Archive for February, 2009

Going to Graceland … and Back Home

February 28, 2009

Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis

Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis

When my alarm woke me up this morning, I said out loud: “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Today was the last day of my two-week “Miami-to-Memphis” tour, and I’ve been dreading its conclusion ever since I left New Orleans. But I still had a few hours before I had to catch my plane … which only meant one thing left to do on this vacation: going to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion on the south end of town.

People had teased me about going to Graceland for its opulent tackiness, and my boss even said he wouldn’t go if it was “across the street.” But a visit to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s abode was a surprisingly spiritual experience, one that helped me feel rejuvenated about this vacation. First, Graceland isn’t nearly as grandiose or opulent as one would imagine. I had always pictured a glorious antebellum plantation that Elvis bought once he became famous, and redecorated it with only the tackiness that a “nouveau riche” star would do. But the house was built in 1939 … and was surprisingly modest in scale. Sure, Elvis added his flair with shag carpets and a few extensions on the property. But it didn’t live up to the ridiculous hype those who like to make fun of Elvis have made it out to be.

The music room at Graceland.

The music room at Graceland.

Besides a tour of the mansion, a very tasteful museum has been displayed about the life and accomplishments of Elvis Presley. While I would have liked to have seen more focus on his earlier rock ‘n’ roll career in the 1950’s … rather than the drab Vegas lounge singing years of the 60’s and 70’s … you couldn’t help getting excited walking through the exhibits as the King’s music blared throughout the room. “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” said John Lennon … as the undeniable impact Elvis has made to the development of music was felt as you did the audio tour of Graceland.

As I moseyed about the Mansion Tour for a couple hours, I couldn’t help but think what a great experience I’ve had in these past two weeks … from listening to roosters have a “crow off” in Key West, to canoeing the silent marshes of the Everglades, to viewing the snow-white beaches of the Florida Panhandle, to celebrating the first Mardi Gras in Mobile, to dancing to Cajun music in Breaux Bridge, to partaking in the festivities of New Orleans, to watching authentic live blues in Clarksdale … it would be a tough time to go home. At the end of the Graceland Tour is a “Meditation Area” where the tombs of Elvis, his stillborn brother, parents and grandmother are all buried. I sat there, as the noontime sun shown on the nice garden … and thought about what this trip has really meant for me.

Elvis Presley's tomb

Elvis Presley's tomb

This trip was all about exploring parts of the country I had never been to … it was about continuing my famous 28-state road trip I did after college where I had left off … and it was about taking a real vacation I may not have the opportunity to do for a very long time. As I set off on an exciting but stressful chapter in my life, I can always look back at this time as my moment of repose. I’ve been woefully ignorant of the major news developments in the past two weeks, as I have consciously avoided keeping up with current events … nationally, and back in San Francisco. Now is the time to head home … now is the time to head back to reality again. Now is the time to say farewell to the King, and goodbye to this trip.

P.S. Stay tuned for a blog posting tomorrow, where I summarize some final thoughts about this vacation.

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Diggin’ the Mississippi Blues …

February 27, 2009

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

I’ll keep this post short, because it’s almost 1:00 a.m. and I just checked into my hotel room for the night. I stayed at the Ground Zero Blues Club until 11:00 p.m., a well worth it experience to dig the Mississippi Delta Blues. The club’s audience was an ecletic mix of tourists and locals, as a few very well-dressed black men with impeccable suits came in … and were clearly revered by those in the know. One of them even got up to sing a few songs, which was a highlight of the night.

But Ground Zero was launched to showcase new talent in the Delta Country, and tonight I met a 17-year-old black kid (who looked 12!) called Omar. The boy can play a mean electric guitar, and he knows it. After one of his acts, I came up to congratulate Omar … and he asked me for a tip. I laughed, but he was serious. He asked again, so I gave him $5. A few regulars told me he’s been coming in to perform for years, and they’ve seen him come into himself over time. The show was technically an open mike, but despite the temptation I opted not to sign up. I didn’t come to Mississippi to play; I came to hear the blues, and these folks are out of my league.

The two-hour drive to Memphis was tough, as night had fallen … and I experienced one of the South’s legendary thunderstorms. Growing up in Chicago, I always had those in the summer … but apparently, it happens all year round down here. I had Memphis native Aretha Franklin keep me company in the car, but when her CD ran out I put in Robert Johnson … the 1930’s blues legend who sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. As I drove through the dark roads of the Mississippi Delta, Johnson’s voice was an ominous reminder of what part of the country I was going through … a place steeped in history.

Tomorrow, I wake up around 8:00 a.m. … and have tickets to visit Elvis Presley’s nearby Graceland at 10. I have to return the rental car at the airport by 12, and my airplane leaves at 2:30. I’m very close to the end of my wonderful two-week vacation. I wish I could stay a day longer, so I can actually visit Memphis … such as Beale Street, or the Civil Rights Museum. But I won’t see anything besides Graceland, as I head home and back to reality. I can’t say this trip has given me some notable spiritual enlightenment, but it has allowed me to relax, explore and think about what lies ahead … it’s important to do that every once in a while. We need to stop and smell the roses.

And They Called it … the Birth of the Blues!

February 27, 2009

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

I’m in Clarksdale, Mississippi … just two hours south of Memphis, in the heart of Delta Blues country. My trip concludes tomorrow, and I’m making the best out of my final hours as a traveler to indulge in the best Mississippi has to offer. I’m blogging from Ground Zero Blues Club, where an open mike starts in about 45 minutes. I had wanted to get some good blues, but was told there isn’t much going on Thursday night between here and Memphis. And the locals tell me Beale Street in Memphis is overhyped. Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, specializes in having local up-and-coming blues musicians perform live. Before W.C. Handy made it big in Memphis and Muddy Waters was discovered in Chicago, they got their start here in Clarksdale.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

I left Vicksburg this morning, and Seth’s advise for where to grab breakfast was probably a good one. But when I got there, the place had a hand-written notice saying: “closed Thursday.” So I hopped into my car, and headed up north on Highway 61. One thing I’ve learned about the “Great River Road” is that you really can’t see the Mighty Mississippi very much — unlike California’s Highway One, which hugs the Pacific Ocean. But Seth had told me to check out the Vicksburg Civil War Memorial site … directly north of town. It’s the highest elevation point along the River, and offered a terrific view.

I’m hungry, but am having a tough time finding a place to eat along Highway 61 … at least something old and traditional you would expect from the Mississippi Delta. The casino economy has exploded interest in Route 61, transforming it from a sleepy two-lane road into an efficient four-lane highway. So I pop in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, as bluegrass favorite after bluegrass favorite gets me into the groove as the road follows the rolling hills near the river. When I get to the village of Onward, I take the option to turn left on Route 1 to get back into a quiet two-lane backroad. Now we are in the Delta, a flat countryside … as I imagine George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson escape in their prison clothes and hide among the various bayous.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

In the small village of Mayersville, I finally find a convenient store / restaurant where I can grab breakfast (or lunch?) … as it’s almost 12 Noon. It’s one of those places without a formal menu. You just get in line and request either chicken or ribs, and the cook serves you a tray with your choice … along with corn, sweet mashed potatoes and beans. Humble farmers with the thickest accents I’ve ever heard eat their lunch near me, as I indulge in the traditional Southern fare. I strike up a conversation with Ricky, the owner’s son, and I ask him where I can get some good blues in the area. “Clarksdale,” he replies … which is a few hours to the north.

This is blues country … a predominantly black part of the Mississippi where sharecroppers in abject poverty created a new music form that has transformed American culture. As Muddy Waters once said, “the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll.” Legend has it that somewhere in these parts, a young Robert Johnson met a devil at the crossroads … who taught him to play a mean guitar in exchange for his soul. Nobody knows exactly where that crossroads was, although a few places in the Mississippi Delta take credit for it. As the O Brother soundtrack comes to an end, I put in a Blues compilation CD that will keep me occupied for a while.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

As Bessie Smith wails a melancholy tune in my car and I admire the peaceful road (there is practically nobody else around), I long to get a view of the Mississippi River. Just north of Rosedale is a turn left into “Great River Road State Park.” I arrive at the park’s entrance, and there’s no ranger to greet me. But there’s a sign that says “Honor Box: pay 3 dollars if no attendant.” I drop three bucks in the bin, and move on. The park is even more desolate than Route 1, as I now have just myself and the Mighty Mississippi to contend with. It’s one of the most serene moments I’ve had in a while, interrupted by the blues riff of my phone ringing … whoever is trying to call me won’t have much of a chance. There is absolutely no cell phone reception in these parts.

I had been advised that in these parts, you can’t just open up a tourist guidebook to find out where the real blues joints are in town … you gotta be proactive, and ask the locals. I arrive in Clarksdale around 3:30 p.m., and visit the Delta Blues Museum. The place is incredible, as we have original guitars owned by B.B. King and Muddy Waters … and I read about the area’s rich history. Muddy Waters was born in the area in a pre-Civil War log cabin that was a slaves’ quarters for many years. Most of the cabin structure has been relocated inside the museum, as I watch a short video documentary about Muddy Waters’ life. I am now more determined than ever to seek out blues tonight.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

I ask the museum attendant where to go. He says on weeknights there isn’t much … and between here and Memphis is nothing but riverboat casinos for entertainment. He advises me either to drive up to Beale Street in Memphis, or hang out at Club Ground Zero. I’m skeptical about any club owned by a Hollywood actor (even if he grew up in the Delta), but I go to a local memorabilia shop called Cat Head. The owner, who is organizing tonight’s “open mike” at Ground Zero, tells me it’ll be a good jam session. She says that Memphis on Monday or Tuesday nights is good, but not on Thursdays … might as well stay in town for the entertainment.

I take a quick ride — with Aretha Franklin singing in the car — to Abe’s BBQ, a legendary joint in town to get a nice pork sandwich. Now I’m back at Club Ground Zero, blogging away as a local musician performs on stage. The jam session will start in about 20 minutes … I don’t have a guitar, but if the spirit moves me I think I can borrow one from a performer. We’ll see … I’m determined to make my last night of this road trip one of the most memorable.

After tonight’s show, I’ll drive to my cheap motel south of Memphis. My plan is to wake up tomorrow morning, go to Graceland, turn in the rental car and then fly back to San Francisco. I’m in denial that this trip is ending.

Following the Mississippi … on Highway 61

February 26, 2009

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

As I head up to Memphis from New Orleans, I’m getting this ominous realization that my glorious 2-week vacation is coming to an end. For that reason, I am determined to have a good time … even if getting out of Mardi Gras would be a tough act to follow.

For the rest of the trip, I am basically following only one major road … US Highway 61, as it meanders along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis. I left New Orleans today, and put in the only CD in my car that would make sense for the occasion … Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” As the opening electric guitar riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” kicks off the start of the album, I speed through the unappealing scenery … singing along to Bob’s unforgettable lyrics.

Unappealing scenery is an apt description. New Orleans to Baton Rouge along Route 61 isn’t much to brag about … picturesque bayous, sprinkled with oil refineries carry the inescapable conclusion that it’s not an environmentally sound place to be. But I’ve got Bob Dylan in the car, and I’m snacking away on the jar of cracklin I picked up in Cajun Country … so I really don’t care. When Dylan’s CD has concluded, I pop in REM’s “Automatic for the People,” as the car meanders through the inevitable traffic jam and road work around Baton Rouge, heading due north.

Now the scenery has taken a room for the better … as Highway 61 north of Baton Rouge calls itself “Scenic Blvd.” The rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley start to show their stuff, as REM’s gritty music also comes to its end. I need something idyllic … something joyful … something familiar. So I pop in a CD from the California Golden Overtones, UC Berkeley’s all-women acappella group whose songs I also know and love. It doesn’t occur to me until after I throw in the CD that my favorite song on the album is “Black Velvet” … which starts with the lyrics: Mississippi, in the middle of a dry spell; Jimmy Rogers, on the Victrola, as the car crosses the state line.

Route 61 is now called the “Great River Road,” as it follows the mighty Mississippi River. Granted, we’re a few miles east of the River and can’t see it from the road, but the picturesque view coupled with the speedy efficiency of a four-lane highway creates an almost ideal circumstance for the romantic traveler. But yet, I long for the less congested scenic route … a two-lane road with a low speed limit that allows me to fully relax, one that convinces me I am truly on vacation. When I get to Natchez, Mississippi, my wish becomes true … with the Natchez Parkway.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is the oldest highway in America, stretching 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville. A very young Abraham Lincoln, who rafted down the Mississippi to New Orleans found his way back home to Illinois via the Natchez Parkway. It’s an idyllic road in the woods … deviating off Highway 61 to be closer to the Mississippi. I take out my Paul Simon “Graceland” CD, and sing along to these very apt and appropriate lyrics for this particular journey: I’m following the River down the highway to the cradle of the Civil War … I’m going to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Yes, my final destination before flying home on Friday will be Graceland … despite its tackiness. When Paul Simon sings “for reasons I cannot explain, there’s part of me that wants to see Graceland.” Paul was inspired to write this song while following this very highway up to Memphis … now I feel a kinship with the guy besides a very common first name. As the “Graceland” album concludes, the Natchez Parkway crosses Highway 61 … which I get back on, to stay closer to the Mighty Mississippi. Night has fallen, and I’m heading to Vicksburg for the night.

I arrive in Vicksburg around 7:00 p.m. — and my first impression of the city is not good. I had reserved a cheap hotel room in the heart of Downtown, thinking that being in a historic Civil War town on the waterfront would be fun and eventful … but the town looks dead. I ask the desk clerk what’s there to do in Vicksburg tonight, and she says “gamble” … lotsa riverboat casinos on the Mississippi, which is not definitely not my thing to do.

So I figure out a place to go have dinner, and choose Walnut Hills, a charming old Southern restaurant that serves fried chicken, collard greens and mashed potatoes. The short walk to the restaurant is a bit sketchy, but when I arrive it feels safe. There are practically no other customers, save for a nice family of four … who turn out to be locals. They explain there’s nothing to do in Vicksburg tonight, because it’s Ash Wednesday. In fact, the four of them just got back from Church. Turns out the youngest at the table is my age … Seth Libbey, and he plays bass guitar and knows blues country. Seth tells me I came to Vicksburg on the wrong night … last night was Mardi Gras, and it was fun.

After dinner, Seth offers to give me a ride to a local sports bar where we grab a couple beers. He calls up a few of his music friends, and asks them what’s going on tonight. Nothing fun, apparently. So after a few beers, he takes me to another bar in the area where he offers me a drink. Everyone in the bar is friends with Seth, and we end up playing cards with the bartender for several hours. If I hadn’t met Seth at the restaurant, I would have been bored out of my minds tonight. Seth’s been playing blues gigs for years, as he tries to write the Great American Novel. On the side, he works as a tour guide for the local Civil War battlefield site … so knows a lot of the history.

When I tell him it’s getting late and I should get back to my hotel room, Seth takes me on a brief tour of the City … with its beautiful murals on the waterfront that describes Vicksburg history. He clearly loves his hometown, but told me he normally doesn’t engage with “strangers.” When I tell him I’ve never been to Mississippi, he says he’s honored to be my “first Mississippi friend.” Before dropping me off, I ask Seth where’s a good place to go eat breakfast tomorrow morning. He points out a place on Washington Street, before we call it a night.

Leaving New Orleans on “Trash Wednesday” … the Big Easy and Mardi Gras

February 25, 2009

Livin' it up Monday night after the Orpheus Parade ...

Livin' it up Monday night after the Orpheus Parade ...

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything, and the reasons are purely logistical. I got back to New Orleans on Monday … the eve of Mardi Gras … and it’s basically been non-stop partying for the past 48 hours. Hence, no blogging … I’m sitting at a cafe right now eating a late breakfast, and getting ready to leave this town for the Mississippi Delta Region. New Orleans has been quite an experience … I’ve always wanted to come regardless of Mardi Gras, and wasn’t even thinking about “Fat Tuesday” when I scheduled this vacation. I’ve learned a lot in the past few days about its customs, and the whole thing both fascinates and terrifies me.

Monday morning, I spent a little time in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana … the heart of “Cajun Country” … to find some of the French influence. A friend on Facebook recommended that I get breakfast at “Chez Amis,” but the place was closed on Mondays. So I went to Chez Jacqueline, where I got some scrambled eggs with crawfish etoufee. It was there I met Michael, a man in his fifties, who speaks Cajun French. He’s the first person I’ve met who speaks it because his grandparents taught him … and believe me, it’s not the same language.

Interestingly, the waitress at Chez Jacqueline is a French woman from Paris, so I ordered my breakfast in our language … asking for “oeufs brouill├ęs” (scrambled eggs.) Michael then asked me what I had just ordered because he didn’t understand what I had said. He explained the Cajuns don’t have a French word for “scrambled,” so for them it’s “oeufs escrambled.” He also said the Cajuns don’t know the French word for “airplane” (which is “avion”), so they simply use the word “airplane.” It really is a bastardized language of garbled French and English.

McGee's Landing, just outside of Breaux Bridge

McGee's Landing, just outside of Breaux Bridge

I told Michael I was in a hurry to get back to New Orleans; the folks I was staying with had a lunchtime barbecue planned. So he advised me to take two stops: (a) visit McGee’s Landing, a beautiful lake right by the Interstate before leaving; and (b) go to this Cajun meat shop in town and buy some boudin and cracklin. Boudin is sausages, and cracklin is some kind of Cajun pork rinds that are good snack foods. I bought a good order, and figured this would be my “housewarming” gift for the BBQ in New Orleans I was going to.

What did I learn about Cajun Country? Even though they have a lot of signs in French, most people don’t speak the language. And those who do really speak it in such a garbled way that you can’t understand it. When Michael left the restaurant, the French waitress said “a toute a l’heure” (a French farewell greeting that Parisians say, and I’m very accustomed to.) Michael didn’t understand what she had just said. So he said “voo-vwa ploo tar” (which I guess means “vous voire plus tard”), the Cajun French equivalent for “a toute a l’heure.”

I get on the Interstate, and pop in “Ma Petite Femme” by Lee Benoit — the Cajun band that performed the prior night at Mulate’s, where I bought the CD. The music is traditional Cajun, with most of the songs using French lyrics but sung in a way that I can’t understand. To preserve Cajun culture, a lot of young folks in the area are in a band … but the reality is most of them don’t speak French. So the songs sound cool, but come off as gibberish. Traffic is going by smoothly, but I do want to get to New Orleans in good time … so when the Cajun music is over, I pop in the Beatles CD (“1”) with all their hits, and I harmonize with the Beatles all the way to New Orleans.

Proteus parade in New Orleans' St. Charles Street, on Lundi Gras.

Proteus parade in New Orleans' St. Charles Street, on Lundi Gras.

I arrive in Algiers Point, a charming neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans … where Andrew and Cameron live. Andrew is an old friend of my San Francisco friend Matthew Kimmins; when I didn’t have a place to stay in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Matthew made the arrangements. Andrew and Cameron are delightful artists, and they live in a gorgeous house full of artwork … and their guests at the BBQ are quite pleased to find me bringing boudin and cracklin, straight from Cajun Country.

After the barbecue, we walk a few blocks to the ferry terminal … to take a quick, 15-minute free boat ride across the Mississippi River into Downtown New Orleans. Tonight is Lundi Gras, and there are lots of parades and parties going on … just like there have been, for days on end …

A little word right now on the Mardi Gras festivities. I was raised Catholic, so I understand the basic premise behind the celebration. Lent starts on Wednesday, so Mardi Gras is a chance for folks to frolic and revel and indulge in the streets before they have to spend the next 40 days sacrificing. But I always presumed it was all one parade and party on Tuesday … I had no idea that the festivities really last for weeks, with different parades and parties going on each night. We stand on St. Charles Street, and watch the Proteus and Orpheus parades.

Another word on Mardi Gras … Before coming here, I knew people throw beads at each other. What I wasn’t aware of was these “krewes” … secret societies of rich people who dress in masks, march in the parade floats, and throw beads to people. Many of their costumes look a little too much like the Ku Klux Klan, and there’s a reason for that. For centuries, these krewes were the Southern white aristocracy … and Mardi Gras was a time to throw gifts to the masses on parade routes. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that New Orleans demanded these krewes not to discriminate in membership in order to participate in the parade. And it has been a highly controversial subject.

An impromptu parade in the Marigny ...

An impromptu parade in the Marigny ...

With the parade over, we head back to Algiers Point at Andrew and Cameron’s … to dress up for the night’s festivities. Andrew designs costumes, and he lends me a lizard-like costume with a dinosaur tail. Our first stop is Mimi’s, a popular bar in the Marigny which I had gone to with Eli the other night … when we get there, I witness one of the most beautiful and wonderful moments of New Orleans. A large crew of bohemian hipsters have an impromptu parade down the street and into the bar, complete with a marching band. San Francisco’s Mission District has a bohemian scene, but … it costs too much to live there. New Orleans has a thriving community of starving artists, because the rents are cheap. I watch as the band breaks down into traditional New Orleans jazz.

After a couple hours at Mimi’s, we head out of the Marigny and into the French Quarter … but most of the area is full of tacky tourist shops. Cameron knows which places in the French Quarter to go to, and we spend the next few hours “bar-hopping” to the most incredible areas. At one bar, a group of punk hipsters are singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and a few start literally standing on the bar belting out the tunes. The bartenders just encourage them, singing happily along. A couple songs later, I get moved to join them and climb on top of the bar. But the bartenders won’t let me … my dinosaur tail is wagging around, and might knock down a few drinks.

Bourbon Street on Lundi Gras.

Bourbon Street on Lundi Gras.

By now it is very very late on Monday night … and the French Quarter is starting to die down. I’d like to get to bed reasonably soon, as I don’t want to miss a parade tomorrow morning called Zulu, the only major Mardi Gras parade whose krewe has an African-American majority. But it’s already past 4:00 a.m., and we need to cross the river. Andrew had stayed at home to be with their one-year-old child, so Cameron calls him to come pick us up. We finally get back home at 5:30 a.m., and the Zulu parade starts at 8:00 a.m. I go to sleep, expecting to wake up around 9:00 a.m.

Now it’s the morning of Mardi Gras … I’m so tired from the night before, that I don’t actually leave the house until Noon. I grab breakfast/lunch at a place near the ferry terminal, where a patron decides to buy drinks for everyone in the bar because it’s Mardi Gras. It’s really an incredible holiday, where we let the good times roll. I get on the Ferry and arrive Downtown, only to learn that I’ve missed the Zulu Parade. But the last major Mardi Gras parade (“Rex”) is heading down Canal Street as I get there … By my count, this is my fifth Mardi Gras parade since being on this trip … one in Mobile, and four in New Orleans. The trick is to yell at the float, and ask for some beads.

Rex Parade on Canal Street on Mardi Gras.

Rex Parade on Canal Street on Mardi Gras.

I call my friend Austin, who lives in New Orleans … and we’ve been planning to meet up soon. No response, so I start roaming through the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is packed, and to be honest it’s way too intense and crowded. When there’s a critical mass of people, the garbage on the street just gets gross. You can’t use the bathroom anywhere, without going to a bar … and to use the bathroom, they require you to buy a drink … So I walk an extra block down to Royal Street, where the scene is a little more sedate and folks have colorful costumes. I yell at people standing in the balconies, asking them to throw down their beads … it’s just like this, for hours on end on Fat Tuesday.

Now I head to Jackson Square, on the banks of the Mississippi … where Andrew works today as a caricature street artist. I find him, and he tells me business has been a little slow today (for Mardi Gras.) I ask what else is going on for Mardi Gras, and he tells me I should stick around the French Quarter until Midnight … when the cops come in with the water trucks, and the festivities officially end. I agree to sit down for a while to do a caricature, and as Andrew draws me people stop and watch. By the time he’s done, he has picked up a new customer …

Royal Street on Mardi Gras.

Royal Street on Mardi Gras.

Now it’s 5:00 p.m., and my feet are killing me. It’s then that I get a phone call from Austin. He says he just got out of a five-hour nap, after going to the Zulu parade this morning … where everyone got very drunk. He’s coming into the French Quarter, and I suggest we go bar-hopping that night. I meet Austin, his brother and his girlfriend’s cousin at a little dive bar just off Bourbon Street. It’s now about 8:30 p.m., and Mardi Gras will end in less than four hours.

I’m now walking down Bourbon Street with three straight men, and they want to go to a strip club. The first place has a cover charge of $25, but we find another one for $10. I never though, as a gay man, that I would be spending part of Mardi Gras at a club with scantily clad women. I joke about it with them, and they agree to return the favor later on by hitting the gay bars … where there are go-go boys. The night wears on, and Bourbon Street is packed. We elbow our way up the street … yelling at folks in the balcony for beads, as we eventually make our way to the “gay” part of the French Quarter. At midnight, the cops arrive and break down the party … the street is now riddled with garbage. That’s why in New Orleans, Ash Wednesday is called “Trash Wednesday.”

It’s now 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. I got home last night at 2:00 a.m., and woke up around 10. My stay in New Orleans has come to an end, and Mardi Gras is now over … This city really knows how to party, and I’ve been heartened to see its thriving bohemian culture. But I’m angry about what’s happened since Katrina, and how the very poor residents really don’t have much to hope for in the near future. As the Cajun French would say, my message as I leave New Orleans is: “vous voire plus tard.”

The Lower Ninth Ward … and a Visit to Cajun Country

February 23, 2009

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.  There are many like this.

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. There are many like this.

Today is a relatively quiet day in New Orleans, when it comes to celebrating Mardi Gras. Saturday is “Samedi Gras” and Monday is “Lundi Gras” (with their respective festivities), but today’s the day when most folks take a reprieve. So it’s a perfect day for me to leave town, and visit Cajun Country … just a few hours west. But before I leave, Eli offers to give me a brief tour of the damage from Katrina … much of it still left unabated.

We all remember the awful photos of the Lower Ninth Ward … a predominantly black neighborhood in New Orleans that was closest to the levees, very low elevation and thus hit hardest by Katrina. The water went up to 20 feet, causing houses to drift away. What we don’t hear is that the Lower Ninth before the Storm actually had a relatively high homeownership rate, and was home to many African-Americans who had moved up the ladder … away from poorer parts of the City. New Orleans is an extremely racist city … where whites live in higher elevation, and blacks live below. The Lower Ninth Ward was just the most dramatic example … other areas were hit hard too.

I visited New York in 2002 after September 11th, and saw bulldozers feverishly working to rebuild Ground Zero. So I assumed that, more than three years after Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward would be making a comeback. My brief visit to the neighborhood was nothing short of traumatic, and I was almost driven to tears. The area is still a wasteland … with tons of vacant lots, sprinkled with the occasional abandoned building. Practically nobody lives there, and probably no one will. Unless we get some serious resources from the government to make it happen.

Another house in the Lower Ninth Ward

Another house in the Lower Ninth Ward

For those who are trying to rebuild their homes, the City has even begun to accidentally demolish homes that they think are abandoned. In one case, a newly married couple bough their first home from the city at a tax sale … with the intention of rebuilding it when they return from their honeymoon. When they got back, they learned that the city had already demolished it. This has led some folks to spray paint “DON’T DEMOLISH” on their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, hoping to avert such a disaster. Blogger Karen Gadbois, a good friend of Eli’s, has publicized this issue.

I should point out that there are abandoned buildings all over New Orleans … as the double whammy of Katrina and the economic crisis has even hit relatively good neighborhoods like the Marigny, where Eli lives. But it is quite another thing to see an area that’s exclusively abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Hurricane Katrina was really the Bush Administration’s worst legacy, and inaction over the last three years is a true abomination.

On a lighter note, I decided to take a trip to Cajun Country … because I’m half-French. It has always intrigued me to go to a part of the U.S. where folks speak French, even it is a different dialect like Cajun. The Cajuns are direct descendants of the “Acadians” from Canada, who fled religious persecution to practice their Catholic faith. Back in my 28-state road trip, I visited their cousins up in northern Maine … and was stunned to find out that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying in French. I was warned that very few Cajuns actually speak French anymore (until recently, they were beaten up at school for speaking it), but I picked the part of Louisiana with the highest portion of French speakers — St. Martin’s Parish — and reserved a hotel room for the night in Breaux Bridge.

Restaurant patrons at Mulate's in Breaux Bridge dance to live Cajun Music.

Restaurant patrons at Mulate's in Breaux Bridge dance to live Cajun Music.

I should point out that none of the guidebooks I have specifically talk about Cajun Country, and most of my research was sporadically done online. I left New Orleans a bit later than expected (around 2:00 p.m.), so I knew I also wouldn’t have much time to visit there. I headed out of town on Route 90, with Janis Joplin playing in my car. After all, she had busted flat in Baton Rouge … and had thumbed a diesel down who drove her all the way to New Orleans. Figured it would be good music for Route 90.

After passing miles and miles of swampy bayous, I exited Route 90 outside of Bayou Vista … taking Route 182 (which a billboard on the highway called the “Scenic Cajun Coast.”) Someone in New Orleans had told me there are Cajun-speaking radio stations out here, so I turned off the CD player and played with the dial. Couldn’t find any French being spoken, but I did get AM 960 which played non-stop Cajun music. My intention was to stop along the way to catch my breath, and hopefully chat with some of the locals to learn how many people speak French.

Sadly, the little I saw at first was not impressive. Towns like New Iberia appear economically depressed … and when I stopped in Loreauville to ask for directions, the clerk at the grocery store obviously wasn’t used to travelers passing through. I then headed for St. Martinville, hoping to stop a bit … but it’s here where the trip took an unfortunate downturn. Like many towns throughout Louisiana, St. Martinville was having its Mardi Gras parade … which I arrived in town right after it ended. What it means is I got caught in traffic … awful traffic that had me at a standstill. Even worse, I knew I had to turn onto Route 35 to make it to Breaux Bridge. It wasn’t until I had been stalled in traffic for two hours that I learned I’d taken the wrong turn on 35 … the cop allowed me to turn around.

By now, night had fallen … and there wasn’t much of a chance to do much. I had yet to find a decent restaurant on the roadside (or even a charming tavern), so I figured I’d check into my hotel and play it by ear. Arriving in Breaux Bridge at 8:00 p.m., I asked a gas station clerk what place would be open for dinner. She suggested Mulate’s … a charming traditional Cajun restaurant just up the road. I went there, and it was exactly what I had been looking for … delicious Cajun food, and lots of old people dancing to live Cajun music. I spent two idyllic hours having dinner, and even got to dance with a couple old ladies … which I then learned were visiting tourists from Florida.

Adam, the bartender at Mulate’s, was very nice … and suggested places to go in LaFayette tonight (although he admitted they weren’t very Cajun.) A native of Breaux Bridge, Adam doesn’t speak French … and he said most of the young people don’t speak it anymore. It also turned out his uncle runs the hotel where I’m staying … Cajun Cabins, a fantastic collection of small cabins at a reasonable price. I opted to stay in tonight rather than go to LaFayette, get up early tomorrow and explore a little Cajun culture around town. After all, the old folks who speak French won’t be up partying late tonight …

Samedi Gras, Endymion and My Initial Thoughts on New Orleans …

February 22, 2009

Endymion Parade in New Orleans' Mid-City

Endymion Parade in New Orleans' Mid-City

I arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. yesterday and so far, it is everything and nothing I expected it to be. For sure, you have some beautiful old French architecture in every neighborhood … which reminds me of San Francisco’s Victorian homes. But it’s far less gentrified than I expected, although I have not yet been to the French Quarter or the more touristy parts of town. And the City has been struggling since Hurricane Katrina … rents have doubled, while the City tears down housing projects. I stayed last night with my friend Eli Ackerman, a fellow blogger who I met in July at the Netroots Nation Conference. Yesterday was “Samedi Gras,” the Saturday before Mardi Gras …

Before getting here, I wanted to experience some of the scenery between Mobile and New Orleans. I didn’t have time to take Route 90 the whole way, but I figured I could deviate from the Interstate a little bit. The car zooms out of Alabama … and into Mississippi. As I exit the Interstate to take Route 90, I figured now was the perfect time to play Don McLean’s “American Pie” album … my favorite song of all the time. I cross the newly renovated bridge before getting into Biloxi, only to realize that it’s a really tacky resort town … with massive casinos.

Gulfport, Mississippi -- just west of Biloxi.

Gulfport, Mississippi -- just west of Biloxi.

By now, the song “American Pie” had ended … and the rest of Don McLean’s album is a series of very mellow and soothing songs. Just west of Biloxi, Route 90 now hugged the Gulf coast. After going to the Emerald Coast in Florida, the beaches here are far less impressive … but it was nice nonetheless. And it was truly magical and relaxing to look at the Gulf from my car while singing along to “Vincent” and “Empty Chairs.”

When Don McLean had finished, it occurred to me that I had yet to play a single Beatles CD on this road trip. So I put in the “Revolver” album, as Route 90 deviated from the Gulf Coast and I went to re-gain the Interstate to take a direct zoom into New Orleans. The drive on I-10 was longer than expected, as the Beatles eventually gave way to Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits — Volume 3 (the 70’s take.) The road got bumpier as I got closer to the City; and when I exited at Elysian Fields Boulevard, I realized I was almost out of gas. My first impression of New Orleans was not a good one. The roads are in awful condition, and there are lots of boarded up buildings and liquor stores.

I get to Eli’s house in the Faubourg Marigny (“the Marigny”) — a neighborhood directly east of the French Quarter, but where no tourists venture. I’m pleasantly surprised to find parking so easily, and he takes me to a local cafe to get a late lunch. The neighborhood has an edgy bohemian feel to it, far more genuine than any neighborhood in San Francisco … artists can afford to live here. I had always imagined New Orleans to be like New York or SF — a very compact city with great architecture that has become totally yuppified. But New Orleans is still a poor city.

The Endymion Parade along Canal Street in Mid-City.

The Endymion Parade along Canal Street in Mid-City.

One of the great advantages about staying with friends is they tell you about places and things in a City you would never learn by staying in a hotel. Today is Samedi Gras, and there’s a parade called Endymion that goes through Mid-City. It’s the one major Mardi Gras parade that caters primarily to locals, and does not go through the touristy parts of town. Everyone is happy and cries out at the floats to throw beads at them. “I love Mardi Gras,” says Eli. “Because living here the rest of the year can be so miserable … this is the one time that everyone can celebrate.”

And the future of New Orleans doesn’t look bright for the locals. Louisiana is a very Republican state, and the city is still very much stigmatized and hated by whites living directly outside of it. Black families have tried returning to New Orleans after the Storm, but rents have now doubled … and the city demolished the St. Bernard Projects. On our way to Endymion, I was appalled to walk by a gorgeous 1930’s-era public school that was boarded up and abandoned. The school district doesn’t have the money to fix up these buildings … the city doesn’t have the money to really do anything.

Eli tells me something that gets me plain outraged. New Orleans will get less money (per capita) from the Federal Stimulus than any other Congressional District in the country. Of all places that could really use a stimulus, New Orleans should be the top candidate ….

The parade is now over, and it’s time for Samedi Gras revelers to stay up all night drinking and dancing. We go to Mimi’s, a local bar in the Marigny, staying until about 1:00 a.m. Unlike in California, where bars must stop serving alcohol by 2:00, they just keep going here in New Orleans. We then go to this party called the Maritime Ball … and underground punk-rock party. It is very loud and hot there, and it’s not really my scene. Apparently, the party keeps going until dawn … at which point everyone walks to the French Quarter.

It’s getting late, however, and I’ll be taking a side trip tomorrow to Cajun Country. I call it a night, so I can wake up tomorrow at a reasonable hour.

Doing My Laundry … Outside of Mobile.

February 21, 2009

As I left my motel room this morning and headed down Route 90 to New Orleans, I kept a look-out for a coin-operated laundromat. Turns out it didn’t take me much time. I’m now doing my laundry at a strip-mall laundry facility with free wi-fi … recovering from last night’s festivities. Today, I will hopefully take Route 90 all the way to New Orleans … going through towns like Biloxi, Mississippi. But my friend Eli Ackerman has advised me to get to New Orleans by 3 or 4 p.m. at the latest … Mardi Gras may not happen until Tuesday, but today is Samedi Gras, and there’s a great parade going on called Endymion. I may have to reluctantly take the Interstate. Will play it by ear …

Sweet Home Alabama … Mardi Gras in Mobile.

February 21, 2009

Mobile, Alabama -- the first Mardi Gras celebration.

Mobile, Alabama -- the first Mardi Gras celebration.

Today was a day on my trip that did not go as planned … for better and for worse. I tend to be extremely OCD about my road trip preparations, and for practical reasons. I’m always very ambitious about where to go and what to do, and I’m on a tight budget. Today was one of those days where no planning can be a problem, or a solution. I left Panama City Beach around 10:00 a.m., and had to drive rather quickly to Mobile, Alabama because: (a) I hadn’t made firm hotel reservations, and (b) I figured this would be a good time to do laundry. The former was a bad situation that resolved itself, and the latter never happened.

From my hotel room in Panama City Beach

From my 5th floor hotel room in Panama City Beach

Before leaving Panama City Beach, I visited the beach in front of my hotel room … since I arrived too late the prior night to enjoy it. It’s still February so the water’s too cold, but you can see from this picture how pleasant it must be during its peak season. Spring Break college students will start coming next week, which in my mind would be the worst of both worlds. The place must be a zoo, and I don’t see how much warmer the water would be one week later. It must be nice to visit in the summer, however.

I had to make good time to Mobile, but also wanted to enjoy the “Emerald Coast” — the white sandy beaches of the Florida panhandle that are truly gorgeous and spectacular. Part of this stretch was filmed in the mid-90’s for the Truman Show, and I thought it would be cool to spend time there. So I popped in a Bob Dylan CD (“Bringing it All Back Home”), and took off on Route 98. The road doesn’t always follow the Gulf, as you often have to take a side beachfront road to experience how beautiful it is. Cognizant of what happened the other day, I didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. One of the guidebooks I have says the Truman Show was filmed in Destin … so I figured that would be a good spot to watch the beach.

Turned out Destin was not too exciting. It’s an inland port town, and the central area was a disgusting tourist trap which catered to wealthy travelers. The whole area around Destin had mega mansions. I spoke to a guy selling t-shirts, who told me the Truman Show was actually filmed in Seaside … a few miles to the east. If I had wanted to see that, I should have exited Route 98 earlier, and taken the scenic Route 30-A. With the time crunch I had put myself in, I decided that I couldn’t turn back to Seaside. I’d have to keep going …

Navarre Beach, on the Emerald Coast

Navarre Beach, on the Emerald Coast

Pretty soon, Route 98 became less idyllic … and more a series of stripmalls and gun show billboards. The weather even began to change, with clouds coming in, and I wondered if I would not have the chance to stop at the Emerald Coast. Sensing my surroundings, I popped in my Creedence Clearwater Revival CD — as the Sixties band always had that hick quality to them that appeared to be appropriate for the Florida Panhandle.

But as the skies cleared, I noticed a sign off Route 98 — “Welcome to Navarre Beach: Florida’s Best Kept Secret.” I turned left onto County Road 399, crossing a bridge and approaching the white sandy beaches, coupled with the clear blue color of the Gulf. I stopped to take a few photos, knowing that I had finally paused to experience the sheer beauty of the Emerald Coast.

While in Navarre, I stopped to grab lunch at a beachfront restaurant … and spoke with a few visitors from Alabama. They told me something I was not aware of: while everyone knows about New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the first and original Mardi Gras was in Mobile … and street festivals were starting tonight at 6:30 p.m. It was profound luck to be planning to stay in the area, except I still didn’t have a hotel reservation. Which put more stress on me to leave quickly.

As I drove west on Route 98, the Redneck Riviera became progressively more redneck … as Creedence Clearwater continued to belt out their tunes in my car. As I got to Pensacola, I made a wrong turn and almost entered an air force base. The whole town had a conservative feel, coupled with more suburban hell I had experienced all over Florida. As the road crossed Pensacola Bay, I popped in the Forrest Gump Soundtrack for the occasion of entering a new state: Alabama.

Immediately, Alabama had a different feel from Florida. No more awful stripmalls … just idyllic countryside that (albeit poor and “rednecky”) had a whole different character. But I couldn’t stay on Route 98 to experience the state. I had to catch a hotel reservation in Mobile, so I quickly joined the Interstate. I had been told that there are a lot of cheap motels directly south of Mobile on Government Boulevard, and the guidebook had recommended a few. I also found on a website some great discounts … but the catch is you can’t make a reservation. The idea is that the hotel will rent you a room on a walk-in basis if they have rooms … but not if they are already booked.

The place I had in mind (at $35 with the online discount) was a complete dump when I got there. I got a really bad vibe about the place as I drove in, and the desk clerk reminded me of the Tenderloin hotel landlords. The room itself was awful, and I got asked by a fellow guest during my five-minute stay if I had 75 cents he could borrow. Granted, I know a lot of people in the Tenderloin who put up with such living conditions each and every day (and often in worse situations.) But none of them, I suppose, would agree this is the way to spend a vacation. I drove up Government Boulevard, and found a nice clean available motel room for $60 a night. It was worth it.

Dauphin Street in Mobile ... kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Dauphin Street in Mobile ... kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Having secured a place, I planned on doing laundry … which was harder to find than I thought. I found one close to Downtown Mobile in a sketchy neighborhood, and as I drove towards Dauphin Street I saw the police barricades preparing for the Mardi Gras celebration. It occurred to me that maybe doing laundry at 6:00 p.m. — when the parade starts at 6:30 p.m. — probably wasn’t worth it. I figured I’ll do laundry some other night, and headed towards the Parade.

Downtown Mobile is a lot like what I’ve imagined New Orleans to be. An old city (it was the original capital of the Louisiana Territory!), you even have on Dauphin Street the same kinds of balconies that you have in the French Quarter. Mobile was the first Mardi Gras, and they don’t just have one parade each year … they have parades going on practically every night for a two-week period. Like in New Orleans, floats full of mysterious figures in costume throw beads at the passersby. And like New Orleans, the locals let the good times roll afterwards … with music, drinking and festivities all through the night.

I didn’t get back to my motel until around 1:00 a.m. …

There’s Never a Bad Time to Sing Karaoke …

February 20, 2009

sweetdreams1I always like to plan my trips in advance, at least where I’m staying each night. So I don’t have to stress about accommodations while I’m driving. But what happens when you picked a place that doesn’t work out? All the guide books I read about the Florida Gulf Coast mentioned Panama City Beach, and how there’s a lot of hotel rooms. So I made a reservation at the Days Inn a while ago. It wasn’t until I got here tonight I learned it’s really a tacky resort town for (a) the summer and (b) Spring Break. And with Spring Break not happening until next week, there’s literally nothing to do and everything is shut down.

I drove around after dinner tonight, trying to find a fun place … It felt like the Twilight Zone, and it was depressing. But across the street from my Hotel was a rinky-dink bar called “Sweet Dreams” that advertised karaoke. When I walked in, there were only about six people in the bar … and I think it was probably the first time in my life that I did NOT want to get up and sing. I ordered a gin & tonic, and sat back to watch the bad singers.

But then I struck a conversation with Jennifer, who was there with her whole family. Within minutes, I was persuaded otherwise … by the end of the night, I had sung twice — first “Margaritaville” because I was still feeling depressed at the time, and then “Sixteen Candles” because it was Ruthie (Jennifer’s sister-in-law) 30th Birthday. What’s the lesson? One, always try to make lemonade out of lemons on a vacation — you’ve spent enough money on the trip, so you need to have fun. Two, there’s NEVER a bad time to sing karaoke …