Archives for September 2013

A Blogging Pirate Looks At Forty


Weird BeardWell here I sit looking back on it all. One of my rationalizations for quitting my job and embarking on this adventure was to take a mulligan on my literary dreams and ambitions as forty approached. Now that it has arrived, I can’t help but reflect upon all that’s led me to this point.

My favorite song has long been “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and back when I lived in Virginia and attended Buffett shows three times a summer I’d dress like a pirate and stroll around with my guitar during the tailgating, which was as much the draw as the show. Soon I was recognized as simply ‘The Pirate’ by the returning faithful and pirate imitators started springing up in the Virginia/Maryland/North Carolina triangle. Yes, of all the crazy costumes at this annual bacchanalia I was the original pirate. Never, though, did it seem possible that someday I’d actually be that pirate looking at 40, and much like the subject of that song—a real Buffett compatriot in those early Key West days, not some escapist fictional conjuring—I feel like a man meant for another era floating outside the mainstream rather than marking the years with those typical adult mile-markers: wife, kids, promotion, retirement, regret.

Perhaps I don’t feel 40 because  [Read more…]

Read Beans On Monday: The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury


The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld

by Herbert Asbury

I knew going in that highly recommended local history The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld was written by the same author who wrote The Gangs of New York of movie fame. I didn’t realize, though, that Herbert Asbury wrote this historic sequel to its more famous predecessor in 1936! Much like Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children, though, it has stood the test of time and remains a local favorite.

This is the third comprehensive history of New Orleans I’ve reviewed, and this would have been a better place to start. Asbury is a more conversational writer and engaging storyteller so the book is much more accessible than the two more academic (though still appropriate for casual readers) histories. The Accidental City does a thorough job documenting the political maneuvering and alliances that went into forming the city, with a strong emphasis on race relations, while The World That Made New Orleans uses race as one of its major motifs, along with documenting how New Orleans was influence by Caribbean culture.

With its pre-civil rights publication, The French Quarter doesn’t dwell a great deal on race, though there is a chapter on Congo Square. When it does delve into this territory, the obvious prejudices of the day can be a little discomforting. Overall, though, the book focuses more on the colorful characters that inhabited the city through the ages. Make no mistake, Asbury is a skilled journalist and historian, but this is muck-raking of the highest order. The pages are filled with stories of famous gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, madams, thieves, whisky house owners, riverboat bullies (fighters), outlaws, rebels, and every other type of [Read more…]

My Summer In The French Quarter: Top Ten Lessons Learned

Although my time as a French Quarter resident wasn’t the literary romance I’d hoped for, resulting in anything but a happy ending, I’m still glad I can say I lived in this quirky and historic neighborhood for a summer. A single season isn’t very long to gain an insider’s perspective, but I did learn a few things. Here are my Top Ten. (Disclaimer: Subject to change upon further reflection!)


French Quarter Residence or Giant Christmas Present?

French Quarter Residence or Giant Christmas Present?

Despite the millions of tourists who make a beeline for this 13-block expanse, the French Quarter is at its heart a residential neighborhood and its denizens constantly fight the city to keep it that way. Still, I didn’t meet a lot of my neighbors, and I get the feeling it takes longer to be accepted here than anywhere in the city. It’s a curious mix, too. There seems to be a  polar split between wealthy owners of luxurious renovations with private garages and service workers and other low wage earners who don’t own a vehicle and bike or walk to work, the store, etc. If you work the bars and restaurants, its convenient to live there and stay put. The lack of parking and easy egress seems to keep away your average white collar worker, thus keeping down rents on the low end for anyone living outside the 9 to 5 work week.


In my time there, I walked and biked every street in the French Quarter countless times, always searching for that mysterious, undiscovered spot. They don’t seem to exist. This small area is densely packed with curious tourists, so there seems to be few ‘best kept secrets’ in this part of town (though they abound elsewhere.) I’m sure there a few guarded secrets revealed to you once you make the right connections, but, as I said, I wasn’t there long enough to run with the ‘in crowd.’


I’ve been told that Coop’s was once a hidden local gem, but apparently word got out, for the line stretches out the door most nights in this authentic and undeniable dive. Don’t come for the ambience or comfortable seating. But the jambalaya, red beans, friend chicken, and fried seafood po-boys are some of the best in the city. And it’s relatively cheap (though the cheapest po-boys will always be in gas stations, and you’re not a local until you’ve bought lunch or dinner with your diesel!)


There are quaint gift and antique shops and seedy bars with local color . . . and stench . . . on every French Quarter block. At least a half dozen dive bars lined the block where I lived alone. However, the coffee shops tend to be corporate, such as couple of Community Coffees, or tourist focused, such as Café Beignet. Café Envie is the one place that really fits the bill as a  local haunt. The coffee is excellent, the atmosphere inviting, the staff friendly, and the food fresh and excellent. They are open late and serve alcohol, as do many Marigny and Bywater coffee houses, but it was work and wi-fi that lured me in—not because it was merely the best nearby option, but one of the best spots in the city. I will miss living a block and a half away.


I was warned that French Quarter parking would be impossible to find, but that’s not true . . . entirely. You can find parking in the French Quarter, just not all the time. Of course, summer is off-season and I’m sure this gets worse in late winter and spring. I only had to park off site a couple of times, but this was because I learned to plan my parking carefully, which leads to the next  point . . .


This is not a park and forget it place. There is street cleaning twice a week, so you must be constantly aware of where you’re parked. I learned it was best to park on a ‘Tuesday’ street (Remember: Tuesday to the river and Thursday through the river) so I only had to worry Monday night or Tuesday morning. Even doing this, though, streets are poorly marked and regulations not always apparent, as I learned being towed in my first week, so I found myself biking past my truck to check it daily just in case I was inadvertently illegally parked. There are also spots you can park at night, but must move by morning, as slipped my mind my last week there, resulting in another tow.

But most of all, you have to plan when you leave and return. I believe this is why there is the juxtaposition of the wealthy and service workers. You either have enough money to own a space or not work, or you have a job you can walk to because you just can’t just expect to find a spot returning home at 5:30 every day. Early mornings and early in the week are good times to stray. Don’t expect to find a space at night until after midnight and don’t dare go anywhere on the weekend because every nook and cranny fills up.

Then there’s the city’s policy on resident parking, which is mind-boggling. During the day there is a two hour parking limit in resident spaces, which discourages but does not preclude non-permit parking. This is why early mornings and early in the week are best to run errands or visit another part of town–tourists are scarce. Yet visitors during the day don’t drink as much, and I’d rather have to park far away and walk during the daylight because of non-restricted parking, so why not lift restrictions then? Instead at night when everyone pours into the French Quarter to get tanked, the city lifts regulations and allows a parking free-for-all, encouraging visitors to drive in to drink, thereby forcing residents to park far from home and stumble around the French Quarter alone at night. In the dark. Brilliant!!!


My constant parking worries forced me from sleep several times at five or six in the morning to relocate. As I passed those half dozen bars on my block, most were still rocking! As I pointed out before, it cracks me up that the one Wal-Mart in the metro areas closes at 10pm but many French Quarter bars and restaurants are open 24 hours!


Like I said, the French Quarter never sleeps. There’s a constant kinetic energy that is both invigorating and draining, and there’s not much greenery to revive a battered psyche. Since you have to plan your driving carefully you best own a bike and hop on it ever couple of days to head Uptown or to one the major parks (City or Audubon) to breath deeply and let your blood pressure fall. Perhaps it’s just the country boy in me not ready for city living, but I read this tip on another blog before moving to the French Quarter. This lady compared it to living in the heart of Paris or Manhattan, and her advice to flee to green space frequently proved prophetic.


I’ve always found it pretentious when people like me who love to travel hate on the tourists who visit their own cities. (I know, I know, you don’t travel like a tourist.) However, Bourbon Street’s very appeal is for people to  act obnoxious and shed all inhibition, making a fool of themselves like they never would at home. Then, in oblivious irony, they run back and tell people how crazy New Orleanians are, projecting their own bad behavior onto the residents who avoid Bourbon like a plague.

That being said, the majority of tourists are fairly normal and respectful, but there’s a sizeable minority that are completely clueless and always swarming, so you have to constantly be on guard. I was amazed at how consistently people would walk in front of my truck or bike without even looking. It’s actually easier to hit the brakes to keep from killing them than to swerve your bike in time to avoid killing both of you. Yet it happened on nearly ever ride. I always tried to lightly clip them with my elbow just to send a message.


In addition to living with Jake and being constantly bombarded with his twisted logic, I had a chance to talk to a few street dwellers and performers who lived partially by taking what they needed. None of them, though, self-identified as thieves and, in fact, enjoyed expounding on their moral rationalization. Like everyone else, they lived by rules of conduct. They just had a different since of time and abandonment. They would only took the bike that wasn’t chained up or was ‘abandoned’ overnight, because clearly the owner didn’t care. The laptop had to set unattended for a designated period before it was okay to lift it, so it’s okay to do a Number 1, but best skip the number two in a French Quarter coffee shop. Whereas things fall into public domain after months, years, or even decades elsewhere, it’s a matter of hours or minutes in the French Quarter. Unless it’s a wallet. Those are always fair game. I stumbled on two stripped of their contents in just three months.




French Quarter Living: Labor Day Last Hoorah!


My Favorite French Quarter View: Leaning Out the Bathroom Window!

Favorite French Quarter View:
Leaning Out Bathroom Window!

It will be two weeks Monday in my new home and so far so good. For the first time since heading this way in February I feel settled and truly able to focus on not only the blog but other writing and personal goals. My Year of Mardi Gras is a gift to myself and if at times I’ve seem frustrated, it’s because I felt like I was inadvertently squandering this precious time. There is not much of a chance for this adventure to fail (my motto, remember, is that if this blog fails it will be the most fun failure in history!) but if I look back and realize I squandered my time on foolish drama (i.e. Jake & Snake) that would qualify.

It Looked Quaint & Funky...

It Looked Quaint & Funky…

Granted, I did get some great stories from the debacle and had more reader responses to those posts than just about any others. If I am able sell this adventure as a memoir, it may turn out to be hours well wasted. Sometimes, though, you don’t realize just how stressed you were until removed from a situation, and the release of tension from my shoulders has surprised even me. Not only has my blood pressure plummeted, but my mind is clear and focused. I moved into that quaint but crumbling French Quarter apartment where gray dirt rained down from the ceiling on a daily basis coating floors and furniture like living in a coal camp because it teamed with history that promised literary inspiration. Instead, [Read more…]

New Orleans Tourist Attractions: Honey Island Swamp Tour


9.9.13 HIST WelcomeIf you look to the right as you cross the Louisiana border on I-10 West from Mississippi you’ll spy miles and miles of unspoiled wetland dubbed Honey Island Swamp by European interlopers who observed the 5×20 mile island at its center completely swarming with honey bees. Still filled with alligators and a few black bear, this dark, receding Cypress swamp is at the same time inviting and foreboding, much like nature’s version of voodoo. No wonder its mystique is burrowed deeply in local lore. This was a filming site for Oscar nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, a popular spot for the growing number of highly rational ‘reality TV’ inspired Sasquatch hunters, namesake for one of my favorite local bands—Honey Island Swamp Band, and a popular recreational escape for nature-loving locals and New Orleans Tourists seeking pause from the never-ending party on Bourbon Street.

9.9.13 HIST Swamp VIewSomething about Honey Island Swamp‘s dark waters, tangled Cypress trees, deadly snakes, lush vegetation, and ancient reptilian guardians teases the imagination back to a day when man wasn’t master of his environment, luring us to a simpler but more dangerous time. Thus, as I build my catalogue of popular New Orleans Tourist Attractions, I heeded the Siren’s call and escaped the city on a beautiful early autumn afternoon to lower my blood pressure in the rugged but pristine solitude. (For you can thumb your nose at it all if you have a boat and a knowledgeable guide!)


9.9.13 HIST Gator Approach [Read more…]

Read Beans On Monday: Tom Piazza Interview

You wrote Why New Orleans Matters in the months following Katrina, and the second half deals with the aftermath of the storm. Had you already conceptualized the first half, a memoir of how you fell in love with New Orleans?

Oh, no. In fact, before Katrina people would periodically ask me if I were thinking of writing anything about New Orleans, and I’d say no. I had been in New Orleans for 11 years when Katrina happened, but I still didn’t feel that I knew enough. There are so many layers to the place.

Right after the disaster, my better half, Mary, and I were in Missouri, where she grew up. It was extremely traumatic being stuck there and watching what was happening down here and not being able to do anything about it. I talked to my editor at Harper Collins, Cal Morgan, and he asked if there were anything they could do to help. We started talking and very quickly evolved the idea for a very short book that would make the case for why New Orleans has to survive, because at that time there were a number of voices out there, including some high-profile ones, who were saying, ‘Hey, yeah, the place should be just be bulldozed.’ The book was my response to that.

Reading City of Refuge, which you wrote afterwards, I got the sense that Why New Orleans Matters served as a blueprint for the novel. Did you purposefully use it as a roadmap or did experience subconsciously bleed in?

One is non-fiction and the other is a novel. Those are two different modes. Some people assumed that Craig’s character was based on myself, his experiences on mine, but that is really not the case. The problem that Craig faces in the novel is that he is a family man and has divided loyalties, to his family and to the city he loves. I have a friend who moved to Chicago with his wife and children from New Orleans after the disaster, as Craig and his family do, and I got a lot of insight into the choices, and the anguish, involved from long conversations with this friend, as well as from other friends who were in similar situations. His experience is very different from my own, although I and, obviously, everyone else had to make hard decisions about whether to come back or not.

When you write a novel, [Read more…]

A Nightmare on Decatur Street II: The Return of Jake & Snake


halloween-movie-posterAll apologies for my prolonged absence. My life has been a bit tumultuous the past couple of weeks and I wasn’t able to find the time or sanity to post. The situation in the French Quarter finally imploded and I was forced to flee like Jamie Lee Curtis on the last day of October.

The sad thing is that I had finally settled in and began enjoying French Quarter living after Jake moved out in early July; alas, nothing good lasts forever, especially in this city of extremes and mercurial temperament. Debra had mostly stayed away. Our communication was terse and to the point, but the fragile truce held. I’d been told that the block on Decatur Street I was living on was ‘ground zero’ for the Halloween parade and other activities so I was trying to keep things between the lines at least until then. Little did I know Halloween would come early this year, for, as I returned in late August from a week with my family in Myrtle Beach, I arrived to find the apartment door ajar. Inside was pitch black.

My mind instantly raced with possibilities. A break in? An error by Debra? She had moved back in? I stepped inside only to be startled by a familiar voice. Jake was lying in wait on the lounger just inside the door.

“What the @#$#?!”

He immediately began to explain and try to calm me down. Debra had sent a cryptic text mid-week inquiring when exactly I was returning. Now I knew why. He’s baaaaaaaaaaaaack! [Read more…]