August 6: Natchez to Bird Sanctuary to New Orleans
Soundtrack: Moody Bible Network
At that table with its silver soft and dull, shining as pewter, I remember the raised glass of the grape’s holy blood, the stem caressed by the doctor’s strong artist fingers, and even now I can hear the sweet little health and welcome in the singing language of Acadia which as once French and is now itself.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America
There was no Denny’s in Natchez; starving, I followed the local traffic and pulled in to a Shoney’s, a southern franchise I had seen advertised on billboards all the way from Shenandoah, but never tried. Their mascot was a cute cartoon bear. The word, as Monty Python cautioned about Australian table wines, was BEWARE! I didn’t know it was possible to ruin breakfast, but the cold scrambled eggs and flaccid bacon at this location took all the pleasure out of dining out. Even the grits verged on concrete consistency and this was the South, for gosh sakes. Queasy from the indigestible lump in my innards, I took the road into Louisiana, vowing to uphold my foolish consistency and fidelity to Denny’s’ Grand Slam in the future, bourgeois as it might be.
From 79 degrees at Ferriday, the temperature climbed to 86 as I left the river road to explore a wildlife refuge that wound through piney woods on red gravel for what seemed like hours, without a single bird or reptile to redeem it. Assured by two guys in a pickup truck that the highway was close by, I reemerged onto Louisiana 15, listening to a sermon on answered prayers on the Moody Radio Network. Suddenly, miraculously, overhead a flock of whooping cranes wheeled around in a big circle, huge and wonderful seen through the sunroof. A little farther down the road another flock passed, with black faces and long legs tucked under, so close, and settled into a deep green field.
The Reverend Irwin Luther preached on about making prayer work for me. In my childhood I had prayed to see whooping cranes, especially when my daddy had taken me on a trip to Aransas Pass Bird Sanctuary in the 50’s. Then there were only 36 left; we never saw a one. As I drove away from the field the twenty or so birds were bright white against the receding landscape. It was amazing!
I continued down the levee, past locks and channels devised to manage the Mississippi, which snaked along, largely invisible, east of the barrier. Through the tiny towns on the way into New Orleans I played tag with rain, trying to time my arrival to check in to the Monteleone and hit the SatchFest events in the Quarter. In a few places I saw wind damage left over from the hurricane, cypress trees standing gray and dead from the intruding saltwater and big billboards advertising help fighting insurance companies. Around three I dropped the car at the underground garage off Royal and walked toward the old watermelon stalls, with jazz music floating through the alleys from the riverside. I had lived on St. Peter Street for a while in 1971 and sold candles in the flea market on the weekends, so this was familiar territory.
Lectures were scheduled at the visitor center for Lafitte National Park Visitor Center, a small room with a stage behind the Cafe du Monde, nowhere near Barataria. I watched Times Picayune photographer John McClusker show photos of historic structures, some damaged by Hurricane Katrina and years of neglect: the homes of Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and Nick LaRocca, the saloons and theaters that were early venues for Louis Armstrong and other jazz pioneers.
Finally settled into the 14th floor of the hotel, I took a nap and dressed for a peak experience, dining in the French Quarter.
Earlier I had seen a group of boys recruited to staff Brennan’s gathering on Royal Street, the older guys instructing their colleagues in how to act to keep their recently acquired restaurant jobs. Brennan’s had finally gotten back up to speed and was serving dinner on a regular schedule, necessitating hiring of new busboys and kitchen help. I had a $50 bill Doug had given me in L.A. and was determined to stay within that budget and still sample some of the hautest cuisine in town. He played piano at the Brennan's in Downtown Disney, so
There was a private party upstairs and a jazz trio working on the balcony, but customers in the main room were sparse. I was able to walk in and be seated in a corner booth. Within my budget I had Chardonnay, turtle soup, oysters Rockefeller and creme brulet. My waitress, Rachel, was a Tulane student who had left after Katrina, but came back to finish her degree. I told her that Doug played piano at Ralph Brennan's next door to Disneyland and she gave me a rundown of the pedigrees of the various Brennan restauranteurs.
The candlelit courtyard with vintage music drifting over white tablecloths and silver was perfect, another peak experience in the wake of disaster. I walked the few blocks down Royal back to the Monteleone, from pure delight into luxury I might never have been able to afford if the Quarter hadn’t been humbled by Katrina.
The next day I would be meeting my old friend Glenn Miller to see more of the devastation first hand, in places where rebuilding was slowed or hampered by less available funds than many of the Quarter businesses could draw upon. A poster in George Rodrique's Gallery window showed the blue dog with a sign: "Hey, FEMA, Throw me something!" The art was funny, but the reality was bitter. In 1960, Steinbeck encountered New Orleans in the first throes of the Civil Rights upheaval; in 2006, the city was still recovering from a broken levees and promises unkept.
I settled into the opulence of the 4-diamond hotel to read about the Cheerleaders in Travels With Charley. Even with the supposed freedoms gained through decades of struggle, New Orleans still had its share of trouble.