Tuesday, December 7, 2010

From New Orleans to St. Augustine, with a Brief Stop in the City of INSANE

Hurricane Katrina is still an ever-present historic reference point in Louisiana, and especially in New Orleans. Everything can be described as being pre or post hurricane, because everything was either damaged, different, or exposed after that storm. Infrastructure suffered immensely- the roads are filled with cracks and cavernous potholes- but the damage of most interest to me was to the railroad. Until 2005 the Sunset Limited connected Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans, then continued past the Mississippi to Florida. Katrina damaged the tracks east of the river, and though they were repaired by 2006*, passenger service was never restored because of low profitability, damage to stations on the route, and transfer of stock to other lines with more ridership. This is yet another example of the limbo in which Amtrak finds itself; it is under pressure to produce the results of a private corporation but with the constraints and limited means of a government agency providing a public service. I will set aside the political debate on the issue, however, and avoid further complaints and internal deliberations about cheap public transport options in the U.S. and simply say that to get to Florida and reunite with the train** I had to take the Greyhound from New Orleans to St. Augustine. I bought a ticket for six, and put it out of my mind for the day.

The National Park Service has a Jazz National Historic Park in the Quarter, and I learned there that Congo Square is a very important site in American Jazz history because it was the only place in the U.S. where slaves and people of African descent could play traditional styles of music, practice religion, conduct trade, and sustain other cultural activities during the 1800s. This is part of the reason that jazz flourished here, benefitting from the relatively free musical expression that different groups enjoyed here. I was also urged to walk the Jazz Walk of Fame in Algiers Point, a free ferry ride away on the west side of the river. As no human that I am aware of is capable of resisting a free boat ride anywhere, I did so. Algiers point used to be a large slave market, and was also the point where the Acadian people were deposited when they were shipped to Louisiana from France, but now it is a relatively quiet neighborhood. The boat ride was worth every penny, but the Jazz Walk of Fame consisted of 12-foot-tall lampposts with tiny captioned pictures of legendary musicians on the tops, that were virtually impossible to see or read. My recommendation: go to Algiers if you like boats and nice family homes (or, heaven forbid, you want to visit that monstrosity they call Mardi Gras World) but unless you have a special interest in street lamps of the early 20th century, do not bother with the Walk of Fame.

On the ride back to Canal Street a bluegrass band played a song about a woman who ordered every item on the menu at a cafe. Her husband responded,

"I know that you're a hungry gal and I don't mean to squeal, but who ya think is gonna pay for such a hefty meal?"

The chorus said,

"My name is Morgan but it ain't J.P. You must think I own a railroad company!"

I liked that a lot.

I then accidentally collided with the New Orleans Christmas parade and fair, which like all good public events involved dancing ladies, men dressed as elves doing Elvis impersonations on scooters, and many tiny ponies.*** The next thing I knew it was time to get on the bus.

(They had a tiny train at the fair as well!)

A seemingly harmless man offered to carry my bags to the bus but I knew better and turned him down. Nevertheless, he decided I needed to be stalked anyway and sat across the aisle from me in the half-filled bus. Behind me sat a nun, so I assumed I would be safe. Wrong. The next hours were spent with the man periodically hissing, clucking, and whispering at me about our upcoming marriage, punctuated with violent tapping on my chair, waving his cell phone in my face, and desperate pleas to be allowed to sit next to me. The nun, meanwhile, thought he was talking to her and started shouting Bible verses about God protecting her, proclaiming her need for personal space, and generally ranting at an unnecessary volume. I responded to neither one, and at the first meal stop she bought them both food and they sat happily eating together thenceforth. Unbelievable.

I transferred three times**** and finally arrived the next day in the brilliantly sunny city of St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. I was thrilled not only to see some amazing Spanish architecture and stay with the owners of the city's best hostel, The Pirate House Inn, but also to know that, if everything went according to plan, I would not have to take another Greyhound bus for the rest of the year.


*The freight company CSX owns the tracks, as with the rest of the Amtrak system.
**I refuse to go back into the wintry darkness of the New England until the last possible moment and will bask in the sunny tropical regions of the US for as long as I can.
***The elves called themselves "Elfis" and thousands of toddlers and their pushy parents made it nearly impossible for me to get close to the ponies and take my picture with them. A love of ponies knows no age!

****By the way, there is nothing to do for four hours in Jacksonville, Florida on a Sunday morning, save wander an abandoned mall with creepy Beachboys Christmas music blaring with a sickly looking homeless person as your only companion.

1 comment:

  1. You do end up with "curious" traveling companions indeed!