With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
This week has gone by too fast. Thanks to my bride, the time was efficiently planned leaving ample time to relax.
Since we haven’t seen the New Orleans Historical Society Museum, the Cabildo or the Presbytere yet we plan to knock those out if possible.
First stop, the special exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection called Purchased Lives. It begins with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the subsequent ordinance making it illegal to take people from Africa, Barbados, Haiti… for sale in the United States. However, the hundreds of thousands of slaves, already on the Eastern seaboard were fair game.
Almost immediately, companies started buying up slaves from Virginia and the Carolinas to bring down to Louisiana where the need was greatest. Hundreds of plantations along the Mississippi had demands to produce rice, cotton and sugar.
Individuals, subjugated against their will by opportunistic businessmen, were shipped down to New Orleans; the hub of buying and selling in the early 1800’s. Many banks along Chartres and Royal Street provided loans for the shipments of souls. The sites of these erstwhile banks still show their cartouche on the iron railings outside, including the restaurant called Brennan’s.
Across the street from this exhibition on Chartres, is the tony Omni Hotel. Formerly called the Saint Louis Hotel it was the epicenter of slave auctions. Amidst its opulent settings coffles (groups of chained slaves) were lined up and sold, one by one. It was a fashionable society event at the time. Pliant slaves prepared other slaves for the auction block, trimming grey hairs and whiskers, shaving and bathing, and even engaged them in forced dancing to strengthen their muscles and make them more physically appealing.
Brooks Brothers, the leading manufacturer of fine clothing at the time, was one of the companies complicit in its support of slavery. They provided clothes to owners needing to dress up their property prior to the auction. After the sale, the company helped out plantation owners with clothing for field work. Clothing was provided to both parties at little to no money.
“That’s it, bebehhhh. No more Brooks Brothers clothes for you,” my bride whispers, glancing at the glass case showing plantation clothes.
“Look at that stitching though, angel. Even back then they made quality clothes.”
She rolls her eyes and then pinches my arm.
The exhibit continues with the slave revolt on the Uncas. Out of several hundred on board, a handful of slaves led a rebellion demanding the ship turn around and go back to Barbados. The ship complied and upon arriving at the British protectorate, the revolutionaries were briefly arrested and the non-combatants were given their freedom. It was considered one of the most successful slave ship revolts.
We haven’t seen or read 12 Years a Slave so we did not know Solomon Northup was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sent down to New Orleans. We both looked at wonder and disgust at the actual passenger list including his new name, Platt, to disguise his free man identity.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves tried in desperation to reconnect with family ripped from them years ago. The Southwestern Christian Advocate began posting Letters to the Editor where former slaves could write in inquiring about missing family members. Jesus. Those letters make me tear up even now.
That is the biggest surprise for me, in coming to New Orleans. How one cannot go through this city without being reminded of its horrific legacy. Even the freely given Southern hospitality has its ancestral ugliness. And Hurricane Katrina brings this agenda full circle, people measured in dark currency.
We need fresh air. It’s close to noon so we try Café Pontalba one last time. We must have been insane to think there’d be seating. Jackson Square is blanketed with people, including families at this point. Deciding quickly, I suggest another Brennan’s restaurant, Tableau, located steps from the Square.
The host leads us upstairs to the patio. From our seat we can see everything. From St. Peter’s Street leading all the way to Rampart where we can just make out the Louis Armstrong Park sign, the brilliant Creole architecture shines in the sun.
Below us, the frenzy of activity. Aside from tourists, painters have filled the outside gates of the Square with their artwork, musicians are blasting jazz from various locations, and street performers including fortune tellers clog the area.
Suddenly several limos arrive, a wedding party emerges, replete with bride, no doubt for an early afternoon nuptials at Saint Louis Cathedral. It is a beautiful day for a wedding.
I initially order a Dark ‘n Stormy from our chipper waitress, Jen, but she soon returns informing me they have run out of ginger beer. I get water and my bride, a Coke. The water is a good choice given the fast approaching high temperature of midday. My bride finds her Coke refreshing.
Jen tells us the crepe special today is beef tenderloin with caramelized onions and roasted garlic sauce. Best crepes we’ve ever had. So soft and perfect in its distribution of beef and onion with a subtle but zinger of a sauce.
My bride has been waiting for the right time to get a po’ boy. Shrimp po’ boy. Now, the bar has been set fairly low for po’ boys this trip and this fresh, overstuffed sandwich clears it with room to spare. No question. I opt for a bacon cheeseburger Creole-style. Oh my god. Best lunch so far.
Yeah. There’s a reason Dickie Brennan has six restaurants in town. The food is that good.
Since drama seems to follow our meals, the check and payment process is interesting. Jen produces a tablet-like device saying that the bill is electronic. She says to just follow the directions on the screen. The sun glare proves a challenge, for one, and then when I swipe my card, it doesn’t seem to register. The screen goes blank.
I call Jen over and she inspects it and then says there’s a problem printing out the physical check downstairs and asks for my card again. Reluctantly, I hand it over. She hands it back a few minutes later, reassuring me the card wasn’t charged twice. (When we returned home, that was not the case and I am currently working with my credit card company to have one of the charges removed.)
Despite the slight hiccup, there is nothing to dampen our mood after that sensational lunch. Except a recent retrospective at the Presbytere museum commemorating the tenth-year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The exhibit is just as heartbreaking as you would expect. I still remember leaving the community health center in Trenton, hearing WBAL ‘s Tom Joyner Show getting eyewitnesses on the radio discussing the deplorable conditions at the Convention Center, when the local authorities and FEMA didn’t even know people were there.
It is reported the majority of the deaths occurred among the elderly, even though they comprise of five percent of the city population. Most deaths were from drowning or asphyxiation, suffocating in the poorly insulated attics.
If I may share a contrast to the events of 9/11. New York City took a rather separate group of people and brought them together to help during this crisis. It worked out great, everyone banded together for a time, and then a short time afterwards, the separateness returned. NYC could come together but it was not in their nature to be united.
New Orleans appears to be different, Katrina exemplifying the sense of community already in place. From the many people we spoke to, it is the Southern hospitality and integrative cohabitation that is pure NOLA. People specifically cite the actions of individual citizens coming in to help and being welcomed into the community as a core reason why the city has been able to repair itself after so devastating a disaster.
That said, the same people say New Orleans does not have a race problem, and everyone gets along well with others. I know this to be misleading as evidenced by newspapers explaining the current antagonistic relationship between certain communities and the police. Even in my short time here, the difference is felt between the have and have-nots. New Orleans’ history not so easily washed away.
Well, it’s time to go. We hop into the cab, pre-ordered by my amazing bride.
“Where to, bro?”
Our first white Southerner behind the wheel. Named Junior. We tell him our destination.
“Lookit this traffic. But don’t worry, bro. I’ll getcha there.”
The chattiest of our cabbies so far, he tells us he’s a 23-year veteran of the US Marines. He seems open to any conversation.
I remark about how friendly everyone has been.
“Well, sure, that’s Southern hospitality for ya. Where ya from, anyway?”
We tell him.
“Ha! New York! Ya know the difference between New York City and Newarlins? In Newarlins if someone bumps into you they say excuse me but in New York if they bump into you they say fuck you. Yeah, I have relatives there. I remember this one time I asked this boy a question and he said, what? Or, yeah? Just not raised right if you ask me. Now here, I was raised to say no sir and yes sir and that’s the way kids talk to people. Because they were raised right.”
My bride is already squeezing my arm, her hand beginning to perspire. I give her a reassuring smile.
“Now, I’ve lived here all my life. I get along with ev’rybody. I’m not carin’ if you’re black, white or purple. You treat me good, I’ll treat you good. That what people not from here don’t get. Newarlins doesn’t have a race problem. They say, how’s that possible? But it’s simple because we just respec’ each other.”
Her hand perspires more but I hold it tighter.
“Now, not everybody understands. There was one time, I remember it was right after 9/11, and I’m pickin’ up a fare. They called in, jus’ like you, from the Hyatt downtown, and the, no, wait, the Hilton, yeah, and as I’m loading their bags this other cab kinda comes at me at an angle, crisscrossing me. Well, he leaps out and starts in on sayin’ ‘You steal my cab! You steal my ride! You steal my fare!’ wavin’ his arms around gettin’ all worked up. And as I’m tryin’ to get these people in, he keeps goin’ on and on about me takin’ his fare. So I say, hey buddy, they called. I didn’t take your fare. Just get back in your cab. Well, he continues on, starting with the Allah this and Allah that and ‘Allah will provide for all , you don’t need to steal fares, Allah will provide’. And I tell him, listen buddy, I don’t know about your Allah, I don’t wanna know about your Allah. I believe in Jesus Christ. Then he says, Allah is great and some other gibberish I don’t understand and he’s getting more and more agitated and then starts to get verbally aggressive, y’know, in my face? So I go up against him and say, listen, I’m 23 years in the Marines and if you don’t get back in your cab I’m gonna take out your Adam’s apple and show it to you. He gets more upset and now the police are involved. Oh, yeah, it’s really got bad and he’s called the police. So this guy comes over to me and I tell him what happened and what I said, I know the guy from around and he knows me, so now he goes over to the other guy and looks him the eye and says, you’re lucky that guy didn’t do what he said he would do. Now get in your cab. Anyway, the Taxi Board Commission got involved and he lost his license for six months. He was lucky.”
I don’t have to look over at my bride. My sopping wet hand is indication enough. Her grip tightens.
“The people in this country. They don’t know how good they have it. I was in Somalia in the 90’s and I tell ya, it was everyone. Everywhere I looked people were skinny and dyin’. Jus’ miserable. And that’s everyone. I remember I gave a kid a Milky Way and he looks at me like I gave him five million dollars. Jesus. I seen it all. I was in Vietnam when I was eighteen. On my eighteenth birthday. I saw more people die than I ever wanted.”
As we approach the airport, he asks a few perfunctory questions about our flight. A minute of silence follows. I smile at her, mouthing the words, we’re almost there.
“Yeah, 23 years in the Marines. I retired a Sergeant Major. That’s the highest rank for an enlisted man. But you know what? My son’s got me beat. Enlisted with the Navy and busted his ass. Now he’s a Navy Seal. Tough tough kid. Got like, 5 percent body fat. That’s crazy. His body is crazy. And I tell him he’s crazy. A body like that. But he’s fit. God, he’s got a body like iron. Ya know what they can do? They tread water for ten hours straight. Ya hafta be tough to do that. Tread water for ten hours? That’s tough. I was in great shape for the Marines but the best I could probably do was tread for maybe thirty minutes. Ten hours. That’s incredible. Okay. Southwest. Here we are, bro.”
The ride is over. But what a ride it’s been. And over way too soon.