Monday, April 16, 2007

New Orleans Day three

After a cup of tea at Sounds café Charles and I headed out to find some grease. We went to some Soul Food places around the 7th ward but the most of the grease looked pretty nasty. I don't kow why Charles is giving this grease trap the thumbs-up. It is clearly thumbs-DOWN!


We did manage to find some good gease at Orleans Seafood/ Chinese Restaurant at Claiborne and Toledano. This sweet Vietnamese woman came out and talked to us and told us that her cousin drives a grease car and assured us that this was good grease.


We took about 25 gallons and each ate an order of red beans and rice. Afterwards we drove around the neighborhood and stopped to filter some grease outside the local barber school. We talked to several people as we filtered and the owner of the barber school even gave me a free (fake) haircut!


After we filtered the grease we continued our tour of the neighborhood, looking at at the evidence of Katrina's destruction and how the area is coming back to life. When we turned the corner onto Baronne Street the first thing we saw was a woman working in a giant empty lot-turned rose garden. It stood out in great contrast to the rest of the block. We immediately parked and went to speak with the gardener.


Her name is Jeanette and she created the garden four years ago after suing the city of New Orleans so that she could purchase what was then a blighted lot that they had planned to turn into parking. She has spent untold hours working on her garden which she built to use to demonstrate DIY gardening skills to local youth. The garden suffered some from Hurricane Katrina but she built it up again and it is thriving! She showed us so many kinds of flowers and plants and made us an edible bouquet of herbs and nasturtiums. We stayed there for over an hour, looking at so many things and talking with Jeanette about the neighborhood. She seemed very happy to have people to show it to. Before we left she gave us her card and said that she would be going to her other property near Jackson, Mississippi the next day.

When we got back to the French quarter I told Charles about ditching my bike and he said "Why did you do that? You could go fix it at Plan B!" So I said "Let's go see if it's still where I left it, if it is, I'll try to fix it" We walked over to Elysian Fields and Decatur where I had left it 24 Hours earlier and unbelievably it was still there!


After that, Charles helped me take some photos of my eBay stuff and we had a ball, running through the French quarter and me changing outfits in the park on Frenchmen. Yay!


After the sun set I treated Charles to a well deserved dinner at Anjeli on Decatur. My pasta was over-cooked and the bowl was full of water. I asked for it with sautéed mushrooms and got them raw and cleverly hidden by sauce so that I wouldn't notice. There was not even a hint of anchovie in the Caesar salad and the staff said "absolutely not" to my request to charge my camera batteries. The only good thing was that we were joined by Lisa, who had called me at the request of Mr. Joey Burns of Tucson, Arizona to make sure everything was going okay. After dinner we went to The John on Frenchman for a drink. I looked in my wallet and saw that I had not a single note of cash on me so Charles bought me a Herradura Reposado for $4.50 and then we went into the back room to play pool. Lisa lost to Charles and I played him and won. Before our second game a young man and his date came into the back room wanting to play so Charles let them have the table while we went out to smoke. I took my purse outside with me and considered whether to also take my computer bag. Since I was going to be standing right outside the door and there were only 4 other customers in the bar I decided that my bag would be safe on the table. When we went back inside the young man and his date gave up on playing pool and left.

Charles won the second game and we called it a night. I went back to sleep outside Frank's house with a plan to leave in the morning for Mississippi.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

New Orleans Day two


I woke up parked at N. Robertson and Ursulines and being in desperate need of a shower I headed to the Hilton hotel to use the Fitness Room and Pool for $15. It’s a little known secret about traveling that hotels do allow non-guests to use those facilities for a fee, usually 10-15 dollars, motels, truckstops and public pools cost $2-9. So when I need to I treat myself. I usually try to find a hot tub and sauna as I just use that and the pool. At high end hotels remember to ask for a robe if they don’t give you one. The Hilton was okay. Tiny outdoor pool and hot tub and lukewarm indoor hot tub and a tiny sauna. For $15 it’s not that great but it did the trick and I could at least face New Orleans washed free of grease and grime.

I spoke to Bill Daniel during my emotional meltdown that day. I was so stressed out and had not slept well, and I needed a plan. So many things came together to make me super emotional. Bill was helpful and came through with sound advice and also informed me that Kal Spelletich was in town, showing some work. Immediately I knew that Kal had been involved with the party I had briefly visited the night before. Bill and I both called Kal and left messages. I went back and parked just outside the French quarter on Chartres and took my bike to see if it could be repaired. I took it to Michael’s on Frenchmen and they said it wasn’t worth saving with the bent frame, bent forks and busted derailer. I asked if there was any place I could donate it and they suggested Plan B, a bike Co-op on Decatur and Marigny. I was laboriously pushing it up there when I reached the end of my emotional rope and left it, leaned against a parking meter on Decatur.

I went back to the van and with the sun beginning to set, knowing that I needed to eat something I walked down Chartres and introduced myself to Frankie and Pete who were sitting at Frank’s house, having a beer.

I asked if they thought I would be safe parked in that neighborhood and Frank told me to move over to his corner and that he could put the parking cones out for me that were being used by the crew that was working on his house. They then directed me to some cheap food at 13 on Frenchmen and I returned afterwards and parked the van right next to Frank’s house. I talked a while with Frank, his wife and the neighbors. Frank and his wife had not yet moved in to the house and before leaving to their home in the suburbs, offered me the key to the empty house we were sitting in front of.


Thrilled and renewed by their generosity and trust I felt ready to face New Orleans. Rufus Raxlen called me and said to go see his friend Steve, at the Sugarpark Tavern. A while later Kal called and said to meet him at the Sugarpark Tavern. When I met Kal at the Sugarpark Tavern I was so happy to see a friendly face. We talked about diesel engines, about the grease and about my project. Kal had been in town from San Francisco due to his involvement in The 2nd Annual Lower Decatur St. Transformation and Enlightenment League Street Festival.

Kal introduced me to Charles, from San Francisco. Steve, Rufus’ friend from Brooklyn and the co-owner of the Sugarpark tavern came out from the kitchen and bought us a round. What a friendly guy, a true New Yorker, generous and welcoming. Loved the bar, the music, the crowd and the neighborhood, France and Dauphine.

I went back to my parking place at Frank’s house and debated whether to stay in the van with a broken window latch that I tied closed with wire or to sleep on the floor in the house. I decided to stay in the van on the theory that people who want to rob you are less likely to break into the car if they see you sleeping in it. I slept soundly through the night and got out of bed a while after Frank and his crew showed up.

In the morning I met up with Charles at Sounds café at Port and Chartres and we set up an email account for Lester, who is an inventor and currently looking into applying for patents if anyone has any advice for him.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

New Orleans Day one


When I was leaving on this trip and I told people I was going to New Orleans, every single person said "Don't stay in your van in New Orleans, make sure you have a safe place to stay." So, before I even left I started making arrangements for a place to park. When I left the bayou I thought I was all sorted out with my friend's sister on the north shore of lake Pontchartrain, I spoke to her husband in the morning and he said "Come on by, I'll be here all day, just call when you get to town and I'll give you directions.” I didn't know that it is 25 miles across the lake and the drive from Houma took longer than I expected so I got to the North shore stressed out, hungry, dirty and frazzled. I called my friend's sister's husband from the parking lot of a Wal-Mart and there was no answer. Shit. I needed a shower so badly and I was really looking forward to having a safe place where I didn't have to worry about the van and everything in it. The last place I wanted to be while the sun was setting was in the parking lot of freakin' Wal-Mart!

Luckily my good friend Shannon McNally was helping me out and calling some friends in New Orleans at the same time. After waiting in the parking lot a bit I decided to turn around and go back to New Orleans and just figure it out from there. All I had eaten all day was 2 cookies and some donut holes that I stole from the writer's convention that was happening at the Houma Library so I was starving and cranky. Shannon pointed me in the direction of some food at Coop's, I had the Gumbo, which was bland and expensive, then asked about the grease for which the owner wanted to give me the third degree and a hard time to boot so I said "Thanks anyway, but I've had easier times getting free beer", ate the last shrimp in my bowl and split. I stopped in a few doors down on Decatur street to check out a big party in a courtyard with music and fire and a very San Francisco kind of vibe.

I had parked the van on Frenchmen street, which is ironic because I can’t stand them, and I wanted to walk back and check on things so I didn’t stay at the party. As I was walking through the French quarter I asked a man walking towards me if he thought I was parked in a safe enough place to sleep in and he came to my van with me to check it out. Leo thought I might be safer in his neighborhood so we drove over there and parked. I could see that I was in a much less populated neighborhood, not far from North Robertson and Ursulines.

Leo asked if I felt like having a beer so we went walking around, looking for a pool table. We played a few games in an empty bar and then went to another joint and I played against some other people. I was having a great time. I was shooting good pool, I was enjoying good company, Leo was a great tour guide and escorted me through the French quarter with his eye on my back all night, I felt as safe as I was going to in New Orleans.


I was down to my last ball and my opponent had just missed a shot on his last ball when Leo approached me and asked if I wanted to smoke some crack.

“No”.
“Well will you give me 10 dollars for crack?”
“No.”
“How about five?”
“No, not for crack.”

I then missed my shot, lost the game and told Leo “I want to get out of here.”

There was no way around it. The whole crack thing really dampened my spirits. I try not to be judgmental about people’s habits. I know that walking around and parking with Leo that I was totally safe and in good hands but the mention of smoking crack definitely heightened my awareness of my surroundings and safety. We walked some more though the neighborhood and drank a beer on a step. It was then that I asked Leo if he had been in New Orleans during Katrina. He replied that he had been in jail in Texas at that time. I didn’t ask why. As the conversation continued he told me it was due to some implication when his sister had tried to kill her third husband.

“How did she do it?” I asked
“Stab him, bunch of times” He indicated the area above his heart with a rapid, stabbing motion.

As the conversation continued further he told me that though she had failed to kill the last one she had been successful in stabbing the first two to death. She didn’t do any time because it was proven to be in self defense in both cases.
“They was mean” Leo told me “They come at her and she couldn’t take it no more.”
“Well you’re her big brother, why do you let her get involved with these assholes in the first place?”
“It’s her choice. She wants to be with them, nothing I say is going to stop her, she can take care of herself.”
“But Leo,” I said “you should be showing her an example of how a good man acts, don’t you think?”
He agreed and saw my point and eventually I saw his and then we walked back to the van and I used Leo’s bathroom and went to sleep with one eye open.

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Grand Caillou

I arrived in DuLac ready to quit driving and meet some crazy Cajuns and within minutes of doing so I was trying my best to get rid of them.

After a half hour of frustrating communication with people who probably don't make much sense when they are sober either, I moved from the store to the bar and immediately regretted the decision to go indoors, the sun was setting and I had been in the car most of the day. The bartender let me take my beer outside to watch the sunset from the bank of the bayou and I was checking out the boats when I met Mike, who had seen me at the store and actually wanted to warn me about those guys, which didn’t surprise me at all. The thing about crashing in really small towns, is that once you’ve met some people, everyone knows you’re traveling alone. If anyone in town wants to find you, they will. So, I had to either get out of town completely or find a really safe parking place. I was tired and ready to quit driving so I immediately followed Mike to his property at the north end of town where he is building a Bed and Breakfast that backs onto a lake, across the road from the bayou and with not a single refinery in sight!

He invited me to stay as long as I like at his place with a lake full of fish and canoes. I took him up on his offer to cook some catfish he caught that morning and we drank a beer.


After talking to Mike, my feelings have been confirmed that there is no safe place for a lady to stay alone in the bayou, unless maybe you can get a boat and get the hell away from any people. Best to go with a friend or two. Of course, there are other people you can talk to besides the town drunk but basically, if people see that you are alone they are going to be interested in talking to you. My impression of Cajuns is that they are friendly but some are a little TOO friendly. How about this guy?

I actually had to tell him to leave me the hell alone and then said to the kid with the neck tatoo:

"Damn, that guy is obnoxious!" and he replied "That's my dad." I said "Well don't you be like him!" and he said "I know." As though he had been told that a million times. The kid is 23 and already been kicked out of his mom's house and 86'ed from the local bar for fighting. It seems like his only friend is the town drunk who hangs out in front of the store with the kid's dad.

You know, when I was driving around Southern Louisiana I nooticed that there are only about ten different surnames attached to most of the businesses. Hebert, Brousseaux, Chauvin, Beauregard, and you know what that says to me? It says you need to diversify your gene pool people. Now.

I wish you could hear the way these folks speak. It's a cool sounding accent when they speak English and a strange patois in French. The younger people don't seem to speak French very much but all the Cajuns I met over 40-50 years old spoke some.

When I went to bed in Mike's driveway that night I spent 30 minutes killing mosquitoes in the van and the rest off the night sweating with the windows shut as a storm rolled in from Texas.

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St. Gabriel

I woke up in Abbeville, just south of Lafayette and headed to the Abbeville RV park to see about a shower but they don't have any. So five days without a shower and I'm driving in the Louisiana heat (though very mild at this time of year, it's hot in the van!) to Lafayette to check out the thrift stores. I found nothing so I continued on to Baton Rouge. Found nothing there too but a guy did follow me into the thrift store parking lot to ask me about my conversion system. He said his son has a shop 10 miles up the road in Denham Springs and I could go up there and filter some grease. I went up there and looked around but didn't find the shop and I really wanted to get out of town and back out to the country. I have been driving almost exclusively two lane highways all the way across the country. I think I've done maybe a hundred miles on I-10 this entire time. It stresses me out and I don't get to enjoy the drive so whenever possible I stay on the back roads or the scenic byway. However, the stretch of 10 that I drove from Henderson to Baton Rouge was kind of amazing as it passes over the Atchafalaya basin which I am dying to come back and explore. That looks like some serious swamp!

I from Baton Rouge I crossed the Mississippi river again and went to Plaquemine where I crossed the river again, this time by ferry to St. Gabriel. I stopped at the St. Gabriel Grocery and was immediately engaged in a conversation with two men sitting on the porch, drinking beer in the shade. I showed Frank my van and vegetable oil and he said I should do a demonstration in the parking lot. I needed to filter my grease anyway so I set up there and by the time I got started the parking lot was full of trucks and people just getting of work from the nearby chemical plant. So I showed of my rig to half the population of St. Gabriel. People were very friendly and interested, Frank and I decided to go into business together converting cars and filtering grease and hire Reggie as our accountant.


Frank said he would call his wife and ask if I could come over and use the shower. I imagine the conversation went something like this: "Hi Honeybabe, how you doin'? See, I met this Canadian girl needs to come over and take a hot shower.." "Frank, you been drinkin' down at the store all day again?!" Click.

So Frank, Reggie and Al took me to dinner at the Route 30 truckstop and afterwards I was able to pay $6 for a very nice but not very hot shower. All three of these guys work at the Syngenta plant nearby which is a petrochemical plant that produces fertilizers and pesticides for agricultural use. I asked them what illnesses are most common among the workers there and they told me prostate cancer is number one. When I told them that my father died from exposure to asbestos all three said "mesothelioma?" in unison. I was surprised, as most people have never even heard of it. We were sitting at a booth in the restaurant drinking beer and having a grand old time when one of the waitresses told us to quiet down or take it into the bar. It seemed strange since we were the only customers there. We left and went to Lucy's for more beer. I really wish I had a good picture of Lucy's sign but this is the best I could do the next day.


At the bar we talked about what had happened at the restaurant which according to my three companions was due to the prejudiced nature of the white staff of the restaurant who were unhappy to see three black men with a white woman. In fact, when Frank told his nephew (who we ran into at Lucy's) what had happened he didn't even have to ask who had told us to quiet down. I found the whole thing interesting and asked many questions about the attitudes of both black and white locals. I asked if any of the black people would be upset to see me out with them and they all said "No, black people don't care, they're not prejudiced" and then a minute later told me that "white people are all stupid" and even though I partly agree with that statement, it might be considered a little prejudicial. Not to mention the attitudes that these three men hold towards gays and lesbians, not exactly what you might call enlightened, you know? I recorded the entire conversation if you ever want to hear it.

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Cameron Parish

I crossed the border into Louisiana on highway 82 and it wasn't ten minutes before I saw my first alligator roadkill. The communities in the area that I drove through were almost completely wiped out by hurricane Rita. Or as the sherriff in Cameron Parish told me "people done near lost everything they had." Rita was an even more intense storm than hurricane Katrina, there is still plenty of evidence all along highway 82.


All day I drove through miles and miles of swamp. I drove past a couple of trees filled with what I thought was storm debris and it turned out to be dozens of pink spoonbills. When I got out to look at them I surprised a gator who hopped into the water and floated there, staring at me and then I heard one across the water hissing and growling at me. What a sound!



I drove a little further down the road and met a family out catching crab and drum fish. They were so friendly that it confirmed my thinking that Louisiana would be a more welcoming place than Texas.


I was tempted but torn about staying out in the marshlands overnight. It's quiet, with lots of dead-end dirt roads but I was nervous about attracting unwanted attention from humans and maybe gators. I was also sort of in the mood to go into a town and meet people but I had no idea where to go. The family I met suggested Abbeville because there are RV parks there where I could get a much needed shower. Maybe I could get some food too. The grandmother, Lucille, gave me directions to her favorite seafood place in Lafayette, Lagneaux's and told me to have the "balled crab". Balled crab? What the hell is balled crab? She told me more about how to make it with onion in the water and just a little lemon juice until I finally realized she was saying BOILED crab. Boy, am I dumb.

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