by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 20: New Orleans, Louisiana
Back in Buffalo the previous Saturday afternoon, Maelene and Toni had left the rental car keys with Nice Day and jumped into their taxi. They made it to the airport just in time for the five o’clock flight to Atlanta, and the fifty minute connection window onward to New Orleans happily proved to be more than enough.
They reached their French Quarter guest house at nine-thirty, and not long afterwards they were out on Bourbon Street. And it was buzzing!
The busily-drinking crowds were already spilling out onto the sidewalks and into the roads, especially at the St Peter Street junction. But there was plenty of room in the bars all around, and the best sounds at that moment were coming from Krazy Korner. Entrance was free, the band was excellent, they soon forgot the stresses and strains of the past few hours, and Maelene even started dancing. Toni was unfamiliar with that particular pastime, but he did his best to follow suit, and she soon pronounced ‘You’re not half bad, either! Must be the music in you, baby!’
They took a breather outside after a while, then dived into the Cat’s Meow on the opposite corner, and had a good, extended laugh watching and singing along to Karaoke performances of a very wide quality range.
‘How long did you book us in for?’ Toni shouted in Maelene’s ear, over one of the more raucous songs.
‘I said at least three nights, but he offered to hold the room right through to Friday. I didn’t argue!’
‘Great! In that case, we can have several more evenings like this. But it’s nearly midnight, and I’m getting very tired. Shall we call it a day?’
* * *
They were up far too late for the hotel breakfast, but they did not care: the weather was dry, sunny and already very warm, and Maelene was not regretting her agreement to come here before visiting Florida.
They wandered down towards the river and took in the full daytime street scene. Music everywhere still, especially on street corners — simple folk singers; solo electric guitarists; skiffle, jazz and blues trios; the works. In Jackson Square they found the fortune tellers, and the living statue artists, and much more. Then, after a hurried coffee, they took a gentle stroll along the breezy Mississippi, and a fun ride back on the Riverfront Streetcar.
They had lunch in the Chartres House Café, and Toni asked the friendly barman whether they had discovered the best part of town the previous night.
‘Well, it’s the noisiest,’ was the grinning reply. ‘But if you want a range of top-quality music, and a more discerning audience, head on over to Frenchmen Street. Check out Snug Harbor, especially — it always has the finest live jazz. Hold on ...’
He moved off to serve three more customers, all at once and just as attentively, but he was soon back.
‘OK, I’ve got the local paper ... right, here’s their list for this week. Hey, it’s Astral Project tonight — they’ve been playing together in this city for thirty years, and they’re brilliant! Give the place a call right now and see if they can squeeze you in for dinner and a show ...’
And Toni did, and they could, and the evening’s plans were laid.
* * *
They spent most of the afternoon getting much better acquainted with the criss-cross of French Quarter streets, while Toni enthused continuously about the delightful old buildings.
‘Many of them are Spanish, of course, Maelene.’
‘Yes, we took the city over from the French-Canadians, forty years before you laid your hands on it!’
‘Don’t blame me for our chequered history, sunshine!’
They reconnoitred Frenchmen Street ready for the coming evening, then reached the pretty little Washington Park and stopped for a long rest on a welcoming bench.
* * *
Dinner and the late show at Snug Harbor were out of this world, and when Toni and Maelene finally emerged onto the Marigny District streets, well after eleven-thirty, the place was still very much alive. And so were they.
First they hit Café Negril. Then they hit The Spotted Cat. Then they hit the Blue Nile. They found wonderful live music in every one, and they simply loved it all.
And then they discovered Ray’s Boom Boom Room, and could not believe the quality of the performances there — and all for free, that night. And they met the man himself, and they told him so, and he loved it too.
As they finally left Frenchmen Street, admittedly after a lot of drinks over the course of the very long night, Maelene and Toni were vehemently agreeing that their lives would never be the same again. Until the next time ...
* * *
New Orleans had caught them in its spell, and the pattern of their first full day there would be repeated until they chose to break that spell.
On Monday they checked out the Canal Street shops, and Toni tried hard to enjoy the experience. Then after an early lunch of oysters at the Gally House, they ended up on Jackson Square again, and this time they penetrated into the St Louis Cathedral — only to discover a wedding was just about to begin. The bride and her father waited nervously for several minutes, right there at the back, as friends and family paraded slowly and proudly down the aisle to their seats, and dozens of delighted and quietly respectful tourists snapped away and gave them reassuring and gratefully received “good luck” smiles.
Maelene finally targeted the best of her own ‘Isn’t this lovely?’ smiles at Toni himself, but he was by then engrossed in the fine architecture, and never even knew about it. She shrugged her shoulders, as she had done so often over the past few years, and they moved on to visit the adjacent Cabildo Museum.
Back in their room at the end of the afternoon, Maelene’s inquisitiveness finally got the better of her again.
‘Hey, Lucia, you still there?’
‘Of course I am!’
‘So, what’s the latest scene with your trade talks?’
‘In a nutshell, Maelene, it’s all moved across to Washington, but very little is happening. The men are still taking their time.’
‘Hah! I wish men would learn about the places where they really do need to take their time! OK, thanks. Anything we can do?’
‘I don’t think so. Just keep on having fun. Bye for now!’
‘Oh, what a pity,’ said Toni. ‘If only we were in Washington! I’d really love to see one of my favourite Renoir paintings in the flesh.’
‘Yeah, that is a shame, honey. But it’s probably the only worthwhile thing in the whole city. You must have heard this one:
“So, Mr Doe, what seems to be the trouble?”
“Well, Mr President, nobody here seems to take any notice of me ...”
“So, Mr Doe, what seems to be the trouble?”’
That evening there was no debate. Straight back to Frenchmen Street and all those wonderful music bars, all over again.
‘Not so busy everywhere, tonight ...’
‘No, but just as good!’
* * *
They spent a differently energetic Tuesday morning in their hotel room, and then devoted the rest of the day to a two-hour cruise on the glorious steamboat Natchez, where they both learnt a lot about the mighty Mississippi and the lake and the levees and the sinking city and its continuing growth ...
They were back in their room quite early that evening. Toni switched on the TV, idly scanned the channels, and quickly bumped up against reports of new natural disasters.
‘Can’t seem to avoid them, Maelene.’
‘That’s almost what I was saying the other night. But some of them could be avoided. You heard what the man said on the boat trip. This wonderful place is a disaster waiting to happen. Have you read the Scientific American article?’
‘It was published twenty months ago, in the Fall of 2001. It says that sooner or later, New Orleans is gonna get hit by a monster hurricane and floods that could kill tens of thousands and destroy most of the city, because of the way the natural drainage systems of the lake and the river have been compromised, and the land is eroding and disappearing under the water ...’
‘There’s always plenty of doomsday writing like that in the press, Maelene.’
‘This isn’t just the press, Toni ... it’s a lot of expert opinions. They put all the evidence together, and they see the way things are worsening on every front, and they just know it’s gonna come, and soon.’
‘All right, I’ll believe you.’
‘Don’t just believe me. Read the article yourself. We’ll find it on the Internet tomorrow ...’
They went out to dinner nearby, but Maelene was pensive and subdued all evening, and their earlier joie de vivre had vanished. Toni tried to reawaken it on Bourbon Street, but even that place was suffering mid-week blues. They decided against the long stroll over to Marigny, and had a very early night instead.
* * *
The next morning they visited the charming, bustling French Market down by the riverside, then picked up some pastries and coffee and strolled back to their favourite bench in Washington Park.
Moments later, Maelene was abruptly aware that, although Lucia was nowhere to be seen, Toni was obviously in brief direct communion with the Mater.
‘Hello, Toni. Now that you’ve calmed down nicely after Saturday’s little fright at Niagara, we’d like you to do us a small favour ...’
He was delighted to feel needed again at last.
‘Of course, Lucia!’
‘Please call Mr Ted Ranovitz, on the number I’m about to dictate, and as soon as he answers, turn your phone round so that the mouthpiece is facing outwards for me to use ...’
Toni was suddenly far more wary, but he followed her orders, of course, and Quo herself at once proceeded to re-engage the Homeland Security chief’s full attention. She then gave the man some very direct suggestions, based on sound Doman experience, as to how the nation’s various and obviously immature intelligence information systems could be dramatically improved and more fully integrated, so that they might properly do their job of countering territorial threats whilst not, at the same time, carelessly infringing the rights of the honest world citizen.
* * *
Maelene took command again, followed her nose, and soon found the Bastille Computer Café on Toulouse Street. Five minutes later she presented Toni with a printout of the doom-laden Scientific American article.
‘There you go, sunshine. Read, learn, and inwardly digest. You know, pain-in-the-butt old Sal went back to Venice to carry on the fight to save his hometown from sinking like Atlantis. Good for him! But that crisis looks small compared with this one ...’
They moved along to the nearby Chartres House, ordered another good lunch, and thanked the barman for his fine advice on their first visit. Then Maelene insisted on shifting over to a corner table. Toni followed without argument.
‘Look, I’m still real unhappy about what the Domans are doing here ...’
‘Oh, that again? Why can’t you just accept it? I still think they’re doing their best in a very difficult situation. And we owe all these wonderful times together to them, don’t we? But Lucia’s still with us, honey. She’ll be overhearing everything we say ...’
‘I don’t care about that. Why should I worry about offending them? We’re still the lapdogs here, remember?’
‘No, I won’t sshhhh! Do you hear that, Lucia?’
‘Yes, I do, Maelene. And we are very sorry you feel this way. We truly believe, as Toni says, that we are doing our level best for you, in the circumstances ...’
‘Well, I think you have your ideas altogether too jumbled, Lucia ... and you as well, Quo, since I’m sure you’re listening in!’
‘Yes, I am, my dear. And I am listening very carefully. But may I suggest we all sleep on this for the moment, and talk it over again in some less public place?’
‘No, I don’t ... wait ... yes, you’re right, of course. OK, till later, then.’
Toni had sat uncomfortably through all of this without saying another word, and now Maelene turned her attention back to him.
‘I think I’ve had my fill of the Big Easy, now, Toni. It’s been great, but I still really fancy Florida ...’
‘That’s fine, honey. I’ve loved every minute of it here, so I’ve just been holding on till you decided to drive us forward, as usual!’
She gave him a truly unhappy look, and he remembered that irony often does not travel well.
‘Hey, I’m teasing! You know how I love to be dominated! Let’s get back to the Internet café and sort it all out!’
That earned him a big and very relieved kiss.
* * *
‘Why don’t we start in Fort Lauderdale, and work our way down the coast to Miami, and then play it by ear?’
‘And if we make it an afternoon flight, we won’t have to get up too early, and you can have another long night out on Frenchmen Street ...’
‘We can, Maelene ...’
‘Yeah, sorry ... we can.’
‘Good. Over to you, then.’
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd