Since the Tchoupitoulas bus comes only once an hour—with the exception of coming once every half hour in the early morning, late afternoon and early evening—this bus adventure was more of a walking tour. A very exhausting walking tour. Still, I explored different socioeconomic areas, stopped at some fun places and met some nice people who were eager to talk with me...
Canal Street is the hub of public transportation in New Orleans. In fact, most of my Public Transit Tuesdays and non-Gambit bus excursions have me crossing Canal Street at some point. Also, if you're ever lost on a bus adventure, you'll be halfway home if you can find your way back to Canal Street. Sadly, this doesn't work for the RTA's demon seed, the Kenner Loop. The Canal streetcar demographic can't be explained, as it's full of tourists, locals, students, working people and the unemployed. That inexplicable demographic is one of the best parts of riding the Canal streetcar, as you never know who you'll meet. The only depressing thing about riding the Canal Streetcar is that it makes you long for the New Orleans that was...
“Aren’t you happy?” asked my uncle of Marie Rodrigue on the night of my engagement to her son. “You’re going to have a daughter-in-law!”
“I had one,” she replied, her face deadpan. “It didn’t work out.”
When she died in 2008 at age one hundred and three, George Rodrigue’s mother still wanted to “go home” to New Iberia. She wanted her car back, to remove her grandsons’ hats and cut their hair, to lengthen my skirts and overcook my Thanksgiving turkey, to visit long-dead friends and family, and, most important, to see her son get a real job, “with the telephone company,” she said, as she worried about his pension:
“When will you realize that nobody’s gonna buy those pictures?”
She was tough, ‘solid,’ as George used to say, with legs like tree stumps (her description, not mine, although…)…
The Political Desk has unearthed a real gem — a 1960 "public information service" newsreel by the American Petroleum Institute, which debunks the crazy theory that the oil industry might have some deleterious effect on the Louisiana oyster population ... as proven with a "two-million-dollar oyster research program!".
Back then, something was retarding the growth of oysters in the Gulf, so oil company scientists put some oysters in a tank and fed them a diet of crude oil and other gunk.
Surprise: "The test oysters were so happy they brought forth new generations – they never had it so good!"
Must be seen to be believed.
“Despite the debate in the museum world about the value of blockbuster exhibitions, … the show became a watershed in the cultural history of New Orleans, with people speaking of ‘before Tut’ and ‘after Tut.’” -Prescott N. Dunbar*
Last week, with the death of Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition, I toured Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial and thought about information. I researched the show beforehand on NOMA’s new and improved website, impressed with the museum’s education efforts, particularly in sharing the exhibition with Middle School children.
In my youth, the show was Treasures of Tutankhamun, and the research came not from websites and social media, but from small images and dense text in a fat set of alphabetized books lined up along the school library wall. There were no links, no games, and no videos. Outside of Encyclopedia Britannica, Tut existed only in Egypt until one magical year it visited six U.S. museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, its only southern stop. I sat last Monday on a bench in Hard Truths (reviewed here by D. Eric Bookhardt for Gambit) and googled 'Selket' on my iPhone, triggering a flashback:
At 4:00 a.m. on December 26th 1977, my mother, giddy, woke me.
“Hurry up, Wendy Anne. Wear your new coat. It’s cold.”
I was ten.
Along with my younger cousin Kelly, we left my uncle’s house at 484 Fairfield Drive in Gretna, Louisiana on a moonless, stormy night. We ate pop tarts in my mother’s canary yellow Oldsmobile as we drove across the Mississippi River and a then-single Greater New Orleans Bridge to a parking lot located somewhere in Mid-City. With hundreds of families we waited one hour in the dark for a bus that carried us past a Nile-blue painted Lelong Avenue and the New Orleans Museum of Art to a distant City Park path, where we joined thousands of people already in line.
It’s the story of a buffet that burned twice as bright, made you twice as full but burned out very fast.
Pancho’s Mexican Super Buffet (100 N. Labarre Rd., phone n.a.) in Metairie has closed permanently, at least according to the unambiguous signs posted to its chained and padlocked doors.
The news comes not quite three years after the restaurant reopened from a long post-Katrina hiatus and was welcomed by throngs of fans, who eagerly lined up outside to get a table.
To its devotees, the name Pancho's was synonymous with an exuberant excess of flautas, tacos, chili rellenos, cheese enchiladas and sopapillas, with the option to pour chili and cheese sauce over just about anything. Miniature Mexican flags mounted at each table were a trademark of the place, and customers would ceremoniously raise the tiny banner up a flagpole to signal Pancho’s servers that they wanted more food.
In its glory days — and at least initially after its return — Pancho’s struck a loud chord with many people.
I’m a little late in this tribute, but a family death, one beloved and too young, like Etta, derailed me, even as we honored this special man today at Algiers United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood, the altar where my parents said “I do,” and the backdrop of a recent murder/car-jacking.
New Orleans suffers under this murder-weight, as people add security and shake their fists. It’s Mardi Gras, and so we make excuses, explaining that it’s not the tourists in danger, but rather the criminals, as they battle each other. Yet there was nothing criminal about the man who died in front of his young sons, at the bus stop, by the church, in the vicinity of Martin Behrman School, named after the longest serving mayor (1904-1920) in New Orleans history, a school my father speaks of fondly as his alma mater.
Without romanticizing the tragedies, I still look at these events and wonder at their contribution to our character.
Consider Etta James. Born in Los Angeles to a 14 year-old mother and an unknown father, she basically raised herself, moving with the wrong crowds, embracing drug addictions, and living, more often than once, in prison.
Yet she sang with the raw and gritty power of those experiences — of spurned love, betrayal, and longing.
In a family photograph from New Iberia, 1950, six-year old George Rodrigue stands dressed as a cowboy on Christmas morning, an only child surrounded by symbols of the time: a Radio Flyer red wagon; promotional Coca-Cola Santa Clauses (in multiples because his dad traded them on a brick-laying job); a dartboard featuring Little Black Sambo*, a reality of a bigotry so culturally ingrained that no one in young George’s world thought twice about it; and a photograph on the fireplace mantle of cousin Nootsie, a fighter pilot shot down during World War II.
I see the fireplace bricks George’s father laid ever-so-straight with his bare hands, and I wonder at the Christmas ornaments, heirlooms of school projects, world travels, and craft fairs in my own childhood (still hanging on our tree today). And yet by the time George and I married in 1997, the Rodrigue family long ago wrote off their ornaments as junk, flickering only within George’s mother’s aging and Depression-influenced memory. I asked her, a woman who had not decorated a tree in forty-seven years:
Where do I find your ornaments?
“I threw those out years ago,” she explained, her mild dementia drifting in and out, “when I turned the attic into a studio for Baby George. Daddy installed a window unit, our first air conditioner, and I listened to that whirring machine all night while George painted.”
…at which point she twirled her hands in a disco move, the same gesture she made each time she talked about the floodwaters of 1927 rolling into New Iberia.
One year ago I began blogging for Gambit as ‘Dolores Pepper,’ a pseudonym detailed here. Like many things in life, however, the blog took a different turn, occasionally written from Dolores’s perspective, but more often from mine, as I experience not only the city of New Orleans, but also the world outside.
Gambit has a category called “The New Orleanian Abroad” which describes most of my posts —- from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Lecompte, Louisiana. “Abroad,” to my amusement, is, according to Gambit, any place outside of my Marigny/French Quarter home base.
“But what did you think about the art?” asked a friend recently, regarding a post on Minimalism in Marfa, Texas. “I’m not a critic,” I told her. I hope to pique interests in the arts without ever crushing an artistic spirit or expression. “Besides,” I continued, “if I don’t like it, I don’t write about it.”
YOUR FAVORITES (According to comments, stats, and those of you who stopped me on the street)
1. “For New Orleans”: I remember the first time I laughed after the storm: My friend Geri described the $200,000 worth of rodent damage to her house as "squirrels gone wild."
2. “Swamp Women”: If you look at the guys, you'd never know we almost died.
3. “Rejecting the Metaphor: Discovering Modern Art in West Texas”: The author visits the remote small town of Marfa, Texas and finds big-time contemporary art (and a surprising New Orleans connection).
4. “Breakfast at Lea’s Pies”: "Not too many of these places left," said George Rodrigue. But none of us believed him.
5. “Iry LeJeune, Cajun Accordion Player”: The tragically short life of a blind accordion player changed Cajun music forever.
“Terrebonne Parish was the leader in green energy,” declared Dr. Chris Cenac with a smile, referring to the palmetto-thatched houses and shrimp camps of late 19th century southeast Louisiana.
Although joking, his comment resonated as I visited the Cenac collection of memorabilia, equipment and photographs currently on view at Nicholls State University Library. Indeed, this organized visual and written record of south Louisiana, a story rooted in one family, represents the history of many, and recalls a time when we built our houses from the land, formed our legacy around oysters and sugar cane, and appreciated the swamp more than the grocery store.
In fact, as I studied the collection, I thought of the new downtown Rouses Market and its variety of andouille, wall of mirlitons, and oysters-by-the-gallon, as I learned from Cenac’s history of oyster sheds and ‘dancing the shrimp.’ On my first visit to Rouses this past weekend, I was ‘Dahlin’d’ and ‘Cher’d’ throughout the store, all to the beat of Cajun music, the legacy of a people that love the swamps and nurture their culture based on everything natural offered by Louisiana.
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