Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alabama's tallest building

Very busy the past couple of days so rather than detail my adventures, here are some more photos from my trip that lasted from May 2nd to May 7th.

Two Virginia courthouses:

What was interesting was that these buildings were right in the middle of town and had to be driven around to get to anything else.  Where New England towns are centered on the Town Green, an open space, these county seats were centered on the county courthouse.

Remember I described the tallest building in Mobile, Alabama on May 7th?  Here's the Mobile skyline:

I know it's not very awe-inspiring.  I did mention that there are only three skyscrapers, and that one on the right is a beauty.  Here's what it looks like in a little more detail:
I was talking to someone from Mobile recently and she told me that not only is this building the tallest in Mobile, it is the tallest in all of Alabama.  No mean feat, that.  I asked her what it is called and she couldn't remember, "It's the Tall Building."  I asked her who built it.  "I think it's an insurance company," she said.  I'll have to wait a bit longer until I get the answers to the really pertinent questions.

Just reminiscences for now.  I have a very tight schedule the next few days but business will resume its usual tempo shortly.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Isn't she lovely?

The Little Ninja with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Background:

In the small community of Locust Bottom, in the Shenandoah Valley:
How do I remember I was in Locust Bottom?  This was on the other side of the road:

Somewhere in the woods in southeastern Tennessee:
You thought I made up the Alabama Museum?
My favorite photo from New Orleans:

Much as I'm enjoying riding my bicycle, I do miss having the Little Ninja keeping me company.  I took the bicycle out on the Neponset River Trail yesterday.  It's a great ride starting at Tenean Beach and ending at the River Street stop on the Mattapan High Speed Line.  This is a nice trail, short trail (a little over 2 miles) that runs along the Neponset, passed Cedar Grove Cemetary, along a salt marsh, parallel to the trolley tracks, and through that brick gingerbread wonderland of Lower Mills.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goodbye Jacob Wirth

 Boston isn't known for it's cuisine.  Please don't send me emails about baked beans, toll house cookies, parker house rolls, boiled pot roast, cod or white clam chowder.  I'm from around here and I know all of these things but except for the clam chowder, none of these things is really succulent.  There are good restaurants in Boston but, needless to say, most of them don't capitalize on the "New England" aspect of their kitchen.  Durgin Park is an exception, but they are in the middle of a tourist destination (the soundtrack of their website is worth the click).
Jake's Black Label Sausage.   This should be the title of this post because this is what I ordered at Jacob Wirth for lunch.  Whatta wurst!  The sausage and a pint of Narragansett left me full as a tick the rest of the day.  This was one nice grilled sausage served on a toasted bun with sauerkraut but I don't go to Jacob Wirth for the food.  I go for the atmosphere.  The place has changed little over a century.  I like that.  I like looking over bygone momentos and looking at the scrollwork that supports a pressed tin ceiling.
I like it as much as I like my 'Gansett, Neighbor.  I wholeheartedly agree that you're not from New England if you aren't drinking the Official Beer of the Clam (this digression, including illustration, is copyright Narragansett Brewing Co. PR)

I love old things that have withstood the test of time.  I'm no Renaissance Faire aficionado or colonial re-enactor but I like anachronisms.  I liked the Dutch Tavern in New London.  I love Boston's landscape and I look forward to participating in the ongoing traditions that make up New Orleans.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Midnight Public Garden

If you've read these posts for the past month or so you might get the impression that I am against Boston and for New Orleans.  That isn't entirely true.  While Boston and I haven't been the best fit, even with me being a born and bred Nutmeg Yankee (and that may be the reason), Boston is a beautiful, beautiful city.

It is full of the most breathtaking parks and views you will find in any American city, hands down, bar none, and I'm not talking through my hat.  The Emerald Necklace, the Esplanade, Boston Common, Castle Island, all these places have a charm that cannot be matched.  All of these places have the perfect setting for what are essentially perfect jewels.  There is one that I like best most of all though, and that's the Public Garden.

With its pond in the middle, the statuary scattered throughout along winding, tree shaded paths, the flower beds different every time you visit and always in full bloom, the statue of General Washington staring down Commonwealth Avenue, the birds, the ducks and, of course, the swan boats, the Public Garden is a place of delights.

Last night I walked through the Public Garden at night.  Ducks were sleeping in the lawn and there weren't many people about.  A few lovers groped on park benches facing the water, their passion undisguised by the shadows.  The swan boats were tied up and moored out of reach.  The ruffled breast of the pond caught and tossed back the glittering lights of the Four Seasons and the rest of the surrounding cityscape.  A guitar player perched on the cast iron gingerbread bridge, strumming Iberian melodies as people tossed coins into his open guitar case.  It was a romantic night.

I've never been in the Public Garden at night before.  It was time now that the Domesday clock is ticking.  In case you have the impression that I think everything in New Orleans is better, that isn't true.  I like City Park and I like Audubon Park, but they are little compared to the beauties Boston's parks harbor.

We didn't stop for a nightcap.  The T would stop running in a half hour anyway and we were in no mood to pay for a cab.  We went home, the atmosphere of the Public Garden at midnight casting our states of mind.  A nice night.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A last Boston bath

What would you do if you only had two weeks left in Boston?
I walked a few blocks from my house to Carson Beach and then walked the rest of the way along the tideline to Castle Island on the tip of South Boston.  I figure this will be one of the last times I'll be able to feel sand and broken bits of granite pebbles and shells under my bare feet.  There don't seem to be many (any?) beaches in New Orleans.

High temps in the air yesterday were seventy-two degrees bit the surf in Dorchester Bay was as bath-like as the late spring Atlantic ever is in New England.  I couldn't say it was cold.  Rather, it was brisk and refreshing.  It felt like home and in a month or two it won't be much warmer.  It felt like the beach from the halcyon days of my youth.  New England Atlantic: blue as a slab of gray steel and as welcoming as flint and puddleglum: may children forever play in your spray.

It is a far, far different and more sparkling world than that carved out by muddy Ole Man River.

At Castle Island I had a lunch of $1.60 hot dog's at Sullivan's and I walked around the fort and watched the airplanes coast down to landing across the harbor.

There are other things to do these last two weeks, but this was a pleasant thing to do to start ticking down the list.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Two differences

A quick look on Google tells me that the temperature here in Boston is 60 whole degrees.  It feels like it.  The temperature in New Orleans, where I was only yesterday, is 88.  No wonder I'm wearing a sweatshirt and a fleece jacket as I sit on my Dorchester porch.  My sunburned arms are thankful for the Boston weather.  The rest of me isn't so sure.

I got to meet New Orleans' mayor at the airport yesterday.  He is a likeable enough politician.  It was his eighteenth day in office.  He is very articulate and personable, still riding a wave of goodwill.  A slender, bald man who has held higher state-wide offices, he seems well-connected and he can certainly connect to the people I saw him meet.

Quite the difference when compared to Boston's Mayor Menino, who comes across as being as articulate as Swamp Thing.  No comment on any other Menino attributes today.  I would rather wash my hands and forget I've ever seen the man in person.  Let the voters receive what the majority has requested.
Another illustration copyrighted by DC comics.  
Original composition reportedly based on sketches made in Hyde Park.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Not a New Orleans movie

As I've been touring the city, I've come across a lot of film trucks.  Someone is shooting a film in New Orleans, which isn't really news nowadays.  Louisiana, because of tax breaks being imitated by any number of states, has a robust film support industry.  The trucks line the streets out of the way and really don't snarl traffic much.  Certainly not as much as the construction on Carrolton and South Carrolton Avenues, which I always seem to run into when I'm in a hurry.

I didn't know what the film was but I mused that I might like to see it.  I enjoyed Benjamin Button.  Reading the newspaper this afternoon over too much lunch, I found out what's shooting in town.  I think I'll take a pass when it's released.
Illustration copyright: DC Comics

Green Lantern!  I'm less than thrilled.  The movie won't be set in New Orleans, per se.  Per DC Comics penchant for fictional cities, Green Lantern is home based in Coast City, I think.  Some local landmarks will be discernible but all the names and many distinguishing features will be changed.  

Providence, RI was all aflutter a few years back when they landed a movie shot in the Ocean State's capitol.  That film: Underdog.  I didn't see that movie but I understand it was rather lackluster.  There was some kvetching by the locals that the film didn't portray the real Providence.  I predict the same will be true of Green Lantern but I doubt many people here will care to complain.  New Orleanians have other fish to fry.

Oh well.  I can always rent Benjamin Button.  While it wasn't the greatest movie, it did feature the St. Charles Ave streetcar (see my affection for it here).  It wasn't an entirely realistic portrayal though.  Thus far, I haven't seen any prostitutes in New Orleans.  I've had my suspicions but no firm evidence.  I haven't spent much time at all in the Quarter with its infamous bawdy houses either.  I'm too busy enjoying sights outdoors in other parts of New Orleans.

A word about lunch:  I ordered half a fried shrimp po'boy.  Who can eat a whole one?  Well, I know who.  I saw enough people put away a loaf of french bread overstuffed with fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayonnaise, and tabasco.  I finished the dozen shrimp that fell out the sides and about an eight of the sandwich.  I've wrapped the remainder in plenty of newspaper after the last incident for later.  I don't know though...that's a lot of fried food.  I'll probably be happier with a salad for dinner.

Today is my last day in the Crescent City for a while.  Tomorrow I fly back to Boston for a few weeks.  I put the Little Ninja in a rented storage locker after lunch.  Farewell, faithful steed and boon companion.   I'll be back in the middle of June for good.

The New Orleans bug

A common theme I hear from people who live in New Orleans is that people move here to enjoy their lives.  I hear this over and over again, whether directly or through surreptitious eavesdropping.  Conversations repeatedly turn back to the theme of this city being a good place in which to spend one's days.  I believe it.
Most recently:  "I lived in Chicago for ten years.  People there know how to get on with their lives, they know how to get busy and do their work, but they don't know how to enjoy themselves when their work is done."

Yesterday: "I lived in Upstate New York.  People stay inside all the time.  They don't know how to get out and socialize and have a good time.  I couldn't take it anymore.  I had to come here."

The day before:  "I'm from Iowa.  This is a big change but I jumped at the chance.  I got here three weeks before The Storm and lost everything I had.  I didn't evacuate.  I didn't have anywhere to go so I stayed.  I'm still staying and I don't regret it."

Variations of these paraphrases crop up endlessly.  I can tell you one thing for sure: New Orleans is the opposite of Boston.  Whether that is good or bad, I can't say; probably neither.  Each city is what it is and the world would be a poorer place if it didn't have a Boston.  For the time being, I am throwing in my lot with New Orleans.  I've been bitten by the bug.    Soon enough people may eavesdrop on me and I suspect I'll be saying things along the lines quoted above.

Cheers!
WK

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bayou country

Our 701st post on the Dot Matrix.  Welcome.

I went way out into St. Bernard Parish today, Terre-aux-Boeufs, Land of Cattle.  I did see some cattle grazing on flat land.

Ever heard of Ysclosky, Louisiana?  Me neither until today.  Even the volunteers at Wikipedia can't be cajoled to write an entry.

This is more hurricane-damaged territory.  St. Bernard Parish has about half the population it did five years ago.  The farther you go, the emptier it gets.  I was wondering what the people who live out there do for a living.  There are plenty of empty house foundations and there are some new houses too.  The new houses are mostly mobile units suspended on top of struts made from telephone poles.  There are some small oil refineries scattered through the territory and some truck farms but it wasn't until I was frantically looking for a gas station past the unincorporated community of Poydras that it occurred to me that most of these people may be fishermen.  Judging from the gear on the boat decks lined along the bayous, the primary harvest is oyster, shrimp and crawfish.  If I'm reading the evidence correctly, crawfish are caught in traps much like lobsters are.

As a New Englander, I tend to think of "bayou" as meaning swamp.  This isn't accurate.  A bayou is a waterway that cuts through a swamp.  This region is crisscrossed with bayous.  It's bayou country to be sure, a world apart and a world away, a fertile place yielding up its bounty for those who choose to collect it.  It is far removed from creature conveniences.  I never did find a functioning gas station so I had to call quits to the journey and head back to denser civilization.  Yup, it's that empty.  I did find a gas station sign and a bed of concrete where a gas station once stood.  It was about ten miles after that I decided it was time to turn around.

Nice people.  I asked a guy where the nearest gas station was.  He scratched his head a minute and told me to go over the drawbridge and take a right.  "Go to the end of the road.  There's a marina.  They should have gas there.  If you go left that's a really long drive."  I followed his directions with no sign of a marina in sight, plenty of parked boats though.  There was a man hosing down a trawler so I asked him if there really was a gas station at the end of the road.  "I don't think so," he said, "There's a marina but I don't know if they've got anything but diesel."  About face.  I only have so much reserve in the Little Ninja's gas tank.  Next time I'll plan ahead instead of venture through this bit of Louisiana on a whim.

I did see the museum of Los Islenos, but I was too worried about being trapped in this land of cattle and bayous to stop.  My mission was to find petrol in this land dotted with small scale petroleum refineries but no pumps.

An adventure of sorts.  The swamp is so green and virile.  I'm sure it holds as many mysteries as it's reputation leads me to expect.  I'll be back.

Monday, May 17, 2010

New Orleans East

The sun came out today and I forgave the sky.  I took Gentilly Boulevard past Dillard University to Chef Menteur Highway, which is how I originally entered New Orleans over a week ago.  Tourists don't visit this part of town and, if I were from somewhere besides New England, I wouldn't blame them.  This is an area typical of many newer cities in the south and midwest and west; developments of one family, brick bungalows planted on their predetermined, surveyed lots.  A modern Levittown.  At least that's how it appears on the main residential streets.  If you go back a few blocks, you'll see a bit more variety and, unfortunately, Katrina's damage.
I don't want to harp on the lingering effects of this disaster, but they are apparent most everywhere five years later and they are apparent in New Orleans East, a sprawling subdivision of the city.  There is no escaping that there is work still to be done even if the French Quarter is unscathed.  I passed many houses that had spray painted disaster information fading in the sun on paint-peeling, front porch walls.  I didn't pass one shopping center that was fully rented for business.  I saw many that were still wholly abandoned.  There were a lot of empty parking lots.

I took Chef Menteur Highway up to Read Boulevard and noodled around Morrison and Lakeview Boulevards and side streets in between.  My favorite street was the one closest to the Industrial Canal, Downman Street, which is anything but upwardly mobile but had plenty to look at.  It serves port and factory workers, stevedores and truckers.  I saw where Luzianne tea gets made and when I headed south from that factory, I smelled coffee.  Looking to my right, I saw I was passing a Folger's plant.  It didn't smell that savory, just coffee-like.
I didn't go all the way up Chef Menteur to city limits since I had already been there on my way in.  This part of New Orleans is home to a large Vietnamese community and when I passed through last week I was cheered to see all the South Vietnam flags on various businesses and homes.  I felt like I was back in Dorchester, which is home to Boston's large and thriving Vietnamese community.

On a concluding note:  I've been saying Terpsichore Street like Sinatra, TERP-si-kor.  I heard someone say it today in a way that is closer to the original Greek and probably more accurate for here, Terps-HICK-ory.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yankee sensibility shifting

They say you are finally adept at learning a foreign language when you have a dream in the new one.  I haven't had a dream in New Orleanian patois because though there are some people I find hard to understand, like any thriving city, this is a place that attracts newcomers.  I have encountered all sorts of accents and few of them are unintelligible.
That's not true of the fisherman I passed alongside Bayou St. John.  I still don't know what kind of fish he caught.  It was black with blue speckles, a rectangular fish with a tiny, protruding mouth.  I have no idea what he called it though I've mulled it over a few days, but he told me they used to be more common in the past than they are now.  Maybe it was a bream.

I have internalized one local colloquialism without realizing it.  After reading the word so many times, I now think the word "crawfish."  Where I come from, they are called "crayfish" and I hadn't made that verbal shift from ay to aw until the past day or so.  No one eats or sells crayfish where I come from.  They are occasional things you find in backwoods streams if you're inclined to go there.  I saw one once when I was a kid.  I've seen plenty of crawfish and I've eaten a few since I've been in New Orleans.  I call them what they are and it doesn't stick in my craw.

Parking on neutral ground

I've lived through a couple of New England hurricanes, the most recent was spent in Newport, RI in the eighties.  People boarded up or taped their windows, gathered in officially designated central locations, and the National Guard was called out.  When I looked out my window in New Orleans this morning it looked just like that hurricane.  A crack of thunder woke me up and the trees were blowing every which way with sheets of rain pouring down from a Heaven indifferent to creature comfort.

The thunderstorm, apparently nothing to speak of hereabouts, broke and threatened to resume, spattered a bit and poured a few more fits throughout the day.  During a lull, I took the motorcycle out and when I reached an intersection I saw cars parked up willy nilly on the median.  In New Orleans, they call a road's median the "neutral ground."  The neutral ground can be as thin as a sandwich or wider than all the opposing lanes put together.  Sometimes it is park land with sidewalks winding between palm trees or southern oaks.  Sometimes it's just a grassy expanse.  On some streets, it's where the streetcars run past joggers and bicyclists who clear the track at the sound of the wheels against the rails.

When I saw the cars parked up on the neutral ground, I thought there had been an accident but nobody was paying much attention.  It dawned on me.  I called out to a passing dog walker, "They put their cars here because of the rain, didn't they?"  She smiled.  "Yes," she said, "This street floods.  It was raining hard this morning."
I passed through some flooded streets.  At one point the water came over my feet on the Little Ninja's pegs and I cut through the water with a sluice that crested over the gas tank.  Being one of the smaller vehicles on the roadway is nice because on quiet side streets I just took to the sidewalk and avoided the whole mess.

The Little Ninja didn't like plowing through deep water.  It never stalled but it was hesitant to keep idling if I had to stop.  I kept goosing the throttle keeping the rpms around 2000.  At 1000 the engine turned sputtery and cranky like a faithful dog that's been sent into a cold pond to fetch a ball when it doesn't want to play.

The Little Ninja is becoming crankier the longer it spends on New Orleans' streets.  It is developing disturbing rattles and tics.  The low beam of the head light burned out today but that is probably due to age than the constant jostling over uneven pavement.  I have to admit that my joints are shaken to gel and I'm developing a bit of shock fatigue in my shoulders.  I've also developed a resigned air when I turn a corner to be greeted by a craggy expanse of pockmarked asphalt.  Again?  Oh well.  There's nowhere else to go but forward.

Is Magazine Street picturesque because of its many small shops or because of the state of it's pavement?  I admit the slow speed required to navigate this rough thoroughfare enhances enjoying the scenery.  It's not just Magazine Street, Prytania is the same as are just about any side street and many of the avenues (Tulane, Loyola, Carrolton...).

New Orleans is a beautiful city and a rough one.  It delivers shocks at every turn.  There is the shock of the new and the shock of the old.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

New Orleans rain

Where I come from, if it's a rainy day then it's a miserable day.  It will rain or at least be gloomy and unhappy all day.  That's not quite the way it rains in New Orleans.

I was scouting out South Galvez Avenue today to ascertain where the Deutsches Haus is located.  Today is Volksfest.  "Is Whalehead King German?" you ask.  Only partially and many generations removed from the Rhine and the Ruhr.  "Does Whalehead King speak German?"  Only a smattering of nouns with no attention to gender and any German baby can conjugate a verb more intelligibly than I can.  "What's the attraction to New Orleans' Deutsche Gesellschaft?"  I have my inscrutable reasons.

I found the address, but it was early yet so I decided to head back through the Vieux Carre since I haven't been to the French Quarter yet during my stay.  On Rue Royal it started to rain out of the blue.  Luckily there are plenty of awnings and I took shelter under one for the ten minutes the torrential downpour lasted.

The sky was clear again and I headed on my merry way.  Then it rained again.  Then again.  Then it really started to pour for more than just a few minutes at a stretch and taking temporary shelter while the thunderheads passed stopped being an option.  I pulled into a dry port and did my laundry.

For those who don't know of a particularly wonderful Crescent City institution, there are several places on St. Charles Avenue and elsewhere that are 24 hour bars, game rooms and laundromats.  I didn't patronize one of these.  The storms really started pouring around two o'clock and that's too early for my Blue Law nature to hang out in a taproom.  I did my laundry at a more prosaic location with a bunch of other people who kept looking out the window wondering if the rain would let up.

It's 4:20 and still no sunshine in sight.  Luckily, I found a coffee house and I'm sitting on the sidewalk under an awning enjoying the temperature.  I'm not enjoying the weather's other aspects, however.  Maybe the clouds will break later.   Either way, life goes on.  It can't all be exploring marvels, can it?

This is a 7:00PM edit:  It's been raining unremitting buckets for hours.  A drear day indeed.


7:15 update:  The sun is out.  I'm off on the Ninja to enjoy the night.


7:16:  False alarm.  I'm still signing off till tomorrow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

My po' boy adventure

I went to Parkway Bakery and Tavern.  I didn't see any loaves of bread for sale but I did see the bar and I did get a sandwich.  It's an old shop in Mid-City, easy enough to find if you know where it is.  I had passed it once before and it was mentioned in the Times-Picayune the other day and I was hungry so there was no time like today since it's not Tuesday.  Parkway is closed on Tuesdays.
The shop opens at 11:00 so I killed some time touring.  No surprise there.  I headed up Marconi Drive (presumably named after Guglielmo Marconi) alongside City Park and hit the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  I haven't seen an ocean since I left Dorchester two weeks ago.  Let me tell you, Lake Pontchartrain is so big it looks like an ocean except for the causeway.  No one has yet built a bridge over the Atlantic.  The causeway stretches to the horizon and disappears.  You can't see the other end.  It's that long.

I travelled along Lakeshore Parkway (presumably named for its location) and there wasn't much traffic.  The Little Ninja hasn't had a chance to really rev in the past week so I pulled on the throttle and leaned into the gentle curves, cruising along the straightaways.  The motorcycle and I enjoyed the ride so much that we did it twice.  Then it was time for lunch.

For those who don't know, and I didn't on my first visit to New Orleans years ago, a po' boy is a sandwich.  They are for sale everywhere usually advertised with the adjective "overstuffed."  It's a submarine sandwich, or, where I come from, a grinder.  Some people will tell you the submarine sandwich was invented in New London, Conn. by an Italian immigrant inspired by the naval base across the Thames River, but that's a story for another day.  They are called grinders in New London though so I don't know how much I believe this legend.

As a fan of Royal Roast Beef in East Boston, I ordered the hot roast beef with gravy po' boy, regular size (as opposed to large) with lettuce tomato and pickles on rye.  Every picture I've seen of a po' boy has the sandwich served on french bread but I prefer rye to white flour.  I also had an iced tea.    Po' boy: $6.65.  Iced tea: $1.85.  The roast beef po' boy is the first listed on the menu so I figure Parkway stands by it.

It was a big, juicy sandwich.  It was so big I could only finish half.  Unlike the roast beef sandwiches you find around Boston (or at Arby's for that matter), the meat was more shredded than sliced.  It was thick and there was plenty of it.  It was messy but not overly so.  I did use a fork to finish up the meal.

It came wrapped in butcher's paper and I rewrapped what was left over and put it in my satchel for later.  It was so juicy that after driving from Toulouse Street to Napoleon Avenue, the sandwich had bled through the paper.  Now the inside of my satchel smells like roast beef.  The copy of the newspaper I was saving for later is soaked through two sections.  The corner of the foam bag that holds my laptop is moist.  Most distressing of all, the cap that I carry for when I'm not wearing my helmet is damp and smells like savory meat.  As I walked down Magazine Street with my cap shading my eyes, dogs looked at me hungrily, straining at their leashes to follow me.

Oh well.  It will make a nice dinner.

Some comparisons

Beautiful and bustling downtown New London, CT

I'm from New England, a land of small states packed with plenty of people.  Here are some comparisons:

Connecticut (where I'm from originally):  Area: 5,543 square miles.  Seems like a lot of space, doesn't it?
Massachusetts (my current legal residence):  Area: 10, 555 square miles.  Even bigger.
Louisiana (where I'm moving to): Area: 51,885 square miles.  Whoa, Nellie!

Population (as of 2008):
Connecticut:  3.518,288 or 703 per square mile.
Massachusetts: 6, 593,587.  It's got twice the space, after all.  That's 809 per square mile.
Louisiana: 4,410,796 or 102 people per square mile.  That leaves a lot of elbow room.

Let's look at the cities I've called home since I find this interesting....  The area is for land only.
New London, CT: 5.5 square miles, 26,174 people which comes to 4,725 people/square mile.
Boston, MA: 48.43 square miles, 620,535 people which comes to 12,813 people/square mile.
New Orleans, LA: 180.6 square miles, 336,644 people which comes to 2,518 people/square mile.

I don't want to say New Orleans seems like a ghost town, because it doesn't.  You'll excuse me though if I don't find it particularly crowded.  There are plenty of people and there's plenty of activity so it doesn't seem as empty as these statistics suggest.  Once I take a tour of the rest of the Louisiana though, I don't know.  I imagine it will seem like the Moon compared to the quiet corners of Connecticut.

Of course, the New Orleans numbers don't include all the tourists and conventioneers that visit the city on a regular basis.  Boston also has its share of visitors.  They tend to come in the summer when all the college students (which these figures include, about a quarter of the total) vacate the city.  Few people stop in New London unless they are lost, so it's numbers are pretty stable.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A tale of three cities

Nothing much to report today.  It was a day involving onerous bank errands.  Let's just say I have nothing kind to say about Capitol One.  New Orleans and Boston don't have any banks in common, unfortunately. If you think that America is losing its regional characteristics, you can look at the banking industry.  I don't know if there is a single nationwide bank, but there don't seem to be any Boston Harbor-Lake Pontchartrain connections.  Even Bank of America, which has a name that would make you suspect otherwise.

Anyhow, I was reading up on the Lower Ninth Ward and that led to reading about celebrities that have ties to New Orleans.  There is a chain of connections here.  I was first led to Brad Pitt, who is known for supporting the Crescent City post-Katrina and building new homes in the Lower 9th.
I don't really follow Mr. Pitt's activities and he and I don't seem to have much in common except one thing:  Both our beards contain more salt than pepper and neither of us seems to be able to sprout a real robust bush of facial hair.

I never saw the film, Interview with the Vampire, though I did read the book as a pre-teen.  I found the whole thing fascinating though I don't recall any of the homosexuality or androgyny for which this series has gotten some notoriety.  I haven't reread it since then.  Brad Pitt played Louis in the film adaptation and that linked me to reading about Anne Rice, who is a native New Orleanian and who set the novel in this city.

Anne Rice looks a lot like someone I once knew, also a writer, but perhaps more importantly, one of the drivers of downtown New London, CT's revitalization.  I lived in New London for ten years, hence the "Whalehead" moniker.  New London is Connecticut's Whaling City (not to be confused with New Bedford, MA).

While New London is only a fraction the size of New Orleans (5 square miles, 26,000 inhabitants) the two places share a few traits.  Both inspire loyalty.  New London was a source of inspiration for me, charming me and priming my creative juices.  Nothing against Boston, where I've spent the past three years, but the Athens of America has left me lukewarm most of the time.  If you are interested in learning how I thought of New London, the Dot Matrix archives prior to June 2007 contain plenty of examples.  My style and persona have changed but my admiration for New London and its citizens has not.  Be warned that the Matrix used to have a black background so some of these articles may not be very eye-friendly.  They are, in my opinion, worth squinting at and some are more legible than others if you keep scrolling down.

Will I be content playing my small role in New Orleans?  I expect so.  While it is the scene of terrible tragedies it is also the setting for unbridled celebration.  Like New London, it is a city of opportunity, a place where people live life to its fullest, a metropolis of the mind as much as it is made up of timber and brick and asphalt.  New Orleans, like New London, is more than a museum, it is a city of love as well as tears.  Boston is everything you've heard.  I enjoyed my sojourn in my Dorchester neighborhood and I've enjoyed the cultural attractions Boston has to offer.  I enjoyed eating baked beans for breakfast and baked beans as candy.

I'm back in Boston for a few weeks at month's end.  While I won't be entirely cutting the cord, I'll return as a Nutmeg New Orleanian.  I'm not expecting as much culture shock moving 1500 miles south as I did when I moved 100 miles north.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lower 9th Ward

I was reading in the Times-Picayune yesterday morning about how New Orleans has more blighted buildings than any other American city.  The number is going down, but I can attest that I think this statistic is probably true without my having visited  many other cities.  Empty buildings and lots are everywhere, more in some places than in others.

They are in Central City and Mid-City.  They are in Gentilly.  They are in the Ninth ward and they are in the Lower Ninth Ward, unsurprisingly.  I try to make it a point not to groove off other people's misery, but when visiting the Lower Ninth, it's hard not to be sad.  Happily, there is a lot of activity and renovation going on.  I visited last August and I could see differences for the better today.  There's still a long way to go.

The work seems to be progressing from the Mississippi inland.  North of North Claiborne Avenue has been mostly replaced by wilderness. I took Alabo Street and it was like passing through the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge in the North part of the city except for the house foundations left in the tall grass and the telephone poles still laid out in the neighborhood's former grid.  There are a few refurbished houses scattered along the streets, but most of this area has reverted to grassland.  Surreally enough, there is a new playground on Roffignac Street to serve the three houses across the street.  Built for future better days.

I climbed the levee to see Bayou Bienville north of the Lower Ninth.  A wet landscape of cypress ghosts.  A sign showed what the Louisiana coastline looked like 100 years ago compared to today.  When people argue that the environmental catastrophes in Louisiana are not natural disasters but man made ones, they are right.  A comparison to how much delta shoreline has disappeared in a century leaves no doubt.
I saw what were presumably volunteers working on damaged homes and I stumbled across the Lower 9th Ward Village, a community center for the neighborhood.  Nice folks.  They need to update the building's photo on the website though.  It's much nicer looking now than when that picture was taken.

I don't know if I would say it's very sad in the Lower Ninth but it got to me after awhile.  It's far from a cheerful setting.  The people who live there were uniformly friendly while they were going about their business, waving to me as I passed.  I stopped for a sno ball at a truck and passed the time with the other people gathered in the shade.  It was the usual motorcycle conversation:  "Is that a 600?"  No, only 250cc.  "250! I've never heard of a 250cc Ninja!"  It's the most popular model, maybe because it's the cheapest.  "What's it cost?  $6000?"  Half that.  "I'll have to get one of those."  I recommend it.

License plate questions followed as they looked over the bike.  I described my 2000-mile, six-day trip and said I am moving here.  "Here to the Lower 9th?"  Probably not.  "Well, welcome to New Orleans anyways.  We're glad to have you."  I'm glad to be here.  Thanks.

New Englanders take note:  sno balls are like Italian ice.

On another note, if you are curious how long Elysian Fields Avenue is, it's 5.2 miles from the LSU technology center rotary at one end to where the avenue begins at North Peters Street.  From Lake to River, it runs through suburban seeming neighborhoods with their share of abandoned homes to more cluttered and busy Faubourg Marigny.  The length of Esplanade Avenue is 2.7 miles from the old mint, where it begins, to City Park, where it ends.  Beautiful street.  Degas lived there.  Probably other noteworthy people too, but the French Impressionist is the only one who's got a historical marker at the sidewalk.  For the Bostonians reading this, Esplanade is pronounced essplanAID, not essplanAHD.

In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields were where virtuous souls went to spend their days in ease and enjoyment.  While those who inhabit New Orleans aren't yet dead, Elysium would be an apt nickname for this city.  It is a state of mind that extends to more than just this street.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Baby Love

I've never had to keep track of when the last was that a stranger called me "Baby" or "Babe" or "Love."  In  New England, this just doesn't happen.  Here in New Orleans, it happens two or three times a day during common exchanges.

I had lunch at Ted's Frostop on South Claiborne today.
Regular readers will know that I don't eat a lot of hamburgers, though I started enjoying them weekly at the Banshee before I left Boston.  I was a little hesitant to order a hamburger at Frotstop but the menu came to my rescue.  My lunch was red beans and rice for $2.99 and a large root beer.  The beans came with some kind of patty on top.  It wasn't meat but, rather, some kind of dark, spicy pancake.  Whatever it was, it was delicious.  I was there a little before noon so it wasn't crowded: me, a pair of cops, a couple of construction workers, and two chaps who looked like stock brokers. No women except behind the counter.  One of them called out to me, "Number Zero Six.  Here's your beans, Babe."

I looked at apartments today.  I asked the realtor after the second one if it was a typical apartment.  "There's no such thing as typical in New Orleans," she replied.  I chuckled and had to agree. 

For the same price that I'm paying in Dorchester, I'll be getting about a third more space.  The lady of the house and I were concerned that we have too many things.  We don't have a lot of furniture, but we've filled up the floor space of our Dot three-decker and neither of us can abstract how much a square foot contains without seeing it.  No worries ahead.

I've seen four different dwellings.  The first was a kind of little, stand-alone house in the back yard of a bigger building.  Nix to that one. The owner of the front house wanted all the yard to herself and was building a hot tub outside the renter's bedroom window.  The second was two stories at the front of the house with access to a long porch in back running along the former slaves' quarters and serving as a fire escape.  Thumbs up for the front porches on both floors.  That was on Terpsichore Street, named after the muse of dance.  

The third was in the rear "slaves' quarters."  It was a nice, if cramped seeming, space but  the porch (it was on the second story) felt very soft under it's peeling paint.  Not interested.  The fourth was half of a "double," that is half of a doublewide shotgun shack up in Riverbend.  That was really nice and I was torn because I like the Riverbend neighborhood and I liked the apartment, which has a skylit loft in the back room, but I would love to have an address on Terpsichore Street.  That, and the park in Coliseum Square is lovely.

We are going to look at some more on Thursday.  I followed the realtor between locations and she took me down a part of Prytania Street I hadn't been on before.  I now know where the Prytania Theater is.  My leader apologized after we arrived at the final destination.  She said, "I've never been on a motorcycle and I realize I just led you down some very bumpy roads."  I said it was no problem.  She saw me jostling around in her rear view mirror.  Maybe she heard me exclaim, "Jeez Louise!" over a particuarly bone-rattling stretch.

I went to library today to read the Yellow Pages.  Employment agencies don't do a lot of outdoor advertising in New Orleans so I wanted to see who could help me find a job.  If anyone needs a medical coder or biller or office manager, let me know.   I'll be available on June 11.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tchoupitoulas

Look at that string of letters in the title of this entry.  Beautiful, aren't they?  This is the name of one of New Orleans' streets.  I was up and down it all day this afternoon, repeating the word over and over again with great pleasure, more delighted every time.  I purchased some gas at the "Tchoup Shop" and that will be the last time I do that.  The cheap gas was $2.92/gal, the same price I paid for premium gas in Leesburg, AL when I pushed the wrong button by mistake!  I only buy a gallon and a half or so at a time for the Littlest Ninja, but it's the principal of the matter.

I've been in New Orleans three days and I've clocked about 300 miles on the odometer.  That's a lot of sight seeing.

I went to the West Bank of the Mississippi River this morning.  Though the river is on one side of the city and Lake Pontchartrain is on the other, I haven't seen any water, so I thought it would be a good time to see some.  I've driven parallel to the river, but it's been hidden by the infamous levies.   I took the I-10 bridge high up into the sky but didn't get much chance to look around; it was terribly windy and I was preoccupied keeping upright.

I took the ferry back from Algiers Point to the foot of Canal Street.  Though separated by the Mississippi, Algiers is part of the city.  Nice enough over there, but I didn't see anything to tempt a return in the near future.  I detoured down the bumpiest road I've been on in a long time, a stretch of Berkley Drive.  I took General De Gaulle Drive to Woodlawn and didn't realize Woodlawn is a major thoroughfare.  That's why I took the Berkley detour.  I missed General Meyer Avenue and took Patterson Drive instead with the levee to my right the whole way: a wall of green grass.

On the ferry, I saw all sorts of flotsam and jetsam making its way to the Gulf of Mexico.  The river doesn't look terribly polluted, just very muddy.  There were more tree branches than trash afloat.  I suppose it is the things that you can't see that will harm you.  A few years ago I took a sip of the Big Muddy and tasted the runoff of the American heartland.  It tasted metallic.

After that, I went to Audubon Park and took Riverview Drive along the riverbank.  That's two places you can watch the Mississippi in New Orleans if you don't work for the port:  Audubon Park and the Moonwalk  in the French Quarter.  I think there's a bike path along the levies too, but it's only for pedal bikes so I haven't taken the motorcycle up to confirm this.

After six days on the road, I've eaten about all the fast food I care to eat in a while.  My first New Orleans meal was at Jackson on Magazine Street.  I had mussels cooked with fennel and crumbled andouille sausage served with shoestring fried potatoes.  After polishing the off the mussels, the fries ended up in the juice.  This was a meal worth driving two thousand miles for.  Mussels and fennel and french fries?  Did the chef read my mind from Boston to know all my favorite foods and then combine them for my impending arrival?  Heaven.
I haven't had a bad meal since I put fork to plate in New Orleans.  Certainly everything has been better than Arby's and Arby's was the best of all the options on the open road.  If I get to missing the road, there's a franchise on Canal Street where I can conjure up memories.

At Ms Mae's this afternoon, someone is playing a lot of Fatboy Slim on the juke box.  Nothing wrong with that.  

Sunday, May 09, 2010

A city of weirdos

People in New Orleans don't act in public the way I expect respectable people to act.  They are histrionic, maudlin, stumbling, eloquent, passionate, friendly.  They are talkative.  They say I have an accent, but when I listen to them I think the reverse is true.  I'm in the minority, a stranger in a strange land.

Where I'm from, Connecticut most of my life, but most recently Boston, people are buttoned down and stoic.  You don't wear your heart on your sleeve and you don't say what you mean with any feeling.  For the past three days I've been trying to immerse myself neck deep in New Orleans.  I haven't been to the French Quarter and though I've run into tourists, I haven't made tourist destinations my destination.  I've tried to stick to the edges rather than the core economy.  This makes me a kind of tourist, I suppose.  I plan on spending many, many years here but as a stranger I'm only getting my toes wet.  I don't have any favorite places or any routine that will probably stick.  Everything is new and I am still haven't yet had a proper baptism.

All in good time.

I've been to New Orleans before on too-brief visits.  I'll be leaving again on May 20 but returning for good on June 10.  June 10.  It can't come soon enough.  Instead of a taste, I'll be grazing on a feast.  How many marvels can a New Orleans day hold?  I intend to find out more than 365 times even accounting for leap years.

People in New Orleans don't act the way I'm used to.  They love their city, the way most citizens do, but they love it over the top.  That's to be expected.  There is no place like New Orleans on Planet Earth.  It isn't Terra Incognita.  It is Civita Infantabula, a waking fever dream, all too real and tangible, Stupor Mundi, the sublime wonder of the world.

Can you imagine your heart drowned under fifteen feet of sludge and dirty water?  Can you imagine your home decimated and then remade by caprice and bureaucracy?  Can you imagine losing all you own and trying to scrabble every bit of joy and beauty you've ever known from scratch, with only sweat and tissue paper as the mortar that holds the bricks of future promise together?  Can you pin your hopes to something as ethereal and insubstantial as good music and good food and good friends bound together in a matrix of shoddy infrastructure laid out over centuries and long past expiration?

I can't.  I'm new to New Orleans and despite the verbal pyrotechnics and strings of adjectives above, I have to be humble.  I don't know a damned thing about being a citizen of New Orleans.  I can't claim to.  I know how to be a Nutmeg Yankee in New London, Conn.  Whoop-de-doo.  Even the good people of New London don't think too much of that.  It's a great place, but it's not a place that inspires good poetry.    I know how to be a Bostonian.  I've paid my taxes and parking tickets.

I am grateful to be able to call New Orleans home.  I hope to learn about what it is to live in this Crescent City that survives, improbably, against all odds and carves a niche for itself in a world where the rules are very different from the ones New Orleans observes.

I'm in a daze.  Nothing is as it should seem.  Everything is weird.  Maybe I'm the weird one because everyone else appears as happy as I am but not one whit concerned or out of joint in the least.  New Orleans.  The Creator was daydreaming a paradise when this city was founded.  The Devil has come to town but he left without corrupting the city's purity of heart.

Oh! The things you'll see!

Ah!  New Orleans!
On the Littlest Ninja again.  You would think after about 60 hours on a motorcycle in six days, I'd want to give it a rest, but no.  Like a centaur, it's how I get around.  Whalehead King without wheels is like a fish without water.  I ran an errand out in suburban Metarie to see what's out there.  I saw a lot of strip malls and chain stores and the Lakeside Mall.  Convenient enough, I suppose, but not really what I'll be looking for on a regular basis. After that I was back in the Crescent City proper.

New Orleans is basically self contained.  Surrounded by swampland, it has had to house all industry and activity within it's boundaries until fairly recently.  From what I understand the real expansion of it's suburbs and exurbs happened in the 1960s and 70s.  Traversing the city, I'm amazed by what is planted in the most improbable places without warning or discernible reason.  I've been on bivouac through neighborhoods one street at a time, doubling back, circling blocks, tracing the weft and woof of the urban tapestry.

I'm going to talk about Faubourg Marigny specifically today, but the same observations hold true elsewhere.  I'd be traveling down a street lined with colorfully painted or run down shotgun shacks, or a combination of both, and then be surrounded by corrugated metal machine shops.  There are little grocery stores and bars tucked willy nilly where I least expect to find them.  There are commercial districts, but the mix between commercial and residential zoning is hodgepodge and fuzzy.  So much the better from my point of view.  I like my city both shaken and stirred and alive with commerce and social opportunities.

Stores and restaurants can be hidden.  They are neighborhood oases that can't be bothered to advertise.  No need.  What signage exists can be home made and hand lettered, little larger than a legal pad nailed next to a front door.  There are few plate glass windows to catch a passing eye.  Some places look closed but they are, in fact, bustling lunch counters offering hot plates and po' boys and light hardware or cleaning supplies.  The essentials for daily living are always within reach the closer one gets to the central city.

In Faubourg Marigny, purring down Dauphine Street, I ran across a local institution: the Hubig's Pies bakery.  There was no warning, just a battered, neon sign hung over the sidewalk to the left.  At the corner of Franklin Street a little further down, at 2529 Dauphine, was the Lost Love Lounge, a forbidding looking place with dark windows and an open, battered door and nothing more than it's evocative name to recommend it.  Dauphine is a narrow and leafy street, picturesque and charming, so charming it made me think of checking out apartments in this part of town.

Here, in the middle of tidy houses and narrow streets, was a commercial bakery that's been around for almost a century and a bar (more than one, but none with such a great name) and other sundry businesses and a coffee shop.

Turn a corner in New Orleans and you'll never know what you'll find.  I don't know the firm boundaries of all the neighborhoods yet but I traversed Treme and went the length of Claiborne Street, South and North.  I discovered hidden nooks of activity on Freret Street and at the intersection of Calhoun Street and South Claiborne.  A visit to Ted's Frostop Burgers for a sit down meal and a root beer is on my agenda.  The same for the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, but not on a Tuesday.  There are a baker's dozen of other places I saw today that I plan to enjoy and even more than that that I can't remember.

Ah! New Orleans!  I doubt the charm will ever wear off.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

A New Orleans moment

I don't watch a lot of television (any, really) but I do know about HBO's Treme series.  It was advertised on little cards in every rinky dink motel I stayed in on my trip from Boston to the Crescent City.  The motels invariably crowed on their signs, "Air conditioning.  Free HBO."  Thinking about it after the fact, I should have seen if Treme was on those nights.  I could have turned on the air conditioning too.

One of the series' writers is on record as saying, "New Orleans manufactures moments."  I had read this awhile ago and it stuck with me because it struck me as true.  I had one of those moments today.

After six days on the road, cradling clutch and throttle, I indulged in some much needed sleep today and after reading the Times-Picayune front to back over coffee at Mojo on Magazine Street, I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring.  It was in the Bywater neighborhood, south of St. Claude Avenue that I thought, "Man, I love this city.  It's so beautiful and full of surprises.  It's a feast for my soul."  There were more surprises ahead.
I headed north and found a different world altogether.  At first I couldn't decide if I was seeing the effects of Hurricane Katrina or the effects of urban blight in a poor part of town.  It was Katrina.  Five years afterward, the damage is still there, the wounds not scarred over, just scabby and painful to witness.  Whole blocks offer sights that will break your heart.  The disaster extends farther than I realized and lingers longer than a nation with a short attention span knows.

I am not making these street names up.  New Orleans street names are things of pure poetry.  I was in an area where all the homes were abandoned, boarded up, collapsing, destitute, depressing, overgrown with weeds and fetid with mold.  On the corner of Humanity and Metropolitan Streets, one house has been refurbished to the point of not only being livable; it looks new.  On the front porch two boys, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, were playing trumpets.  All around was wreckage but these two boys were blaring out infectiously joyful jazz scales.  I stopped the motorcycle to listen and they became self-conscious and stopped.  I flashed a thumbs-up and continued on my way.  As soon I was down Humanity Street a bit, out of sight but not out of earshot, they started up again, really letting their horns wail.

Call me soft-hearted or soft-headed but I had a lump in my throat when they started playing again and I can't really explain to you why.  I don't know what this episode means but I imagine it is the first of many New Orleans moments that will unfold as I live here.  New Orleans casts a spell.  It inspires great love.  I am hardly familiar with the city or the culture yet but I've caught that same bug that infects so many other people upon contact with this place.

Boston is a city that inspires fierce loyalty, mostly when compared to New York.  It is plump with historical accomplishments and intellectuals to build off them.  Every Bostonian will be happy to point out what an enlightened and progressive city it is, a world leader in technology and learning and regulation.  New Orleans is content to be itself and flourish in its eccentricity, a world apart from anywhere else on earth.  I can't yet say what the defining characteristics of a New Orleans citizen are.  All I know so far is that they know how to enjoy twenty-four hours and then another twenty-four.  There are many worse things for idle hands to be doing.

Where Humanity and Metropolitan intersect, I got a taste of New Orleans, something indescribable and mysterious, the riddle of the city distilled into a poignant, enigmatic moment.  I am going to love it here.  I don't worry for my soul but I'm concerned about my sanity.  Too much New Orleans might score the flinty New England nature off my psyche.  I didn't decide to move here to be reborn, but I am falling under an enchantment.  May every day be as humbling, bittersweet, and enlightening.

Friday, May 07, 2010

229 miles later: The deed is done.

Mobile, Alabama is a working city.  Eschewing the highway the whole way, I took Route 90 through Mobile and journey's end.  The road wound through Mobile's industrial area, a place of many mysterious odors.   I couldn't place many of them but I would describe most as "chemical."

There are three tall buildings in Mobile.  One of them is nondescript, but the other two are topped with airy, buttressed domes and spires.  The tallest of the three is a masterpiece of modern deco.   It dominates the skyline.  Wikipedia doesn't say what this building is called, unfortunately, because I'd like to know more about it.  I'm used to admiring skyscrapers but this one was a stand out example of architectural excellence, especially in its setting.  It was breathtaking, imposing and inspiring.

I thought Chattanooga was a burly, masculine city.  Mobile is a city of callouses and sweat and curse words spit through clenched jaws as men's bodies strain to make some piece of machinery work as designed.  This is a place I would like to visit again.  My route took me through it's grittiest territory down by the port and through genteel, antebellum, leafy neighborhoods.  What a town.

Biloxi, Mississippi, on the other hand, is a casino city.  They dominate the waterfront.  I rode along the beaches for miles and miles, the Gulf of Mexico on my left and various cityscapes on my right.  I spent ten years living in New London, Conn. between Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos.  Biloxi's remind me more of Foxwoods without the scale.  I'm no gambler, so this city didn't appeal to me.

I went through downtown Gulfport and there wasn't much to see.  Perhaps Katrina decimated it because it was very small and full of empty lots.  I don't know, but it was Dullsville.

In Pass Christian I stopped for a bottle of water at a shrimp boat dock and watched the fishermen doing whatever they were doing on their boats.  A truck was parked in the lot selling fresh fried shrimp.  It was noon so I figured, why not?  I ate a dozen fresh Gulf shrimp out of a piece of foil.  Delicious.

I missed my turn and ended up at a NASA rocket testing facility at the end of the road.  The guards at the gate gave me a shortcut to get back to my route.  Nice guys, even before they noticed my license plate.  After they verified that I am in fact from Massachusetts, they drew me a map on a piece of scrap paper.

The NASA guys' shortcut brought me through empty pine forest.  There wasn't a sign of civilization for miles except for the well maintained road.  Truth be told, I haven't hit a bad road since I left Boston.  New Orleans also has its share of potholes, though.  A bumpy ride in the beginning and at the end with smooth sailing for 2000 miles in between.

From Mississippi, I entered St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.  From here until way into New Orleans, the road cut through swamp, flat and fecund.  The houses are all on tall stilts.  New Orleans is bigger than most people realize.  It's shaped sort of like a fish tail.  I entered through the upper fin and passed through the 23,000 acre Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge which is within city limits.

I'm in New Orleans three days early.  No reason to complain about that.  The place where I'm staying made room for me.  Making my way there, I relied on instinct.  I knew the address and I've daydreamed over my map of the city enough to have a rough idea where things are even if I don't remember all the street names.  From the Chef Menteur Highway I leaned left from time to time until I landed at an intersection I remembered walking on my last visit.  After that, I was home free.

It is good to be in New Orleans.

From Atmore, I traveled 64 miles to Mobile (98 since my last gasoline purchase); I filled the tank with 1.44 gallons for $4.10 ($2.84/gal).  In Pass Christian I had gone 89 miles so I bought 1.67 gallons for $4.67 ($2.77/gal).  In New Orleans, at the Corner of Broad and Canal Streets, the odometer read 78 miles; I topped off with 1.05 gallons for $2.84 ($2.69/gal).  I'll have to tally up how much gasoline I bought and what my average milage was.

The real work begins tomorrow: looking for work and for an apartment.  The official move date is a few days over a month away, but there's no time like the present.  I just did the math and I traveled 2054 miles, mostly on the back roads.  My lady companion keeps telling me the distance is 1360 miles according to AAA.  It is that far on the highway and we'll be traversing that distance in June with all our belongings in tow.  The extra 600-odd miles I logged on my zig zagging route were worth it.  It is good to be in New Orleans but I made a journey I'll never forget.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

362 miles more: Close to Sunshine

It's a good thing I'm not in a rush.  I left Fort Payne, after taking pictures of the Alabama museum (the band, not the state) at 7:30 this morning.  At 5:30 this afternoon, I pulled into the town of Atmore, a stones throw from the Florida border.  This is my trip's penultimate day.

The timber industry is alive and well in Alabama.  I traveled through pine country for the most part and logging trucks were the most common vehicles on the road.  I passed one stack of tree trunks shorn of their branches that were piled into a spiral bigger than Boston City Hall.  The landscape is filled with evidence of forest management, both wild and tame.  I passed acres that had obviously been harvested and stands of trees that had obviously been planted in rows though they were a decade or so old.

Alabama is very pretty, like everywhere I've been, each place in its own way.  There were fewer houses than anywhere else along my route.  I passed through Montgomery, the capital, but otherwise I was in out of the way places and I was surprised not only by all the wood harvesting but by the factories I passed.  Some were textile mills and some were lumber yards, others I have no idea what they were; vast, corrugated metal buildings with cryptic names, some of them Chinese-seeming, are plopped in the middle of nowhere.

Barbecue restaurants are popular and convenience stores stock bags of locally boiled green peanuts next to the cash register.  The farther I go, the more people want to know where I'm from.  They say I have an accent.  I tell them I'm from Boston and the farther I go, the more flabbergasted the reactions.  "That's a long trip."  Yes.  "Welcome to the South."  Thank you.

Here are the counties I passed through:  I started in DeKalb and after that I passed through Etowah, Calhoun, Talladega, Coosa, Elmore, Montgomery, Butler, Conecuh, and I'm now in Escambia.  Here are some towns I saw:  Rainbow City, Talladega, Sylacauga, Weoka, Wetumpka, Sandy Ridge Georgiana. Evergreen, Castleberry, Brewton, Flowmaton, and Atmore.  Evocative names.  Beautiful places.  I wish I had time to explore them more and know them better.

Here's how I did for gasoline:  From Fort Payne, I traveled another 39 miles to Leesburg (84 miles total since the last fill up); I bought 1.45 gallons for $3.96 ($2.92/gal.  I pressed the premium button by mistake).  I traveled 104 miles to Rockford and purchased 1.26 gallons for $3.50 ($2.74/gal.  I had to pre-pay and three-fifty seemed a reasonable estimate).  99 miles later in Greenville I bought 2.19 gallons for $6.34 ($2.89/gal).  In Flowmaton, the odometer read 99 miles and I filled up with 1.34 gallons for $3.90 ($2.89/gal again).  I am now in Atmore and the odometer reads 34 additional miles.

Atmore is a nice little town.  Like many hereabouts, the train runs right along Main Street.  This is the first town where the commercial architecture reminds me of New Orleans.  The two story buildings like the bank and the hair salon have roofed balconies on the second floor and it is all supported by wrought iron gimcrackery.  Atmore is the county seat and I've learned that when a town has a county courthouse you can expect some life in it.  Towns left to their own devices tend to be shells of their former selves, a collection of empty storefronts built in the 1920s.  Atmore has a few restaurants, a coffee shop, a vintage movie theater (The Strand; Iron Man 2 opens tomorrow) and a few businesses beyond Dollar General and a gas station.

I'm about 200 miles from New Orleans, a straight shot along the Gulf Coast.  I may linger in Biloxi but if the past is any guide, moving from Point A to journey's end should take most of the day even without much dilly-dallying.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Boycotting BP


I just did the math.  Since leaving Boston, Massachusetts and arriving in Fort Payne, Alabama I've travelled 1463 miles over four days and fifteen pit stops.  None of those miles were powered by a single drop of BP gasoline.

Again, a tip of the fedora to the New Orleans Ladder for this image.

342 miles: The Heart of Dixie

I left Abingdon, VA at 7:45AM and reached Chattanooga, TN on the Georgia border at 4:30PM.  Too soon to call it a day so I proceeded through the northwest corner of Georgia to cross a time zone and end up in Fort Payne, AL.  Fort Payne is home to a museum that documents the career of the musical group Alabama.  I won't be paying admission but I will be taking some pictures in the morning of the airbrushed murals on the building's facade.

Tennessee was pleasantly rolling hill country.  Nothing much to report.  It is less agricultural than I expected.  Small, one family houses line the roadways for the most part.  The setting is less dramatic than the Shenandoah Valley, but inspiring nonetheless.  If they aren't farmers, what do these people do for a living to afford the mortgage on their tidy homes?  I don't know.  I didn't see any industry to speak of.  Perhaps they are all internet entrepreneurs working at home.

A remarkable observation is that except for some highway workers on Route 202 when I was lost in Virginia, I didn't see any black people until I reached Knoxville, TN.  I've done some racial demographic profiling of the counties I passed through till this point and it's true, they are white by a vast majority.  The absence of African Americans south of the Mason Dixon Line was noteworthy and I kept my eyes peeled, but nope, not until Knoxville.  Afterwards the local population seems more integrated, at least in the bigger towns.

I stopped by Athens, TN in my meanderings and I stopped in the drug store behind the McMinn County Courthouse.  A soda jerk made me a lime rickey from scratch and Boy, was it refreshing.

When I entered Tennessee, I noticed a billboard promoting the National Moofest, some kind of dairy festival.  I didn't notice much else besides an unfortunate logo in which a cartoon cow's nostrils form the double O-O in Moofest.  After I polished off my lime rickey and thanked the jerk who made it, I ambled back to where I parked my motorcycle.  Lo and Behold!  I was parked in front of Moofest's National Headquarters located in a storefront in downtown Athens.  It was closed.  Apparently promoting a dairy festival isn't a full time job even when it opens exactly a month from today.

An interesting motorcycle observation:  Motorcyclists display an unusual degree of solidarity down here.  On back roads, enjoying a ride, it is customary for motorcyclists to wave to one another when they pass. This doesn't happen at all in Boston where traffic demands both hands be kept on the handlebars and attention riveted to the roadway ahead on a hair trigger lookout for hazards.  Outside of Boston, bikers wave but they are divided into camps.  Harley riders wave to Harley riders and sport bike riders wave to sport bike riders.  Drivers of big touring bikes like a Honda Goldwing travel in their own realm, waving or not as it suits them, usually waving.

My frequent Massachusetts passenger notes, "Harley riders are stuck up.  Pricks!  They can't bother to be friendly, like they're better than everyone else."  Perhaps.  I figure they're to busy to be courteous.  It is best to keep both hands in control, especially in corners.  I'm not one to judge but I don't usually bother to give the bikers' downturned wave in Massachusetts to those who aren't riding a similar model motorcycle.

Things are very different past the New Jersey border.  Motorcyclists of any make wave.  They wave across the highway median.  They wave if they are sitting in their driveway, polishing the chrome when you pass.  They wave if they are walking down the street in leather or a padded jacket.  The bikers' wave, just an extension of the clutch hand downwards with a few fingers outstretched is a coda.  It means, "Ride safely. Godspeed.  I hope you reach journey's end without mishap.  We share a bond other  travelers lack.  If I see you broken down, I've got your back."

It is a pleasure to pass other motorcyclists in this territory outside New England.  Motorcyclists, few and far between are a fraternity and small sorority of fellow travelers who know the pleasures of the road like no one else.  They are a minority with a shared solidarity.  It's all about the wind and the careen.  It's all about freedom and risk and the joy of movement on twin spinning pinions.

Of special note:  The people of Tennessee love their nightlife.  Every town I passed through has a blues bar.  There are monuments to Smoky Mountain music.  A beer and a show after the end of the work day seems to be the Tennessee way.  They like their entertainment live and local, no cover tunes of pop songs.  The blues and bluegrass suit them quite well.

I wish I had stopped in Chattanooga, a burly, masculine city full of nightclubs.  It was too early to end my day's trip so I soldiered on.  It would have been nice to know Chattanooga better.  Another visit for another day.  I passed through Knoxville for the second time in my life.  The second time passing through was enough to satisfy any obligation I have to Knoxville a done deal, dead and buried.  Never again will we meet by my choice.  Nothing against Knoxville, but it's no Chattanooga.

Today's gasoline statistics:  I left Abingdon, VA with a fresh tankful and my next pit stop was in Mooresburg, TN, and unincorporated town 95 miles away.  I purchased 1.24 gallons for $3.51 ($2.80/gal).  I traveled 94 miles to Vonore, TN and put 1.52 gallons in the tank at the cost of $4.27 ($2.79/gal).  After 98 more miles, I was on the far side of Chattanooga and I purchased 1.01 gallons for $2.83 ($2.70/gal).  I am now in Fort Payne, AL with 55 miles on the odometer.

My gas milage is variable and my filling of the tank is more by eyeball estimate than the pump shutting off automatically.  I peer directly into the tank as I fill it and when it seems I can't pump any more without overflowing, I stop.  I can go 140 miles or more on a tank of gas in Boston city traffic.  The tanks holds about two and a half gallons.  I find 100 mile stops convenient and a good reason to stretch my legs, stay hydrated, and see what's for sale at these out of the way way stations.

I had my first mishap today, at the very tail end of Day Four on the road.  I was pulling into the Econolodge parking lot when a clatter arose under my seat.  It wasn't a visit from St. Nicholas.  The chain had slipped off the rear sprocket.  Easy enough to fix but it came off for no reason.  Luckily I was wearing full fingered gloves today.  Unluckily, they were my white leather ones.  The palms are now blacker than before.  The chain is very dry.  Luckily there is a Tractor Supply Company outlet just down the road.  It's a kind of Best Buy for farmers.  I'll be buying some grease there before I start off tomorrow.

 One last note.  Thanks to the New Orleans Ladder for the graphic:
It seems fitting since I am heading to New Orleans to start a new life and the Fleur-de-lis is the symbol of New Orleans.  BP gas stations have been ubiquitous along my route but I am boycotting them.  I would rather search miles down the road in uncharted territory than give my money to the company responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Another 457 miles: Destination Unknown

I planned to be on the far side of the Volunteer State by this time today but I'm still in the Old Dominion.  I am close to the Tennessee border however.  One wrong turn led to another and I spent the first three hours of the day running an 80 mile circle out of my way and accidentally back again.  Good scenery though and quite the adventure.

First, let's get the statistics out of the way:  I left Lexington, VA with a clean odometer and my first fill up was in Fincastle at 90 miles.  I purchased 1.57 gallons for $4.26 ($2.69/gal).  My next replenishment was after 86 miles for 1.45 gallons at $4.02 ($2.75/gal) in the town of Eagle Rock.  Yes, Eagle Rock is the next town over from Fincastle and no, it isn't eighty miles away.  One wrong turn led to another and they all led me back to start.  It was better after that.  Stop Number Three was in Fairlawn after 89 miles for 1.07 gallons for a total of $3.01 ($2.79/gal).  My final stop before I pulled into the campground was in Abingdon after 102 miles; I bought 1.59 gallons for $4.48 ($2.80/gal).

I spent some time in Jefferson National Forest today and I've seen enough trees up close to satisfy my appetite for that for quite a while.  There were very few fellow travelers on the road which suited me fine.  The roads were very twisty, uphill and downhill.  In motorcycle parlance these are called 'twisties' and navigating a good twisty road on a bike with all the leaning and counterbalancing and letting inertia pull you through a curve can be exhilarating.  I had my share of those roads today, the kind of roads the bike glides along in ethereal zen good karma, but the National Forest Roads weren't this kind.  They were exercises in gear shifting and throttle control.  Up and down, up and down on switchback roads.  It was more tiresome than relaxing, especially the steep grades with a perpendicular drop off at the shoulder's edge.

I spent a lot of time up in the mountains in my pursuit of back roads.  It's a different world up there.  It's pretty to be sure and farmland still.  The farms are smaller and a bit more humble than the Virginia bottomland I passed through yesterday.  Everywhere you look there are more mountains in the distance.  Maybe that makes up for the lack of anything else.  While I am a misanthrope, I enjoy being around other people, meeting in public, hobnobbing...there's none of that on the mountaintops.  What towns there are, were small in their heyday, now half the storefronts are empty and those are the bustling ones, the county seats that have a courthouse to ensure a little business.

A sign said: "Newport 25 miles."  I took that as a good sign that it was important enough to direct me to it.  I wondered why a town so high above sea level would be called Newport, but who am I to judge?  When I finally pulled into city limits at the 25mph speed limit, I was greeted by four commercial buildings, the youngest of which was built in the 20s.  One was occupied by an HVAC technician, the others had soaped up windows.

Running low on gasoline and not having seen a gas station in about 60 miles, I headed back toward the valley.  Route 11 isn't marked on my map but it's the Lee Highway, named after the General, no doubt.  I figured out it runs parallel to the interstate.  It was probably the main thoroughfare before the interstate was built.  Unlike the interstate, it forms the main street of every town it passes through.  I've seen a lot of old Main Streets this afternoon.

I'm in Historic Abingdon, close to Tennessee.  I plan to be passing through Knoxville before noon, but I learned today that forecasting where I'll be, the way I travel, is an inexact science.  The ultimate destination is New Orleans, the intermediate destinations are unknown.

A lot doesn't happen in the mountains and that's not just my impression.  Virginia is buggy with historical markers and Civil War Trails.  Not so much up on the mountaintops.  No doubt the Blue and the Gray didn't want to climb as well as fight, but it doesn't seem many people of note or historical occurrences were hatched on top of the mountains I visited.  Life goes on.

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