Friday, September 17, 2010

passage from Charles Kuralt's "America"

(hint: get it as an audiobook):

It's not a long taxi ride from the airport to the hotel where I like to stay in the French Quarter, twenty minutes or so if there's no traffic. That was plenty of time for John Laine, the cab driver, to discourse on the main themes of the city: family, music and food.

"My great-grandfather was one of the first white jazzmen, 'Papa' Jack Lane. You must have heard of him. He played with Kid Ory and Leon Rappolo and those guys around the turn of the century. His drums are in the Jazz Museum. You can see 'em there.

"Of course, what I remember him for is not his drumming. He used to work with mules down beside the old molasses factory, and he'd stick his whole arm into a mule's rectum to lubricate up in there. I was just a little boy, and I'll tell you, that impressed the hell out of me!"

I could have closed my eyes in the backseat of the taxi and known where I was purely by the pungent accent washing over me from up front. The authentic dialect of New Orleans has been compared to Brooklynese, but really it is like no other in the world. From the first time I heard those sweet New Olreans intonations, they have been music to my ears.

"My grandfather Alfred played the trumpet. He came up with Louis Armstrong. He loved that man, and I did, too, especially when he sang 'What a Wonderful World.' Louis Armstrong should have been a U.S. ambassador. Everybody loved him."

John paused just long enough for me to murmur agreement and moved on to another subject, the truly universal one of spices and sauces and sustenance.

"I don't know where you're going to eat tonight, but you can't go wrong in New Orleans, you already know that, right? I got relatives in Spokane, Washington. I can't believe it, these people from Spokane just eat plain food!"

"Papa" Laine's great-grandson turned into Toulouse Street and stopped in front of the Maison de Ville. "Here we are," he said. "Life is short, now, so have a good time while you're here."

The next noon, I heard those exact words from Ella Brennan. I was sitting at a second-floor table in Commander's Palace, her Garden District restaurant, arguably the best eating place of all in this city devoted to eating. I had finished a good lunch of sauteed trout encrusted with pecans, and was surreptitiously sopping up the last of the brown sauce with a crust of bread. Just then, of course, the grand dame of New Orleans cooking dropped by to catch me eating with my fingers. I think she forgave me; we have known each other since we were in our twenties.

We fell to talking about the city's chronic problems: poor people and crooked politicians.

"I wish we didn't have the poverty and the corruption," Ella said, "but a friend of mine asked me, 'Do you like Italy?' I said of course, everybody likes Italy. My friend said, 'Well, think Italy.'

"I guess it's true. New Orleans is a Mediterranean city. It has certain habits, like good food, good times, families, friendship, poverty, sin...We're not going to change it."

Her gaze shifted to the rows of great gray tombs in the old Lafayette Cemetery across the street. "Just look over there," she said, and when I did, I knew right away what she meant.

She gave my hand a little squeeze as she got up to go. She said, "Have a good time while you're here."

Unless you're broke or sick or blue-nosed, I don't see how you could have anything but a good time in New Orleans. "Unique" is a word that cannot be qualified. It does not mean rare or uncommon; it means alone in the universe. By the standards of grammar and by the grace of God, New Orleans is the unique American place.

This would still be so if all the city had to offer were the flickering gas lamps in the soft nights, or the delicate tracery of the iron work on the galleries of the French Quarter (in New Orleans, they are galleries, not balconies, and they hang above banquettes, not sidewalks), or the open doors of the Dionysian dives bellowing loud music into Bourbon Street. But there is also the all-important matter of grillades and grits, of red beans and rice, of crawfish etouffee and and file' gumbo and pompano en papillote.

"If you understand New Orleans food, you understand New Orleans life."

This is Joe Cahn talking, standing in the bountiful herbs and spices aisle of his Louisiana General Store in the old Jax Brewery building on Decatur Street.

"Most of the United States was settled by Anglo-Saxons and Puritan types. The work ethic prevailed, and all the pleasures of life were frowned on. It's real simple: work ethic equals bland food."

"But New Orleans, on the other hand -- oh, man, New Orleans didn't know what the work ethic is, still doesn't! We were settled by Catholics from Spain and France who thought work should never interfere with the enjoyment of life. And that's what makes this place different from the rest of America. People in New Orleans believe in living in the present, and skimming off as much pleasure as they can today and eating as well as they can tonight. That goes for everybody. If you go to confession and say to the priest, 'I overate, Father,' you'll have his interest right away. He'll probably ask you, 'Where did you eat?'"

I took a rickety seventy-year-old streetcar out St. Charles Avenue, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, clickety clack, a satisfying slow, stately way to travel through the quiet precinct of live oaks and crape myrtles and great antebellum houses. This other New Orleans was put here by the Protestant planters and entrepreneurs who floated down the river from the East after the Louisiana Purchase. The Garden District stands in elegant contrast to the crowded Creole city only a mile or two away, and it reflects an entirely different view of what life should be: serene and sumptuous, not brazen and exciting. I admire the mansions the newcomers built, but I think I would have preferred the more stimulating company of the Creoles. Look at the names of the streets where the Americans built their most beautiful dwellings: First, Second, Third, and Fourth. These people were long orthodoxy and short on imagination.

Streets in such a whimsical metropolis should have better names than First, Second, Third, and Fourth. Luckily, a more creative class of street names was also at work. Half a dozen blocks away, the stroller seeking more felicitous streets, comes, sure enough, to Felicity, and then to the Greek muses in turn, Polymnia, Euterpe, and Terpsichore, pronounced Terpsy-core. Never mind pronunciation. Who wouldn't rather live on a street named for Thalia, the muse of comedy, than on First or Second or Third? Erato, who inspired love poems, has her street, and so does Clio, goddess of history, almost under the Pontchartrain Expressway. Melpomene Street, after it crosses St. Charles, becomes Martin Luther King Boulevard. I wonder whether somebody in City Hall, looking for a street to rename for the martyred Dr. King, remembered that Melpomene was the goddess of tragedy.

After you get over the disappointment of the few numbered blocks, it slowly dawns on you that New Orleans rejoices in the most lyrical street names in the world. Where else can you take a walk down Narcissus Street, or Venus, Adonis, or Bacchus? Not only are the gods so honored, but also all the best human impulses, Community, Concord, and Compromise. On my way to the Pontchartrain lakefront one day, riding with a cab driver who blessed himself with the sign of the cross as we passed each Catholic church (but not the other churches), I took note of the names of the streets we crossed: Abundance, Treasure, Pleasure, Benefit, and Humanity. Then I remembered the name of the wide thoroughfare on which we were traveling, a boulevard so familiar that nobody thinks any more about the meaning of its name -- Elysian Fields! The paradisiacal home of the blessed after death is best known, in temporal New Orleans, as the fastest way to get from the river to the lake.

Weakness of the flesh is recognized in the street names too. Everybody knows the name of one such street by the tram that used to run along it, the Streetcar Named Desire. Just for the mainly reverent record of the New Orleans street-namers: the street one block over from Desire is Piety.

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