Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

From the vantage point of Royal Street on a beautiful spring day, the resurgence of New Orleans was abundantly on display.  Choosing from the delectable fare at the New Orleans Roadfood Festival was nigh impossible:  roasted oysters, crawfish enchiladas, roast beef Po Boys, Texas barbecue, dark chocolate turtles, pecan pie, and more.

If you needed a break from eating, you could settle on a curbside and listen to live music:  Doreen, the Queen of the Clarinet, and many others, all top-notch, a different group on almost every block.

I’ve been to New Orleans only once, more than thirty years ago, and I remember little:  the Mississippi River, so vast down here, so different from the Mississippi of the Upper Midwest where I grew up; the long, gaily painted shutters on the windows; and a colleague taking us miles out of the city to eat catfish (to this day I don’t know why we had to leave New Orleans to eat).  I’m a died-in-the-wool northerner, so I hadn’t a great hankering to head back south, but we have friends in New Orleans who’ve been there some years now, through Katrina and all the rest, and it was overdue to come together on their home ground.

On our first night, our friends took us to Brigtsen’s, "Rebuilding New Orleans - One Plate at a Time," and, oh, did they make good on that.  After a round of knock-your-socks-off appetizers, our main courses were broiled drum fish with crabmeat parmesan crust, mushrooms, and lemon mousselline sauce and Brigtsen's seafood platter, a/k/a the "Shell Beach Diet” (they are big on tongue in cheek when they use the term diet, I assure you).

The restaurant is set in a Victorian house with elegantly decorated rooms.  The wait staff served us with efficiency and panache.  (We thought our waitress must be from New York, as she moved so fast and never missed a quip; our provincialism was exposed when we asked “where from?” and her answer was south Louisiana.)  To my chagrin, I couldn’t find room for even one spoonful of dessert.  Our ever-on-target waitress admonished, “Next time, for you ladies, it’s four apps and two desserts.”  She had our number, all right—and we’ll definitely take her up on that.

That was only the beginning.  Our stay was short, but our hosts were determined that we make the most of our time in their home town.  The weather was perfect.  None of that summer steam bath:  sunny, temperate days, cool nights, no sitting trapped in an air-conditioned box.  Evenings, we sat outside with cocktails while our friends’ dog Reggie explored his yard.  (Reggie is new to the household, and one of probably thousands, both human and animal, to be named after Reggie Bush of the Saints.)

It’s a hopeful time for New Orleans, with the Saints winning the Super Bowl Invictus-style, neighborhood after neighborhood restored and gleaming in the flush of spring, and the French Quarter teeming with tourists.  Our friends, though, presented us with a tempering fact:  “When people ask me, how are folks doing, I say, it depends on how much money you have.”

The day after we arrived, our friends announced a change in plans:  There was to be a parade in Central City.  The Mardi Gras Indians come out only twice a year, we learned, once for Mardi Gras itself, the other time on “Super Sunday.”  This year, because of rain, the “Super Sunday” parade had been put off a week, so we were “in luck.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that my general attitude about parades (think St. Patrick’s Day in New York City) is to stay away from them.  So it was with some trepidation that I stepped out of the car in Central City to sit on a dusty curb.  Still, it seemed we had a perfect vantage point—it was close to the start time, the crowd wasn’t too dense, and we seemed to be assured “front row seats.”

We did see some of the parade—at least we think so.  A group with feathered fans and parasols seemed to be forming up to dance.  Men in black shirts milled about, taking exploratory blows on their instruments.  Slowly, two bands came together.  Each played a tune and marched on by.  After a while, we caught sight of a few Mardi Gras Indians, bedecked in their spectacular, intricate costumes.  We stood, our cameras at the ready, in what I thought was our front row position—except there wasn’t such a thing.  As the Mardi Gras Indians came near us, the crowd surged in and surrounded them, cameras popping.  We saw what we could over a sea of caps.

Two policemen on horseback brought up the rear, or so we thought, until some fully feathered stragglers showed up behind them.  We learned to give up on orderliness and follow the feathers:  “Look, they’re over in the pavilion.”  We high-tailed it over to see a group of Mardi Gras Indians just finishing a dance and laying their headdresses on the ground.  We never did figure out where the parade started, what route it traveled, or when it was over.  We just chose our own moment to say “The end.”  I didn’t know what to make of it, at least not then.

For the last day of our visit, our friends proposed that we go to a museum called the House of Dance and Feathers and to see the Lower Ninth Ward.  I wasn’t sure about going there—after the devastation caused by Katrina, it seemed like gawking at someone else’s troubles—but I knew our friends had good reason to suggest it, and the museum was there, on Tupelo Street.  “It’s at Ronald Lewis’s house,” our friends explained.  “The museum is in his back yard.”

We pulled up to curbside near Mr. Lewis’s lovingly tended home.  Next door, at a house that still bore its markings from Katrina, a man was mowing to keep clover from taking over a tidy lawn.  Mr. Lewis waved to us from his chair outside the museum’s door and welcomed us inside.  The museum, a trailer-sized building at the end of his back yard, was filled with artifacts of all sorts.  If you asked, there was a story to go with every one.  Mardi Gras Indian beadwork and feathered parasols and headdresses were everywhere.  I told him we’d been to the parade and admitted to some difficulty making out its schedule or route.  “Well,” Mr. Lewis said, with a hint of a smile, “Mardi Gras Indians don’t do schedule.”

To one side, I spied an array of intricately beaded letters on fragments of faded cloth.  Mr. Lewis motioned toward the small, wiry man who’d been mowing and had come to the museum’s door.  “He did that beadwork.”  The man nodded.  “We found it after Katrina.  The canvas rotted away, but the beadwork held.”

Mr. Lewis pointed to a stuffed toy—a frog—sitting on the shelf above.  In contrast to the elegant detail of the beadwork, it was a simple thing.  It looked almost new, something a child might have brought along and left behind.  “I don’t know why, but after Katrina, I got into frogs.  This one, we found on top of the rubble from a neighbor’s house.  I cleaned it up and brought it here.”

He talked about his neighborhood.  He had a very particular view of the “Brad Pitt” houses, and it was a dim one:  they were no substitute for the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward.  “It’s like putting a face on it, but there’s nothing behind the face.”  There wasn’t a trace of rancor in his voice.  He was just stating the facts as he saw them.  We thanked Mr. Lewis and bid him a good day.  He resumed his seat outside and waved good-bye.

As we drove through the neighborhood, one of the bridges over the Industrial Canal loomed ahead of us, beyond the levee wall.  “That’s where it broke.”  Nearest the levee wall, aside from a few “Brad Pitt” houses, almost all that remained where houses once stood were concrete steps and foundation stones hidden in weed-choked lots.  A group of kids hawked iced tea on a corner:  a lot of tourists must drive through here.  Further back, more houses stood, some vacant and still broken-down, others trim and tidy, tumbled together amongst more weed-strewn lots.

Some who lived here were lost to Katrina.  Others moved or were sent away and didn’t come back, but many have returned to resume their lives.  This is their neighborhood, and it’s a neighborhood where homes have been in some families for generations.

Emily Dickinson wasn’t thinking of Mardi Gras Indians or the Lower Ninth Ward post-Katrina when she wrote her poem, of course, but she could have been:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
For more about Ronald Lewis, his neighborhood, the Mardi Gras Indians, and the House of Dance and Feathers, pick up a copy of the brilliant book by Dan Baum, Nine Lives, and Mr. Lewis’s own wonderful book, The House of Dance and Feathers.  For other great books about New Orleans and more, visit the terrific Maple Street Book Shop.

The quotations are from memory, so they are not exact, but my intention is to be as faithful as my memory allows to what Mr. Lewis and our friends so generously shared with us.

This is the first of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana. To read the second post, about the Atchafalaya Basin, click here.  To read the third post, about Louisiana rookeries in spring, click here.  To read the last post, about (more) good eats and good music, click here.


  1. What an OUTSTANDING post! I have never been to New Orleans and never really wanted to go, but your post changed my mind. I love all the specific food recommendations, for one. Your description of the Mardi Gras Indians reminded me of the Mummers and the South African Cape Town MInstrels - amazing how three groups so far apart geographically can come up with the same traditions and costumes.

    I especially loved how you segued from the House of Dance and Feathers into the devastation of Katrina. And the poem from Emily Dickinson - perfect, just perfect! I really enjoyed reading this and looking at all the photos (which I assume you took, RA?) Thank you!

  2. WOS: With a couple exceptions (the boy in blue feathers was taken by me, for example), the best of the Mardi Gras Indian pictures were taken by my mate, who was more willing to venture away from the group to get a better look. I'm so glad she did! The rest are mine, and, FYI, I believe if you double-click on the slideshow, you will get the option to view the slides in a larger format.

    As for your comment: Wow, such high praise!

    I was also struck by the similarities among the Mummers and SA Cape Town Minstrels. And, as for visiting--I, too, probably would not have ventured back to NO, had it not been for our friends. That would have been a shame. It is a rich and complicated city, like nowhere else I've ever been. I am grateful to them, to Ronald Lewis, and to Dan Baum's book, for guiding me to a greater understanding of this special place than I ever would have had on my own.

  3. My boyfriend and I are moving to Los Angeles and tomorrow we will be staying the night in New Orleans. I have not been since before Katrina and my boyfriend has never been. We are excited to visit both the museum and restaurant mentioned in your post - thank you for an inspiring read!

  4. Hi, Kaye: Thanks for writing! Good luck on your move & have a wonderful time in New Orleans. If you get there, please do say hello to Mr. Lewis and the good folks at Brigtsen's for me. And, if you have time and inclination, get over to the Maple Street Book Shop. You may meet one of our friends--just mention this post!

  5. This is me from Amsterdam - briefly - London tomorrow and internet access erratic, but so thrilled to have been able to read your post, RA.

    New Orleans has a special place in my heart - my husband and I have been going regularly since we got to the US in 1996 - it's one of our favorite spots in the world, even though we just go as tourists. I was also privileged to stumble upon a parade that was pre-Mardi Gras and very mysterious - I, too, have an aversion to crowd situations. I cherish my beads from the "Barker" crue, particularly.

    After reading your post, I can't wait to get back there - and I wait to hear from my darling Kaye about her and Brendan's experience.

    Thank you for this great piece!!!

  6. What a great travelogue! You have discovered a New Orleans of customs, neighborhoods and characters beyond the all too familiar Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street hype. How refreshing!

    Thanks for the interesting links and the excellent slide show finale. Love this post!

  7. nice Sue!
    Great to read/see a report like this... I especially admire the photo of beads on rotted fabric!

  8. The photos are by you two travellers only? Well, you were being ridiculously modest about them in advance; they are wonderful.

    I saw a man wearing a Treme cap in one of them. Also, like Elaine, I really dig the sequinned (& metaphoric) letters. And the woman who is nearly subsumed by her deep orange costume!

    Would love to visit The House of Dance & Feathers.

    Is Uglesich's still open? (obligatory restaurant query)

    I also suggest "Zeitoun" as reading for post-Katrina New Orleans.

  9. To all: Thank you so much for your comments! To kookaburra: re Uglesich's: I believe it is not still open, but apparently they did "come back" for Roadfood to contribute shrimp uggie. Sadly, we were not aware to be on the lookout at the time!

    And, as for Zeitoun (by Dave Eggers): yes, a great read, and also recommended by our intrepid hosts. I didn't feel I could list it until I had at least read it, which I now have. Excellent book.

  10. Thank you for your last comment to me, it was very much appreciated.
    This post was so interesting. Loved the photograph of The boy in Blue feathers, not just birds who look magnificent. The wonderful photographs in your slide show give a real flavour and sense of this place, lots of creativity and so colourful, mixed with a taste of real life in the images you captured.

  11. What you wrote is so beautiful and so accurate and so moving. I think what you write is as good as anything I've read about New Orleans.


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