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Easy Streets
From the stately to the sinister, the gourmet to the grotesque, the city of New Orleans offers much more than Mardi Gras
By James Yeara
Photos by Laura Murray

New Orleans is a 24-7 party town—like your freshman and sophomore years of college distilled and tapped until the buzz and fun is crammed into the narrow 18th-century streets of the Vieux Carré—but New Orleans is more than the sum of its colorful nicknames (the Big Easy, the Crescent City), sleazy tourists, flashed nipples and swilled alcohol. When Mardi Gras’ official colors of purple, gold and green are put away, New Orleans is still a city with 300 years of history and culture. On a whirlwind three-day visit in the middle of January, I trawled the French Quarter, the Vieux Carré (literally, the “old quarter”), finding music, food, and voodoo as pleasing as some would find Bourbon Street Gone Crazy.

I stayed at a B&B on Delaronde Street in Algiers Point (lots of very reasonable rooms in the area and a lot more restful than being across the river), and walked three minutes to the Canal Street Ferry that crosses the Mississippi River every 15 minutes. The ferry takes you to the southwest edge of the French Quarter, where you’ll find the Aquarium of the Americas, complete with Imax theater and the floating Flamingo Casino. You can be cultured and educated, or gamble and make someone rich.

From there, you can walk the winding Moon Walk, named after former Mayor Moon Landrieu, that follows the banks of the Mississippi, catch the streetcar to Elysian Fields Avenue near the eastern edge of the Vieux Carré, or stop anyplace in between to stroll the 100-odd blocks of the oldest part of New Orleans. There are Audubon Steamboat excursions from a dock midway on the Moon Walk—to the west of the French Quarter, just south of Tulane University, is the huge Audubon Park, so not all the wildlife in New Orleans flashes for beads—but I spent my three days strolling the Vieux Carré. I could have spent months.

The Vieux Carré has preserved the colorful architecture and cramped charm of its 18th- and 19th-century buildings, so history buffs and the romantic can tour the French Quarter and find treasure upon treasure: the Cabildo, the former Royal Spanish capital building that marks the divide in the French Quarter between the French founders and the subsequent Spanish masters; Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and the Old Absinthe House, where American homegrown influence begins post-Louisiana Purchase; Preservation Hall, which is easy to overlook, as its graying timbers and clapboards are derelict; Tennessee Williams’ second-story apartment on Dumaine Street, where I participated in a one-man “Hey, Stella”-yelling contest, coming in first. Sadly, there is no longer a streetcar named Desire—just a bus.

We caught a mule-drawn carriage (mules fare better than horses in the New Orleans swelter, we were told) and did a half-hour tour of the area. Our guide pointed out the obscure places where duels were fought, and ghosts were rumored to haunt. I was particularly fascinated by the curious upward-angled iron works around all the poles leading to the balconies in the French Quarter. “Romeo Catchers” they are called: Amorous 19th-century males had to be graceful, dexterous or very careful to remain male when climbing to see the objects of their affections.

The French Market, crammed next to the river on the east edge of the French Quarter, is three centuries old and the best damned place to shop, mix and laugh in the city. Merchants drive up early to reserve places inside a one-story warehouse; the late-rising half set up on tables outside. Fresh food, antiques, second-hand recyclables, arts and crafts are sold in a hodgepodge of booths and tables that would later remind me of the cemeteries. This is where humanity meets.

Jackson Square is smack downstage center of Vieux Carré, a streetcar stop in the middle of the French Quarter. It’s an 18th-century parade ground/execution spot, just south of the alley where duels were fought, Cajun-style—to the death. The square is lined with shoppes and boutiques, but its main attraction is the buskers: dancers with boom boxes, folksingers with guitars and fiddles, artists who take appointments from patrons to do chalk portraits against the black wrought-iron or brick buildings of the square, living gold statues that bow ever so slightly from their perches and smile with the precision of practiced coquettes, and every manner of divination known to man, woman, and goddess. There are tarot-card readers, palmists, astrologers, past-life regressionists, Native American shamans, voodoo diviners, and other psychics all with painted signs and props to prove it. Betty—a sign promised that she was an authentic Gypsy—gave me a palm reading that was surprisingly accurate. She looked the part, and I wanted to believe.

Shopping, history, and architecture are great, but I also came to New Orleans for the food and the voodoo. I skipped the obvious restaurants like Emeril’s or Arnaud’s (budget was the main concern) and avoided anything that smacked of multinational chain, but it proved impossible not to find good food inexpensively. From “po’ boys” (subs on french bread) to jambalaya to airy beignets (sugar dough the consistency of air) and “king cakes” (crack to those who love pastry). The two of us ate Cajun or Creole fare and drank for under $30 a meal, and I like to tip.

With local author Anne Rice’s occult franchise and the many voodoo legends set in New Orleans, a walking tour of one of the many aboveground cemeteries is a must. Touring the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum and buying a gris-gris bag for protection against demons, accountants, lawyers, ex-wives and other evil entities are musts, too. Voodoo is in the great American melting-pot tradition: It borrows from many religions, cultures and countries, combining pagan beliefs with Catholicism, minus the overhead of a central office. I went on a tour of haunted New Orleans and Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. There are a half-dozen different companies offering tours twice a day. All offer their tours before the dusk closing times, and all give the same advice: Stay together. (It’s not out of fear of ghosts or voodoo, but out of fear of the neighborhood that borders the cemetery just north of Vieux Carré.)

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is frighteningly confusing with its painted white vaults, marble tombs and de facto ovens—some of the lower-class vaults were one-person baking crematoriums, which could only be opened a year and a day after a person was buried, which, given the climate, resulted in a pile of ashes which were conveniently pushed to the back of the vault to make room for the new arrival. People were put in these aboveground eternal houses in no order. Alien crop mazes are easier to follow. Without the tours, a person could get seriously lost. One white angel looks like another, though the guide did point out the one where Peter Fonda had his improvised acid trip in the film Easy Rider. The tours all show off the local sights, making references to Rice’s books or local luminaries therein interred, explain why aboveground entombment flourished—it wasn’t strictly from the frequent flooding of the Mississippi, but out of the Spanish custom of aboveground body disposal—and show off the decaying cemetery. There’s even a broken vault where the curious or morbid can stoop over and see bones. (Bones look dark gray in a broken vault.)

But the highlight of the tours, where all of them climax, is what the tour guide told us was the second-most-visited grave in America after Elvis: Marie Laveau, the Queen of New Orleans Voodoo. Visitors to the white box of Laveau see numerous Xs scratched on the walls, a plaque from the Roman Catholic Church reading “Marie Laveau,” and numerous offerings—“Liquor, food, or money. What everyone needs,” the guide told us. Elvis couldn’t have said it better, and Laveau’s grave has as solemn an air as New Orleans allows. I made my wish, made my marks with my finger—the guide explains that some guides take photos of people desecrating the grave by scratching—and left my offerings. For my prayer to come true, I have to return to see if my offerings have been accepted. As tourist traps go, this is a winner.

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