Rainy Monday Morning Monday, Mar 11 2013 

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

We’ve been in New Orleans about 36 hours and the weather has caught up with us. There are showers around this morning and there’s a good chance of thunderstorms in the area. It looks like our first day working at lowernine.org will be affected in some way or the other.

I’m sitting in a McDonald’s in Chalmette. The sun is not quite up. The service is friendly, but the term “fast food” is relative here. Fox is on TV; country is on the radio. One is reminded of being in Southern Louisiana when a patron crosses himself before eating his sausage biscuit.

Where to start: it has been an interesting and challenging weekend. Van number 2 got here first and settled into their accommodations at lowernine.org. I picked up my friend Kyle on the way in from the airport and got into the Lower Ninth about 6:00 pm in the evening. We went through the walk through at the All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center just as Van number 1 arrived. The third van came in a couple of hours later.

IMG_0167The accommodations should be a challenge. Cots and air mattresses in the common areas. The problem is, we have to stow all bedding and belongings during the day because it is a community center. And more challenging: 33 volunteers (including 12 from the University of South Carolina) and two showers with spotty hot water, to say it nicely. We worked out a schedule for showers and kitchen use with the USC folks and the work week will tell how well it works.

I appropriated the privacy of the small library, which seems right. Group 1 stayed back a while to orient the incoming group, while Kyle and I headed into the City. The first agenda item was something to eat; the food court at the airport was but a distant memory. He wanted a poboy I wanted the briny taste of a muffaletta. Kyle told me he had read of a “new age” poboy place on Conti off of Bourbon. That sounded kind of like “military intelligence” of “jumbo shrimp,” so I had to bite, so to speak.

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Queen of the second line, March 2013.

It was in the back of the Erin Rose bar; the dining room as about 10 X 10 feet and the menu was intriguing to say the least. I had a “Hot Muff”, a cross between a Cuban sandwich and a muffaletta and Kyle had something that involved sucking pig, I think, but it looked as delicious as mine tasted. While we were waiting with a group Asian twenty-somethings with Texas accents, when in walked this apparition; what I can only describe as a tricked-out, professional second line dancer named Jennifer Jones. As weird as that was, I had just seen her on a repeat of Anthony Bourdain’s “Layover” a couple of nights before. Kyle ate as I tried to talk to her and eat my sandwich at the same time. I took her picture and ventured forth to find the St. Joseph”s Parade — and lost. By the time we were ready to stop and watch it, it seemed to have melted away into the quarter and the after parade dinner/dance.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina's, Uptown, March 2013.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina’s, Uptown, March 2013.

While most of my students explored the French Quarter for the first time (with the few blocks on Bourbon to find eats I had pretty much reached my quota for the trip), Kyle and I headed uptown to catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Tipitina’s. And it did not disappoint. While the personnel had shifted slightly from the last time, the heart and soul remained the same. They started at 11 pm; right on time for a 10 pm show and played through to 1 am. Because of the time, I crashed on Kyle’s sofa in Broadmoor.

By the time got to the Lower Ninth, the students were slowly emerging from their sleeping bags. We went to the local Walmart to buy groceries and provisions. And things continued to move slowly. We finally headed out late morning, with two of the groups exploring Armstrong Park and Congo Square on the edge of Treme. Afterwards, we all met at the Parkway Bakery on bayou St. John. Yes, poboys again. This time we went old school. I studied the menu over and over to find something new to order. The choices were myriad, but when you’ve tasted near perfection it’s hard to waiver; I went with the shrimp, fully dressed and a Barq’s. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

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With New Orleans class veterans, Kyle Murphy (2009 & 2011) and Kendra Hanlon (2010 & 2012), second line, March 2013.

Afterwards, most of us caught the beginning of the Keep ‘n It Real second line. It was overcast, but warm. The music was hot and the growing crowd was fully engaged. The students, Kyle and I were joined by another former student, Kendra. We all went well beyond the turn onto Broad Street. The students eventually peeled off while the three veterans soldiered on to the first stop before turning back.

We took in some music on Frenchmen Street: the ceremonial first Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat. We sat in Washington Square Park for a while, taking in the playing children, passersby, and chatty homeless. We met the entire group at the Praline Connection where students were introduced to the Afro-Creole menu and warm service. Among the etouffee, the ribs, the fried chicken, the red beans, and jambalaya were many smiles and full bellies.

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Dinner, Praline Connection, March 2013

I dropped Kyle off and headed up to Gentilly where we had been invited to a concert by Paul Sanchez at the Gentilly Baptist Church. Sanchez, along with singer Arsene DeLay and a couple of others gave us an hour and a half of mostly his songs, including a number of tunes from his musical “Nine Lives.” The students were rocking with the message of love and renewal and I got here some of favorites like “Fine in the Lower Nine,” Rebuild, Renew” and “Foot of Canal Street.”

The students, of course, headed back downtown. I followed them only so long to take a short walk on Frenchmen. I was tired form the second line and the clapping and the people watching. But I was not hungry. I had wisely taken the key so I headed back to All Souls, took a shower that might have been a degree or two warmer than body temperature and took it easy until they returned. I have to pace myself.

Besides, today we start to work.

Warning: my posts during spring break are usually the product of short blocks of down time, combined with reduced access to the internet. Because of time limitations (and poor eyesight) I most assuredly do not catch all typos and misspellings the first time around.  I apologize and please bear with me. I do hope to get around to correcting them during a more leisurely period.

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Savoring New Orleans Monday, Mar 14 2011 

For a bunch that drove between 26 and 30 hours to get here, the students showed a lot of resolve in getting up and out on a Sunday morning. One group was out before 9:00am, heading to the Quarter and French Market prior to tracking down the Metarie St. Patrick’s parade. I think the other three groups were heading into the City by 10:30am.

Make it Right 9 homes, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2011.

I went with two of the groups to the Lower Ninth Ward. We caravanned in, so Chelsea rode shotgun with me in case we had to connect to the two vans by phone. Chelsea was in the class last year, so we both were pleasantly surprised by the number of new houses we saw as we crossed the Industrial Canal. Nevertheless, once we parked near the intersection of Galvez and Tennessee, the progress is engulfed by the broad expanse that still exists. Students continue to be stunned by the magnitude of the loss and by how much more needs to be done. We walked the neighborhood in the quiet of a Sunday morning, uninterrupted save the occasional purr of a lawn mower or passing tour busses. The levee provided a place from which to view the new homes, with remaining houses, rebuilt or not, far in the background, away from the levee and the source of the deluge.

One group left to catch the parade, while those of us who had attended the Irish Channel parade were satisfied to sit this one out. One can use only so many green Mardi Gras beads. It reminds me of 2006, when I spent a week gutting homes in Chalmette; we found stores of beads in almost every home. In some cases, multiple trash bags full in storage sheds or collapsed attics. It was a sobering lesson in the uselessness of many of the things we tend to hold on to.

Sunday on Royal Street, March 2011.

We drove back across the canal and I showed them Musicians’ Village and the nearly completed Ellis Marsalis Music Center. We then headed down Elysian Fields to the Marigny neighborhood. It was a beautiful day to take in the more placid sights and sounds of the residential areas of it and the French Quarter bordering Esplanade Avenue. In the daylight the multicolored Creole cottages, ironwork, balcony planters, and shop windows of Royal Street stood out above crowded tourist venues and displays of public drunkenness. Once we passed the St. Louis Cathedral, we had to stop for various street performers. We did end up spending way too much time, waiting for sandwiches at Johnny’s Po-boys; but eating them on the levee with the calliope from the Natchez stern wheeler made up for trouble.

Po-boys on the Mississippi, March 2011.

Meanwhile, the other three groups mopped up at the parade. Beads, plastic flowers, and various vegetables rained down. The vegetables were given away to become dinner for locals. Although, in some sort of cosmic reparation, parishioners form a nearby Catholic Church adopted one of the groups, fed them lunch and steered parade booty their way.

In the evening, we gathered at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street for our annual class dinner. We literally took up half the restaurant, but the wait staff was both patient and helpful with students unfamiliar with Creole cuisine. Orders spanned the menu, from jambalaya to fried catfish and stuffed peppers.

Praline Connection, March 2011.

After dinner, the groups went their separate ways to explore the French Quarter during the waning hours of the weekend. After another evening exploring, they returned to Marrero; some wrote in their journals, others looked for the reported ghosts. All went to bed knowing that in a few hours they’d head back across the river to begin the work week.

Frenchmen Street Saturday, Mar 5 2011 

I visited New Orleans three times before Katrina stuck in late August 2005. In those visits I dutifully stuck to conference hotels, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and one memorable visit to Treme for chef Austin Leslie’s collard greens and fried chicken. But, the rest of the city I usually saw from an airport limousine travelling on I-10.

That changed for the better when I returned for my first volunteer stint in March 2006. I was met by my friend Bruno who took me for po-boys at Domilise’s, to his rental home uptown, and for a heart-rending visit to his flooded-out home in Lakeview and the recently opened Lower Ninth Ward. He deposited me at a FEMA camp in St. Bernard Parish. I’m certain that, at that point, the volunteers at the camp that week outnumbered the parish residents who had returned.

Rites of Swing, Spotted Cat, March 2008.

One day, as we were gutting houses, one the young women in my group shared that  her friend had told her about a place called Frenchmen Street. It was not in the Quarter, but it was the place where locals went to hear real music. It was not the bad classic rock, zydeco, and stultifying jazz that make up most of what you hear on Bourbon Street. I didn’t have a car, but the first chance I had to get into the city, I went to Frenchmen Street.

It was in the Marigny, just to the east of the French Quarter. It was named to honor the Frenchmen who led the rebellion against the Spanish authorities who assumed control of New Orleans in 1762. A governor with a firmer hand had them summarily executed near where the street intersects with Decatur. History shows that he got his point across. But from this tragic beginning, this place has yielded wonder and joy.

If you like good music, Frenchmen Street is like no other. You don’t even have to enter one of the many establishments; you can walk from doorway to doorway, to hear blues or jazz or klezmer or brass band music – it stretches the imagination. Folks dance on  the tight dance floors or on the sidewalks outside. That first week, I kept going back to a disreputable pile of boards called the Spotted Cat. How in the Hell did this three story shack make it through a hurricane?

The Spotted Cat, March 2007.

But the building’s smoky, cash only innards were golden. It was loud, dirty and occasionally the toilets would flush, but for the price of couple of drinks you enter a world of great music and exquisite people watching. I became acquainted with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Pfister Sisters, Washboard Chaz and St. Louis Slim. I got to sit and talk to a wildly entertaining bartender named Bucky and watch as Uncle Lionel Batiste shuffled in, raised his bowler hat and did a soft shoe to the music. I was smitten, and years later my love has not diminished.

Snug Harbor. Apple Barrel, DBA. Blue Nile, Mimi’s and the rest. Frenchmen is a continuous, musical smorgasbord. But the Spotted Cat remains my favorite. Bucky is gone, but Uncle Lionel is still there. Along with a non-stop line of musical acts. So, when we head down at spring break, my students know where they can usually find me. It is my refuge; “The Street” is my office.

Praline Connection, Frenchmen Street, March 2009.

Frenchmen Street. From street performers, to street parades, to taco stands, to sidewalk cafes, to Creole food at the Praline Connection. And while I hesitate to invite anyone else to encroach upon my joy, to crowd my places of refuge beyond capacity, Frenchmen Street is opposite of Bourbon Street. If you like music and want to take the pulse of the city, you have to cross Esplanade and explore the Marigny. Frenchmen Street is where it’s at. Even CNN has discovered it; just in time for Mardi Gras!

Diners, Drive-ins and Dives Wednesday, Feb 10 2010 

I like good food, but I find that good food is not always found in the fanciest restaurants at the highest prices. And New Orleans is the poster child for fine eating at inexpensive, out-of-the way places. I discovered this years ago, when we ventured to Austin Leslie’s Chez Helene. Unpretentious food in a plain setting at a reasonable price. To this day, a memorable dining experience.

New Orleans has it’s share of celebrity chefs, trendy venues, and tradition-bound restaurants where patrons pay others to wait in line for them. But those are not the places I frequent.

No, I’m not talking McDonald’s or Subway, but locally owned places, with well-prepared, traditional food. The places where you’ll sit next to a group of elevator repairmen. Where servers might offer you a draft beer if you’ve waited in line too long. Places where you consider it lax service if the waitress fails to call you “baby” at least three times.

I do not consider myself an expert; I’d have to visit New Orleans more than once a year, which would be just fine with me, by the way. But over the past five years, I have acquired a list of places that I return to again and again.  And they are:

  • Mena’s Palace, in the French Quarter, on Chartres at Iberville. Friendly, inexpensive lunch counter for hearty breakfasts and fabulous lunch specials. Attentive waitresses, frequented largely by locals, it is a New Orleans experience waiting to happen. Favorites: fried chicken plate, red beans and rice, and fried oysters. I have to eat there at least once when I’m in New Orleans.
  • Rocky and Carlo’s Restaurant on St. Bernard Highway in Chalmette, LA. A wonderful melange of Creole, Italian, and fried seafood. Clean, moderately priced, with an overtly friendly staff and clientele. it’s like eating at home without having to bother with the dishes.
  • Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. OK, this is right up there with Cafe du Monde as a tourist spot, but it is a singular experience. As someone for whom food and cooking is close to being a religious vocation, the vibe of this century-old Italian grocery cuts to the bone. Add to that, muffalettas on incredible Italian loaves and cold beer out of the cooler; it doesn’t get much better.
  • Domilise’s Po-Boys, Uptown on Annunciation Street. A nondescript frame building in which the most fabulous po-Boys in New Orleans are prepared. It features a wide range of sandwiches, but for me it is impossible not to gravitate toward fried seafood po-boys, fried and made to order, fully dressed. While many locals go with a Barq’s as an accompaniment; it’s an Abita Amber for me. Check out the autographed photos of the Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning behind the bar.
  • Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg-Marigny. Maybe not the best-known Afro-Creole restaurant in New Orleans, but for a music lover, it’s location, location, location.  And, reasonably priced entrees coupled with friendly, attentive service. Favorite’s: fried okra, fried catfish, and vegetarian sides, i.e. prepared without meat. And when you’re finished, you are only steps away from the music on “The Street.”
  • Wild card. OK, there has to be one fast food alternative, found most everywhere and consistently good. For me, it’s Popeye’s Fried Chicken. Seldom a first choice, but never a last resort, it is real fried chicken with passable sides. The meal of choice when on the go.

Every year, I find at least one new thing, but for the time being, these are the kind of places you’ll find me at mealtime.