New Orleans: Chapter 3: The Park

Morning came to the sound of raucous laughter, Charlie Browning’ through paper thin walls, all wah-wah, full volume. 6:30 AM on a Thursday. Maybe it was still Wednesday night for that guy. Anyway, it could have been worse and I’d left all the exhaustion and weariness of the day before in the folds of those hostel sheets, so all was right with the world. While Mel was getting ready, I slipped down to the massive industrial kitchen in the common area and gathered up a free breakfast. The breakfast was… free. I housed a so-so bagel, slugged some burnt coffee and braved a biting wind as I cut a path for the French Quarter. Two blocks away, I realized that the area around our hostel was not the place to be if you were looking for ambience. Imagine ‘The Strip’ in Vegas. There was a Hustler Hollywood. I’d been a little disappointed on our walk from the train station. I’d been expecting architecture, history, a little magic. 

The French Quarter delivered. 

I walked a jagged line East through that neighborhood, gawking at the wrought iron railings on the balconies, the ferns growing full and hungry, hanging from porticos. The sound of Jazz, the smell of frying food. I finally found myself at the Mississippi, wandered its banks eastward with my jaw flapping in that icy wind. Surging, coffee-two-creams colored water, coursing along the New Orleans cityscape. To the west, a staggeringly large bridge spanned that coiled python of a waterway, connecting this side of Louisiana to that. Cruise ships were moored along the waterfront beside it. They passed beneath it with ease. Not two-story river cruises. Big, Carnival-looking, shrimp cocktails and waterslides cruise ships. Truly massive tankers Tokyo-drifted the bend in the river, carrying a city-blocks worth of cargo on their mighty backs. 

The wind was furious as I made my way along the water’s edge. Arctic blasts of it came ripping down out of the clear blue sky to slash whitecaps on the water and put tears in my eyes and I pushed through it with my fists mashed into the pockets of my coat. All around me, the sound of music intertwining with the grinding roar of a city. Classic rock, jazz, bubbling up through the drone of jackhammers and weed whackers. The air smelled faintly of the sea. Not always. Often, the smell of car exhaust and occasionally the reek of sewer, but sometimes, when the wind was right, salt and foam, kelp and coral. I meandered to the edge of the wharf, then through the French Market. It was bustling, but nothing like it would be on the weekend. People selling gator nuggets, trinkets, voodoo memorabilia. I’d struck out that morning with my sights set on finding a park I’d read about when I was bloodhounding through the New Orleans chat boards, and I could see my little blue dot drifting closer and closer on Google Maps, but I was struggling to actual find it until I saw the 12 foot letters printed on what looked like a sea-wall. CRESCENT PARK. 

I followed a sidewalk splashed with encouraging messages in spraypaint (“Focus”, “Keep Going”, “Don’t give up now”) to an epic, rusted, staircase which, I was delighted to discover, was the entrance to the park. The staircase, a spiky piece of urban art, rose sharply up from the sidewalk, stretched out over the railroad tracks and dropped down, down, into what had once been a warehouse space.They’d knocked the walls down to let the river breezes in, painted looping, concentric circles on the floor, but left sheet metal roof to provide shelter from the heavy rains, the sultry southern sun. As I made my way down the staircase, a man was rollerskating in lazy ellipses across that open space. A little girl was exploring the edges on a Huffy.

At the termination of the roof the park continued into a row of swinging benches, and behind those, a sprawling lawn of crabgrass and clover. A homeless man lay sleeping in that marshy grass beside a golden retriever and they looked so goddamn peaceful that I almost joined them. A walking trail snaked its way out of the eastern edge of the park and I followed it, the river rolling along to my right, warehouses looming to my left. A beautiful love story played out there along that trail. Someone had painted the words “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” on the roof of one of those warehouses in white paint. 

As I read that, my attention naturally drifted back to the river, that cooing, gurgling thing, where I saw a sheet of plywood propped up on the shattered pilings rising up out of the water. The words “I love you” were spelled out in bricks on that plywood and it was as though the city and the river were having a moment that I’d just interrupted with my wandering.

 The trail led to a rusted metal pier that was kissed with graffiti. It looked like another abandoned thing, left to the whirling mash of the tide. But as I approached it, there was a sneaky little bridge and when I crossed it, I found myself in yet another park. It wasn’t fancy, but it was a quiet, open space, which is a luxury in any city. There was a peephole in the center of it, a cutout with a railing that probably held a pillar at one point. Now the river went rushing underneath it, gurgling melodically. They could have just banged that whole place down to make room for expensive apartments. They would have, in another city. Here, it gave back. 

I continued my eastward press through that space and found yet another piece of New Orleans magic, buried in that marshy riverside. The Rusty Rainbow bridge spanned a bog dividing the trail from the Bywater neighborhood. A 75-foot long hunk of artfully corroded steel with precipitous steps on either side. It would be the highlight of your jog if you crossed it everyday. Probably kick your ass a little bit, but in a fun way, like a jiu jitsu class. It deposited me into the Bywater neighborhood, which was delightful. A crayon box of houses, every building a kaleidoscope of pastel colors, and on every flat surface, art. Art about inequity, diversity, change, love. It was striking and galvanizing and good, like exhaling a breathe that I didn’t know I’d been holding. Like slipping into warm water when there’s a chill in the air. I didn’t often feel that way in Georgia. I didn’t see openness and acceptance on the tip of a brush, shining like a lantern above a door so that when you see it, you know that you are safe here. I had starred only one place in that neighborhood and I found myself standing at its door with the smell of fresh bread in my sinuses and a line of drool down my chin. 

The Bywater Bakery. Jesus Christ this place. It’s a brilliant red building flanked by little tables, bustling with happy people who are in the process of filling themselves with fresh-baked-bang-bang. The staff greeted everyone they encountered, myself included, like a regular or a direct relative or an organ donor. I ordered a fancy egg-in-toast, (a quail egg embedded in the center of freshly baked garlic bread) and a sweet potato sticky bun for Melissa. Then I carried my little box of pirate booty out onto that windswept street, with my heart set on slaying it outright with warm bread and golden yolk. It was glorious. Rich and sparkly and deep. With that in my furnace, I turned on a heel and began my journey back to our hostel. At some point along that mystical waterfront the wind snapped off like it was wired to a breaker. 


That southern sun without the chaser of wind to stunt it beamed down on me and I had to peel my jacket off my back, stuff it in my day pack. I was shimmering with sweat when I finally found my way back to the hostel. Found Mel in the lobby working and I offered her her baked good like a cat offers a dead bird to the woman who feeds it.  

After a few minutes of rest in the hostel lobby, the city beckoned me again and I slipped back out into its wilds for lunch. Killer Po-boy was planted just over the demarcation line between the French Quarter and the Central Business District. Casual sandwich joint serving street legal drugs in the form of life-changing sandwiches. I ordered a pork belly for myself because the woman behind the counter called it ‘magic’ and I respect magic. I picked up a tofu po-boy for mel, shimmied back to the hostel with a bag of boom-boom. Magic indeed. The slaw was a revelation, bright and lemony and perfectly balanced against the sweet, smokey bite of the pork belly. A dove flew out of my hat when I was done with it.

That night brought us to the Sylvain, bellied up to the bar with Sazerac’s clenched in our fists. That night brought us a fledgling peeler fire and a chance encounter with a bastion of New Orleans mystery. That night brought us the Woojie List. But long before that, somewhere between Crescent Park and the Bywater Bakery, my heart was open. Open to the gravity that city. Open to the possibility of goodness etched into the foundation of a place. Open to magic.

New Orleans: Chapter 2 : The Rails

The American South. See us huddled in that commuter cabin of that antiquated form of transportation, chasing a line of tracks like an endless row of stitches closing some gargantuan wound. See me pressed up against the glass in that jostling space. Atlanta to New Orleans via the Crescent line.  A million little vignettes sweeping past my window. A million little lives that I could have lived. A man snuffs out a cigarette with his boot in front of an abandoned textile mill in Talapoosa. A dog behind rusty chainlink in Aniston Alabama cocks its head back to  howl at the eerie whistle of the train. People walk those roads, sleep in those houses, eat at those restaurants, hunt those woods. Maybe it’s the blast radius of this noisy train, but the American South was a hobbled and broken thing from the window of that train. There was a beauty to it, but it was a beauty under siege. It was a beauty beset on all sides by the unchecked hubris of man. See the trees singed fall colors, dazzling reds, dappled yellows, the barks glowing neon green with sheen of mildew and buried in the midst of all that startling beauty, a ramshackle collection of trailers or pre-fabs, rotting at their foundation, flanked by chainlink. See a stream running a muddy finger through the gap between two leaf strewn hillsides, sparkling in the winter sun and then the eyes adjust and there is garbage disgorged into it. Piles of tires, a rusting washing machine, a busted cathode television. The hills stretched away from the train, mottled green and red beneath a stormy sky and all across their backs, cellphone towers like quills in the snout of some nosey predator.

Around noon, we hit Birmingham. The city just kind of fell out of the treeline and suddenly it was old brick warehouses and half-hearted skyscrapers. On the face of it, it was the kind of city I would love. Red brick, milk paint, edison bulbs and fire-escapes. A hip beer garden welcomed us as we passed. The train station was far superior to the one we left behind in Atlanta. Most of them were. 

Graffiti became a theme of that ride. The artfulness and sincerity with which the people of a city spilled their paint surreptitiously would hint at the mettle of a place. Birmingham’s was lovely. Closer to murals, some of them. Vibrant, cohesive, works, executed artfully by skilled hands under the cover of night.

We stopped for 20 minutes there, the conductor announcing over the PA that this would be the last stop of the trip. The smokers smoked and the walkers walked. We were the latter, so we did a few laps of the platform, batting cigarette smoke away from our faces to the roar of the engine in idle with the nippy Alabama wind teasing at our clothes and prickling our skin. When the time was up, we reboarded the train, saw the other side of Birmingham. People shuffled along the unoccupied tracks, looking for I don’t know what. Vacant stares on porches. A desperate poverty that remained picturesque by the deliberateness of its own spirit. Art prevailed, splashed on crumbling brick. Houses stayed homes, clung to their warmth. 

After Birmingham, the landscape changed furiously, over and over again. A military base, a Honda factory, pastures slashed with rivers gave way to auburn woods full of spindly trees turned into tidy housing tracts and then suddenly swamps. Marshy, palmetto dotted wetness. Cranes, turtles, vultures. Duck blinds. Deer blinds. 

Tuscaloosa was a college town, complete with all the trappings. Massive stadiums, hip bars, a bustling downtown. It seemed cooler in a more mainstream way than Birmingham. Disneyland-cooler. Then we tore through a series of no-name towns, burnt shell places with boarded up windows, lazy graffiti in angry, jagged shapes. Declarations of ownership and impending violence.

Storms had ravaged that stark space the night before. We crossed two heaving rivers gorged with muddy rainwater and shattered trees. In a clearing at the Alabama border, 10 trees lay like casualties of some terrible battle, chalky mud still clinging to their roots. At the western edge of the field, an aluminum shed had been stripped of all its siding. The metal that had comprised the roof was peeled up to the crossbeam, pointed skyward, presumably into the eye of the tornado that had savaged it.

The sun had begun its collision course with the prickly skyline as we pulled into Meridian Mississippi. It was the bleakest stop we would make on that journey. The train station itself was deceptively nice. A sprawling, mission-style building that was well-maintained and just almost large enough to block one’s view of the ruins behind it. The city had, as the man beside me stated “made an attempt at being a city.” They had built a few skyscrapers and slapped together a downtown. But the skyscrapers were covered in peeling paint and the windows were mostly boarded up. The downtown looked haunted. Faded signs for furniture stores that had closed long ago. Plywood for windows, bars over doors. At the city’s eastern edge we crawled past a warehouse that had been clobbered down. A man sifted through its corpse for scrap metal. It was a wasteland after that for some time. Mississippi slipping despotically past the windows and the stuttering machine gun flash of sunlight through the naked winter trees. 

Night fell and the rest of the train ride was a mad dash through the darkness with my nose buried in a book. The train became loud and close, then. People talked too loudly. A man in the seat behind us listened to an action movie at full volume with no headphones. We ordered a pricey asian noodle salad from the dining car and it arrived seasoned heavily with ice crystals. There was delay on the tracks and we were both exhausted, but all of that was manageable.

We pulled into the station in New Orleans 10 minutes ahead of schedule, made our way to the hostel on foot, in the dark, through this new city with its new people. From this perspective, freshly shaken by 12 hours on a train with nothing but the yawning expanse of mostly-rural Americana and the pressing closeness of trees rushing past. The buildings loomed over us, cars roared by us. We found our hostel on Canal Street, buried between a tattoo parlor and a pawnshop. The hostel was a well maintained and pleasant space. We checked in at the front desk with a smoked out looking 20 year old, humped our bags up 4 flights of stairs to the room. It was spacious. 2 bunk beds that would store our luggage for the next two days and a twin bed that would store our bodies for the next two nights. Having landed in a safe place, it was time to find the next step in our personal hierarchy of needs, FOOD. The asian noodle salad still defrosting in our bag and to this day, I don’t know if it ever DE-frosted. I threw it into the hostel garbage can two days later and heard the tinkling crunch of ice hitting waste-bin like a winter symphony. It was then that knew that the literal god of ice resided within that unassuming plastic container and I turned around and didn’t look back (lest I face his wrath). So… the noodles weren’t going to be an option, which meant finding food elsewhere. The problem was, that it was midnight on a Wednesday and almost everything was closed, especially the places that were likely to feature vegetarian options without a side of severe intestinal distress… almost. 

After some comprehensive googling, I discovered Cleo’s. Cleo’s reported to be a mediterranean restaurant in a convenience store setting. What I found it to be in person was a bit more complicated than that. The “convenience store” setting was a different side of Europe than I thought it would be from the description. I was imagining that checkered tile-and-wood aesthetic. A place you might find an older gentleman in a white apron folded over the counter, big spit of meat roasting behind some glass, hand-patted pita in plastic wrap in the front window. Instead I shuffled into a nightclub, choked with meaty smoke, all black walls, techno thumping like a heartbeat over the loose assortment of truly unusual snacks that littered the shelves.

Dunkaroos. This place had Dunkaroos. The Dunkaroo factory doesn’t have Dunkaroos anymore. According to the internet, Dunkaroos haven’t been available in the United States since 2012, which means these were either smuggled into the country (with tiger parts and booger-sugar) or they were almost old enough to see a PG-13 movie in theaters. Eyes watering, train-rattled brain throwing error messages behind my eyes, I ordered their veggie platter to-go (as though I were going to eat it standing up in one of the aisles), then stood there in the pulsing darkness waiting for them to call my name. They did and before I knew it, I was standing there, punch drunk and blinky in the hostel room and as it turned out, I had scored.

The hummus was bright and nutty, the babaganoush was garlic-y and fantastic, the pita was pillowy and steaming. We ate it in our bunkbed in our weird little hostel and then drifted off to an exhausted sleep and all the while our cerebellums rocking gently to the rhythm of a rolling train.

Tune in next week for Chapter 3!