Walking The Big Easy

Train schedules don’t always line up perfectly. So, I am “forced” to spend a day or so in the cities where I change trains. This is not a downside to train travel. This is part of the magic. Not passing by, but passing through.

I spent a day in New Orleans walking around. I’ve been here before and had no tourist agenda, and was therefore free to leave my hotel in sneakers, walk toward the Mississippi River and just follow my fancy.

I don’t generally travel this way. Most of my travel is centered around business and I’m very carefully and tightly scheduled, but I’ve carried those habits into my personal life so that my vacation time is often defined by lists and timetables and maps.

Since my purpose is to experience a slower, easier kind of travel, I made no plans and just walked. The first place I stopped was Café Beignet. They had a live jazz band and hot coffee. I drank the coffee fairly quickly and went back for lemonade. It’s 70 degrees in New Orleans and the air is heavy with Southern water.

I was ambling through the French Quarter and decided to visit the Museum of Death. This place is the brainchild of JD Healy and Cathee Shultz who used to write to serial killers and collect the artwork and letters they received in return. They bought Jack Kevorkian’s assisted suicide machine, along with lots of other artifacts. The place boasts “the world’s largest collection of serial killer artwork, antique funeral ephemera, mortician and coroners instruments, Manson Family memorabilia, pet death taxidermy, crime scene photographs” and many other items that will make your skin crawl. Apparently, the pair tried to buy lots of items from the police auction of stuff from the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in order to recreate the scene in its entirely. The gift shop is something to behold and the purpose of this place, reportedly, is to “make people happy to be alive.” I don’t have any pictures because the guy at the counter warned me, in no uncertain terms, that if I took out my phone at all, they’d kick me out. Absolutely no pictures allowed.

After that, I wandered toward the River again and was interested to see a statue honoring the immigrants. The plaque reads: “Dedicated to the courageous men and women who left their homeland seeking freedom, opportunity and a better life in a new country.” It was apparently commissioned by the Italian American Marching Club and went up in 1995. There was a fairly constant stream of people taking photos of it.

After gazing at paintings done by John Wayne Gacy and a fragment of Clyde Barrow’s pants, I desperately needed evidence of life, so I decided to visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. It was like a spiritual palate cleanser. Literally going from a museum focused on the violent end of life to a facility teeming and bursting with life, focused on celebrating life in its infinite aquatic varieties.

The Aquarium was an excellent idea, as it turns out. Watching fish and turtles and an albino alligator relaxed me, and I loved hearing the parents tell their kids, “Look at the otter! See him playing with his ball?” Two 20-somethings were apparently on a first date and it was charming to see them taking turns with the telescope and asking tentative questions about what kind of music the other listens to.

I gave four tips to performers today: three to various bands and musicians in the French Quarter and one to the person dressed as Darth Vader in the gold lame-lined cloak, dancing to “The Heat is On” with what can only be characterized as hip-hop and menace.

I stopped for tacos and talked to the bartender about his tattoos. He claimed they didn’t mean anything and weren’t interesting, but spent 15 minutes telling me about them. His right arm had the most amazing Japanese artwork I’ve ever seen on skin and on his wrist was the name of his oldest child, who’s now 24. (“How do you look so young,” I asked. “I’m from New Orleans. I started drinking at 14 and now I’m pickled. I’ll last forever,” he answers.) On his left arm is a detailed cicada and he flips it over to show the fleur-de-lis of the Saints, sculpted from the profile of a pelican standing atop a catfish. It’s a gorgeous piece of art. My phone had run out of batteries, so I didn’t get a picture.

I get back on the train in the morning, after walking 18,000 steps through the Crescent City. If you thought the train was slow, try walking. Slower, and yet infinitely more likely to reveal the true character of a city.