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Notes from a Polite New Yorker: A Yankee In New Orleans, Part I

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Polite New Yorker journeys to New Orleans.

I last visited New Orleans a few months before Hurricane Katrina. My good friend and fellow writer, Voodoo Rue, has made New Orleans her home and is a great champion and chronicler of life in the Big Easy. She first moved to New Orleans shortly before Katrina and returned last year.

 

I set out for New Orleans on a Thursday. Americans will be happy to know that air travel is still the same absurdist farce it has been since the September 11 attacks. The JetBlue terminal at JFK was a mess of lines to get through security. At least in New York, you stand a better chance of being in line with experienced air travelers and fellow New Yorkers who value expediency and are adept at quickly complying with if not circumventing overzealous authorities. I made it through security without a problem only to be violated financially by the concessions.

 

Voodoo Rue met me at the airport. Rue is enjoying life in her favorite American city, and when I met her, she was planning on quitting her job and making a go of surviving as a freelance editor. To celebrate her upcoming freedom, I played the Dead Kennedys’ cover of David Allen Coe’s ‘Take This Job And Shove It’ through her car’s stereo as we rode away from the airport.

 

After a brief stop at Rue’s apartment in the Garden District, we set out for the Marginy for some music.

 

The Marginy area of New Orleans is adjacent to the French Quarter but and is filled with bars, restaurants and music venues far superior to the typical Bourbon Street tourist schlock. Paul Sanchez was playing at dba. I saw Paul Sanchez about 14 years earlier when he was with his old band Cowboy Mouth and they played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia with Five-Eight. People had followed Cowboy Mouth there all the way from New Orleans and they didn’t disappoint. Sanchez played lots of songs and humored the audience in between like only a good and experienced musician can. While originally from New Orleans, Sanchez lived for several years in New York and he told a particularly funny story about being robbed while working at a Brooklyn deli. Sanchez also briefly lived in my neighborhood of Inwood in uptown Manhattan, when there were still lots of Irish there.

 

On my first full day in New Orleans, I walked to Magazine Street from my friend’s apartment on Sixth Street in the Garden District. I had lunch at the Bulldog and played an interactive trivia game with two young Loyola students at the bar. On the trivia game they gave their names as Molls and Poop, so I assume one was named Molly and I doubt the other was really named Poop. Maybe her name was Peggy or Polly or Penelope Poponopolous. Given that I was old enough to have lived through the news events that the trivia questions addressed, I clobbered them soundly in most rounds.

 

On my way back from Magazine Street, I stopped by Lafayette Cemetery. Cemeteries in New Orleans are spooky cities unto themselves, full of tombs in various states of good and poor condition. As I was walking about, I came across a cemetery employee, Sean, who was leading a group of visitors around. He told me that the cemetery would be closing soon, as it normally closes at 2:30 p.m., but that I was welcome to join the small tour group he was leading. He dispelled one myth about New Orleans cemeteries: people are not buried in tombs because New Orleans sits below sea level, they are buried in tombs because of the traditions that French and Spanish settlers brought with them there. People are put into a tomb in New Orleans without being embalmed and in a plain wood coffin. After one year and one day, cemetery employees break open the tomb again, separate the bones from everything else, and put the bones in a bag back inside the tomb. Two coffins at once can fit in a tomb, and if more than two family members have died too close to one another, then the others must be buried temporarily somewhere else until there is room in the tomb. One tomb can hold dozens of remains, and it’s common to find tombs with multiple plaques denoting who is interred within.

 

As the tour continued, Sean the cemetery worker told stories. He smoked cigarettes. He made crude and tasteless jokes to the group, most of whom were tourists from Alabama. When those got no laughs, he made some more tasteless jokes and smoked more cigarettes. When it came time to end the tour, he passive-aggressively asked for donations and got some. I had a feeling that the donations were going to the Sean’s Afternoon Beer Fund rather than to Lafayette Cemetery, but I didn’t mind. He had a lot of interesting information about the history of the cemetery and burials in New Orleans. 

 

That night, Voodoo Rue took me to Tipitina’s, known as Tip’s, in the uptown section of the city on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas Streets. The headlining performer that night was Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, who played with his full band. It was a packed house and there were a lot of college-age people there, but it was not an obnoxious scene like one might expect. Trombone Shorty was excellent.

 

After we left the show, it was time to go to the Erin Rose.

 

In New Orleans, you will also be expected to drink. The entire city’s economy is based on people arriving from all over the world to participate in one kind of vice or another. You can gamble, leer at strippers and drink yourself into a blind stupor—from the same barstool if you’re so inclined. I harbor no ill will towards those who have given up alcohol and commend those who can lead a sober life. I have experimented with temperance myself. However, I would have considered it a sign of disrespect not to drink while in New Orleans. Just as non-Catholic women still cover their hair in the presence of the Pope; teetotalers should feel at liberty to imbibe freely in New Orleans. I felt it would be disrespectful not to drink in New Orleans, and I wanted to treat the city with much respect.

 

And the best place to drink in New Orleans is the Erin Rose. I didn’t expect to get to the Erin Rose so soon into my trip, but we could not resist going. We found it to be the same excellent drinking establishment I had discovered three years ago.  Its patrons are a core of locals who run the gamut from bartenders to oil rig workers to defense contractors. One evening there, I bought some homemade soaps from one of the more interesting regulars, dodged coasters being hurled by the bartender in my direction like throwing stars, and spoke with a U.S. Army veteran about this time spent in Baghdad.

 

Saturday and Sunday, we set out to find the tomb of John Kennedy Toole. Toole was the author of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, which is my favorite novel and one of the finest, funniest books you will ever read. It takes place in New Orleans and follows the misadventures of an eccentric character named Ignatius J. Reilly. Toole took his own life in 1969 at the age of 32. His mother found the manuscript of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ in his room after his death and worked for years to get it published without success. She finally brought it to the attention of Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola University. Percy was amazed by the book and helped get it published. Toole posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Paying my respects to the talented author who never got to see how his amazing work would be received was one of my goals for this trip.

 

My first Saturday back in New Orleans, Voodoo Rue and I set out for the Greenwood Cemetery to find John Kennedy Toole’s tomb. 

 

To be continued…

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