Sunday was a sleepy, weird sort of day. I woke up early in my Central Business District hotel, even though I was exhausted. And, at the time, I didn’t know that I was coming down with an infection. The last thing I wanted was to be challenged intellectually, but I’ve often found that New Orleans does that to you; if you stop long enough to peer beneath the surface, the City is lousy with great puzzlements.
I walked down to the waterfront and got a large cup of cafe au lait, eschewing the beignets since I was going out for a pricey brunch later. For one, it was uncharacteristically cold and blustery, more typical of January than mid-March, and my fleece vest and windbreaker were ill-equipped to fight the chill. I took in the view of the river, as working tugs and barges busily plied the waters while a cruise liner was being outfitted for a trip to the Western Caribbean. Before heading to the brunch, I stopped by my hotel to warm up and do a bit of writing. I decided to drop a layer since I was only going around the block.
I met Burt and Jeannie at the Veranda of the Hotel Intercontinental around 12:30pm. My jeans and plaid shirt attested to the fact that this was not my scene, as I would usually be perched on the stool at some hole-in-the-wall diner. But as it turned out, we were not there for the creole-style buffet (which was quite varied and delicious), the make-your-own bloody Mary station (the pickled okra were a nice touch), or the opulently appointed surroundings and guests; we were there primarily for the music.
As well-heeled locals, convention attendees, and NCAA basketball fans passed in and out, we spent nearly two hours listening to Dr. Michael White on clarinet and Greg Stafford on trumpet, accompanied by guitar and bass, as they languidly went through their repertoire of traditional New Orleans music. The two had been in New Hampshire only 20 days before, but it was a pleasure to catch them in a more informal, albeit lavish, venue. Suits and ties notwithstanding, it would have been better still in some weathered dance hall; the local incubators for this music about a century ago.
During breaks we had a chance to catch up a bit. We all bemoaned the fact that the Indian parade had been postponed a week. Even though the sight of Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night had been a singular experience, I learned that when traveling in the company of folklorists that there’s always room for more local spectacle. That is when Greg offered that there was a second line parade winding its way through the Uptown neighborhoods. I knew I was in trouble and also, that I could not say no. Within moments of the music ending and paying our tab, we were in the car and heading Uptown.
We traced the route as outlined on Greg’s map, but could not find the parade anywhere. We finally decided to go to the end point — the intersection of Toledano and Rocheblave in the Broadmoor neighborhood. One guy had a grill set up and there were a few people milling about, but they assured us that the parade would end right there. We drove off again to know avail. Had it been cancelled? Did police force them away from their planned route? Or, as I suspected, did they find a nice cozy bar and decide not to brave wind-chills in the 30s? Given that I only had my windbreaker, that would have been my choice.
We passed through neighborhoods that were in trouble before Katrina. And the aftermath had left many homes, businesses and institutions in disrepair. And many of those residents, businesses, or institutions simply had not come back. But, there is a spirit that resides in the people who have returned and I feel it grow with every year I return. And I suspect that the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, coupled with the the fact that Katrina grows smaller in the City’s rear view mirror, is helping feed that spirit. That is not meant to suggest that serious problems remain, but these are a stubborn people with a strong sense of place, who cling tirelessly to tradition, especially if that tradition is somehow tied to having a good time.
So there we were: three, very white college professors, standing in the median (neutral ground in New Orleans-speak) of a working-class, African-American neighborhood, waiting for a neighborhood parade. We had no clue where it came from or why or for what purpose. But by the time we returned to the endpoint, there were a couple of hundred people, a half-dozen barbecues blazing and an equal number of pick-up trucks selling beer and soda off the back. I don’t have to use the adjective cold before “beer” or “soda,” because every damned thing was cold, especially me.
So, we wandered back to the neutral ground on Toledano and talked to some of those waiting for the second line. They were angry that the Indians’ Super Sunday parade had been postponed and blamed the City, not the notoriously unpredictable Indians. They also suspected that the NOPD had thrown this second line parade off route, thereby delaying its finale. Forget that there were planned stops at bars and private homes for refreshments along the way. My favorite response was from a woman about my age, who seemingly saw herself as an interpreter for us. In the midst of our conversation, in response to no question, she pointed to the meager second line coming up the street and said: “It’s Sunday and after church we want to party. It’s what we do.” And who can argue with that.
The second line included two or three social clubs, dressed to the nines, carrying fans or umbrellas or other symbols of their club. They danced to the drum rhythms and sousaphone-driven baseline of the Stooges Brass Band and another unidentified band. The crowd was far bigger than the parade and by they time it reached its end, the crowd had probably swollen to seven or eight hundred. The dancers and musicians occupied the center of the intersection and after a a couple of tunes, the former retreated to the warmth of one of the bars and the latter shouldered their instruments and headed home or to their next gig. We left as the crowd refocused on po-boys filled with freshly grilled meat. Still full from my extravagant brunch, I was just glad to get into the warmth of the car.
We headed downtown because Jeannie wanted to see Musician’s Village in the Upper Ninth Ward and some of Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right 9” homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Afterwards, we tried to go to the late Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge (below) on Claiborne, but it was locked shut.
I had Burt drop me off at my hotel, went in to thaw out, and then dressed about as warmly as I could. I took Royal Street across the Quarter and for one last time enjoyed the musical buffet that is Frenchmen Street. After savoring jazz at the Spotted Cat and DBA, I ended up at Blue Nile. There I saw another side of New Orleans, as they were holding their weekly salsa night. Free dance lessons, Latin food a la carte, and recognition of the fastest growing segment of New Orleans’ population.
As enjoyable as it was, I stepped out into the cold and crossed the Quarter on Decatur Street. The streets were close to deserted, which to me symbolized the fact that my annual trip was drawing to a close.