New Orleans

Between the legend and the literal... New Orleans

 There's the Pearl River swamp, with turtles and alligators, a statuesque heron and some fetching racoons, but the tour boat captain baits them with marshmallows to entice them to pose. There is the Elysian Fields Avenue Walker Percy wrote of in The Moviegoer, but at the corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude, which used to be Bon Enfants,  where Percy's character Binx Bolling considers an African American walking out of a church on Ash Wednesday and wonders why the man is there, I saw no church. Instead, at this lyrically named intersection there are gas stations on three corners and an auto supply shop on the 4th. Of course no one says a novel, or a legend, for that matter, has to be true to fact.

Music doodles, blasts, trills, thumps, sings, swings, and  soars, and not just on Frenchman or the more vulgar Bourbon Street. Young and some older musicians ride their bikes with instruments strapped to their backs - drums, horns, shapes I can't identify. On Sunday, Royal Street is blocked to cars and a duo of women set up with a violin and a guitar play through the afternoon. Closer to Canal Street, Roslyn croons a folk song and plucks a thumb piano while her partner David blows harmonica. On another corner a solo clarinetist wails the classic, Basin Street of dreams, New Orleans. Klezmer at another spot, plain old folk-rock guitar/bass/ trio at still another.

If the streets seem dirty after a weekend that included the Bayou Classic, it isn't because there are no street sweepers out first thing in the morning swishing sudsy water over the pavement and sidewalks. The Quarter retains a long lived in, wel-lused ambiance and  December evenings can be just as steamy as Tennessee Williams made them seem with his sweating Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire".

The music, the weather and yes, the food. Much as I wanted to resist clichés such as Cafe du Monde, I'm glad that the aroma of frying sweet dough drew me in on a quieter Monday morning for coffee and a small plate of beignets that stayed hot and crispy under their drift of powdered sugar. In addition to that particular, "When you're in New Orleans you have to try..." was the muffaletta from Central Grocery, and the blackened shrimp at Felix's. But the turtle soup at the celebrated restaurant in the lovely, shaded Garden District ... was it really turtle? Not according to the gentleman who kindly invited me for a drink when I expressed interest in seeing the property where Tennessee Williams had lived. "They haven't had a turtle in that place for over 40 years," said this self-described gourmet, whose art-filled house adjoins  playwright Williams' former abode.

My sister likes to choose places she has heard of.  Many other travellers too, especially now with easily available online guides like Tripadvisor,  flock to places they've heard of, arriving with expectations, perhaps an image, an anticipated flavour, and the reality does not always meet expectation. The hefty foursome next to me at Cafe du Monde, for example, expressed disdain at what they called the fancy name of the place. Had they forgotten that New Orleans was once French, that the use of French words like rue for street and librairie for bookstore are not an affectation but a carryover from French roots? Sadly, no one seems to speak French anymore, not even in the French Quarter which is a bit of a misnomer itself, said one acquaintance, because the prominent if slightly fading architecture was created during Spanish rule. The balconies and galleries recall Barcelona and old Havana.

Lance, a Maitre d' who kept me company while I sipped wine in a bar T.W. frequented,  said that people come to New Orleans to consider their own possibilities, to maybe invent themselves. Ironic, really, considering the masks in store windows and in stalls at the French Market, another misleading tag, since it is really more of a flea market.  There's the mask, and not far beneath beneath the actual features. What is real? Authentic? Lance took out his phone to show me a document that proved there really was once an intersection called Elysian Fields and Bon Enfants. As for the non-conventional, and perhaps not really official guide at St. Louis Cemetery #1, he not only told good stories, he removed the bricks from tombs to prove, with the aid of our flash cameras, that layers of bones did indeed lay inside.

"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world, or is it because he believes that God himself is here at the corner of Elysisan Fields and Bon Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for one and receiving the other as God's  own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say."
The Moviegoer, Walker Percy.

Angels in Atlanta

On American Thanksgiving day in Atlanta, I woke thinking of  the man who, upon hearing me say I was from Canada,  said, "Je m'appelle Antoine," at least I think he said Antoine. The white brillo beard on his clear, deep brown face, the toque, the white tennis shoes. This occurred the afternoon of Thanksgiving eve, me heading down to Peachtree from the Greyhound Station, thinking I knew where I was going. Seeing me looking around, he asked if I was okay, and tolerated me when I insisted that 134 Peachtree Street must be close by because weren't we at 175? Him walking  alongside me, restraining himself when I insisted. Then, "Believe me m'am, I've lived here 9 years, and it is southwest Peachtree you're looking for. You gotta go back to the train."  But I read it on the website, I explained. "Believe me m'am, this is a bad neighbourhood. I'll walk you as far as the train.You got to go back to the train." When I saw no sign of the hotel I was booked into for my overnight stay, or any hotel, I gave in. "It is so nice of you to help me."

"I am a Christian man. You're talking to someone who has looked on Jerusalem." But he was also a vet and the United States doesn't treat its vets very well, he said, in a voice that carried no French accent at all. It was clear he needed money. I said the problem is I don't have any change, and that was true, but I could get change in the station, the MARTA station, where I would have to wait for the northbound train and get off at the second stop, according to Antoine, if it was Antoine he called himself. He showed me how to work the machine, his finger trembling a little as we chose the right lines to press on the screen. I thought I would give him five dollars, but really, I should have given him everything I had, because even though I doubted him, frankly profiled him - a street person, black, wanting money -  and had turned away to open my wallet, and continued to wonder if his advice was correct, even as he stood outside the station and blew me a kiss, it turned out that he was absolutely right. I walked down the nearly deserted southwest Peachtree Street to my destination and  I wished all night that I'd given more. Jesus loves a cheerful giver, said Preacher Little, in Savannah.
Then, mercy: a late train, which gave me time for a long conversation with the wise Elizabeth Daily, an Amtrak baggage clerk, whose reading and thinking over many years has taught her that we act as we do because it is hard for us to move away from archetypes.  A woman alone on a virtually empty street is prey. Even a black woman would think that way, she said, if she encountered a gangsta type dresser, in baggy pants and a hoody. Not that Antoine had been so dressed. The media imprints images that affect our subconscious, said Elizabeth, and not only that, but more. When I asked her about racism in Atlanta she said it was not so much race that divided people, but money. The economic gap has widened and for people on the wrong side, the gap has been getting harder and harder to breach. Poor neighborhoods had poor schools; a poor education limited possibilities.

Elizabeth became for me the grace before the juicy Thanksgiving feast that consisted of my Amtrak Crescent trip to New Orleans. The long roll through Alabama and Mississippi, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Hattiesburg, the pretty undulating hills and slim treed forests and a sunset that lasted miles and miles: first, bruised clouds, then the big sky coloured as if rubbed with a blood orange, while Bob and Muriel Lawrence and Pearson Cotton, and
Marva and the others enjoyed their Mimosas and their champagne glasses filled with some creamy desert, or perhaps an appetizer, and Pearson related to me the history of the region, the Creeks and Choctaws, Cherokee and Seminole Andrew Jackson had ordered  banished, but not before  they interbred with African slaves, their offspring being the ancestors of this party enjoying themselves on the long ride to New Orleans for the Bayou classic.

Happy Thanksgiving, called a stunning woman to her seatmate as he debarked from the train in Meridian. "Eat a lot of turkey and macaroni and cheese, collards and black eyed peas and sweet potatoes and sweet potato pie and red velvet cake!"

The final blessing of that day, Ruth, a white haired security guard who saw me lost again, roaming the near-deserted streets of New Orleans this time, and waved me into her big official building so I didn't have to wander in the cold. On her desk she had a covered plate of Thanksgiving dinner someone had brought her, and left it there to walk me around the corner to where I was supposed to be. Supposed to be? That's something that is not always clear.