New Orleans: Enjoying a Big Easy Pace of Life
By Anthony Buccino
In Jackson Square, an artist sketched my four-year-old daughter’s portrait in color charcoal, highlighting her red hair as the sun broke through the trees like a spotlight. On another trip, an artist painted a mystical henna tattoo on her ankles.
On our first visit to New Orleans one hot, humid August in 1985, we left our New York double-step pace of life behind and understood what it is to move as smoothly as a puff of air crossing a bayou creek. Here, we learned to take it easy in the Big Easy, to absorb the soulful music and food flavors tempting our senses at every slow step.
We've been back many times in these 30 years. From our favorite place to stay, the Hilton Riverside and Towers, we stroll lazily atop the Moonwalk, a strolling path built on a levy that parallels the Mississippi River curve that gives the Crescent City one of its many nicknames. On our right, about a quarter mile across, the mighty river flows away from our hotel to towards the Gulf of Mexico a hundred or so miles southeast by ship.
At a dock, tourists queue for a trip aboard a three-deck paddle wheel steamboat. A calliope tweeting a cheerful tune adds to the festive aura of an hour or so of dreaming of Mark Twain, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The water is dark, not blue like the ocean, and the current is swift. We toss a stick in and watch it rush away as we try in vain to keep up. Time passes in much the same when you are in the Big Easy whether it’s for business or for pleasure. Like the floating stick, in no time it is gone.
River traffic is bustles all day long. Tugs guide the freighters and barges upriver and down navigating the parlous water. Here is a free passenger ferry to Algiers Point across the river. At least one evening on each visit we ferry across and back, enjoying the brilliant skyline view twinkling like Oz.
All the natives say hello. At first, we are shocked. Are we supposed to know these people? But, no, we learn that as we walk through our hotel, or on morning walks when the shopkeepers are hosing away the night’s festivities, all the locals say hello. Our competitive New York-selves create a friendly self-made contest to see if we can say hello before the next native says it to us.
Created at about the same time as the Moonwalk in 1990, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas specializes in aquatic life of the Americas. We always spend a full day here. While we’ve never actually tried counting them, we take their word when they say it is home to 10,000 animals representing 530 species.
We always visit the Mississippi River gallery and say hello to Spot the leucistic (not albino) white alligator. We prefer to see our alligators of any color at an aquarium rather than when we’re wading in the bayou.
Oddly enough, our favorite hangout is the parakeet exhibit on the second level of the Aquarium. The aviary is flush with brightly colored birds anxious for the ‘treats for tweets’ we proffer. The treats use wooden coffee stirrers dabbed with peanut butter and coated in seeds. We stand steady as a conductor with our baton as the sweet birds land on our hands, the stick, and our fingers to peck the kernels.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed most of the fish in the aquarium. When it reopened nine months later, a red carpet was rolled out to welcome the special delivery of exiled African penguins back to their forever home. We’ve been back several times since that storm, and each time we are welcomed by the ever-living charm and die hard spirit of this country.
Further along the Moonwalk, we gain our Kodak-moment view of Jackson Square. The gated garden fronts the iconic St. Louis Cathedral. Jax Square and the twin-peaked cathedral appear on nearly every post card we’ve ever mailed from here.
In the Square, an artist sketched my four-year-old daughter’s portrait in color charcoal, highlighting her red hair as the sun broke through the trees like a spotlight. We framed it and hung it in grandma’s house for years, and now it hangs in our study, our daughter’s former bedroom. On another trip, when she was a teen, an artist painted a mystical henna tattoo on her ankles. She swore she’d never wash it off.
Around the bend an artist favors us with a tune on glasses of water. Next, a trumpeter charms us with a lively jazz solo. When we close our eyes we are alone with the music. We open our eyes and the crowd of strangers surrounding us shares this rapture. We always carry singles with us to tip all the artists we enjoy.
Everyone talks about Mardi Gras, the big blowout celebration of parades, drinking, balls, and beads, ahead of Ash Wednesday. But New Orleans is a city full of festivals all year long. In August the Louis Armstrong Festival celebrates the native son’s birthday. At the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, 24 categories of the world's best bars, bartenders, brands and drinks writers are honored.
New Orleans is a big drinking town. It’s practically impolite to not have a drink here. We order a drink in a bar or from a bar’s street-side window and ask for a go-cup -- then walk in fresh air, going with the flow of the crowd. Our preferred go-cup drink is a Hurricane – which was invented here at Pat O’Brien’s Bar on St. Peter St.
Ducking the summer heat we slip in and out of air conditioned stores looking at souvenirs including alligator ashtrays, NOLA Road Trip t-shirts, and other iconic views of the old square or Vieux Carre’ or voo-kah-RAY.
It seems every store with a retail license sells Café Du Monde café and beignet mix. The local brew is mixed with chicory. They like it that way here. It’s our preferred beverage with the local version of our Italian zeppole they call the beignet, ben-yays that you get at the Café DuMonde or caff–ay due–mondd–uh. It’s served with a café au lait or caff – ay – ole’. In New York we’d call for a buttered roll and a cup of coffee. But there is no comparison to beignet powder on your fingers and that smile on your face.
And for all the beignet mix we’ve ever bought, brought home, and tried to replicate, it has never tasted like it does here when it’s covered to choking depth with powdered sugar and we are eating it in the French Quarter at the world famous café itself.
The longer we stay in this southern climate, the slower we move, like the local businessmen and women dressed in office attire who never breaking a sweat. Northerners call it Southern Grace while Southerners call it common sense. When you visit, we hope you learn quickly to take it slow, to take it easy here in the Big Easy. We’ll be the first to say hello. You put that in your go-cup.
Buccino's bus and rail commuting tales and observations are collected in this book.
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards. The Pushcart Prize-nominated writer has been called ' “New Jersey’s ‘Garrison Keillor” or something to that effect.’
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