I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months: eight days in New Orleans, most of them on my own, all of them sans children. It’s been almost ten years since the last time Jacob and I took a vacation alone. I love my kids, but all moms know that any vacation taken with the whole family is a vacation for everyone but Mom. So, having promised to return with loads of souvenirs, we packed our bags and headed for the airport. Aside from a short trip two years ago, I haven’t flown since that last trip ten years ago. Things have changed at the airport. Like, for example, how you are charged for every piece of luggage you check. Or that going over the weight limit of 50 pounds invokes yet another charge of $90. That last one was too exorbitant even for us and led to Jacob transferring my laptop to his backpack. (This would later turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but at the time we started planning to buy a third suitcase to haul back the loads of souvenirs.)
The flight was no big deal. We had a momentary panic (and by we, I mean myself) when we had to cross Houston International Airport in about two and a half minutes to catch our connecting flight. That meant taking both a shuttle bus and a little train and a lot of walking. The person who designed that airport will either earn a lot of condemnation in Heaven or an upper-tier seat in Hell.
At New Orleans, we discovered that our suitcases hadn’t made it on to the plane with us in Houston. No doubt they took the wrong shuttle. Fortunately, the baggage claim lady was both competent and friendly. She arranged for the bags to be sent on to our hotel and told us exactly what to do at the hotel to make sure they came to our room. But this was only the first delay. Then came the nightmare of Standing In Line. There was a lot of this going around at the airport. You stand in line for a ticket on hotel shuttle (which is, by the way, managed not by the hotel but by the airport, and costs a merry bundle). Then you stand in line to wait for the shuttle. There are many lines, and even if you follow directions and get your ticket inside before queuing up, you still might not know which line to stand in. Thankfully, we had the Line Lady. This was a diminutive black woman with endless
quantities of energy and patience who kept walking up and down the curb, checking shuttle tickets, directing traffic, and sending people to the right line. At first I mistook her efficiency for abruptness, until Jacob cracked a joke and she laughed and said something funny in return. We began to look for her infrequent appearances as a sign that eventually the shuttle would come. We needed the reassurance because we stood in line for what in subjective time was about fifteen days. The shuttles, taxis, and other airport traffic run in endless circles through the tunnel formed by a roof across the airport exits. You’d probably appreciate it if it were raining, but when it’s overcast and muggier than usual, and the exhaust from traffic is trapped in that little area, all you can think about is how sweaty you are and how likely it is that you will collapse in the path of one of the many taxis that pass by at freeway speeds.
The shuttle that finally came for us, just before we resorted to cannibalism, was driven by an old man who looked as if he had last smiled during the Nixon Era. He banged doors and hefted bags and grouched at people, including the Line Lady, and then merged into the high-speed taxi lane with the skill of an Andretti. Maybe I was just confused from the heat, or maybe driving fast agreed with him, because he suddenly introduced himself as Charlie and turned out to be a charming and funny guy. The ride to the hotel became a mini-tour of the French Quarter, with Charlie dishing out bits of information about the places we passed (like how the grassy strips between lanes that we call medians are called neutral areas in memory of the demarcation meant to keep the French and American settlers from killing each other after the Louisiana Purchase).
Most of New Orleans is a modern city with the typical mixture of new and decrepit that all modern cities have. But the French Quarter is a microcosm of history embedded in the city that has assimilated modern life without being altered by it. The streets Charlie took us down are very narrow, one-lane, one-way roads with no shoulder that look as though the sidewalks are just there for decoration. (Actually, they are two-lane roads, but the right-hand lane is reserved for parking. The parking rights are as narrow as the streets; this space for taxis, this one for patrons, no parking allowed in this section from 8-12 Tuesday mornings because of the street cleaners. It’s a testament to how much Americans love their cars that all the available parking was full.) I was immediately lost, despite having pored over my map of the French Quarter last week. Every so often, I saw a road sign I recognized, only to lose it as Charlie took yet another left turn and explained that Canal Street was named for a canal that had never been built. Since our hotel is on Canal Street, that’s probably fortunate.
Checking in was easy because, of course, no baggage. The elevators in the New Orleans Marriott are interesting. Instead of an up or down button, there is a little electronic box. You enter the number of the floor you’re going to, and the box tells you which elevator to board. There are no buttons to push inside; you can see your floor number on a screen by the door, along with the floors of anyone else riding with you. The elevator takes you all up and makes stops on the preprogrammed floors. It’s a very cool, if somewhat disconcerting, system, once you get past the feeling that you ought to push a button somewhere. Almost everyone we rode with today (we made several trips) seemed to be as unfamiliar with the system as we were, so I’m guessing it’s either new or we just happened to come to town the same day as all the other hicks.
We were still waiting for our luggage, so we decided to go to dinner. As Charlie had suggested, we just left the hotel and turned right and walked two blocks. Canal Street is the dividing line between where the French settled originally and where the Americans started building after Louisiana became part of the U.S. This divide is still visible; Canal Street itself has large buildings and chain stores (though surprisingly these don’t dominate the scenery the way you’d think), but on the French Quarter side, the buildings are very narrow, share common walls, and have tiny shops every third step. We passed two eateries, an adult novelties store, and something called The Harem which had the sort of women you’d imagine lounging outside. We opted for Evelyn’s Place over Daisy Duke’s and were really glad we did. Evelyn’s Place has a long wooden bar down one side and small tables and booths on the other. The décor is…I don’t know how to describe it. There were team jerseys and hats and women’s lingerie and posters over every wall and hanging from the overhead beams. A jukebox at the far end inexplicably started playing “Valley Girl” and then went silent when the song was over. There were dollar bills dangling from the ceiling and pinned in a huge collage over the bar mirror. The woman who waited on us was also tending bar, and she was the funniest and most gregarious person I’ve ever met. She joked with us over our meal and went straight back to mix some guy a Manhattan. Seriously, a Manhattan. She said no one had asked for one of those in forever—but she did it for him.
Jacob had corned beef and I had gumbo. Ahh, gumbo. This had chicken and sausage as the meats of choice, and the sausage was just spicy enough to set up a nice slow burn on my tongue and tonsils. Yum yum yum. I think I’ve come to the right city. There’s some kind of law that says the best cuisine is found in these hole-in-the-wall restaurants where they only serve four things. I’ll have to test that the rest of this week.
The luggage came right about when the baggage lady said it would. We unpacked and settled in to our enormous suite. Well, not quite a suite, but it’s bigger than our first apartment. The room has a Murphy bed, the only king-size bed available, so we got to haul it out of the wall cabinet ourselves. I usually think of such beds as belonging to hotel rooms in old noir films, so I’m having trouble imagining how Marriott came to install one in such a nice room. It’s so nice that Jacob went to check the room rate and was shocked to see that it’s almost $1000 a night. Uh…what? Our reservation is for something about a tenth of that. Somewhere there has been a huge mistake, but it’s late enough that we’re not going to deal with it until tomorrow. Plus, I’m in my pajamas.
On Monday: Jacob goes to the conference, and I go shopping. Plus, the mystery of the room rate unfolds. I hope.