of the population. For a man who seriously hasn’t touched real booze in years, New Orleans culture of smoking and alcohol is its one major detraction.