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I Love New Orleans June 22, 2009

Filed under: Do Re Me,Life, Whatnot — indiakonstanze @ 8:42 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

New Orleans humor

New Orleans humor

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, 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.


Florida, I Have a Bone to Pick with You June 16, 2009

Is this really something to brag about?  Really?  Maybe if you're David Caruso, with nowhere else to go.

Is this really something to brag about? Really? Maybe if you're David Caruso, with nowhere else to go.

In fact, I have several.

The first: ENOUGH WITH THE ANTI-ABORTION BILLBOARDS ALREADY. I am on vacation. I do not want to be bombarded with messages about heartbeats and lima-bean shaped fetuses every freaking mile up and down the east coast. If you must advertise your religio-political beliefs via billboard, a small number will suffice. May I suggest one every 30 miles? Every 60 miles? Your advertising blitz is the equivalent of hitting someone in the head with a hammer; if it doesn’t lobotomize her, it will really piss her off.  If I weren’t pro-choice before (I was), I would be now.

The second: I HATE your toll roads. I HATE your stupid turnpike. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to have to cough up $2 and then $1.25 and then another $2 every couple of miles? At one point, we paid something like $8 or $9 at a SINGLE toll booth. This is out of control. It would be cheaper to charter a helicopter to get where I need to be. If you need money so badly, try instituting a luxury car tax. Or a bikini tax. Or just take some of the profits from the bars on South Beach that charge $25 FREAKING DOLLARS for a mojito. There is something really wrong with a system that needs to give you a toll calculator. Hint: if you have to calculate it, you can’t afford it.

The third: The Keys? SO NOT LIKE THE BAHAMAS. They’re small, they don’t have many beaches, and they’re raging tourist rip-off joints. I paid $41 dollars for lunch at a Cuban restaurant in Key West that consisted of banana chips (sold at most grocery stores), saffron rice (ditto), seasoned ground beef (hello Taco Bell), and black beans (again, grocery store). The Cuba Libre was weak, and the piped-in soundtrack was Putumayo’s Latin Groove, which I already own. SO NOT CUBAN.

We found one beach on Key West where I was able to swim in the water a bit, at the price of my newly seared corneas: someone’s grandpa wore a red/yellow/green striped Speedo that left nothing to the imagination, not even the grapefruit-sized hernia sticking out of his stomach. No one needs to see that. No one.

Back to the point about rip-off joints: I do not want to pay $24 for two adults to go into Hemingway’s house. I do not want to pay $25 per plate for two of us to have lunch. I definitely don’t want to pay $15 for a mixed drink. I don’t want to pay $7 for a skinny-ass slice of key lime pie.  I don’t want to pay $200 for the two of us to go out on a boat and fish. I don’t want to pay $150 for the two of us to parasail for ten minutes. There must have been something Hemingway loved about this place, but it’s long gone. Now it’s just Disneyland with more booze and swear words on the cheap tourist t-shirts. Nothing felt more inauthentic our whole trip.

P.S.: Where the freak do you grow the limes? I didn’t see any.

The fourth: you guys have GOT to do something about the insects. Those palmetto bugs are something else. We found one in our shower in Marathon Key, but only because of a strange wardrobe malfunction on my part. My Old Navy flip flops had gotten wet, and unbeknownst to me, were emitting a high-pitched squeak (squeal?) every time I stepped on them. Silly me, I mistook this for an insect mating call and hopped up onto the chair, screaming for P. to find the evildoer and kill it. He graciously moved the bedding, the bed, anything that could be moved in our Spartan room. No bug.  So I got down from the chair, stepped on my shoe, and heard the evil insect’s call once more.

With a shriek and a hop, I remounted the chair and told P. to check the bathroom. That’s when he found it. A palmetto bug the size of a Cuban cigar, waddling around the shower. He smashed it with the bathroom trash can, but it took a few good and heavy swats, and it didn’t completely die until he severed it in two, like that chick who gets run through by the knife-enabled chariot in Gladiator. Unfortunately for me, he left the body parts in the shower for the CSI team (me) to deal with in the morning.

When I kicked off my shoes and we stopped hearing creatures hiss at us, it dawned on him that it was my shoes and not the bugs making that hissing noise. But still…if my shoes hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have found that bug in the shower until God knows when. Have I mentioned I hate bugs? REALLY REALLY REALLY hate bugs?

The fifth: Can you please find someone who knows how to make a stiff drink? We had a couple of drinks each at the Clevelander in South Beach; no buzz. Another night, in Hollywood, we went to the Hollywood Ale House, which had surprisingly few ale choices, and ended up deciding to get plastered on drink specials. $60 later, neither of us felt tipsy at all. In the Keys, we had Cuba Libres with our Cuban lunch in Key West and it just tasted like Coke. Whoever poured the rum must have forgotten how to count to three. Would it kill someone to give a little value to the tourist these days? What fun is vacation if you’re not drunk half the time?

Work with me, Florida.


Touring the Filthy South, Part II June 10, 2009

Filed under: Do Re Me,Life, Whatnot — indiakonstanze @ 8:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Okay, kids, it’s time for a very serious lesson. The moral of today’s story is this: NEVER EVER EAT AT HOOTERS.

Okay, not really. That’s only part of it. The real lesson is this: if there’s something you don’t want to do but you’re considering it because someone else tells you “it will be a good experience for you,” RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. THE OTHER PERSON IS LYING TO YOU FOR HIS OR HER OWN BENEFIT.

It doesn’t matter whether they want you to have sex, do drugs, shoplift, or eat the squirmy octopus thing on the sushi boat. It is always a BAD IDEA. Stick to your guns and tell that person to fuck off, the way you’d tell Hitler to fuck off if he came up to you and asked you to read Mein Kampf, the way you’d tell Mohammad Atta to fuck off if he came up to you and asked you to hold his flight jacket. Be true to your instincts, because they’ll save you from abject misery.

In my case, it would have saved me from dining at Hooters. I’ve always said I’ll never set foot in one of those places. I think they’re dumb, and I don’t even like wings. Aside from the whole exploitation debate, I just knew I wouldn’t have a good time there. Yet I allowed my stated preference to be overruled, and sweet Jesus, I have never had a more uncomfortable meal.

To start with, the noise inside was overwhelming. I could barely hear my own thoughts, and even simple communication became a shouting matches (“Do you want to sit here?” “What?” “Do you want to sit here?” “Huh?” “JUST SIT.”)

Sit we did, at a small and sticky table near the door. It took 10 minutes for a waitress to come say hi and take our drink orders. “It’s my first night back,” she said, blinking mascara-crusted eyes and wiggling a glitter-dusted body. Not since the days of the Spice Girls have I seen this much body glitter. She was passably cute, if a little more rounded than the elastic waistband of her tiny shorts wanted to permit.

We ordered two waters, and sat back to peruse the menu. Once I eliminated the things I don’t really like (wings and fried chicken) and the things I wasn’t willing to pay for ($15 seafood platter), I was left with a burger. I decided I’d go with a blue cheese topping, just to be different.

Next, I scoped out my surroundings. On the window to my left was a poster advertising a bikini contest, with an oily blonde leering at me in a skimpy turquoise bikini. I looked across the aisle to my right, where there was a framed picture of a waitress rolling around on a bed in her Hooters uniform. Sitting at that table was a family of four, with a blond, freckled 12-year-old boy posted directly beside the nauseating photo. Assholes, I thought, glaring at the parents.

The family’s waitress was different than ours; theirs was a tall brunette wearing shorts that angled so high up across her cheeks that the entire curve where butt meets thigh was visible to all and sundry. And believe me, there were plenty of sundries. The night’s crowd included a family having a birthday party FOR A LITTLE GIRL, and a family eating out with GRANDMA AND THE KIDS. What kind of fucked up family takes their little girl to Hooters for her birthday? The girl was sobbing, and I would have been too if my parents were stupid enough to take me to that Junior-League-reject whorefest for my birthday party.

I looked at my watch. We’d been seated for at least 20 minutes and still had no water.  Parched from the long drive, I looked around for our waitress. She did not reappear for quite some time. When she did, she blazed past us to the table of guys to my right. She talked and flirted with them slowly, shamelessly, as if no one else could possibly be seated in her section. I tried to collect enough spit in my mouth to swallow, as a replacement for the nonexistent water.

It was at least another 10 minutes before she acknowledged us again. When she returned, it was sans water and sans any order-taking paraphernalia, like paper. She apologized for forgetting our waters, apologized for taking so long, apologized for being so disorganized, then wrote our order on a napkin with some sort of aqua magic marker and waddled off, shedding glitter behind her like a rave-enabled Gretel.

In the meantime, P. went off to wash his hands and I sat there trying not to stare at the jiggling butt cheeks of the passing waitresses. Not five seconds after he left, our waitress came back to our table to find out what kind of sauce he wanted on his wings, and what kind of dressing he wanted with his side order of celery. I knew the latter, but not the former. I told her he’d be back in a second and could answer her then. She got a worried look on her face and said she had to guard the computer to keep our ticket open. Apparently, something dire happened if she failed in this objective. She apologized again (third time? fourth time?) and ran back to the computer/drink station.

By now, we’d been seated for about half an hour and we hadn’t even had our order placed. I was upset because this girl was clearly incompetent, I still didn’t have anything to drink, and everywhere I put my eyes, I was confronted with some co-ed’s glittery breasts, thighs, or butt cheeks. Not appetizing. Not relaxing. Not the kind of scenery I wanted on my vacation.

Finally, P. came back from the restroom. She pounced as soon as he sat down, crouching near him so he had a clear view down her shirt. He told her what sauce he wanted, and she ran off the put in our order. By some miracle, she returned with two water glasses and placed them in front of us before turning to clear a table across the aisle. I looked at what we’d been given: P.’s straw still had the paper top on it to assure him of its cleanliness; I had no such luck. “How come yours still has the paper thing?” I said. Our waitress heard me and turned around with a Cheshire cat smile. “Oh, yours came off in my hand,” she said. “It stuck to my finger when I put it on the tray.”

Now I know this is Hooters, with nary a Michelin star to its name—but still. If you’re bringing out two drinks, and only one has the requisite sanitary protection, you do something to make them match. Either you bring BOTH drinks out WITHOUT straw wrappers or you grab another straw and bring BOTH drinks out WITH straw wrappers. I don’t want to think about her sticky fingers touching any part of my straw, but now I have to. Thanks, you germ-infested bitch. Thanks a lot.

While we waited for our food, I stared at P. long enough to make him nervous. I wasn’t doing it on purpose; I was just looking for some neutral ground. If I looked left, I stared right into the crotch of the bikini girl on the poster. If I looked right, I ended up seeing the butt cheeks of a passing waitress. Even weirder, every time I averted my eyes from butt cheeks, I saw some guy at a table on the right staring at me while I was staring at the waitresses. I’m telling you, you can’t shake a stick in a Hooters without smacking a possible sex offender. (Do any normal guys eat at Hooters? I only found one.)

Eventually, the glittery waitress deposited my burger in front of me, patting my shoulder for no apparent reason. The side of celery and ranch P. ordered arrived in its own basket, which was kind of like reserving a limo for a mouse. Three or four thin, spindly stalks of cheap-ass vegetable fiber and a plastic cup of off-brand Ranch dressing…talk about .99 well spent, folks. My burger looked pretty good, except for the fact that I had to hunt for the blue cheese on top. There was one dollop, about the size of a dime, resting calmly on my patty.

Since the burger came with slaw, the waitress left me a set of utensils. They lay face-up on the tray she’d given me, all the better to see the small pieces of crap crusted onto the fork. It was probably just a few pieces of stuck-on lettuce, but still. She was oblivious, and I ate my coleslaw with a spoon.

She came back to check on us twice. Once, she deposited a stack of fifty napkins next to P. She’d already left him plenty when she brought the food; I think she just wanted to bend over next to him. The second time, she placed a paper ticket on the edge of the table. I didn’t even look at her. When I was dying of thirst, I had to wait half an hour for a water. When I was dying of hunger, I had to wait for her to accost my husband to place our order all because she couldn’t remember what she had to ask to complete the order itself. Now that I had my food and simply wanted to eat it in peace, I had to keep interrupting my meal to reassure her that she’s doing a swell job and that we (finally) have everything we need.

When it came time to pay up and get the hell out of there, P. slapped his card onto the ticket and she whisked it away. When she brought it back, she failed to whisk herself away. She lingered, standing over his shoulder, looking at the receipt he was about to fill out.  She straightened the ketchup bottle, pushed the salt and pepper back into place, and touched every menu in the metal wire holder to make sure they were straight. P. made eye contact with me, and I mouthed, “Just wait.” I felt sure she’d realize how rude she was being, and give us a moment to strategize about the tip without her boobs touching my husband’s shoulder. No such luck.

She changed positions a few times, always leaning over P. or over the table, but never moving out of eyesight of the as-yet-blank line where we’d insert our tip. Bitch, please. If you’re so afraid of a shitty tip, try not being a shitty waitress. Every inconvenience we encountered was her fault; we had no problem with the food, the chef, the manager, etc. I would never have left without giving her a tip, but it would have been nice to indicate my displeasure with a solo dollar bill, or maybe even two, which would still have been 10%.

I fumed as she idled and fidgeted, moving items on the table around as if she were arranging a Thanksgiving centerpiece. P. and I made eye contact again, asking each other a silent what-the-fuck-is-she-doing? Finally, he picked up the pen and gave her the standard 15%, just to avoid a scene and get the hell out of there. He signed the receipt, and we stood up so fast you might have thought our seats were on fire. She’d taken away our one method of satisfaction…giving her a tip that matched the quality of her service. The worst part was…she knew she’d done a shitty job. She knew she deserved a lame tip. But she banked on the fact that we wouldn’t stiff her with her looking over our collective shoulder. It’s a dirty waitress Jedi trick.

I knew I should have stuck to my guns and never set foot inside a Hooters, but I was seduced by the siren song of vacation, and the lure of “new experiences.”  My bad. It won’t happen again.


Touring the Filthy South, Part I May 28, 2009

Filed under: Do Re Me,Life, Whatnot — indiakonstanze @ 7:53 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, I experienced a healthy dose of what some people refer to as “the dirty South.”  I would rather refer to it as the Onion does:  “the filthy South.” Dirty just doesn’t capture it all, because dirty things can be cleaned up. The word implies underlying cleanliness, and boy, is that wrong. “Filthy,” on the other hand, has no such connotation; it implies lasting dirt, sort of like Pigpen in Charlie Brown comics. That’s far more accurate.

We set off from Little Rock early last Saturday morning. Somewhere around Memphis, my 10-month old car received its first bullseye, which isn’t a tragedy on a regular day but on a day when PMS hormones are on the rampage, it’s the equivalent of nuclear meltdown. I fumed all the way through Mississippi and part of Alabama, until we reached our first destination: the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham.

Holy crap, who knew this was in Alabama?

Holy crap, who knew this was in Alabama?

Note to those wanting to visit: eat before you go. There is no food available at this exit, and all they had inside were a few vending machines. I ate two gas station hot dogs for lunch. They were rubbery and the buns were suspiciously chewy. Also, you had to tell the cashier exactly what toppings you wanted, and she gave them to us in packets (mayo, mustard, relish, ketchup). I’m not opposed to packets, but I am opposed to estimating how many I’ll need before I even eat. It kills the joy of spontaneous consumption, in the same way that asking someone what time sex will be over can do. Besides, is there really a need to ration ketchup packets? Are people in broke-ass Alabama so poor that they hoard gas station packets of pickle relish?

Perhaps. The ride into Birmingham was like descending into Africa’s Rift Valley, only with bingo parlors instead of roadside stations selling bushmeat and Maasai warrior blankets. Apparently, there’s not much people there can afford except Bingo and chicken. There were empty storefronts by the truckload, and entire strip malls sat vacant, mile after mile. What I don’t understand is…how can these people even afford bingo? You have to pay to play, right?  So if there’s money for Bingo, why isn’t there money for any of the businesses that used to inhabit the empty space? Seriously, there are like twenty Bingo parlors between the freeway and the Barber Motorsports Museum. Someone is making a killing.  And someone is hella stupid, forking out money to Bingo parlors that could be used to, oh, I don’t know, FIND A JOB.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Barber Motorsports Museum itself. The highlights: gorgeous grounds, millions of dollars of cars and motorcycles, and a track where people were learning to race Porsches. This Barber guy shelled out a lot of money to his architect—the building has a sweeping multi-story curved walkway, floor-to-ceiling glass elevator, and stacked rows of shelving for cycles that go all the way to the rafters. There are weird art sculptures scattered all over the place (the ones out front look like angry Soviet-era proletarians on Segways), and I’m really surprised I didn’t see personal memorabilia mixed in with the bikes. This Barber guy seems content to let the machines steal the show. Then again, nothing screams “I’M RICH, BITCH” like a hand-picked collection of Lotus racecars.

I discovered that if I were to ever own a motorcycle, I’d want what’s called a café racer.

Bitchin' cafe racer

Bitchin' cafe racer

Very simple, linear bikes with a hunk of metal for the gas tank, horizontal handlebars, and a big-ass headlight. They look freakin’ cool, and they’d look even better in pink and black, with maybe a few rhinestones or black pearls superglued onto it somewhere. And a quilted seat, with an embroidered Chanel logo. Dude, that would rock so hard.

Somewhere toward the end of our visit, a very large man started talking to my husband about a particular make of Italian motorcycle. He walked with a cane, and couldn’t stand up for long. He asked P. what kind of motorcycle he had, and P. said he didn’t have one right now because we live in a place where it’s really boring to ride.  When the man found out we meant Little Rock, he cooled. He seemed offended that we think the Ozarks are boring, but when you’re used to the Sierra Nevadas, a couple 3,000-foot-tall bumps in the road don’t really faze you, do they? The man was quick to point out that he’d ridden in from Atlanta on his Gold Wing, and this is totally evil, but all I could think was, oh my God, your shocks and tires must be shot from carrying all that weight. Seriously…if you weigh as much as your bike, are performance features not affected?

I know, I know. Sometimes I’m not a very nice person. I blame PMS.

Next time: my tour of the filthy South continues, through Atlanta and down Florida. Highlights will include bad drivers, fried chicken fragrance, and more bad drivers.