On my last day in New Orleans, I left the French Quarter behind, and headed over to the Garden District and the Irish Channel area. This was my first time taking one of the streetcars that still runs in New Orleans. It's $1.25 to run the whole line, and I took the St. Charles line down towards the District. Most interesting was watching the driver navigate the car around a traffic circle--she actually had to stand up to do that.
I stopped at a restaurant for breakfast on the way. The restaurant had a new scheme of having the bar open in the morning, so the hostess seated me there, saying I could be entertained by Evan, the bartender. Evan was not used to getting to work at the ungodly hour of 8 am, as he was usually the night bartender. Still, he was a local, and we had quite a long discussion.
His parents lived in the Garden District, and he recommended that I make my way down to Audubon Park and zoo (where I'd hoped to end up on the boat that never materialized the day before), but I never did make it, as it was an additional walk of 3 miles from the farthest end of the Garden District. I mentioned the Lafayette Cemetery, and asked if it was safe to go there. "You're going in the daytime--it should be fine. Just don't go there at night." He said in general in New Orleans, "Just use your common sense--if something doesn't seem right, stay away. Most of it is just fine."
I asked him about how Hurricane Katrina had impacted the Garden District; I didn't imagine as much of a storm impact, as it was pretty far inland from the river. "My parents were fine during Katrina--they didn't get any flooding," he said. "It was the aftermath that was bad."
"Yeah. We were lucky to just end up with a broken window. But New Orleans was like a third-world nation. My Dad went away for four weeks after Katrina, and when he came back, there was still no power."
"A lot of crime and looting?"
"Oh yeah. It really brought this area down. But they had nowhere to put displaced people. It was a mess."
He then reflected on the current year. "We're a bit concerned about this year. Winter was warm, you know, no hard freeze. The year of Katrina, the Winter was 3 degrees warmer than average. That keeps the Gulf warm, and creates an environment that makes these big hurricanes. This is another year like that."
After leaving the restaurant, I walked the rest of the way to the district. The houses were breathtaking, and the landscaping was beautiful. Most were surrounded by iron fences. The telephone poles were all entwined with jasmine. Some properties had little ponds, straw horses, other architectural or landscaping curiosities.
As I made my way through the District, I came to Washington and Poydras Streets, where Lafayette Cemetery #1 was located. I later learned that the area just to the South was known as Lafayette originally. It was a different town from New Orleans, and rivaled it in prosperity. Eventually it was incorporated into the city with other small surrounding towns. I spent some time wandering through the cemetery. It was the perfect day--warm, but with a gentle breeze that made it like an Autumn day. I wasn't aware of any famous figures buried there, I just knew that Ann Rice used the cemetery in some of her novels, particularly about the Mayfair witches. Across the street from the cemetery was the Garden Book Shop, one of Ann Rice's favorite bookstores. Naturally I spent some time there.
While in the cemetery, I was approached by a woman with a New York accent. "Excuse me, can you tell me anything about this cemetery? Why are these cemeteries special?"
I told her as much as I knew about these above-ground cemeteries from the tour I'd taken on Tuesday. I also gave them local advice on shopping, which she was keen on finding. "So," she said, "I can say I've seen a New Orleans cemetery, and that's good enough."
"If it's good enough for you," I said.
I finally asked where she was from. She was there with her husband and bored teenage daughter. "New York," she said. I'd guessed correctly. After giving them some direction about town, I said goodbye, and realized that no matter where I go, people always think I have information they need. Earlier I had been stopped by another couple that was looking for the streetcar stop. In spite of it being my first time ever riding it, I was able to help them out. I think I was more surprised that I could give correct information than anything else.
I'd posted my thoughts about my information karma to Facebook, and my friend Chris wrote back: "You should have fun with it. Tell them, 'Timothy Leary had his first acid trip right on these very grounds.'" It was a pretty good idea, though I didn't get a chance to try it out.
Eventually I got hungry and found a place for lunch on Magazine Street. I decided to poke around the Garden District some more afterward, and then I remembered that there was a Catholic shrine nearby. I decided to take the plunge and go visit. The shrine was for Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. He's "Blessed" because he needs one more miracle to be a saint. (I always thought it was 3 miracles, but apparently Pope John Paul II lowered the required amount to 2). Like other Catholic sites in New Orleans, it was a bit tricky finding the entrance to this one, and when I did, I had to be "buzzed" into the building, and then accompanied to the shrine itself. Maybe there's just a lot of crime around, I don't know. The woman at the shrine told me that there was another miracle involving a girl with cancer, and that they were very close to getting canonization. "The Vatican requested that we have the pertinent documents translated into Italian," she said. "We knew we were close. Then the girl--in a totally unrelated surgery--ate before surgery and ended up dying on the table. It was unrelated, but the Vatican had to throw out the whole case because she had died." It was clear that they were disappointed.
I watched the short film on Blessed Francis Seelos, and he actually seems like a very cool guy--the kind that Christians should want to be identified with. He died of yellow fever while ministering to members of his parish that had yellow fever. I had a very nice woman unlock the shrine door for me, and I walked in. It is in the back of the cathedral on Constance St. I have to say that the place had a very "sacred" feeling to it. I've had experiences in various houses of worship of many religions where I feel like something is pouring out of my heart, and I feel quiet inside. It's quite a peaceful feeling. I had that feeling in the shrine. So, perhaps there is something to this almost-Saint, or maybe the devotion there creates the atmosphere.
I headed back up to St. Charles Ave., and stopped in the Avenue Pub to have a couple more local brews before calling it a day. I sat near two other tourists, one from Texas, one from Colorado. They had been on Bourbon St. the night before, and had a terrible experience. "Everyone was so mean. And at the bar we were at, someone pissed in a cup, mixed it with some beer, and put it on the curb 'to see if a homeless person would drink it.'" The one man I spoke to, Philip, said, "I saw old couples walking up and down Bourbon St. by the sex shops. I had to wonder, 'What could they possibly find here that they want to see?'"
The bartender cut in at this point. She said, "Now, don't go away from New Orleans sour because you had one bad experience on Bourbon Street. New Orleans is definitely not like that." I had to agree with her--it was an unfortunate case of someone winding up in the wrong bar at the wrong time. He said he would try to amend his negative experience that evening. After all, the French Quarter Festival was just beginning that evening.
But as for me, I had a REALLY early flight the next morning, so I had to pack it in early. I had a very timely flight from New Orleans back to Newark on Friday morning, with absolutely no delays or inconveniences. On the bus to the airport, we stopped at a Sheraton hotel to pick up a passenger. The woman across from me pointed out two airplane pilots getting onto another shuttle. "Oh look," she said. "They're going to be flying a plane. Let's see if they're walking straight."
I arrived home to a day much colder than that of New Orleans, but not unreasonably cold. I got home feeling like I had an excellent time, and that going back was a must--just not right now. Within the next couple of weeks, New Orleans weather will start to become unbearable. I'll wait til after Summer. And after hurricane season.