Southern Exposure (2000)

“Con-grad-ulations”

Sean conducts.

College graduation is one of those important milestones that I think it helps to have support through. So I joined the graduation migration this spring to attend my nephew Sean’s. And, truth be told, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to visit New Orleans.

Sean and his advisor.

Sean earned his B.A. in Music Education from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. First stop on my visit was at the middle school where he’d been student teaching–my arrival in town was just in time for his students’ end-of-the-year concert.

The relieved graduate.

We felt like the only outsiders in a stifling gym full of southern families. The band director introduced each piece played by each band (junior and senior) with detailed explanations of where they’d performed the music and how many awards they’d won in competition. I was taken back to my days in high school orchestra competitions. This school’s record was impressive, but maybe my orchestra’s was too–I don’t remember our band director tooting our horn, so to speak, like this.

The main graduation ceremony.

It turned out we were not the only “outsiders” attending. Sean’s teaching advisor was also there to see him conduct. My job was digital photos, which Sean needed as soon as possible for his portfolio for job interviews.

On to Friday’s graduation ceremony. LSU handed out about 2000 degrees that day. Fortunately, we were not compelled to watch every individual receive his or her sheepskin. The main ceremony included speeches, recognition of honor students, and the group conferring of degrees on the students. When they moved on to individual recognition of the Ph.D. candidates, we adjourned to the music department.

Sean, Wolfie, and Bruce at the reception.
Sean and Linda.

Sean’s department hosted a reception–orange juice and mini-muffins, and a chance for the parents to see where their children have spent so much of the last four years. It was probably strange for the graduates. The reception was followed by the department ceremony, where the graduates were given their diplomas individually.

Back outdoors more pictures were required before we could escape to lunch and some cold pitchers of beer.

Sean and me.

Lunch was my first cajun meal and I dove in. The edge-of-campus restaurant probably did not serve the most authentic cajun available, but it hit the spot. The crawfish and red pepper bisque was creamy, and the seafood etouffee was tasty, although it could have been spicier. The three pitchers of beer went down very easily.

Oak Alley, one of the most famous River Road plantations.

On Saturday I drove south to New Orleans. My route took me along a long stretch of the River Road. It’s actually two roads, one on either side of the Mississippi River, and many of the restored plantaion houses for which the south is famous are located along it. Like chateaux in France, you can only visit so many grand plantations in one day, so I had to be selective. My first stop was Oak Alley, a beautifully restored old manse where the slave quarters have been turned into guest houses and the barn is a restaurant for tour busses.

Laura Plantation.

After the tour, I ordered a mint julep from the girls in heavy period costume on the veranda (pronounced with an “H” at the end). I ordered it in a souvenir “go cup” rather than a souvenir glass or mug because it was the cheapest and because, according to the young lady serving, you got more in a go cup. Now, I knew about New Orleans go cups. There’s a stack of them on every bar so you can pour in your unfinished drink and take it “to go.” But it didn’t occur to me that this tourist site would be serving, by default, a mostly bourbon beverage. One sip and I realized my naivte. “What the hell,” I thought, and walked back to my rental car to drive on.

Wine Racks in Laura’s Basement

My second stop, just down the road, was Laura Plantation. This creole house is being restored by a group of investors who plan to turn part of it into a guest house. Seeing the various stages of restoration in the house was in some ways more interesting than the completely restored Oak Alley. Layers of peeling wallpaper revealed older patterns and colors, as well as the construction style of the building. Stains and shadows on the walls revealed the placement of furniture a hundred, two hundred, years ago.

A wing of Laura’s mother-in-law house needs some support.

The tour included the “basement,” a mostly open breezeway below the house that served the double purpose of storage and air conditioning. Laura was run by a succession of strong women, and one of them had acquired vineyards in France through marriage. Unfortunately, all but one of the hundreds of wine racks are gone. Laura’s guides offer tours in French as well as English, and all the signage was bilingual. On the low beams in the basement, a sign warned to watch your head, “Creoles put no hormones in their meat.”

Laura’s restorers plan to turn the separate mother-in-law building into a guest house. They have a long way to go, judging from the condition of one wing.

[2021 update : Laura Plantation has been placed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places and is open as an interpretive center, not a guest house. A few years after my visit a fire destroyed 80% of the house, and after that Hurricane Katrina took its toll.]

The Big Easy

I learned from the car radio that Tulane’s graduation was on Saturday. The significance of this didn’t hit me until I reached the French Quarter on Saturday evening. Even so, I’m not sure how much of the crowds and wildness was graduation parties and how much was normal Saturday night.

Architect’s Row in the French Quarter

In addition to graduation, the city was hosting an enormous Cancer research convention. The quarter’s painted mimes, who stand frozen until someone puts money in their box or can then spring into their routine of robot-like moves, were surrounded by weird crowds of drunken graduates and Asians in suits. One gold-painted mime who refused to move out of his mid-stride pose (I suspected that his muscles had cramped) was the special target of kisses and photographs, with members of groups urging their friends to step up and “Kiss him, kiss him!” It was all a bit too much for me.

A great example of New Orleans ironwork

The double event weekend also meant there wasn’t a table to be had at any of the city’s better restaurants. I walked by Antoine’s and Brennans and the Court of the Two Sisters feeling impoverished–lacking not in funds but in foresight to make a reservation four months ago.

Mississippi workboats.

I didn’t have the nerve to try a Lucky Dog, having read A Confederacy of Dunces. But I’d brought a New Orleans Zagats survey, and was able to select an oyster place that had room since I got there late. Earlier I’d thought to have a bite at Napoleon house. I was directed to the bar until a table opened up. But as I sipped my Pimms (their specialty drink) I began to realize that I was forgotten.

Too tired to make a scene, I finished up and moved on–I didn’t even take a go cup. Overall, I noticed that being a woman alone I received different treatment than I would in northern, western, and even foreign cities.

A sailboat with a canoe for a dinghy was anchored in the river adjacent the quarter. Not much privacy!
Street musicians abound on the Moonwalk, and they aren’t shy to ask for money when they figure out that you’re a tourist.

Sunday morning I checked out of my remote, slightly scary hotel and drove back into town. I did a driving tour of the Garden District, admiring Anne Rice’s house (now there’s a strange agent) as well as a dozen or so other restored beauties. Then I drove toward the quarter and parked in a municipal lot. Sean had said the aquarium was good, and it is, although it was also inhabited by the besuited doctors and researchers taking a break from that hour’s seminar.

I strolled along the Moonwalk, doubtlessly named for its crescent shape, and cut in toward the French Market and Cafe Du Monde. The coffee and beignets were as good as advertised. I wandered the market, thinking about how it would compare to the ones I’d visit in just another week in Paris. I bought about a hundred strings of mardi gras beads for $5 to use as party favors, and some pralines to bring home. The afternoon was interrupted by a drenching downpour during which I took refuge in a series of small bars in the quarter. These were not the big, touristy Bourbon Street places, but smaller places with locals sipping their afternoon refreshment. In one, as I ate a farewell dish of red beans and rice, an old man sipping Budweiser favored me with an explanation of how to make ’em. His recipe would make enough for an army, which made sense when he said he’d cooked for restaurants. Having met a bit of the real thing, I was sorry to have to find the car, and the airport. But longer, farther trips were calling and I had to get home to pack.