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Notes from a Polite New Yorker: A Yankee In New Orleans, Part II
Polite New Yorker continues his journey through New Orleans.
I began my first weekend in New Orleans searching for John Kennedy Toole’s tomb at the Greenwood Cemetery. Greenwood Cemetery is a very large cemetery. After more than an hour in the sun carefully gridding out and going over the likely places where his tomb would be, we decided to call it a day and return the next day when we had more information on where exactly the tomb was located.
It was still Saturday afternoon and we headed to the Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve to try to see some alligators in the wild. The Barataria Preserve is located about 20 miles south of New Orleans. After stopping by the visitors’ center and getting information about where we could park (on the side of the road) and what paths were open (really only one if we wanted to see alligators), we set out along a trail on Bayou Coquille.
The Bayou Coquille path begins along the side of a road and is marked with a large sign that has bullet holes in it. It is a paved path that runs through the woods but then becomes a wooden plank walkway when it meets up with the actual bayou. It was really good to be in the woods there, because if you’re from the North, the woods look different. Spanish moss hangs from the trees, and swampy muck dominates the land, making only certain paths available to humans. Even the green slime on the water looks pretty. At one point, a giant nutria darted across the path in front of me in a flash. As we walked along the path, we encountered other tourists. A family with young children told us a giant alligator was on the opposite shore of the bayou ahead of us, though we failed to see it. We did see a small-to-medium-sized alligator in the water close to the path, and I snapped some frustratingly obscure photos of it as it swam away. A few other tourists noticed my Georgia Bulldogs hat and asked me if I knew the score of the game that was being played at the time (Georgia beat Kentucky, 42-38). We never got to see the giant alligator we were looking for, but we saw beautiful marshlands, peaceful bayous and some large white herons and took some nice photos.
The next day, we went back to Greenwood Cemetery, this time armed with some specific information on where to find John Kennedy Toole’s tomb. I brought some flowers and my green hunting cap. Within a few minutes we found it. The Ducoing family tomb is the final resting place for both John Kennedy Toole, his mother Thelma Ducoing Toole, and others from her family. It was great to find, since visiting Toole’s grave was one of my top goals on this trip, and he is one of my personal heroes. We took some photos and I left the flowers. I thought about leaving the green hunting cap, but wasn’t sure that doing so would be respectful or not. I left a pen in tribute, hoping it would put some good Mojo on my writing.
Then it was off to another swamp tour, this one in Westwego. The Westwego Swamp Boat Tour was not too far outside of New Orleans in Westwego, Louisiana. We arrived early and got our tickets from the office/gift shop located in the bottom floor of a house. Next door to the house was an outdoor fish market, consisting of concession stands set up in a semicircle in a gravel lot. Rue and I stopped by a larger store that was among the stands, where I bought some Voodoo Cajun Cooking Powder for a friend. The stands all sold fish of some kind, and were run by locals. More than one advertised that they accepted food stamps. That the working-class rural South continues to take a beating was everywhere in evidence, but while the financial poverty of the area was great, the people there looked to be making the best of what little they had. The homes were small and worn, but neatly tended. Like most of the South, friendliness abounded.
The Westwego Swamp Boat Tour of Bayou Segnette began on land with a brief presentation by the boat’s captain, Captain Tom Billiot. He displayed a giant snapping turtle and showed pictures of different kinds of alligators and snakes, describing the different wildlife to be found in the bayou. At the end of the presentation, as we boarded the 20+ passenger boat, we got to pet a baby alligator he held. Billiot, a bona fide Cajun who also spoke some French for the benefit of some French tourists there, gave us a great tour. He described the environmental damage done to the bayou by years of shipping, oil and gas drilling, and hurricanes. He described how he was happy to trap and kill nutria for the bounty (the state of Louisiana offers a $5 bounty for every nutria you kill – simply present them with the tail), go duck hunting in the mornings and trading duck for shrimp that friends catch out in the ocean. He explained the life on the bayou as people who lived in the swamps came speeding by in boats. We passed a ramshackle fisherman’s house where the rent was a whopping $700 per year, according to the Captain. I marveled at the idea of living in a beautiful bayou and paying less rent all year than I did for one month in my New York apartment.
After returning from the tour, we went across the street from the tour office to the Mona Lisa Lounge, which from the outside looked like a redneck dive bar where a Yankee could easily be murdered. It was every bit as run down but not as foreboding on the inside. The bar was a friendly place with cold beer, and it was nice to go there, though I’m glad we weren’t there for karaoke.
Since I was staying in the Garden District and spent most of my time there, Uptown and in the French Quarter, I did not visit the areas most seriously damaged by Hurricane Katrina three years ago. I did see some of the damage from Katrina that still exists in parts of midtown. There are still boarded up houses and vacant lots in neighborhoods that once held thriving businesses or tidy homes.
But inescapable in New Orleans is the frustration among its citizens with rampant crime, the slow pace of recovery, the country’s short attention span to the city’s problems, and the complete lack of viable political leadership when it’s needed most.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is an incompetent demagogue in the worst Coleman Young tradition. The rebuilding effort is going on despite the local government, not because of it. The bureaucracy set up to oversee rebuilding in New Orleans’ hardest hit areas has torn down rebuilt houses and ignored hazardous wreckage. Nagin’s allies in city government make knee-jerk accusations of racism when confronted with their own incompetence.
But while frustration is evident on the part of the people there, so is the perseverance fed by and abiding love of New Orleans. Where governments have failed, local citizens are taking it upon themselves to fight crime, organize recovery efforts, and try to save the city. Just recently, the group Silence Is Violence organized its third annual memorial march for murder victims in New Orleans.
It is this love of New Orleans that is evident on every page of John Kennedy Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces,’ a book that continues to inspire me. I had a few places to go that were mentioned in the novel. The Prytania Theater on Prytania Street near Jefferson Avenue is the site of an early episode in the novel, which sees the book’s protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, removed after denouncing the film being shown. I found my way there and saw that the movie playing there at the time was ‘Zack And Miri Make A Porno.’ It was good to see that the Prytania was still screening films that would offend Ignatius Reilly’s sensibilities. To pay true homage to Ignatius, I would have bought a ticket and denounced the film loudly to the point of being forcibly removed. Instead I settled for taking a few photos of myself outside wearing my green hunting cap.
Continuing on my ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ tour, I made a point to walk down Constantinople Street from St. Charles to the Mississippi River. I passed along many small houses along the way. In the French Quarter, there is a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly outside of the old site of the D.H. Holmes Department store, where the novel begins. I also did other Ignatius-related things, such as peruse an art show along the fence near St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square and devour a foot-long hot dog sold from a hot dog-shaped push cart.
Had I a Big Chief writing tablet with me, I might have penned something along these lines:
I find myself often feeling a greater kinship to Ignatius J. Reilly, particularly when I feel out of step with the current mores of society, and it appears decency and values are driven asunder in the name of progress and/ or expediency. The world indeed often appears lost and without a proper geometry or theology. But unlike Ignatius, I know I must fight on and find my own way; there will be no Myrna Minx to save me.
And so I left New Orleans after a successful visit with my friend Voodoo Rue. We spent some quality time catching up over multiple rounds of beer at the Erin Rose and Igor’s and The Irish Garden Club and Parasol’s and The Bulldog, and I promised I would return to New Orleans again. My final evening in New Orleans is somewhat of a blur, though I know I spent it drinking in the French Quarter, and have some beads to show for it.