“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin”. -Mark Twain-
Over an afternoon sampling of beignets and cafe au lait, the New Orleans people watching is starting to hit its peak. A horse and carriage streaks past a tap dancing street performer, though the mobs of pedestrians pay little attention to either. A liquored up couple toting hand-grenade drink holders stumble through the 3pm humidity. Across the street, a family of tourists snap pictures of two saffron clad Buddhist monks, who strangely enough are busy snapping pictures of each other, the two of them looking to document their own time as tourists in this city.
It seems perfectly appropriate to be sipping a French brew and watching this scene unfold in one of America’s most notoriously multi-cultural port towns. I’m serenely perched in Cafe du Monde, a French Quarter coffee stand that’s been serving powder-sugar covered pastries and chicory-laced coffees since 1862, and my “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” bus has officially rolled into one of America’s favorite party towns.
Though a little shindig called Mardi Gras may claim most of the New Orleans fame, the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) is more than just a raucous party spot; it’s one of the most historically important and culturally fascinating places in all of the United States. Established by the French, transferred to the Spanish, and eventually purchased by the United States in a little event known as the Louisiana Purchase, the quarter is now an outdoor museum for some, and the ultimate hedonistic playground for others.
Jackson Square, the colonial square named for war general and future US president Andrew Jackson, was originally regarded as the city’s Plaza de Armas while the city was under Spanish rule. Today the square is a gathering place for scores of guitar players, palm readers, trinket toters, tourist scammers, and everything else in between.
A mere two blocks away, the bars and brothels of Bourbon Street thump to the rhythm of rock beats and the whirl of alcoholic slushie machines. One of the few cities in America with no open container law, as long as your booze is within a plastic cup, the streets of the city are your open air bar. Unlike the glitzy streets of Las Vegas, however, life on Bourbon Street is a little more raw. Shiny casinos and choreographed fountains are replaced by weathered clapboard shutters and festering curbside puddles. As I walk past the unavoidable “Barely Legal” strip club, I realize New Orleans is a long way from relinquishing its port town past.
Wandering down Rue Royal after polishing off the sugary beignets, a familiar, white-bearded face appears on the corner of Rue Toulouse singing soulfully into a microphone. Amazed at my good fortune, the man is none other than Grandpa Elliot, the legendary Nawlins street performer who went viral in the Stand By Me video by musical group Playing for Change. His prowess on the harmonica and husk in his voice remind me of where I am.
Grandpa Elliot sighting officially in hand, there’s now only one thing missing on this New Orleans afternoon, and that would be a massive bowl of Cajun jambalaya.
Ever since crossing the Texas/Louisiana border (the Bienvenue en Louisiane welcome sign a testament to the French and Acadian history), a hankering for a heaping bowl of spicy meat and seafood has been brewing somewhere deep. True Cajuns will argue that the Cajun grub in New Orleans is a watered down replica of the bayou cuisine found in Acadiana (the swamps and parishes of southwestern Louisiana), but for someone sampling the regional cuisine of a 3,600 mile road trip, it’s all Cajun to me.
Polishing off an over-sized helping of rabbit and crayfish jambalaya at Coop’s Place, a dilapidated Cajun establishment popular with locals and the city’s “not-so-elite”, a parade had luckily gathered on nearby Decatur Street, providing me with a rare moment of tranquility to wander the quarter’s momentarily empty streets.
While many are of the opinion Bourbon Street has become a dirty tourist trap where it’s no longer possible to find the traditional jazz music born from these very streets, the jazz culture in the quarter has far from disappeared.
No place was this more apparent than in the iconic image of a lone saxophone player illuminated in the glow of a streetlight on an otherwise empty Rue Royal. Indifferent to the fact that the loose-change toting passerby had migrated to the parade over on Decatur, the young musician continued to wail emotions deep into the warm Louisiana night. If there were ever a moment of New Orleans I wanted to experience, it was this moment presently at hand.
I drop a couple of dollars into the nearly empty sax case, nod an approving gesture, and depart the funky port town with the sweet sound of the saxophone ricocheting from the balconies above.