I admire good travel writing. It demonstrates an eye for the illustrative detail, an ear for conversation and an ability to write crisply. Mark Twain, Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux are good travel writers. I am not, so don’t expect good travel writing here. Instead, I offer a selection of anecdotes without a punchline and snippettes of scenes. You’ve been warned.
- For personal and, I suppose, professional reasons, when I get to a new town I like to talk with folks living on the streets. New Orleans has a plentiful band of street people, many of whom have heartbreaking or humorous signs in front of them:
- “Alone and ashamed and hungry. Please help.”
- “I don’t want to do this. Please help me stop.”
- “Give enough to get me drunk.”
- “Gave up but still need a drink.”
From the first time I visited the city back in the Clinton administration, I saw New Orleans as a perfect destination for the homeless, and determined I’d live on these streets eventually. (Really.) It’s warm year-round, it’s got lots of bridges to sleep under if it rains, and alcohol flows everywhere. What more could any drunk ask for?
- Monday evening, I went to Ozanam Inn, a homeless shelter run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. No, I didn’t call the administration there and ask for a tour. Instead, I found the place through street-person word of mouth, and stopped by to talk with guys about the place. For what it’s worth, everyone I talked with had praise for the respect they were shown there. Although I was the only white guy in the room—and talked funny to boot—guys seemed willing to talk and I felt accepted. Should I decide to pursue my earlier dream and become a homeless alcoholic in the Big Easy, it’s nice to know St. Vincent will leave a light on for me.
- Monday and Tuesday, according to my phone, I walked about 10 miles each day. Because New Orleans is as flat as a bathtub, 10 miles of walking here is about the same as four miles in Pittsburg or most of the rest of New Hampshire. With no ups, downs or have-to-go-arounds, this may be the most walking-friendly city I’ve ever visited.
- Lots and lots (and lots) of street cons and hustles here, something I really enjoy. From the tried-and-true “I know where you got them shoes” to not-particularly agile gymnastics to musical groupings of strange instruments, every corner seems to bring a new strange sight. Favorite: a white guy “singing” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with no musical accompaniment and no sense of tune. With a repertoire, or victim list, of one song, he was willing to brave the jeers of folks walking by. I threw him a buck just for his lack of self-awareness.
- If I moved here, I think I’d weigh 275 pounds. The food is everywhere, and it’s all good. Fried chicken at Willie Mae’s had a coating so delicious I was surprised to find it had chicken inside. Likewise, breakfast at Mother’s—a crawfish Étouffée omelette, black ham, grits and biscuit—was so filling yesterday I wasn’t hungry until 8:30 last night—when I stopped in a halal joint for Middle Eastern food.
Today, I walk to a site run by the nonprofit that invited me down here. Along the way? More street performers, hustlers, homeless folks and, oh yes, food.