New Orleans, II
The strange thing about New Orleans is that it has about ten times its fair share of the part of the city you would usually call "the old pretty part." It became a tourist town very early so there are endless miles of lovely suburbs downtown, Classical-revival and what-have-you, and Mardi Gras beads hang on the huge live oaks and telephone lines all year round. However the flip side to this is that there is no area of downtown that is completely safe. Prosperous ancient neighborhoods border on, and overlap with, very dangerous ancient neighborhoods. Everyone's all mixed up together. Gentrification ebbs and flows, but all those Classical-revivals, you'd better believe they have a zillion locks and bars on all their downstairs windows. My friend told me about a couple, friends of her parents, who were thinking very seriously about buying a house in the back of the French Quarter - the pretty area, but a neighborhood that was still questionable. They found a house and were about to close, when the wife decided that, just to be sure she felt safe in the neighborhood, she would go take a walk by herself at 10:30 at night. She was mugged and badly beaten. They did not buy the house.
We had lunch at Mother's, a famous soul-food-po-boy-whatever restaurant downtown. Big piles of meat, bread, goo. Goo is so tasty! There was a huge line but it moved quickly, controlled by about 10 waiters and waitresses with highly developed chest voices and senses of their own importance. While we were waiting some guys tried to cut up to the front of the line to ask about it or how long the wait was or whether they could maybe just skip the line I guess. The waiter at the door, who was acting as a bouncer, said "Son -- if you see a line at a restaurant, get in it and don't ask questions. If you don't see a line, you shouldn't eat there." Anyway I ate a very large amount of meat and we will say no more about that.
That evening we went to Preservation Hall, this ancient and only partially preserved building devoted to housing live old-fashioned jazz bands. We got to sit right at their feet which was fun, both because of the music and also because we could eavesdrop on whatever these old dudes were mumbling to each other between songs. They would argue about the key. They would berate each other for interrupting the solos of others ("Get out of there! they would say.). TO make a little extra money, these guys work on the request system -- you ask them for a song, you pay them ten dollars and they play it. However they did not really want to play any song that any tourist wanted them to play -- if the average tourist had heard of it, they were sick of it. One guy timidly went up to the front and paid them a full ten dollars to play "Stormy Weather," (after they had asked for requests a good many times.) The band leader, in complete view of the entire audience rolled his eyes as he gestured at the pianist to start it up, as if saying, "you won't catch *me* starting THAT old stinker."
We found some bands playing for free that we liked much better, and wandered down Bourbon street, the infamous party zone, where my tiny, mild-mannered Jewish friend floated along through the drunken debauchery, wild bachelorettes, underaged spring break typoes, old alcoholics, panhandlers and street shysters with total calm and this little smile on her face. I learned something about this girl that day -- as quiet and polite as she is, she loves Bourbon street! It's like her favorite thing ever!
The next day we drove down to Baritaria, which is a big chunk of the swamp south of town (home of Jean Laffite!) We saw some gators and some turtles and a grasshopper half the size of your fist (not including legs!) It's called the Southeastern Lubber Grasshopper (lubber because it does not fly, it is a 'land-lubber' kind of thing). Totally disgusting but at least it can't fly all up in your face or anything. It can only waddle. We had a long conversation with the park ranger about the difference between the croak a frog makes and the croak a baby alligator makes. A frog croak is actually deeper. But either can be hidden in the leaves a foot from your feet and you'd never know. It's amazing how much life was hiding in that muck. If you looked at anything for long enough, it would start to move. We counted five snakes and wondered if they were (dangerous, scary) cottonmouths or (harmless, adorable, yucky bug eating) water snakes of other kinds. Apparently the coloring is all the same, and varies unpredictably, but in general, poisonous snakes have very wide jaws that they keep the poison in. Whereas other kinds of snakes have narrow heads, and cute round pupils, poisonous snakes generally have evil-looking diamond pupils. It's very thoughtful of them to make that distinction for us.