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By train to the Crescent City

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by Tena Starr

 

I’m a convert to train travel.

Steve and I were going to New Orleans and points south — as far south as we could in Louisiana, until the road ran into the ocean.  More than once, when we said we were going to Venice, a Louisiana resident said, “Ah, the end of the world.”

The little town of Venice, population 162, isn’t the end of the world; it is, however, pretty much the end of navigable Louisiana, at least by car.

But on the way we were spending a few days in New Orleans, my favorite city and one Steve had never been to.  Some of it is below sea level now, and some of the land south of it that shows up on maps isn’t there anymore.  It’s underwater. If you’ve seen the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

Southern Louisiana is not so slowly sinking. New Orleans, which is 300 years old — older than the country itself — isn’t flooded only because it has massive defenses against both the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, 350 miles of levees and floodgates.  But 20 years ago, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated what wind and water can do to such a low-lying city.

We decided to fly to Chicago and take the train to New Orleans, and since it was a 19-hour ride we got a sleeper car.

We arrived in Chicago on a Monday afternoon and kicked around the shiny downtown of that city the next day before going to the Amtrak station where our train would leave at 8 p.m.  We were early so the woman at the desk told us to go in the lounge and help ourselves to drinks and snacks.  What about security? I asked.   The desk clerk studied me for a moment.  “This isn’t a plane,” she said.

It certainly wasn’t.  When it was time to board, we just got on the train and an attendant told us where to find our room.  No scan, we didn’t have to take off our shoes.

A sleeper car is tight.  It’s also a wonder of efficiency.  The tiny bathroom held both the toilet and a shower, meaning that when you turned on the shower the toilet got wet.  The skinny sofa became a bed, and there was a second, fold-down bunk on top with a miniature ladder.  Steve gamely took the upper bunk and strapped himself into a harness so he wouldn’t fall out in the middle of the night.

Someone came along and took our dinner order, then delivered it, and we ate at a teeny fold-down table.  The train rocked and rolled, which was surprisingly soothing.  I decided I’d like to sleep on a moving train for the rest of my life.

The next day we sat in the lounge car with its big, comfortable seats and huge windows, watching Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana pass by.  We wandered around. A woman cuddled her baby in a fat seat with her legs stretched out.  Definitely not a plane.

People were playing cards and drinking coffee and talking to strangers.  A young man played guitar.  The train stopped now and then, and people got off or on.  It was sociable and comfortable, everything that flying isn’t anymore.

We pulled into New Orleans around 4 p.m. and took a taxi to our hotel, the French Market Inn, on Decatur Street in the French Quarter.  Behind the hotel’s little sign and wooden street doors was a maze — old, brick-walled hallways and rooms and buildings and a courtyard with trees and fountains and a pool.  Henry hauled our luggage to the room, and we didn’t pay much attention to where we were going.

A half hour later that proved to be a problem.  Because we couldn’t figure out how to get out of the hotel.  After several tries, we finally found ourselves in the courtyard where there was a back door to the lobby.  “By the time we check out, we might figure out how to get in and out of here,” Steve said.  That was about right.

That first evening we were out of the hotel no more than ten minutes before a young man  accosted me on the street and handed me a sample of moisturizer.  “Don’t worry,” he said to Steve.  “I’m not going to steal her, I’m gay.”

Raphael coaxed us into his shop where he promised to make me look 20 years younger by applying something to my eyes that tightened up the wrinkles.  A performing musician once told me that Preparation H, a treatment for hemorrhoids, does the same thing, if less elegantly.  Rafael was charming, but $299 for his magic, anti-wrinkle formula was a bit steep, so we had to disappoint.

We went to Bourbon Street, the street kind of synonymous with the French Quarter.  It’s loud and dirty and packed with bars blaring live music of all kinds.  It’s fun.  We listened to a jazz band in a courtyard for a while, before wandering back to Decatur and finding dinner.  I had a spicy shrimp dish called shrimp Marie Laveau, which I mention only because Marie Laveau was a renowned Creole practitioner of voodoo from New Orleans.

With no car, we walked.  A lot.  When we got sick of walking we took a tour by mule.  Mules pulling carriages were lined up on Decatur.  I’d stopped to ask one of the drivers why mules instead of horses.  They’re better suited to the heat and humidity, he said.  And probably less flighty than horses in a city where the streets are so old and narrow that two cars can barely pass each other.

New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718.  It was taken over by Spain for a while, went back to France and finally became U.S. territory with the Louisiana purchase.  The French Quarter is a beautiful, but not modern, place with lots of brick buildings and balconies and galleries lined with metal grilles. It’s a mix of lively and distinct cultures and it leans towards live and let live, joi de vivre.

It’s a city full of music.  On most street corners someone is singing or playing something — from very good jazz bands to young men drumming on upturned sheetrock buckets.

We started the next day at Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans landmark.  All it serves are coffee and beignets, the light, square doughnuts covered in powdered sugar that are a French Quarter hallmark.  That was breakfast.  For all of its many restaurants, the Quarter isn’t big on breakfast.  It’s a lot easier to find a takeout bloody Mary at 9 a.m. than it is to find toast and eggs.

We wandered around Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson, a horrible man but the successful engineer of the Battle of New Orleans, where a collection of military, frontiersman and pirates easily defeated the British in the last battle of the War of 1812.

You don’t really have to do anything in New Orleans to be entertained.  Just walk, and something will happen.

Steve had a tarot card reading.  We watched a bit of street theater where a wiry stand-up comic promised us one good trick.  Art from New Jersey volunteered to help the guy into a straitjacket, then the contortionist got himself out of it, warning his audience that he’d have to dislocate his shoulders to do it, and an audience member had once fainted.

He was about half free when a burly, bearded man walked into the show.  “My wife,” he bellowed, “just learned that she can’t have children.  Is anyone here willing to be a surrogate for her and carry a child?”

Dead silence.  Until the contortionist said, “Hey, man, I don’t know what you’re on, but you’d better lay off it.”

There were no takers.  And, no, it wasn’t part of the show.

We ran across a parade with a police escort and a marching band.  It was an odd parade given that all the participants wore suits or long dresses.  We figured out it was a wedding parade with the bride and groom dancing in front followed by their guests and a cop car, all of it taking up the entire street.

We walked a little further and came across the pirates.

“You seen the other pirates?” the woman said to me.

“Nope.  I haven’t seen any pirates today except you.”

She said they were looking for the other pirates to know where their next stop would be.

“What are you all doing?” I asked.

“Invading,” she said, as if it was obvious and I was dense.

“Oh,” I said.  “Sorry we can’t help.  But good luck with the invasion.”

Later, we did run into the other pirates, a lot of them, who were drinking beer on Royal Street.

We took a mule tour with Larry, who said he’d given horse-drawn tours in Chicago for 40 years.  His mule was named Marie Laveau, after the voodoo woman.  I’m not big on tours, but our feet hurt.

You can take a ghost tour in New Orleans.  Larry gave us snippets of it.  There’s a mansion where a servant had set fire to the house, saying she was getting old and wouldn’t work for the monster of a woman who owned it anymore, or she’d be relegated to the third floor where other servants were tortured or dead.  The actor Nicholas Cage bought the cursed house, but then lost it. Long story there maybe involving the Catholic Church and a New Orleans cemetery.

Larry also told us about Frenchmen Street, which is the locals’ version of Bourbon Street.  So, we walked there and listened to a killer jazz band at a little hole-in-the-wall bar.  The band leader was a showman and a mesmerizing dancer.

Our last night we both woke up at 4 a.m.  A happily drunk man was singing on the street outside the hotel.  He was slurring, but his voice was good.  I laughed.  New Orleans.

 

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