For all of you who love looking at train wrecks, yes, there is still plenty of hurricane damage to be seen in New Orleans. Boarded up homes, burnt out homes, empty homes, empty buildings, roofs torn off…it’s all still there, and it’s all still heartbreaking. Just driving through it was enough to convey the sense of gravity held by anyplace where people have died in large numbers. We weren’t sure what we’d find, but we didn’t expect to find a sense of humor like the one shown here.
We drove through the French Quarter, as much as it’s possible to do so. After a few blocks of never-ending pedestrian trains, we parked on the outskirts of the area and hitailed it in. Now, my only prior experience with the French Quarter comes from the Pirates of the Caribbean area at Disneyland, and the scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Wolverine tracks down Gambit in a New Orleans gambling den. The real thing wasn’t like any of that.
It was dank. And dirty. And cramped. And beautiful. The buildings are mostly dark, mottled colors, with a few standouts in aqua or blue here and there. The carved balconies are pretty, but they aren’t bursting with flowerboxes or anything quaint like that. You can easily imagine hookers draped over them, wearing saloon girl outfits and speaking slurred French. Streets are narrow, gutters are flowing, and deliverymen are carting around thousands of pounds of alcohol in preparation for the coming weekend. I saw one poor Bud delivery guy hauling enormous kegs into a bar, one by one, for at least 30 minutes.
There are Hustler storefronts, where girls in scanty panties and tanktops try and lure you in. There are bars galore, restaurants, trinket shops, antique shops, and more. Unlike the Champs-Elysees in Paris, there is no McDonalds. I think that’s what I love about it. If you turn out of the French Quarter back to the main drag, you’ll hit all the regular commercial bullshit of a big city. But within these streets…Bourbon, Conti, Bienville….no Burger King, no Walgreens, no KFC. You eat Cajun or pizza by the slice, or you don’t eat.
I did not hear anyone speaking French, which was kind of a bummer. I might be able to recall a few words of high-school French for long enough to ask a question, and I was hoping I’d get to hear firsthand the difference between textbook French and Acadian French.
Part of what makes the French Quarter so appealing is the lack of artifice. What you see is what you get. It’s a little old, a little weathered, a little battered, but it’s here and it’s not going anywhere. It was Spanish, then French, then American. It has kept its devil-may-care flair through three different regimes, and debauchery has been the status quo for longer than America has been a country. My God, that’s mind-blowing if you just think about it.
We stopped in one of those tchotchke shops with cheap tourist t-shirts, shot glasses, and snowglobes. This is not something we normally do. But we couldn’t help it. The t-shirts were making fun of poverty, of Katrina, of anything serious. How could you not want to participate? I bought the t-shirt that says, “FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run, Bitch, Run” and P. bought the one that says, “I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this t-shirt, a new Cadillac, and a flat-screen TV.” How can you not love it? If anyone has the right to make fun of what happened here, shouldn’t it be the people who survived it? And if it’s okay with them that silly Arkansan tourists wear Katrina-themed t-shirts, then damn it, I’m going to join in on the fun.
We stopped and ate at Café Beignet, a cute little open-air place tucked between two buildings. A Dixieland jazz band was set up there, playing sprightly covers of Sinatra-era songs. I had the chicken and sausage jambalaya because I was dying to sink my teeth into some real Cajun-style food, and P. had a Bloody Mary because he doesn’t like strange concoctions of food that usually include onions. It was delicious. The music was great. I felt like I could relax here, really let it all hang out. It’s called The Big Easy for a reason, and I felt it even as I sat in an uncomfortable wrought-iron chair and held onto a plastic food basket as a gust of wind blew through the place.
After I ate, we decided to stop somewhere so P. could grab a piece of pizza. We picked a random bar/walk-up pizza joint, and he got his slice of pepperoni, and I inspected the drink offerings. There were daiquiri fountains set up behind the bar, with premixed flavors like Vampire’s Blood. The one I got was orange, made with 180-proof alcohol. It came with a free shot. It was the booziest drink I’d had all week, and we sipped it happily together as we walked toward the St. Louis cemetery, the oldest in New Orleans.
There are tombs here instead of graves because of the high water table. Some of the tombs are just boxes of crumbling stone, and others are mausoleum-type monuments with statuary on top. Marie Laveau is buried here, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. Her tomb is covered with scrawled rows of the XXXs. I wondered what on earth these meant, and a tour guide leading his group through told them that people believe that Marie will grant their wish/cast their spell/whatever if they pray to her and scrawl three XXXs on her tomb. It’s kind of sad to see anyone’s last resting place defaced, but on the other hand, it’s a testament to the kind of power people believe she had (has?).
Here’s where things got really interesting. As we wandered the rows of tombs, we saw our last name several times. My husband doesn’t know much at all about his family history; his father was born in Louisiana, and that’s about it. So in theory, he could be somehow related to the people in that cemetery. It’s a relatively uncommon last name, a far cry from Smith or Jones or anything like that. It’s also not a French name, which makes it more unusual. I’ve been playing around on ancestry.com, but I haven’t discovered much that’s a confirmed link to my husband’s family.
Still, for someone as obsessed with history as I am, it feels incredible to be linked to a place with real history—they have a voodoo queen, for heaven’s sake. Nothing this interesting is lurking up my family tree. Unfortunately, I have so little to go on that it’s hard to make solid connections. But I’m hoping to get a basic idea of when this family arrived in New Orleans, what branches it split into, and where those branches went. Even if I hadn’t had a great time, I will always be thankful to New Orleans for showing my husband a bit of where he came from…information he never got from his parents, that no place on earth but the St. Louis cemetery could have provided for him.
Now, if only we can scrape up the money to get back, there are two more St. Louis cemeteries waiting to be explored.