New Orleans Miscellany for a New Year Friday, Jan 3 2014 

We are three days into the New Year. I’m sitting in my home in New Orleans looking over a foot of fresh snow. The temperatures are expected to be double digits below zero tonight. Little wonder that my thoughts are on New Orleans, where I’ll be with my class in 66 days; not that anyone is counting.

I have been an exceedingly negligent blogger. Last year was a banner year for this blog, but I have fallen down on the job since the spring. I even returned to New Orleans in August, yet wrote very little about it. However, the eighth installment of the New Orleans class will be starting in a few weeks and I have to get my head in the game. Therefore, I hereby resolve to blog at a rate commensurate with the interest shown past entries. Well, this is a start anyway.

There have been a number of big New Orleans stories in the past few months, but in honor of the New Year I’ve decided to graze among a few topics that fit a new beginning. Some are significant; some are silly; and hopefully all are interesting.

armstrong arrestNo Falling Bullets — Traditionally, folks in New Orleans fired guns into the air to celebrate the New Year. In fact, a young Louis Armstrong landed in the Colored Waifs Home when he was arrested for firing his father’s gun into the air on New Year’s Eve. However, what goes up, must come down. So, after numerous injuries and even deaths from falling bullets, the New Orleans Police Department has slowly brought a halt to the practice. I looked everywhere and could not find an incidence of an injury or arrest for the practice this year.

number-of-new-orleans-murders-1990-2013-b43bc1ecb825188aDrop in New Orleans Murders in 2013 — For the second year in a row, New Orleans experienced a drop in the number of murders and overall gun violence. This is in spite of some high profile incidences, such as the Mother’s Day second line shootings, or several horrific murders involving the accidental shooting of children. In a trend that mirrors that of other cities, New Orleans had 155 murders in 2013, which represents a 20% drop from 2012. And while its murder rate is still high relative to the population, the total is a far cry from the 424 recorded back in 1994. The city likewise experienced a 15% drop in the number of people shot and wounded, which went from 378 in 2012 to 321  last year.

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Dr. Frank Minyard honoring the victims of Katrina, 2008.

Coroner Frank Minyard Will Not Serve 11th Term — After qualifying as a candidate for the upcoming election, the 84 year-old New Orleans Parish coroner has decided to call it quits after 40 years. The colorful coroner’s selflessness during Hurricane Katrina was profiled in Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, but in recent years, he has been criticized for not listing the cause of death on a number of high profile murder cases. Moreover, in a city with such a high murder rate, he has been faulted for running an antiquated facility on a meager budget. Three candidates remain on the ballot for the forthcoming election.

Who Dat “Rocky Run” Cancelled — A band of New Orleans Saints fans have dropped their plan to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art while in town to attend the NFL playoff game. They were looking to relive a scene from the movie “Rocky,” in which actor Sylvester Stallone runs up the steps as part of his training routine. The Saints fans cancelled the run after a large number of Eagles fans threatened them via social media. It seemed like such a cool idea for visiting fans; however, they did not take into account the fact that Eagles fans would actually hurt them. Eagles fans have already been warned that Philadelphia police officers may attend the game dressed as Saints fans as an attempt to curb violence.

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King Cake, Super Bowl 2010.

58 Days of King Cake — The Times-Picayune reminds us that Carnival season is quite long this year. In fact, there are 58 days between Epiphany (January 6th) and Mardi Gras (March 4th). There seems to be little need to encourage New Orleans folks to celebrate during Carnival; however, the T-P entertainment staff has valiantly agreed to take one for the team. Among other things, Carnival is marked by the consumption of King Cake, a multi-colored confection that first appeared in 1871. These brave souls have decided to try a different King Cake every day during Carnival. They will then report on each one, every day throughout the season. It is not clear rather they will rate them, but I figure that is not the point. Come to think of it, what is the point?

Well, that should be enough to get all of our thoughts turned to New Orleans and the New Year. If not, I promise more in upcoming weeks. And, Happy New Year!

“The normal is strange here; the strange is normal.” Friday, Nov 11 2011 

Every spring, I work for several weeks to prepare the students in my New Orleans class for what is akin  to foreign travel. New Orleans: the sights, the vibe, the attitudes are the antithesis of New England and it is a challenge to explain it adequately. And if you go back through these pages, you will see my past attempts to explain the differences.

However, a wonderful post by Brett Will Taylor at nola.com helps do it for me. So, if you are planning a visit, be sure to read the “Newcomers’s top 10 guide for living in New Orleans,” for yourself.  But to sum it up, you might say: “don’t think too much; just go with the flow.”

Taylor’s ten main points are as follows:

Truck cab bar, Mardi Gras Indian Indian parade, March 2011.

1.  Planning.  Abandon all hope of planning ye who enter here. It’s not going to happen.  If you try to plan, you’ll get an ulcer and find yourself constantly making incredulous faces. Just. Let. It. Happen. If you’re meant to hang with someone, Mama NOLA will make it happen.  If not, she’ll send even more fabulous people your way to hang with!

2.  Comfort zone.  Drop yours.  New Orleans is like no place on Earth, so don’t experience it the same way you experience everywhere else.  If you do, you’ll miss her completely.

3.  Costuming. My best friend tells me that he’s never worn a costume in the 7 ½ years he’s lived here. I’ve told him he has until Carnival to change that. Or find a new best friend. You just can’t live in NOLA without costuming. To get started, get yourself a glue gun, spray paint, and a make-up drawer.

4.  Da Saints.  Love them.  Pretend to love them. Or move.

5.  Food.  We eat our food like we live our lives:  rich and over-the-top. And no need to ask what’s good. As someone told me my first week here, “Baby, if a place don’t serve good food, we will shut it down.”  She’s right.  My corner gas station serves some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted.

Kermit Ruffins at the Rock and Bowl, March 2011.

6.  Music.  Lady who?  When it comes to music, there’s New Orleans music … and then, well, why you would want to look beyond New Orleans for music?  There’s a lot to take in here. For a crash course, immerse yourself in OZ. For a master’s course, listen to David Kunian’s “The Kitchen Sink”.

7.  Pronunciation.  It’s Brrr-gun-dy, Charters, Esplan-aid, and Cont-eye.  Don’t worry about Tchoupitoulas (a word that can devour your entire afternoon).  Locals just say “Chop”.  Oh. And the Nine Muses streets? Don’t even try.  Unless you were born here, you’ll never get them right.

8.  Perspective.  Repeat after me:  “The normal is strange here; the strange is normal.”

9.  Bugs.  This morning, I heard frantically scratching child plead, “Mama, when do the mosquitos go away?”  “It’s New Orleans, baby,” she said.  “They never go away.”  True dat.  The bugs in this city were here before you and, just like Cher, they’ll be here after you. And they all have wings (except for the stinging caterpillars that free-fall onto you in the spring). Oh. And our bugs have serious boundary issues.  As in, they all come into your house (you didn’t really want to live alone, did you?).

10.  Politics.  Don’t ask.  This city elected Ray Nagin. Twice.

I could not have summed it up better myself.

Who Dat? Nobody! Redemption, at last. Monday, Feb 8 2010 

I don’t think there has ever been an American city that could have as much going on as once as New Orleans. And this is a city that thrives on special occasions.

OK, first of all, this is the first big weekend of Mardi Gras parades and celebrations. Then there is this election to choose a successor to Ray Nagin. So, let’s throw in a little thing called the Super Bowl  for the neer-do-well local team — just to make it interesting.

So, Monday has dawned. New Orleans has a new mayor. Multiple opponents. No run-off, First white mayor in 32 years, but one who received a majority of the African-American votes against a black opponent. It helps that the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is the well-connected son of the last white New Orleans Mayor, “Moon” Landrieu.

Then there’s this little thing called Mardi Gras. Parade times, along with mass schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. What a pain. The normal parades took place, although crowds were a little thinner than usual. Sunday parades included one of my favorite, the Krewe of Barkus parade, themed: “The Dogs Go Barking In.”

BUT, and I must repeat, BUT, the Super Bowl and the Saint’s definitive victory is the exclamation point on the weekend, if not, in fact, that of an entire decade. It’s as if the remaining water left from Katrina has been drained from the streets of New Orleans. The city is back. The people are looking forward. The sadness is over. If the Saints can overcome four decades of football futility, the city can overcome four decades of decline.

This is a time for the city to celebrate. But what this may represent, is a far more significant reason for New Orleans to celebrate. It is back! Big time.

Saints Fans 1, National Football League 0 Tuesday, Feb 2 2010 

The saying has long been: “Don’t Mess with Texas, ” but the same could apply to New Orleans Saints fans. In the last week, the Exxon-Mobil of sports merchandising, the National Football League challenged “Who Dat Nation” with copyright infringement, and like the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, they came to New Orleans and got their asses kicked.

The NFL monopoly machine would make old man Rockefeller blush, but nonetheless, the ministry of merchandising decided to take on two mom and pop t-shirt shops who were marketing “Who Dat” shirts with either team colors or the requisite fleur-de-lis. The two shops, Fleurty Girl and Storyville, were surprised to find that the NFL claims copyright over a phrase used for over a century in New Orleans. I mean, does the NFL hold copyright over the Patriots’ red, white and blue? If so, someone should contact America’s flag makers. And less face it, the fleur-de-lis has been a presence in New Orleans centuries before the formerly hapless Saints were added to the NFL roster.

Saints fans are outraged and both U.S. senators, David Vitter and Mary Landrieu have flexed their legislative muscles and in the process, have found something to agree upon. As a result the NFL has backed off, while still holding that anything bearing “Who Dat,” team colors, and the fleur-de-lis, marketed in the name of the Saints are a violation.

For the time being, sales continue, and I suspect they will through the Super Bowl. However, New Orleanians have a long memory, especially for those who have done them wrong, and Vitter is trying to extinguish the memory of his liaisons with prostitutes in New Orleans and Washington, DC; both will be dogged in making this right for the home team.

As is usual during Super Bowl week; there is always a game within the game. So enjoy.

Unconventional Times for an Unconventional City Saturday, Jan 30 2010 

“Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States. Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.” Dan Baum

Weird times for New Orleans.

For over 290 years, New Orleans has accepted life behind the eight ball. Spring floods, yellow fever epidemics, ethnic strife, hurricanes, and pervasive corruption. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the city was a mess. Just this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to education in New Orleans.

Honestly, New Orleans still has serious problems: crime, corruption, education, health care, and the realization that the next big storm could cripple the city for decades. And while residents remain aware of their collective frailties, they are drawn to the good things that are taking place in the city. And much of this energy is focused on the annual carnival celebration and the singular success of their perennial NFL near-do-wells, the Saints.

The Saints entered the league in 1967, on the heels of Hurricane Betsy, and although they have fielded numerous stars, from field goal Kicker Tom Dempsey, to quarterback Archie Manning, to running back Deuce McAllister, they are a stranger to the playoffs and have never appeared in the Super Bowl. Until now.The Super Bowl will affect Mardi Gras parades, Catholic mass schedules, and, quite possibly,  public school on the Monday following the big game.

On the Saturday before the Super Bowl, citizens will go to the polls to elect a successor to Ray Nagin. Many fear that the mania will depress voter turnout, which will likely benefit Mitch Landrieu, son of former mayor “Moon” Landrieu and brother of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu. And while the results are of intense importance to the city’s future, more immediate interests cloud the peoples’ minds.

So, even though New Orleans’s values have never been aligned with “American” values, this level of disconnect is extraordinary. But I think it can be explained. New Orleans, regardless of its problems, is the epitome of resilience. It went from hard-scrabble colonial settlement to become the richest city in America. And within a few decades, it was among America’s poorest cities. Through it all, the residents surround themselves with tradition, history, and a joie de vivre  that is fed by local food, music, and culture. It’s easy to come back if you’ve never, truly been anywhere else.

The entire region is gearing up for the Super Bowl. If they win, it will be the biggest municipal party in the history of the United States. However, if they lose, they’ll look to their new mayor, to the last nine days of Mardi Gras. They will eat well, party hard, sing, dance, and make the most of their days before the beginning of Lent. And they’ll be fine, thank you. And they will do this, because that is what they’ve always done; overcome the most awful adversities and move on.

Saintly Deliverance Tuesday, Jan 26 2010 

The Saints entered the NFL in 1967, a year after Hurricane Betsy pummeled the city of New Orleans. Seldom in the playoffs; never in the Super Bowl. Over the years, the franchise was the model of futility. The “Aints.” Fans arriving at games with paper bags over their heads.

January 2010. Four and a half years after Katrina, a forty yard field goal. Simple enough, but it sends the New Orleans Saints to their first Super Bowl. For many fans, it would be a great win. To the people of New Orleans, redemption.

They nearly lost their city. They nearly lost their team to San Antonio. Now, they are NFC champs. Anything is possible. Now, New Orleans will not just be rebuilt, it will be reborn.

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post beautifully captures the meaning of the event, in both sports and social terms. And the Times-Picayune, well, reports on the local craziness following the game. And from ESPN, a video essay featuring trumpet player Kermit Ruffins.

Now, we must wait to see if  a Super Bowl win over shadows or supplants Mardi Gras. Regardless, we know that New Orleans will be celebrating new hope for renewal.