Aches, Pains, Flying Brains and Wallet Strains
If the purpose of a long weekend road trip to another state is to have new adventures (good and bad), share time with loved ones, overeat, over drink, walk too much on bad pavement and spend a lot of money, then our trek to New Orleans was a mission accomplished.
We started our trip on Thursday evening with my big sister, her partner, my big brother, his wife and me.
Big Bro rented a brand new Chevy Uplander minivan with only 13 miles on the odometer when we took delivery.
Though the newness of the van pleased us, the interior was a plastic piece of shit, with poorly located hang-on handles, no cup holders and cloth seats about as wide as a hen's butt. Only the front seat windows opened, but the AC was pleasingly sub-zero.
I usually love to drive new vehicles, but the blandness of this ride left me totally incurious, so I left the on-the-way driving to the other four.
An 8-hour drive locked in a plastic and glass cage with a chirping radar detector and five people talking at once was challenging. Fortunately, we shared a willingness to stop at roadside dumps every 100 miles or so to buy snacks and laugh at regional souvenir tzotchkes like shit made out of antlers and recycled beer cans. We even located a bakery that specializes in kolaches, a soft, yeasty Czech pastry that's worth the glucose risk. We bought about three dozen assorted fruit-centered ones and devoured most of them en route to our destination.
We arrived in NOLA about 4 on Friday.
Our "boutique hotel" had a great location within walking distance to the Moon Walk at the mouth of the French Quarter, but the hotel itself was a little odd, I guess because it used to be a rough and tough manufacturing company way back in the 30's.
We ordered three separate, same-priced rooms with king sized beds, but big bro's room contained two queens, a jacuzzi tub and a sitting room, and mine had one queen on a king frame and just enough room to walk around it sideways. The desk clerk shrugged at the disparity, but that's typical for NOLA hospitality workers, so I didn't bother to make waves.
Fuck first-night sightseeing, the five of us threw our baggage into our rooms and rushed to Harrah's casino, only two short blocks away.
It is not a bad casino at all, in fact it's an excellent casino. Good ventilation, prompt free drink service, sweet employees and plenty of machines make for a comfy gaming environment. We played about five hours, winning $40 here, losing $30 there, but no major wins or losses for any of us.
We shared a late dinner at a place across the street known for its on-premises microbrewery. Not bad food, great beer and decent prices, but it was here we first discovered that post Katrina NOLA wait-persons don't particularly give a shit about food service.
On Saturday morning while my siblings trotted deep inside the Quarter for the typical Cafe DuMonde cafe au lait/beignets/sightseeing stuff, I spent the morning back at the casino, drinking coffee with Frangelico, smoking Kools and playing video poker. I was breaking a little more than even, which was okay by me.
Just after winning a $75 jackpot, I noticed my purse was missing. Did I leave it at the hotel? Did I leave it somewhere between the machines?
Fortunately, I had my ID, a debit and a credit card and most of my cash in my pockets, but still the idea of losing my purse with the rest of my credit cards and important papers in it caused me a bit of a panic.
This was no ordinary purse, either. It's a smooth, classic black leather Coach bag that everyone and their dog has complimented me on. As far as purse thieves go, this bag would be the catch of the day. Even empty, this was a seriously fine example of hand baggery.
So I trotted back to the hotel.
I raced back to the casino, and miracle of miracles, it was in the safe hands of the lovely Harrah's lady manning the back entrance. Nothing was missing. I tipped the hell out of her, hugged her and told her I loved Harrah's NOLA and always would.
That afternoon, I was set to meet a dear old friend who grew up in NOLA and lived in San Antonio about 15 years before moving back to a little berg in Louisiana about 5 years ago. Patricia showed up around 2 and we met up with Big Sis and her partner "My Sharona" to go have lunch.
There is simply no better luncheon venue on Earth than Central Grocery on the Moon Walk. It's crowded, the shelves are lined with a myriad of mysterious canned and jarred Italian delicacies, and the only seating is a slim bar with stools jostled by customers queued up to order their lunch.
It's humid and fragrant and old and funky in there. Delightful.
They offer one basic menu item: muffalatas. A muffalata is made from a fresh, round, crusty roll about 8 inches wide stuffed with assorted cold cuts, sliced provolone, olive oil and the most indescribably delicious olive tapenade ever. One quarter of a muffalata, a bag of thick kettle chips and a cold root beer is enough to satisfy a lumberjack's appetite, so that's what we had.
Each bite elicited sighs of deliciousity. We reveled in every morsel of simple culinary bliss.
Afterwards, we stumbled into a little daiquiri joint where the amiable chick behind the bar let us sample her wares before we decided on four White Russian daiquiris,
crazy-loaded with vodka and Kahlua. We sat there in the cool air waiting for the buzz to kick in and it did, with a vengeance.
We decided to skip the crush of the MoonWalk pedestrian traffic and detour up Dumaine Street, with an eventual aim toward Bourbon Street. It was there we stepped into the Voodoo "Museum," a tourist trap stocked to the rafters with oddball dark arts souvenirs, crystals, tarot cards and other potentially spooky stuff.
On display was an ominous altar to Marie Laveau, the long departed Queen of New Orleans Voodoo. She was one scary looking old broad.
Big Sis and I, both lapsed Catholics, gazed on it with appropriate levels of horror. She quickly walked away from it, but I stupidly lingered.
The altar was festooned with crude, hand lettered DO NOT TOUCH and DO NOT DESECRATE signs, but wanting to avoid any potential bad juju, I gingerly placed a quarter atop a pile of other coins at the base of the alter, WITHOUT touching anything.
Off we went to Bourbon Street, where the crowd, the public drunkenness, humidity and relentless lewdness were intoxicating. They offer souvenirs one would only buy if they're drunk and caught up in the moment, such as Mardi Gras beads with miniature penises that actually feature inflatable, sticky white goo on the tips. And the T-shirts have slogans like, "Fuck you, you fucking fuck!" and "Will buy drinks for sex."
Big Sis bought one for her friend's upcoming 40th birthday that said, "It's not gonna lick itself." Ha! I'm sure her pal with get a lot of wear out of that!
I almost bought my big bro a man's bikini thong shaped like a little elephant's face with a long trunk with a squeaker on the tip, but I wasn't drunk enough to actually spend the 25 bucks it cost.
By 5 p.m. we limped back to the hotel. Patricia and I caught up on old times while we rested up for a 6:30 dinner date with the other four.
Big Bro is an intelligent scientist type, but he's not very worldly or sophisticated. He thinks dining extravagance- even on vacation-- is wholly without merit.
Still, he'd been raving about a restaurant in the Quarter called Deanie's Seafood that he insisted we visit for our One Great Dinner in New Orleans.
For weeks before the trip he'd been e-mailing us about the place's amazing fig/balsamic vinegar salad dressing and their legendary, world-class barbecued shrimp.
His ringing endorsements had convinced us; by the time we got there we all were salivating, even Patricia who was once a local and knows from good Cajun food.
We were seated at a table just barely large enough for the six of us. Our waiter arrived and told us his name, then said he was kidding and told us another name as he stood delivering his spiel facing Big Sis with his ass and elbows in my face. Already I felt my left eyebrow raise and my mouth forming into an upside-down U, but I stayed cool because I just knew the food was going to be superb.
Our amuse bouche was interesting: small bowls containing about six tiny red potatoes, boiled in a spicy mix and served dry with butter on the side. They were delectable and we all marveled at the creative use of such simple fare.
I asked the waiter if they had the fig balsamic salad dressing. "Nope," our waiter replied. He was unconcerned that I was disappointed, so much so that he turned his ass back to my face mid-sentence and redirected his attention toward my sister.
I skipped an appetizer and a salad, focusing instead on a choice between the legendary barbecued shrimp and the "jumbo shrimp stuffed with crab meat and lobster dressing." The "heads-on" designation on the BBQ shrimp was the deal breaker for me. I chose the stuffed shrimp entree instead.
My brother, however, was so enticed by the blackened redfish entree, he ordered the BBQ shrimp as an appetizer. His wife chose the bigger BBQ shrimp option as her entree. My sis and My Sharona also went with the blackened redfish, and Patricia ordered the seafood gumbo.
On came their appetizers.
My Sharona ordered the crab claws. Patricia and I exchanged dubious glances when we noticed the claws came from crabs who were mere toddlers when they donated their pinchers to the cause.
My bro's BBQ shrimp came on a large platter, piled with shrimp with their little heads intact and their dangly eyeballs bobbing in the shimmering, buttery red sauce.
Apparently the peels and heads cling to the meat a lot harder when they're grilled because Bro was having a hell of a time getting them peeled.
About halfway into it, he managed to pop a head off, causing it to explode and fly through the air. Patricia found herself with one glob of shrimp brains landing on the shoulder of her crisp linen shirt and another glob resting hidden in her auburn hair, which turned out to be the exact same color as shrimp brains.
By the time the entrees came, Bro was still fighting his sloppy red-juiced appetizer with the brains and juices splashing all over the place. It was hard to watch, especially for Big Sis and her infamously weak stomach.
My sister-in-law's BBQ shrimp brain entree turned out to be twice as large as Bro's appetizer, making all of us cringe in anticipation of witnessing even more flying carnage.
My stuffed shrimp was a sad, sad joke. See, when you call something stuffed, it needs to be large enough to open up and hold the stuffing. These shrimp were only about three inches long with the tails attached, so instead of stuffing them, they merely stuffed them into the little balls of stuffing they'd perched on the plate.
The stuffing itself was decent, albeit too bready. It had a nice crabby taste but no lobster at all. The fries and slaw were excellent, but for $25 they'd better be.
Patricia's gumbo was pretty freakin' awful. She ranked it about a 2 out of 10 on the gumbo-meter. I tasted it. Not good.
I also tasted my sister's blackened redfish, which is a dish I usually adore, because the fish is so mild and delicate and balances beautifully with the blackening spices. Not this time, though. The fish was salty, fishy and a little too dry. The spices were not applied in the classic Paul Prudhomme method, either. But Big Sis liked it, so that was good.
Meanwhile, my sister in law was determined to finish her BBQ shrimp in spite of being up to her elbows in red juices, shrimp whiskers, heads, brains, eyes and faces. She was reduced to sopping up the juices on her hands with her French bread baguette, which would have been hilarious had the messiness not been so offal.
We finished off our meal with some fantastic bread pudding laced with flecks of toasted coconut and sliced blanched almonds in a butter cream sauce, which really cancelled out the general disappointment of the rest of the meal.
When the bill came, it was about what one would pay at a 4-star NOLA restaurant. The sticker shock left all of us reeling, but we didn't want to make my brother feel bad so we paid and left without much comment.
Afterwards, we started to wend our way back toward the hotel. On Bourbon Street, we encountered a very charismatic guy who passed out to each of us these great looking baseball caps with a variety of New Orleans logos printed on them. We lingered on to chat with him, only to discover his "gift" was a ruse to collect donations for the NOLA food bank.
Turned out a minimum $20 donation was requested per cap. A few of us returned the caps because we didn't like feeling guilt tripped into donating, but most of us considered it such a worthy cause, we rolled with it. I got a very snazzy black and silver cap with a fleur de lis logo I gave to my next door neighbor as a thank you for watering my plants and collecting my mail for me. He loved it and I loved contributing to the NOLA food bank. Win/win.
The evening ended with a quick trip back to the casino where I won a fast $75 on a triple red 7 quarter machine. I was too tired and achy to stay long though, alas.
I fell into bed around 11 with Achilles tendinitis in both ankles, a trick knee flare-up, a little sunburn, a too-full belly and that general feeling of exhaustion one gets from walking around tipsy all day and evening in extreme humidity.
We all decided to get an early start on the road Sunday morning so we could arrive back in Austin early enough to say our goodbyes and return to our respective homes at a reasonable hour.
Because I managed to avoid my turn at driving to NOLA, I was elected to be the first designated driver for the trip home.
All of us were touched by the dear people of New Orleans who'd suffered so much in the wake of Katrina, and continue to suffer at the hands of a federal government who doesn't care about New Orleans or its residents.
The city is down but not out, but we all noticed a sadness that sort of blanketed the bon vivant nature that used to define New Orleans. Basically, the dynamic on this visit was that of poor, black people trying to offer the most gracious hospitality they could muster to rich, white tourists who can afford to piss off a lot of money on just having fun.
We felt good in doing our share in stimulating their local economy, taking special care to tip well, speaking to locals from our hearts and extending our sympathies and well wishes whenever we could.
Still, before my family and I left the French Quarter around 8 a.m., we decided to take a detour to the Lower 9th Ward to pay our respects and see the ravages of Hurricane Katrina for ourselves. We also wanted to get a glimpse of the proposed Musician's Village and view any progress made by Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation's Pink Project, where he's spearheading a multi-million dollar effort to rebuild the area with affordable, sustainable housing for its residents.
I'm a pretty good driver with a lot of street smarts, so I wasn't at all concerned about driving through impoverished New Orleans neighborhoods that aren't accustomed to tourists and lookie-loos.
By the time we reached the middle of the 8th Ward, the level of abject poverty was obviously present long before Katrina hit land, and my heart began to ache. I was starting to feel hypervigilant about the carload of white Texans I was piloting through the 'hood, praying our presence there would not be annoying or insulting to anyone.
The street we were told to follow to the Lower 9th Ward suddenly turned into another named street, so I turned left to try to locate the original street.
When the one-way residential street we were on showed no thoroughfare promise, I started to change lanes in order make a left. Just as I changed lanes BAM! I ended up sideswiping a Ford 150 pick-up rushing up from behind us at a high rate of speed. The truck was filled to the brim with 6 or 7 adults and kids of various sizes and shapes on their way to church.
Being a white woman from Texas, wearing a Spurs NBA Championship T-shirt in a poor Black neighborhood in New Orleans with a van load of other white folks while the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Hornets were in the midst of a battle for NBA semi-final supremacy was not my idea of any kinda fuckin' laissez le bon temps roulet!
Anyway, the left front fender of our brand-new rented minivan was bent-up pretty good, but nothing major. The truck turned out to be scraped and lightly dented from stem to stern. I could almost swear that some of the damage had to be there before we collided, but then everyone says that.
I immediately asked the truck passengers if anyone was hurt and was relieved to find everyone was okay, without so much as a scratch.
The driver was a very nice, calm, polite gentleman who told me he was a deacon at the church where they were headed. His wife was equally nice.
Suddenly, two cars full of military police showed up, followed by a NOLA squad car with two local cops inside it. The MP's have been stationed there since Katrina to help the NOLA cops deal with the rising crime in the area.
Neighbors started drifting out of their shotgun shacks to see what the commotion was about. It was turning into a pretty dramatic scene, considering it was a fairly minor fender bender.
Though the deacon and his wife were very kind, one of the middle-aged ladies who was in the truck when the accident occurred started talking some loud shit as I was giving the officers my statement. She had her head wagging from side to side and she was using a tone in questioning my intelligence that could only be described as antagonistic.
Just as I turned my head toward her and started to suggest she shut the fuck up, the deacon, his wife and the officers beat me to the punch and quickly advised her to simmer her stew pot of a jabberjawing mouth down.
I was way glad that beyatch wasn't the one driving, else this blog may have been written from the N'awlins county jail.
I guess one of the teenaged girls also in their truck at the time of the accident was emboldened by the jabberjaw's gall, because suddenly she said her knee "felt like it was burnin'" and the cops were obliged to call EMS to have her checked out.
Even the cops were rolling their eyes by then, so phony was the kid's sudden claim of "injury." It was hilarious to watch her trying to remember which leg to limp on, but I didn't mention it because I think 'less is more' in situations like this.
EMS came and checked her out and- big shock- she didn't require any treatment.
Meanwhile, it was discovered the minivan I was driving had an issue with the left front tire jamming up the shocks, which meant we had to wait for Avis to show up, tow the vehicle and take us to the airport to swap it for another minivan.
My big brother's already thin patience had come to an end at that point.
The rental contract was in his name and I'm sure he was thinking he'd be the one having to take the financial hit over this minor wreck (that was turning more major by the minute).
His wife, who has the habit of asking stupid questions and making annoying gestures amidst tense situations, interrupted the news of us needing a tow to ask him what he wanted her to do with the two loose CD's she found in the door pocket of the minivan.
He replied in a way that made total sense to me--he took the two CD's and flung them into the dirt on the side of the road next to the minivan.
Alas for him, as the temperature and humidity were rising along with the drama of the situation, my patience also was circling the drain.
It seems one of the CD's he'd flung turned out to be my prized funk compilation that I had to special order. When I found it a few minutes later on the ground, I said, "Who the fuck threw my CD into the dirt?"
She promptly tattled on him.
Just as he and I were ready to throw down, my sister and My Sharona got between us and diffused the situation.
Just before noon, we reached the airport Avis dealer, where after some tedious form filling and repacking the replacement van (this time it was a better equipped Dodge Caravan with cupholders) we prepared to leave the Avis gate and get the fuck outta Dodge.
Naturally, they gave us the wrong van and we had to return to the Avis office, unpack the wrong van and repack our mountain of crap into another replacement van- an identical Dodge Caravan.
My brother insisted on driving, which suited all of us just fine. I slithered quietly into the third seating area, a bench seat that allowed me just enough room to fold myself into a ball, grab a pillow and blanket and go to sleep for the next three hours.
When we finally reached Austin just before 8 p.m., I jammed my gear into my car and left for home within the first 5 minutes of arriving.
By then I'd had the time to contemplate the accident and search for karmic reasons why the universe had sent me my first car accident in 40 years of driving, in a dangerous neighborhood, compounded by a carload of wisecracking family witnesses who I'm sure will never let me live this down. All this is not to mention the financial hit my insurance company will no doubt be making on me in the weeks to come.
In my haste to get back to my own cozy little home with my beloved kitties, I didn't take the time to properly situate and activate my radar detector before I hit the freeway.
Already hinky about the wreck that morning, and convinced the accident happened because I'd dropped a quarter onto the stupid old dead Voodoo lady's altar, I knew I probably should hook the detector up, but I didn't want to risk getting into another wreck while I was messing with it.
I managed to sort of hook it up but the suction cups weren't sticking and the damn thing was slipping all over the windshield and chirping and squeaking like an injured hawk.
I ended up taking it down and driving the speed limit behind a row of dimwitted Sunday drivers who had no idea they were sharing the road with an exhausted motorist who may or may not have been cursed by a dead Voodoo queen.