A friend told me New Orleans was exactly my kind of place. A different friend described New Orleans as completely debauched. I think one was referring to the city’s reputation for music history and food and the other was talking about drunken toplessness. He compared it to Vegas where too many people are trying too hard to do something regrettable. He did however give New Orleans credit in that while Vegas is a plaster imitation of a million other somewhere elses, New Orleans is in fact a real place all its own.
I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orlean’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got. While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.
The whole place looks like it used to be green, was then grown over in black mold, and finally scrubbed hard with bleach. The result is a faded green and white streaked with grey black echoing the Spanish moss that hangs from trees outside of town. There aren’t as many trees in town, and they are strung with beads not moss.
When I got there it was surprisingly quiet. There were people around, places were open, but I got the feeling the whole city was resting up, waiting for something to happen later. There were bright colored bits of cloth left torn and strewn over everything. Formely glossy green gold and purple beads hung from tree branches and balcony railings and rainbow flags mixed in regularly with the flour de li. It was like the whole city was experiencing a post drag show hangover. Like something wild and just a touch trashy had already happened, it was sure to happen again, but everyone needed a nap first.
Crossing a grassy median by the trolley tracks I stepped over a pile of discarded casino chips. It was a small pile of Harra’s disks in purple yellow and green. I am not now nor have I ever been a gambler, so as I kept walking past that stash I simultaneously wondered if I had just passed a pile of redeemable money, how one might redeem a pile of found chips, and how badly I would get mocked if I went to Harra’s and tried. Wondering if it was worth a try I noticed an old woman who looked like money walking a miniature dog past a homeless man, and just past the homeless man was a hipster.
Actually they were two, not one- a couple. He with his horn rimmed glasses and beanie, her with a lemon yellow bob and septum piercing, neither of which alone make a hipster, but I saw them navigating by phone, not taking pictures of pretty houses, which could only mean Yelp. I have made it a best practice to follow tattooed millennials who are navigating on foot via Yelp. It is how I have found some of my best meals. On this occasion they were right and so was I.
They were indeed finding food and it was better than good. My first instinct would be to say that the Turkey and the Wolf is not what would be considered New Orleans cuisine, but it is there, and I’ve never had buffalo sauce deviled eggs topped with chicken skin ‘cracklins’ anywhere else, so I would have to say my first instinct was wrong. My second instinct was to order said eggs as well as the shredded lamb gyro drowned in dill. My second instinct did not disappoint. I may have been the only one Instagramming the houses out on my walk but everyone at lunch posted their meal. That includes me.
There were no hipsters at Cochon, and the fact that Google maps had it listed as existing at all made me worry just a little. But it was the closest restaurant to the hotel that wasn’t a hotel restaurant and it was going completely ignored by the tourists who were in town for Wrestlemania, which I saw as a good sign so I went in. I sat at the chef’s counter right in front of the wood burning oven. The chef’s counter is where you sit so you can see your food being made and hear the chef yell unintelligible things to everyone in the kitchen and then they all shout back in unison “yes chef”. You see people scurrying about doing menial things like washing plates, hauling flour and stoking an oven till chef rings a little bell and slides a plate of edible art onto a counter where a less sweaty person picks up the plate for delivery. The waiter described dish Cochon as pulled pork that is formed into a patty, lightly breaded then pan seared. It was good but it was the eggplant soufflé that made me want to shout “yes chef”. I did not expect to like it but the waiter suggested it. and he was right.
Food is everywhere in New Orleans. It is in every little corner shop, in the balconies. In the river, the ocean- everywhere. I had stuffed flounder at Adolfo’s, oysters at Felix’s, boudin and meat pies at Bourree, lime seared chicken at Cane & Table, shrimp etouffee at Galatoire’s, beignet at Café Du Monde, and crawfish at some side of the road place where the guy at the register had to speak through one of those little devices throat cancer survivors use to sound like a robot. They were all worth it in all the ways that matter. No, they are all worth it in all the ways that exist. It is a city where- when it comes to food- no matter how you roll the dice you win. It is telling that in all the days I was there in all the miles I walked or drove, I only saw one McDonalds and never saw a Target. I did see a Bubba Gump, which made me remember that Office episode where Michael’s favorite NY pizza spot is Sbarro’s. Because I’m much more Dwight than Michael I kept walking.
Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks off Jackson Square. In full disclosure those streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying, depending on the person- or people I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers. I enjoyed it. It is a place that feels like a place. The quiet from earlier in the day was gone replaced by jazz.
I’m calling it jazz despite my not really knowing a way to define that genre- but there were plenty of trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and upturned hats or buckets sitting on the curb waiting for tips. Whatever an actual authority might call it, it was mostly upbeat and made walking down a street of strangers feel a bit like a party. No. It felt like multiple parties all squished together. One party was being led by a slightly tubby 20 year old doing covers of 70’s funk songs accompanied by a weathered Al Green doppelganger. Next door, and this part was a surprise to me, was country music. Stepping into an almost empty bar I was initially disappointed to hear a twangy voice slowly whining over an acoustic guitar. I was a little intrigued when I looked on stage to see that noise coming from a black man. As I stared in wonder, a little bit in horror, I realized I knew the song. It was “pictures of You by the Cure. I was witness to a black man singing a country version of a Cure song. I was amazed, a little impressed, but definitely didn’t want to stay to hear that. One more door down was a full swing band crammed into a very small corner. The sound was great, thumping bass line and quick fingered clarinet, but 20 year olds in fedoras and zuit suits made the place feel a little to costume party for my tastes. Which was fine because there was another bar with another band right next door. This one had a steel guitar and organ and a 40 year old white man singing about bringing a loaded gun to the door to chase off salesmen. I appreciated what he was doing but his voice sounded explainey more than singy and no where near whaling or soulful. The place that finally made me linger was an ensamble that looked like an “all ages” chess club, or maybe like a tech company kick ball team, but they played like I thought the city should sound without looking too kitschy.
Just about an hour’s drive up the Mississippi there is a row of preserved plantations popular with chartered tours and wedding receptions. Facing right up to the big river and backed by sprawling fields of sugar cane are the sorts of palaces fantasized about in Gone with the Wind or any other antebellum story. There you find the real life relics that inspired those post war un reconstructed ideas. Oak Alley aptly named with a long arched tunnel of Oak limbs flanking a path leading to bright white columns encasing a genteel two story wrap around porch is right off the road. One mile up river is another called Evergreen, and then there is Laura, and St. Joseph. They are all landscaped to photographic perfection with clean and quaint gift shops selling cook books and hoop skirts. Lousiana isn’t unique in this. After all, the real Terra is in Atlanta and Mt. Vernon is above all else, celebratory. I have been on house and ground tours in Virginia, Savannah, Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and they all do things pretty much the same. They dress up like the white people who owned the place and tell wonderful stories of rags to riches mercantilism, explain the furniture, and then they laud the family’s contributions to the community through the 1930’s or 60’s when the last spinster descendent turned the estate over to a preservationist trust so we could all enjoy the rich history that lives in this beautiful place.
Then there is the Whitney.
Historically the Whitney is exactly like all the others. It too started with a colonists dream built into a business then handed down as a family palace. Its history is no different than Monticello, the Hermitage, or all its neighbors along the big river but it is fundamentally, foundationally, spiritually, different from all of them today.
I have been to Monticello and been told on the house tour that Mr. Jefferson had trouble getting a good cook to stay in the house. I was told a story of how Jefferson made a great investment in his chef’s French training only to have said chef skip town once back in America. There was no mention that this was because the chef was a slave and slaves didn’t like being slaves. Nor was there mention of this slave being related to the master’s family by blood and I was informed that this was scandalous rumor that couldn’t be proven- despite the fact that a Pulitzer prize winner had recently done just that.
I was told another tale at the home of Andrew Jackson where great honor is given to a grey haired old black man who when given his freedom, decided to stay on the plantation. The tour gave no room for questioning why.
But I have also been to Buchenwald in Germany.
Buchenwald was a concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as part of the final solution. After its liberation by Allied armies the local Germans were made to tour the facility. It was thought important that those who may not have been directly responsible, though perhaps complicit, be brought face to face with the realities of genocide and death. Today the camp is open as a museum and memorial to those who suffered and or died there.
That is the Whitney Plantation.
There was no talk there of confederate bravery or Nazi scientific precision, just honesty and reverence for the black people who suffered and or died-for the sole purpose of making some white people rich. It was not really about blame- though it was honest and fair in a way that those other houses have never been, nor was the prevailing feeling one of hate or revenge.
I have been to DC and stood at the Vietnam memorial, a large wall listing the names of the dead, and it feels sacred. At the Whitney there is a similar memorial listing names of black people who suffered-and or died-as slaves just in Louisiana. It lists double the number of names as the wall in DC (57,939 vs 109,200) and felt to me at least as powerful.
And then there are those statues.
In the little chapel, and out in the wooden shacks, are black children cast in bronze. Their visible presence is an unavoidable reminder of who lived in these homes and why. They are haunting. But they aren’t just blank recreations of what might have been, these children have names. And they have stories. In the 1930’s the federal government sent out employees with recording equipment to capture the stories of those old people who were alive back in slave times. The statues are those people, portrayed at the age they would have been when emancipated. The result is not just a bunch of kid statues, but real people whose stories you can know and stand and hear while looking at them standing or sitting in the location where they were born- meant to suffer and or die to make some white family rich. There is no such thing at other houses.
But what struck me the most, or hit me the hardest, was a bell.
Bells were normal on plantations and they were rung for several reasons. They rang to call everyone in from the field, or for lights out, or as a call to gather to witness someone being punished. The Whitney has such bells. The Whitney also has something else other plantations don’t really have- black visitors. I have stood in several crowds of German, Japanese, or French people at dozens of historic plantations- but what I had never done before was be in such a place standing next to black people. Outside of minors who were bussed to such places on field trips or the awkward bridesmaid whose white sorority sister opted for a genteel plantation wedding, I had not known black people to visit the location of their ancestor’s torture.
But at the Whitney I witnessed a tour guide tell of the old ringing of plantation bells with the explanation that now they choose to ring them in honor of the memory of black people who once lived there, and then I watched a young black mother send her little black son up to pull the rope. When the bell rang I lost my mind. My head stopped thinking and I started feeling. My eyes welled up, my breathing caught short and I had to walk away. I didn’t just see and know things right then, I felt them.
There is meaning in that.
And then I left that place and went a mile down the road to another such house where the guide proudly showed me the plantation owner’s signature on multiple loyalty pledges where he had duplicitously promised not to fight against the United States in the civil war any more. The guide chuckled when he also showed me the list of battles this plantation owner fought in after breaking those promises. There was no mention of black people other than to brag that after emancipation most of the slaves chose to stay. He had no answer as to who those black people were or why they made that so called “choice”.
And that is New Orleans.
It is an old city with much of its story sinking in mud both real and figurative. I t is a place where bad things happened and happen. It is the kind of place where despite all of those things or maybe because of them, people choose not to focus but drench themselves in bourbon and beads. The music swings loud, the food is full of flavor, and they dance at funerals.
The city is turning 300 years old this year which is “founding fathers” old in American years and all this time the crescent city has been its own kind of place with its own story. More than any other city this one is the story of France, Spain, the Huma and Choctaw- and Africa. And then the United States, Haiti, and the Confederacy. All the while Andrew Jackson waves his hat triumphantly in the square and goes mostly ignored. The crowds that mill around are more interested in Café Dumond’s beignets or the buskers on the corner. They are not really looking into the city’s history, unless maybe on a ghost tour, which is less about what happened then and more about what sort of then still haunts now. Which is appropriate because now is haunted by then so much more than the crowds appear to want to know. Though in all fairness the crowds only appear to want to know bourbon and brightly colored beads.
The party is so loud and constant that you sense it has and will always be going on and consequentially the place is celebrated but only shallowly considered. Maybe that is changing just a little, they did after all take down a statue or two,
but I don’t really know.
I don’t live here.