Because few Mardi Gras activities were going on today, we toured the city as any tourist would at other times of the year. We benefited from a great guide who barely stopped to breathe as he talked about his beloved city and how it began as a French colony. It was given by the King of France to the King of Spain as a birthday gift - some gift - and the Spanish and French, all Roman Catholics, lived together quite amicably and were known as Creoles. Then Napoleon came along and he needed some cash to fund all the wars he was waging in Europe, so he told the Spanish to give it back since they had never paid for it in the first place. Rather than fight Napoleon, they caved in and twenty days later the Louisiana Territory which comprises all or part of twelve states, was sold to the fledgling United States. As the Americans began to come to New Orleans in increasing numbers in their coon skin caps with their bad manners and lack of hygiene, the highly refined and cultured Creoles were very unfriendly. So, the Americans left what we know today as the French Quarter to the Creoles, and they built the Garden District and many other neighborhoods as well around the original colony.
Burying people after they died was a huge problem in those days since the water table was less than two feet below ground. When you dug a grave, you ended up digging a well. They tried putting heavy stones in the coffins, but after a hard rain, the dearly departed were no longer all that departed. Thus, the development of the above ground cemeteries that are still popular today even though the water table is significantly lower thanks to all the pumps around the city. Family crypts which look like little houses, generally have room for two coffins at a time. When a third family member dies, the oldest wooden coffin is tipped to the back and all the remaining contents fall to the rear making space for a new occupant. The crypts are very hot in the tropical New Orleans climate and human remains deteriorate very quickly. Our guide called this "cremation without a flame." There were also walls of graves where coffins were stowed without family connections. Some of the older crypts are in poor repair if no one is left behind to tend to them. Some of the crypts had wrought iron benches in front of them where grieving widows would sit after visiting their husbands' graves. Fortune hunters would cruise the grave yard, looking for rich widows sitting around there to latch on to.
Our guide had interesting explanations for words and terms which came from the rich New Orleans culture:
• picayune - This comes from the picayune coin that was worth only 3 - 3/4¢ at the time it was made. The local newspaper, the Times Picayune takes its name from the coin.
• Dixieland - For a long time bank notes were written in English on one side and French on the other. The ten dollar bill had DIX, the French word for ten on the back. As these notes circulated farther north, they were known to be from Dixieland.
• Jazz - New Orleans was notorious for its widespread prostitution. These ladies were referred to as Jezabels and the music played in their houses of ill repute became known as jazz, a corruption of the word.
• hookers - The prostitutes would sit in the windows with hooks and snag the hats of men walking by, so they would have to come inside and retrieve their hats and conduct other business.
• Satchmo - famous New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong was known as Satchmo. When he was little he would play his horn on street corners for cash and other boys would mug him afterwards. So he started storing the coins in his mouth where they would not look and was known as "Satchel Mouth."
As we walked around the French Quarter we came upon a jazz band playing outside on a street corner. They were joined occasionally by a vocalist and a dancing duo. It all felt rather spontaneous and convivial. After they played for a while, they felt finished and packed up and left after selling a few CD's and passing the hat. No license or regulations needed.
The Quarter had lots of interesting little shops and lots of bars and places to buy drinks, some incredibly large. It is also legal here to drink on the street. Doubtless this is one of the factors that makes Fat Tuesday such a raucous event.
Some parts of the Quarter, Bourbon Street in particular, are peppered with strip clubs and opportunities for XXX entertainment. Since many tourists bring their children to see the area, a music park has been created, where bands play the same jazz they might play in a club, without anything else going on that might cause the parents to shade their children's eyes. It made me think of the morals clean up that Manhattan has undergone in the last twenty years. If New Orleans lost too much of the sin and sleaze that make it so colorful and interesting,it might turn into just another American city.
Hurricane Katrina - we get the sense that people are tired of talking about it, but it is always on their minds. As we drove around the city today, we saw many empty lots. The guide said they all used to have buildings on them. He was in Alaska on a cruise when the hurricane hit. He returned to his home in Metarie a suburb, which had a foot of water inside from the heavy rains. This meant he had to remove all his kitchen and bathroom cabinets, all the furniture and carpeting, all the appliances, and the bottom four feet of drywall and trim. And he was one of the lucky ones. In places we can still see the water marks. Our state park campground was under six feet of water and heavy machinery is right next to us strengthening and raising the levee. When will it be high and strong enough?