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  • Hannah Grabenstein

Days 8-10, New Orleans and Houston

The absolute best thing about being in the South right now is the oppressive humidity and unrelenting heat. My hair is massive. My skin is always slightly damp and everything I touch is kind of sticky. The air is thick and warm, and it's February! Last night, my cousin and I walked to dinner, a Mexican restaurant maybe a quarter of a mile down the road from their beautiful Houston neighborhood, and I couldn't believe how pleasant it was. It was so lovely strolling in the soft evening breeze. This is a good part of the country in the winter. I get it.


Monday, our first full day in New Orleans, I did laundry, hang drying the clothes because the house only had a washer. My sweatpants weren't fully dry until we left Wednesday morning. During those two days, while my underwear, socks, and sweatpants barely dried in the Louisiana swamp humidity, Jade, Nicole and I did about a thousand things. We paid way too much money for terrible macarons and a mediocre breakfast at a French cafe, we ate bugs, we saw three separate live bands, the third of which, the Treme Brass Band, I loved by far the most.


Actually, that's a good story. We'd just left the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a small museum in a former funeral home conceived of and largely executed by a man named Sylvester Francis, who loved documenting jazz funerals and Mardi Gras parades. The whole of the space - three or four rooms and a hallway - is filled to the brim with elaborate masks (the generic term for costumes for the parades), framed photos, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from decades of curation of New Orleans festival culture. It's in the Treme neighborhood, which was hit hard by Katrina. I was wondering how hard, and as we walked to Dooky Chase for lunch, we passed two older men, one in a Dashiki-style vest, standing next to a pickup.


As with most people in the city, they recognized us as tourists immediately, but like everyone else, they greeted us warmly. We said good morning back and kept walking, but I realized I could probably ask them my questions about the neighborhood.


Anyway, I realize this is wordy. To shorten the story, we talked, the man in the vest is Al Jackson, who runs the Petit Jazz Museum, and the man in the other vest is Benny Jones, who plays in the Treme Brass Band. Mr. Jackson gave us a private tour of his small museum, which had great jazz and non-jazz memorabilia, and told us to see Mr. Jones in the show on Frenchmen Street that night. So we did!


They were excellent. Loud and brassy and fun to dance to and a great time.


Other things we did:

Southern Food and Beverage Museum/Toups South for cracklins and drinks and buttermilk biscuits with crab "butter."

Ogden Museum of Southern Art for another wonderful perspective on the New South.

Roosevelt Hotel for a sazerac for Jade and a much sweeter drink for me and Nicole.

The French Quarter/Bourbon Street, largely to get back to the Airbnb but also for Jade to get a slice of pizza.

Dat Dog for messy fuckin' dogs.

Some band at a bar on Frenchmen with an older crowd. The vocalist was a brassy Amy Winehouse type who, in my opinion, liked to hear herself talk and growl more than sing. She had an undeniably good voice, but her crowd work was so very tiring. At one point, I watched a man and a woman who I immediately recognized as travelers by their unfussy and slightly dirty clothes, their large backpack, their hiking boots, their unkempt hair. They were young, maybe younger than I am, walking a dog, and she carried a violin or viola and he had a guitar. The man and dog continued on but the woman stopped outside the door to listen, a beatific smile on her face as she watched the lead singer. Finally both came inside and danced wildly and joyfully, the only two in the place dancing at all, so that was fun to watch.

A Zydeco?Folk?Acoustic? band at a cash only bar called The Spotted Cat. Among us we had just enough for the one drink minimum and a tip, so Jade gave the band her change, which was not super well received. Still! More than if we hadn't come in!

Dooky Chase for lunch. The buffet was good. The gumbo and shrimp creole were amazing. I have learned for next time.

St. Louis Cemetery #2 where I SAW A SKULL AND SOME BONES. The cemetery was in pretty bad shape in some places, and one big mausoleum had a small section caved in. I peeked in to see what was in there and I don't know what I expected but way far back I saw a skull and a bone or two. So that was interesting.

The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium where I ATE A BUG! I know this is not a big deal and people do it every day but whatever I did it and it was a whole thing for me! Also I touched a millipede and we saw a billion butterflies.

Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar for raw oysters (which I did not eat) and chargrilled oysters (which I happily ate) and crawfish mac and cheese (which I inhaled). We joined two of my friends from my trip to Israel there, and one of their friends, so the six of us hung out there, then went out on Frenchmen to see the Treme Brass Band, grab some frozen Irish coffee (a drink I never knew I needed in my life) and wander around there.


So that was New Orleans. I woke up at 4:15 to take Nicole to the airport and despite a delay she made her connecting flight home! Jade decided to rent a car and drive back to Little Rock instead of taking the Amtrak, so we parted at about 11, each with an hours-long drive ahead of us.


And boy was that drive boring. I was tired, and there's not a ton of scenery (a good bit of swamp and then just open land). And then luckily, I showed up to family! I'm now staying with first cousins, once and twice removed, at their lovely house in Houston. They've got animals whom I already love and they so kindly gave me a wonderful bedroom. After dinner, my 15 year old cousin (first, twice removed?) and I watched Law and Order: SVU and then I just drifted off to sleep.


Despite hemorrhaging money in New Orleans, the trip has been excellent so far. No major issues, the tire has been fine, and I've gotten to see so many people in my life. Everyone is so kind and helpful, and if I were a millionaire I'd do this forever.


Yesterday's playlist:

A half dozen, finished and unfinished, episodes of Rough Translation

A Google Instant Mix starting with "Alex Chilton," by The Replacements