Jazz Fest, Day 1 (continued): Royal Orleans

There’s a moon over Bourbon Street tonight
I see faces as they pass beneath the pale lamplight
I’ve no choice but to follow that call
The bright lights, the people, and the moon and all.

–Sting

Around 11AM, we walked down Decatur to the French Market. Most of the storefronts I remembered were open, thankfully including Central Grocery. The Market itself was not back up to full speed, but it had a lot more vendors than I’d seen in news coverage from around New Year’s. The farmer’s market up front was noticeably less populated compared to the trinket and t-shirt vendors towards the back. It didn’t feel empty, but it didn’t feel busy, either.

Speaking of t-shirts, it didn’t take long for NOLA’s tourist traps to start turning out endless variations on post-Katrina gallows humor:

The shirt at the top left caught my eye. Even in just a couple of hours, it was obvious to us that the hispanic population is way, way up. There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether New Orleans’ demographics will be less black or more white when everyone returning has finally returned. I couldn’t tell you one way or the other, but I’d wager good money that either way, NOLA’s gumbo recipe is going to be much more Mexican than it ever was before.

We worked our way back up to Jackson Square, which was as devoid of people as I’ve ever seen it. My jaw hit the paving stones when we turned the corner in front of the Cathedral to see no sidewalk vendors and only one street musician (he’s in the far background of this shot, sitting on a park bench).

There were a couple of fortune tellers on either side of the park, but that was it, on a square where the card-table vendors are normally cheek-to-jowl from one end to the other. As my wife observed, “The psychics are so bored, they’re reading each others’ minds.”

A right on St. Peter took us past Pat O’Brien’s, which for the first time in my experience was closed at midday. A taped-on sign informed us the current opening time was 4PM.

Bourbon Street, at first glance, looks like it hasn’t changed at all, other than hosting far fewer gawking and/or stumbling visitors. It’s still a big, tacky mess. Most (but not all) of the bigger bars have reopened, even if they can only manage enough trade for evening business hours. A lot of places have closed, though. Many of the hole-in-the-wall bars and small tourist traps are out of business. Some are still shuttered, but a surprising number of them have been replaced with brand-new mini-strip clubs. If you figured Bourbon couldn’t get any sleazier, think again.

After lunch at Redfish Grill (mediocre, I’m sorry to say; when Redfish first opened it was a worthy new jewel in the Brennan crown, but it had fallen off quite a bit even before Katrina), we started looking for an open bar. We wound up in a cheesy little daiquiri joint across from Jax Brewery. We hadn’t been in there five minutes before a sudden early afternoon thundershower deluged the Quarter.

We waited out the storm until it subsided to a drizzle, then hotfooted it up towards Canal, looking for a bookstore. I’d planned to pick up Chris Rose’s new book while we were in town. Unfortunately for that plan, the bookstore between the Hard Rock Café and Tower Records had long-since closed (predating Katrina, if my refreshed memory serves). Fortunately for us, we ducked into Tower to avoid more rain just in time to meet NOLA jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis and his son Jason, who were wrapping up an in-store appearance as we walked in.

This was a Good Thing. I live in unabashed awe of Ellis Marsalis.

We hustled upstairs to pick out a couple of his CDs, and with only a little urging, my wife convinced father and son to autograph the covers and chat with us a bit. I told Ellis that I’d taken Beth to hear him play at Snug Harbor while we were dating, and that was what convinced her I was all right. He was either tickled by that, or he’s gotten pretty good at putting on a friendly face for out-of-towners.

I worked up the nerve to go on and tell Ellis how glad I’d been to hear that he and his entire family had made it out of town safely before the storm hit. “We didn’t fool around,” he replied. “We left at the warning.” Jason shook his head ruefully, and said, “I was in Stockholm. Couldn’t get back here, couldn’t do anything. All I could do was watch. I think [brother] Delfeayo was in Europe then, too.”

They couldn’t have been any nicer. Like an idiot, I completely forgot to take a picture. Ah, well.

Figuring we’d have a hard time improving on that, we left to check in to our hotel and rest up (our day had started at 4:30AM local time). Later, we dressed up a bit and treated ourselves to dinner at one of NOLA’s old-line restaurants, Galatoire’s. Neither of us had ever been there before; we picked it partly because we hadn’t made any reservations (Galatoire’s doesn’t take them), but mostly because it’s a place that just sings out Old New Orleans, and we were more than ready for something that recalled Before rather than After.

It was a fine experience. As Beth said later, the food was all good, if somewhat dated. “It’s like if you’d gone out to a nice New Orleans restaurant in the ’50’s,” she observed. “Everything about it, right down to the menu.” We had one of those professional New Orleans waiters of indeterminate middle age, full of effortless patience and good will for visitors. He told us he’d lived all over Atlanta during what he called his ‘evacuation tour.’

After a long stroll to walk off dinner, we finally made it to Pat O’Brien’s. The piano bar was nearly deserted, but three songs in somebody requested a Bon Jovi song (I wish I was making that up), chasing us out to the patio, which was almost up to its old cheerful roar. A Hurricane each later, we were both feeling better about life in general, even if the locked gate to the Courtyard stood as mute testament to the foul flavor of hurricanes that don’t fit in a souvenir glass.

We were both amused to be interviewed by a couple of guys from WorldSpace satellite radio who were hanging out next to the fountain. I have no idea if either of us made it on to the air.

Eventually, we headed back to the hotel, too tired to hit any more nightspots. I doubt we would have been able to get tickets, but I found out later that Rebirth and Dirty Dozen Brass Bands played a double-bill at Tipitina’s that night, in what must have been one almighty Second-Line jam. Hate to have missed that, but we didn’t miss out on much else musical over the next two days.

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4 Responses to “Jazz Fest, Day 1 (continued): Royal Orleans”

  1. jaymaster Says:

    Jeez, Will,

    This is the best reporting/writing I

  2. Kevin S. Says:

    Good post! and thanks for the pics.

    It’s nice to see old familiar places still there. I love New Olreans and I can’t wait until I have chance to go back.

  3. Peter Jackson Says:

    My favorite FEMA shirt:

    Fix
    Everything
    My
    Ass

    The tourists favorite:

    I stayed in New Orleans
    for Katrina
    and all I got was this lousy shirt,
    a new Cadillac and a plasma TV.

    :peter

  4. beloml Says:

    Thanks so much for posting. Hubby and I will be there next week for a photography conference. It’s our favorite city, and we’ve been there at least once a year for the past eight years, but this will be our first trip back after Katrina. Now we know a little bit about what to expect.

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