We dance when there is no music. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and suspicious of those who don’t."
-Quote on New Orleans from the book "1 Dead in Attic" by Chris Rose
Over 20 years ago, on a warm spring afternoon, I went along with my grandmother to New Orleans to see my cousin graduate with her degree from Dillard University in political science.
Flanked by other members of my family sans my mom and grandfather, five year-old me was more enthused about seeing the old buildings (growing up I wanted to be an architect) than any of the long, drawn-out speeches these people were delivering on the dais at the graduation.
Thirteen years later, on a whim and with the blessing of one of my professors, I took a trip with a church group to New Orleans as the city was reeling from Hurricane Katrina. The purpose of that trip, like so many that were made in the aftermath of Katrina, was to provide reilef and hope to one of America's greatest cities.
While the media did its best to show what Katrina did to the city, seeing the damage up close and personal down in the Lower Ninth was one of those things I’ll never forget.
As we were completing the handing out of clothes that were donated to our group, a lady, who had to be no more than 60, gave me a hug and a bunch of Mardi Gras beads.
"Come back," she said, "Don’t be a stranger to this place."
Three years later, while serving as a student assistant basketball coach at a small Memphis college, I returned to the Big Easy as our school played a couple of games against Southern-New Orleans and ironically, Dillard University.
Unlike the previous two times I visited the city, I decided in my downtime to act like a New Orleans resident, doing everything from participating in Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, drinking alcohol at 8 in the morning while reading the Times-Picaynue, eating a po boy while taking in some live jazz, and more importantly, having my hotel radio automatically on WWL.
Almost five years to the day of my last trip there, I’m on a southbound train heading towards the Big Easy to take part in a family reunion that was months in the making.
This is my story.
I. Early to Bed, Early to Board
It’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m freezing on this particular November Saturday morning.
Instead of driving to the south side of downtown Memphis, I opt for a five-mile cab ride to Central Station, a ten-story train that hovers over the South Main Arts District.
"Where you’re headed?" the cab driver asked me as we headed west on an empty Highway 78 towards downtown.
"New Orleans," I replied, "Catching a train there."
"You must have family there."
I arrive at Central Station, decked out in an LSU baseball cap and an LSU fleece 45 minutes before my departure, something that caught the attention of a pair of two elderly Alabama fans, one of whom was wearing a houndstooth scarf.
"We’re not going to fight are we?" one of them asked me.
"Nope," I replied.
We board the City of New Orleans (yes, the same train Steve Goodman did a song about years ago) around 6:30 as the sun began to rise over the Mississippi River in preparation for an eight-hour southbound trip.
II. You Win Friends with Jose Cuervo
One of the reasons why I opted for Amtrak as opposed to driving was the fact that Amtrak was an alcohol-friendly mode of transportation.
Meaning that, if you were annoyed by the person sitting next to you on your journey, you could take several nips of your favorite alcoholic beverage and not be ready to throw your seat neighbor off the train.
As the train was making it ways towards the city of Greenwood, Mississippi, I walked over to the neighboring coach car and came across a group of Dallas Cowboy fans who were making their way to New Orleans for the Saints-Cowboys game.
"Who’s your team?" one of them asked me.
"Saints," I replied.
And much like what happened with the nice Alabama fans I met in Memphis, I got a nice dose of good-natured ribbing from her.
A few minutes later, as I was returning to my seat, the same lady, noticing the bottle of Gatorade in my hand, offered me some Jose Cuervo.
"You sure this won’t have you wasted before we reach New Orleans?" she asked.
"No." I replied.
After nipping from my bottle through places like Yazoo City and some town known as Bentonia (must have ran out of names for the town), I made my way to a rather festive lounge car that as luck would have it, had Saints and LSU flags.
"Who’s the LSU and Saint fan?" I asked loudly.
"We are," replied a group of ladies a few yards away from me, "We’re from Memphis."
The Marquette House on Carondelet Avenue.
Named for the Spanish colonial governor Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet, Carondelet Avenue, a one-way eastbound street in the Garden District, was were yours truly planned to spend his three days and two nights in the Big Easy.
Before heading to the Marquette House, located near the corner of Carondelet and Jackson Avenue, I make my way to St. Lawrence, located on North Peters Street in the Upper French Quarter, where my friend James Cullen, a local chef, works.
"Just dropping by to say hello," I said to Cullen, "I have to go check in at the place I’m staying at."
A few minutes after running into Cullen, I make my way to the corner of Carondelet and Canal to board the westbound St. Charles streetcar,
"I’m trying to get to Car-on-del", I told the streetcar operator.
"There’s no such street as that." they said.
"Hell, I can’t pronounce the street name," I told them, "All I know is that the street name starts with a C."
The streetcar ride up St. Charles Avenue takes twenty minutes, as opposed to a 30-minute walk from the Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue to Carondelet Avenue.
As the streetcar made its westbound journey, on St. Charles Avenue, I kept trying to pronounce the name of the street I was staying on.
Luckily, a nice lady with her kid that was sitting behind me helped me out.
"It’s Ca-run-doe-le", she told me, "You don’t pronounce the "T."
I arrive at the Marquette House a few minutes after 5 to check in. As opposed to the weather in Memphis, which required me to wear a fleece nearly 12 hours prior, I’m sans fleece and in a short sleeve purple and gold shirt.
A few minutes later, I ran across several people that were sitting at a patio table. To my amazement, instead of gathering around a television or having their phones out, they were actually talking to each other, something that I seldom see in Memphis.
"We're old school New Orleans around here," they said as they changed the dial on the radio that was sitting in the middle of the table.
IV. "You Can Be Yourself In New Orleans"
"New Orleans is a magical place"
-Jemmeye Carroll on the final episode of Real World: Back to New Orleans
In 2000 and 2010 respectively, MTV’s Real World made the journey to the Big Easy, the latter being during the Saints’ Super Bowl run. And while I vaguely remember the 2000 Real World season, the 2010 Real World NOLA season was one of my favorite seasons in regard to the show.
So in an effort to kill some time before heading towards the downtown area this particular Sunday morning, I decided to walk from the Marquette House to the house in which the 2010 Real World season was filmed, located in the Uptown District.
Located at the corner of Duffossat and Baronne, the residence, once occupied by Baron Davis when he played for the Hornets, still has the Wisconsin and Saints flags that were prominently shown in the show, as this picture below shows.
As I headed east on St. Charles Avenue, a nice old man and had a conversation about something I never envisioned myself discussing.
"They need to fix that," I said to him as we saw raw sewage seeping onto St. Charles.
"I’m a plumber," he told me, "and the longer you have that [pointing to the raw sewage] flowing, the more likely somebody’s going to get sick."
"Especially kids," I said.
The conversation then shifted from raw sewage to Louisiana politics.
"I voted for Jindal," he told me, "I think he’s done some good things. Plus the guy's a Rhodes Scholar."
As we both made our way towards the intersection of St. Charles and Louisiana Avenues we then talked about our favorite Saints.
"I love 'em all," he said, "But my favorite is Jonathan Vilma."
After resting at the Marquette House, I’m heading back towards the Central Business District on foot. With Saints-Cowboys less than six hours away, I meet up with my friend Kailin of nearby McComb, Mississippi, the city that gave us Britney Spears (although she grew up in Kentwood, Louisiana) and former LSU basketball coach John Brady where we would be joined by another Saints fan, Rachel Tumminello and her family.
As we continued our westbound walk on Tulane Avenue towards South Robertson Street, located a few blocks away from the Superdome, Kailin and I had a discussion about the Big Easy.
"Here in New Orleans," she said, "you can be yourself. You don't have to be anyone else here. That's why it's so unique."
We then arrive at Handsome Willy's, a popular hangout for Tulane medical students located near the corner of South Robertson and Tulane Avenue. Named for a pimp who once roamed the grounds a century ago, the bar was one of the first businesses to open after Hurricane Katrina and offered free shots to patrons whenever the Saints scored a touchdown.
After celebrating Ms. Tumminello's birthday with some birthday shots, we then made our way to the tailgate area (actually it was the adjacent parking lot) where we did the three things people in New Orleans do best.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
V. "Respect My Saints"
After saying goodbye to Ms. Tumminello and Kailin, I head east on Tulane back towards the Dome, less than three hours before game time.
In the days leading up to the game, one of my Twitter followers had suggested a tweet up due in part to the large number of our followers being in town for Saints-Cowboys.
Before the tweet up however, I went searching for my friend Cassie, who was tailgating with her family in the Superdome parking lot.
"I’m looking for 1AM," I told the parking lot attendant.
"That was what the text message said," I explained.
"Normally the tailgaters are upstairs," the attendant told me.
Fifteen minutes later, I spotted Cassie, who was in a Marques Colston jersey.
"This guy," she said, referring to me, "has a catchphrase called 'Say Goodnight Cassie'". Except he follows like five (actually three) Cassies on Twitter."
After meeting up with Cassie , I return to Champions Square where I meet up with one of Louisiana’s greatest characters, Kirk Whitfield, who was attending the Saints-Cowboys game with his wife Billie.
"Memphis needs something like this," I said to him, "Closest thing we have to this is Tiger Lane (Memphis' half-assed attempt at bringing life to the Fairgrounds area) and the only time you see any kind of life is during football season."
"Wonder where Atlanta’s Champions Square is," Kirk said to me.
"Probably Magic City. Tons of games have been lost due to that place."
As the sun began to set over New Orleans, I receive a text message from my friend Sharriji, the creator of the Who Dat Tweetup.
"She told us to meet at the flagpole," I said to Kirk, showing him the text message I received.
After a few minutes, I’m introduced to Judy Boggan, a schoolteacher from Mississippi, who brought a sign for defensive end Junior Gallette, a folk hero of sorts to the Who Dat Nation.
While waiting for Shariji and the rest of the folks, I'm introduced to a Saints fan that went by the name of Bumpy.
"I taught my daughters three things," he told me, "Respect their elders, respect God, and respect the Saints."
VI. "I Don’t Want to Leave"
Returning to Carondelet Avenue and the Marquette House later that night, I had a conversation with the manager about my sadness towards leaving New Orleans the following afternoon.
"If I didn't have to train for this new job," I told the desk attendant, "I wouldn't even return to Memphis. But when you make a commitment you honor it with no questions asked."
"If you stayed," the attendant said, "your view of the city would be completely different."
St. Charles Avenue from Lee Circle.
It’s Monday morning.
Realizing that I have to check out of the Marquette House at 11 a.m., I make one last run down St. Charles Avenue.
I attempt to make a stop at my friend Chris Crane’s job in Uptown but after a mile, I realize that my legs are rendered to that of Jello.
Instead, I walk down Carondelet, starting at Louisiana Avenue and ending at Jackson, near the Marquette House.
As I was walking towards the lobby of the Marquette House, those same folks that were at the patio table on Saturday were there.
"Leaving us?" one of them asked me.
"Yeah," I replied as I looked around the courtyard.
"You’re always welcome here at the Marquette House. Don’t be a stranger."