NOLA 2012: Here comes the sun

Chief costume
The band of thundershowers put on its last show pretty much all of Thursday night, but things dried up on Friday morning. It was still overcast but at least no longer raining, and the temperature was pleasant. Sweetie and I walked a bit northwest, stopping to say hi to two cute kittens and their owner, into the Tremé neighbourhood, the one that gave the TV show its name.

The Tremé is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in New Orleans, situated just north of the French Quarter. It's what is usually called a neighbourhood in transition. It is still primarily an African-American neighbourhood, I believe, and there are areas such as around the Iberville Projects that are not terribly safe. But it is going through a certain amount of gentrification, something that is illustrated by the TV show. The Tremé is where Davis the DJ (who pretends he's not gentry) lives, next door to a gay male couple.

We did not do a thorough exploration of the Tremé. Next time, a tour of the two St. Louis cemeteries would probably be interesting. This time, our destination was the Backstreet Cultural Museum, just a couple of blocks off Rampart Street. The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a house on St. Claude which a man named Sylvester has filled, and I do mean filled, with artifacts mainly from three areas—second line parades, jazz funerals, and the Mardi Gras Indians.

Ernie K-Doe, founder of Krewe de Vieux
When we arrived, there was a woman giving a tour to a large group of people. So as it turned out, we had Sylvester all to ourselves. And who better to show us the collections than the man who assembled them! We let him do most of the talking, of course, but it was basically an interactive tour. He even gave us a quiz at one point. Sweetie impressed him with her knowledge of New Orleans street culture. After that, we basically had an hour-long conversation with the man. It was wonderful!

The first room contains artifacts of second line parades. Second line parades are kind of "peoples parades." There are two kinds. Every Sunday, somewhere in the city, there are public parades in which people will gather to walk the streets, make music, and dance. The first second line after Katrina is a significant point in the plot of Treme because it shows that the life of the city is coming back. We never got to see a real second line parade, just one being shot for television, although the gathering of the Indians on Monday night sort of counted.

The other kind of second line parades are private: jazz funerals. Artifacts from those made up a second room. Jazz funerals are only for friends and family of the deceased. They are famous even outside New Orleans—even people who have never heard of second lines or the Mardi Gras Indians have often heard of jazz funerals. They begin with a rendition of "A Closer Walk with Thee" but soon become more of a celebration of the missing person's life than mourning the person's passing. Sylvester showed us one thing that people do—make T-shirts using a picture of the person, with two dates at the bottom, "sunrise" (birth) and "sunset" (death). Cool, eh? Jazz funerals are a great tradition.

On the other side of the hall, Sylvester took us through a large collection of costumes and other artifacts from various tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. He explained to us that we probably hadn't seen any of these tribes. The material he had was from "downtown" tribes, and we had seen "uptown" tribes on Monday night. He told us how they attached the feathers, all by hand, pointed out the elaborate beadwork that many costumes were made up of.

Tomb of the Unknown Slave
The Backstreet Cultural Museum would not be for every tourist, or perhaps even for many tourists, but for anyone interested in the "real" New Orleans, this was the place to be. And Sylvester is a treasure-trove of knowledge. I hope he is passing that knowledge along to someone else, because he is certainly not a young man.

We had wanted to see the inside of St. Augustine's Catholic Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States, but it was locked. We would have had to arrange a tour. We were moved by the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at the front of the church, on which is a cross made of chains from slave ships and the shackles of slaves. (If you follow the link, you can read the text of the dedication plaque. It's very powerful.)

We crossed back over Rampart and into the Quarter. Sweetie was jonesing for an oyster po-boy for lunch, so we headed to Johnny's Po-Boys on St. Louis Street. We almost missed the lunch rush, but not quite. Still, we managed to order and commandeer a spot, and before long we were enjoying the famous loaf of New Orleans. Sweetie had her oysters, while I went for a lunch special of half an alligator sausage po-boy with gumbo and a beverage. The sausage was great!

We emerged into bright sun, such a treat after two days of pouring rain. We made a quick stop at a tea and spice shop, and then walked over to Canal Street to catch the St. Charles streetcar once again. Our destination was Magazine Street at the edge of the Garden District, known for boutiques.

Slide guitarist in the Quarter
It wasn't clear from the guide just where we wanted to get off. I said Louisiana. Sweetie said Washington. We chose Washington and walked down to Magazine, but there was little to be seen on that corner. We looked upriver toward Louisiana and there didn't seem to be much there either. We chatted with a woman at a nearby bus stop and took the bus a very short distance to the intersection of Jackson Avenue, which seem to be a retail district. It turned out not to be quite where we wanted to be, but we did find a great clothing store called Branch Out, which specializes in vintage and sustainable clothing. Sweetie and I both bought dresses. The woman who ran the store also told us that yes, toward Louisiana was the way to go.

The bus ride had been short, so we walked back toward Washington and then beyond. Soon, we saw what we couldn't quite see the first time—lots of stores. There was a T-shirt store called Storyville Apparel where I got my souvenir T-shirt, a great purple burnout T with a gold fleur-de-lis on the front. We also stopped at a shop that had been recommended by some of the other guests at our B&B, a confectionery called Sucré. Cupcakes! Lots of other things as well, but cupcakes! We split two, a chocolate one and one that was chocolate with salted caramel that was sublime. We also chatted with the young woman who served us. When she learned that we were from Canada, she got very interested. She seemed to want to escape northward.

After walking around shopping and window shopping, we walked up Louisiana toward St. Charles, where we were fortunate to squeeze onto a very full streetcar. If we had walked up Washington, we would have waited for a while. We took it to the end, walked back into the Quarter, and made our way home via a market where we bought some Crystal hot sauce, a local brand. Can't wait to try that one.

We knew Friday night at Green Goddess would be busy, so we went somewhat early. Fortunately, since it was a dry and pleasant evening, we could dine al fresco. Once again, our friend Chef Chris and his staff took great care of us. Sweetie ordered the lamb baklava again. I ordered something called Cochon de Lait/Lei, which was wonderful spicy pulled pork in a banana leaf, accompanied by sweet potato cakes and "adobo mess o' greens"—my kind of food. We also shared the Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding, a savoury bread pudding that was amazing (and set me to looking for savoury bread pudding recipes). At the end of dinner, we were sad to say goodbye to Chris, but we're staying in touch. I have a feeling we might be back in New Orleans before too long.

We had wanted to take one last turn on Frenchmen Street, but we had to be up at 4 the next morning to catch a cab to the airport, so we stayed in to pack. And that's really all she wrote—for now. The story is not over.

No comments: