(Jacob says to point out that it’s Melissa writing these posts. In case it’s not obvious.)
Jacob woke up around 7 and left for his conference. He called soon after to tell me that the hotel room’s price on the door was “just an average” (which makes no sense to me, but whatever) according to the desk clerk, who also apologized for causing us worry ulcers. I managed to fall asleep again and slept until 11 a.m., probably because the two previous nights were so restless. I like the bed’s duvet, too. When I finally woke up, the Pelf Fairy had visited with a nice aluminum water bottle from the conference so I wouldn’t dehydrate during the day. I felt I had to scramble to make up for lost time, so I quickly got dressed and picked up juice and a muffin in the hotel’s overpriced snack shop and ran outside.
Then I had to stop because the air was more or less solid.
I’m not a stranger to humidity, though it’s been a while since I lived anywhere that it was a problem. But I’ve never spent a lot of time in the South, where humidity and heat combine into an atmosphere liquid enough to require scuba gear. It’s really not all that hot here, especially since today is still overcast—maybe mid-80s. But it feels like something Dante would have written about if he’d lived in Louisiana instead of Italy.
The first thing you realize, walking around New Orleans in this weather, is that you don’t want to go too fast. It’s hot, but you don’t really sweat because the humidity is so high your body gets confused about whether it really needs to produce more moisture. Then the instant you step into an air-conditioned building (and they are ALL air-conditioned) your body seems to realize that you’re way too warm and overcompensates. I was doing fine walking down Canal Street until I went into the pharmacy. Then I turned into an extra from “The Waters of Mars.” I actually had to hang around inside ten minutes longer than I needed just so I could dry off a bit.
(Another thing about the way the big chain stores don’t really dominate the neighborhood: there’s a McDonald’s on Canal Street between our hotel and the CVS Pharmacy, but you can’t tell unless you’re right next to it because the sign is under the store’s awning. And the Arby’s in the other direction looks more like an old-time movie theater.)
After picking up the few things we’d forgotten and taking them back to the hotel room, I set out on my journey. The first thing I wanted to find was the bookstore we saw on Charlie’s whirlwind tour. I didn’t realize that it is actually next door to our hotel. It’s just on the corner across from Evelyn’s Place, and if we’d kept walking last night we would have seen it. I’m sure this has some cosmic significance, but I don’t know what it is. I bought enough books there that I had to go back to the hotel and drop them off. I probably should have had the nice man ship them to my house instead.
On my third start, I went the other way out of the hotel—its main entrance is on Canal Street, but its big garage entrance is on Chartres, which is how I’d been leaving before—and crossed over to Decatur. My goal for the day was Jackson Square and the Cafe du Monde. None of the museums I wanted to see are open on Mondays (I don’t know why) so I figured I could spend a leisurely couple of hours strolling up Decatur, coming back via Chartres, and stopping in at whatever stores looked interesting.
There are a million little shops and cafes and bars all along Decatur. Most of the souvenir stores looked depressingly similar, so I didn’t stop (no sense in getting drenched just to pop in and out of several different places). I was greeted by someone in front of the House of Blues, where I want to go for dinner—I don’t know what to call him, but his job was to talk people into eating there. He was more or less unique. A lot of people seem to linger in front of the stores and restaurants, but most of them seemingly have nothing to do. From a distance, they look like idlers from street gangs or the unemployment line, but they don’t accost the passersby and (when you get close) don’t seem shiftless or menacing. It’s just one of the things that makes the French Quarter what it is.
Then I found another bookstore. I swear I wasn’t looking for one; it was just there across the road. The guy at the counter gave me a map with other local bookstores listed, all within walking distance. There are eight. Six more to go.
It probably would have made more sense to once again return to the hotel and leave the bag of books behind (you knew there would be a bag of books, right?) but at this point it was 1:30 and I was starting to be impatient with all the bookstores throwing themselves at me. I resolved to keep going. It’s a fair distance from Canal Street to Jackson Square, almost a mile, but you hardly notice (if you are not lugging a bag of books, that is) because there’s so much to look at. I had to keep track of all the stores I want to go back to this week, all the restaurants to go to, and so forth. There’s a place where North Peters Street comes in from the south to meet up with Decatur, and in the triangle they make with Conti is a green area and an enormous statue of Jean Baptiste le Moyne Bienville, the founder of New Orleans. Across the street is the Hard Rock Cafe and on the Decatur side is Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Co. Bubba Gump was playing Queen. I don’t know what the Hard Rock Cafe was playing. No jazz yet.
By the time I saw Jackson Square ahead, I was ready to sit down in the park and rest. But then, there it was—the Cafe du Monde! I perked up enough to cross the street and walk in, where I collapsed in a chair by the window. (I decided by then that sweating a little was worth sitting inside.)
The Cafe du Monde is really big. Its outdoor seating is easily twice the size of the cafe itself. The menu is limited; you go there for beignets and coffee, and that’s about it. (I had Coke instead.) You don’t get in line or wait to be seated, but instead find yourself a table and wait for a server to notice you. They have a lot of servers. About half of them were just sitting along the walls taking a break or something, but the service was still fast. I got an old lady who would have been comfortable working for Stalin as an enforcer. No fuss, no conversation, just took my order and left. I loved it. I was in no mood to chat.
A beignet, in case you don’t know, is a kind of fried pastry, similar to a scone or sopaipilla, about the size of a tennis ball. They’re also known as French donuts. At the Cafe du Monde, you get three to an order in a saucer with half a pound of powdered sugar. They are, no kidding, one of the best foods ever invented. You pay when the server brings them to you and she makes change right there—no waiting around for a cashier. I think the Cafe du Monde is my new favorite place.
I was refreshed enough to continue a little farther along Decatur and do some actual souvenir shopping at Aunt Sally’s Original Creole Pralines. I wasn’t in the mood for pralines, but I did get some praline pecans for a snack and some gifts for friends that will remain a secret for now, haha. I considered going all the way to the flea market, but that was a little too far. So I cut through Jackson Square over to Chartres and took a little break there (completely forgetting to stop and take a picture of the Cafe du Monde).
Jackson Square is surrounded by buskers and street artists, but the square itself reminded me a lot of the public area outside Temple Square—very quiet, no vendors of any kind. A statue of Andrew Jackson, for whom the square is named, sits at the center of the space. No one seemed to be taking pictures of him except me. In fact, I didn’t see many cameras anywhere. I took one so he wouldn’t feel neglected.
When I came out of Aunt Sally’s, I could hear someone playing the trumpet. It turned out to be a guy on the far side of Jackson Square, so as I crossed the park I got to listen to his extensive repertoire. He went from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into “Little Bunny Foo Foo” without a break, which cracked me up. His friend took a picture of me with him while he was playing. The last thing I heard him do was the Sesame Street Theme. It was great.
The difference between Chartres and Decatur is much greater than the block separating them. Chartres has fewer souvenir shops and a lot more boutique-type stores: antique shops, jewelry and clothing stores, at least one shoe store, and the aforementioned used book store. I stopped in at most of them just to look around, but at Earth Odyssey I struck up a conversation with the owner, Joy. I had been looking for Earth Odyssey because it sells stones and beads, but Joy and I got to talking about children and stuff and it was really nice. I bought a pair of super cool earrings, but I’ll have to go back for more.
It was just after 3 p.m. when I returned to the hotel. I was drenched. I can’t remember ever sweating this much in my entire life. I hope there are some kind of laundry facilities in the hotel, because I’m going to run out of clothing. Aren’t showers lovely? Whoever invented them is a genius.
By the time Jacob got back and we were ready to go to dinner, it was raining. We decided to tough it out for the short walk to the House of Blues. The entrance is a narrow door like all the rest, but it leads to a brick alley and a courtyard that are so pretty. I was glad we weren’t there for the show, because there were already people lined up along the alley in the rain and a shorter line of people hoping to get tickets to the sold-out show.
It was a short wait to be seated, but then it was a very long wait to place our order. Our waitress looked very flustered and would dash past with a quick “Hello” or “Just one minute.” Our first theory was that we were being shunned because we are old and uncool (our entering raised the average age in the room by about 3.6 years), but soon we realized that the place was just woefully understaffed. My seat gave me a good view of the kitchen and the cash register, so I saw our poor waitress trying to enter five different checks from one table in under two minutes. We had nowhere else to go, so we sat it out.
It was totally worth it. I’ve never had catfish before, so I have nothing to compare it too, but it was juicy and tender and smothered in tomato-heavy salsa. Jacob’s favorite was the key lime pie. For a while I thought he might just die from happiness with every bite. It really was that good. We were probably there for over an hour and a half—a slow meal, but worth waiting for. When the waitress brought our bill, she thanked us for being so patient and said she’d taken my chocolate cake off the total in gratitude. It ended up being a good evening.
We found a cafe next door to the bookstore that does breakfast, so tomorrow we’ll give it a try. On Tuesday: I see how many tours I can squeeze in before I go souvenir-hunting.