New Orleans 1998
I finally got the chance to go to New Orleans. Most of the real travel I do in life is part of my work, going to conferences and meetings. So back in August, when I heard that there was a conference in New Orleans, I expressed interest in attending. No one else wanted to go, so I got the nod from the team to represent us at the conference. This meant writing a paper and making a presentation, but that didn’t worry me. I had never been to New Orleans and I was very interested in seeing it.
The plan was for me to speak on Wednesday, December 9th, at the Le Meridien Hotel in the morning. What became clear to me was that I didn’t really want to be gone for a long time in December, so close to Christmas. So, I planned to fly out Tuesday night and leave Wednesday afternoon, after my presentation. This would not leave me much time in New Orleans, but being alone in a strange town gets old pretty quick. I figured having a nice Cajun meal for lunch in the French Quarter would be enough for now. But things don’t always work out as planned.
My plane was to leave at 7:10 p.m. form Detroit Metro, but when I arrived, I learned that our flight crew wasn’t expected until 8:30 p.m. or so. I figured that we should have polled the passengers to see if someone was willing to try to fly the plane. I was willing to help pass out the peanuts. Anyway, we got a late start, so I didn’t arrive in the New Orleans International Airport until after 11 p.m., much later than I had planned.
The shuttle from the airport to downtown was kinda interesting. I was somewhat surprised at how sullen the woman was at the counter where you bought a ticket. Even at 11 o’clock on a weeknight, you would expect a little smile now and again. She was more like a robot. But when you got to the curb, things got really interesting. There were a good number of people, tickets in hand, waiting to be loaded onto one of the ten passenger vans. There was this one fellow with a flashlight that was handling the travelers much like cattle. He’d point with his flashlight and tell you where to stand. When new travelers arrived, confused, he would glare at them and wave his flashlight until they fell in line properly along the blue line of the curb. Then as the vans would arrive, he would separate the line into groups that would fit into the individual vans. During the whole process I never felt like a customer and I wondered if it would have been worth the extra money for a cab ride into town. I actually prefer rapid transit systems to shuttle me into town. They can be impersonal, but they never insult you.
Of course, when I arrived at my room at the hotel (around midnight), I couldn’t get the door key to work and had to get help. I called home (waking Linda) and then went to sleep myself. My wake up call came at 6:00 a.m. and I showered and checked out. I didn’t get much for my hotel tab. The conference didn’t start until 8:30 a.m., so I had a little time. I checked my bags at the hotel and took off for the streets of New Orleans.
The Le Meridien Hotel is right on Canal Street, which is one of the streets that divides the French Quarter from the rest of New Orleans. It is one of the main streets and has lots of traffic (including electric trolleys) and hotels. It also has fast food. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and I didn’t want to fuss, so I just stopped in a Burger King for a sandwich. When I left there, I had no idea of what to look for, so I just started off into the French Quarter down the first street I came to.
This early in the morning, things are pretty quiet in the French Quarter. There were few other people about. In general, the whole area seemed very old and worn. There were even boarded up buildings here and there. But all the same, you got a sense of life there in all the little shops and corner restaurants and bars. The area has a very interesting look to it. Most of the buildings are two stories with a balcony all along the second floor with iron railings and a roof. The streets are very narrow, with narrow sidewalks on both sides. The building are all built right up to the sidewalk and have lots of shuttered doorways and windows. This style permeated the whole area.
Almost nothing was open. I picked up a guy doing shoe shines who dogged me along claiming he could guess where I was from based on my shoes. He wanted to bet for money, but I just got a shoe shine. He never did make a guess. I ended up down towards the river and I walked along the riverside park. As you might expect, there was a riverboat parked there, but there was no fishing allowed. Well, I had not brought any equipment anyway. I looped back to Canal Street and worked my way back up to the hotel.
I was only there for the morning session, and that went well. There were lots of people there that I knew professionally, but when lunch came, I was shocked to learn that there was a big luncheon planned for all the conference participants. This dashed my idea of cruising the French Quarter for a restaurant. However, it got worse, after we were all seated and eating our salad, they brought the main dish, fish. Now, I’m allergic to some varieties of fish and I’m not all that interested in experimenting with new or unknown varieties. I asked which kind of fish this was, and the server said, “It’s gulf fish.” I have never heard of “gulf” fish, but there is a big gulf nearby, so I guess he was referring to the place where the fish came from. I ate the potatoes. This was not the Cajun meal I had anticipated.
I had a return ticket on the airport shuttle for 2:00 p.m., but I don’t normally wear a watch. After lunch, I wandered down to the place where the shuttle comes and said I was there for the 2 o’clock shuttle. The guy there looked at his watch and said that it would not arrive for an hour yet. This was a pleasant surprise. I wanted a chance to roam around a little more in the French Quarter when the shops were actually open. I asked him where would be a good walk and he directed me to Bourbon Street, just two blocks up from the hotel.
It was a sunny, but cool day, which was good for walking. Bourbon Street seemed to have most of the strip joints, but it also had some street musicians. I noticed that if you looked through some of the doorways, they were alleys that lead to interior yards. These yards were usually well groomed gardens. This was very elegant to be walking down a narrow urban street and peek into these enchanted gardens. There were more people around at this time of day and there were artists painting down at Jackson Park. I appreciate a town that has street life.
The loop I walked didn’t take very long, but when I got back to the hotel I got a surprise. When I said I was there for the 2 o’clock shuttle, they said the shuttle had already left! It seems the guy I had spoken with earlier had “mis-read” his watch or something. No tip for him. Luckily there was still a spot open on the next shuttle and I would not be late for my plane. Oh, well. At least I got to spend a little more time on the streets. The shuttle was crowded, but I never complain when I’m headed home.
One thing you can see from the freeway to the airport is a very large cemetery. Cemeteries in New Orleans are different, because all of the bodies are buried above ground. Anything placed underground quickly gets waterlogged and gets pushed to the surface. So, the cemetery is rows and rows of crypts built above ground.
I never got my Cajun meal, but I did buy a box of Jambalaya mix. Crawdads were out of season. I think I will have to try again to visit New Orleans. I’d like to see the French Quarter on a weekend night and I’d like to wander the shops. Jazz is not my thing, but I’d like to hear the music too. So, there is still lots to do, if the chance ever arrives.