You would not go to Disneyland and not ride Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean.
And so you would not come to New Orleans and not take a leisurely stroll through the Vieux Carré, the not so aptly named French Quarter.
When the morning shadows are long, the people clean the sidewalks of to-go cups and broken beads. I found this an optimal time for strolling quickly through the t-shirt and alligator head stalls in the old French Market.
It was quiet, or as quiet at The Quarter gets. The early risers and the elderly walked casually by the artists and the hawkers, and I rubbed the dust in my eyes from the sprayers and sweepers on the narrow streets.
We made our way down French Market Place and crossed over to Decatur Street, before we were lured over the streetcar tracks by that old muddy river.
I am always drawn toward water, and I’ve long been fascinated by that big artery that pumps through the American midlands. And you can feel something on the banks of it here in New Orleans, just a hundred miles from the end of its long journey, that you can’t feel on its banks in Iowa or up in Wisconsin.
There where the big river takes a mighty turn, cutting an oxbow around one of the most delightful cities anywhere, you can feel the strain as the sediment and runoff from a continent senses its final destination is near.
It used to be that the mighty Mississippi River cut a new path toward the Gulf whenever it so chose. In this way, it deposited new islands that were once glacial rock piles from somewhere much colder and further north.
Through engineering feats, the big river is kept in check, flowing toward the same destination, where she deposits what little soil she still carries with her.
But I digress, that is what the river does to you when you first see it here in New Orleans.
The first thing that struck me about the Quarter is how much it reminded me of Havana, Cuba.
The faded Caribbean colors of seashell beige, sea star yellow, urchin red and anemone green clung desperately to peeling exteriors savaged by sun and wind and the occasional monster the locals call ouragon.
The patios are festooned with ribbon and leftover Christmas lights, and the trees, as you might expect, are covered in beads.
By 10 a.m., the day drinkers have finished breakfast, likely beignets and coffee from Cafe Du Monde, which they sat and ate and drank, as we did, on the steps in front of Jackson Square.
We were traveling somewhere in the mid-40s when we left our bed & breakfast in Marigny, and by now, with the sun nearly overheard, it had to be nearing 50 degrees.
Still, the wandering hoards wore jackets and scarves, a few even wore gloves to my amazement.
The similarities to Havana stayed with me as we strolled down Decatur Street toward the business district.
Faded decadence, former glory washed away in the Caribbean sunshine. New Orleans, it turns out, is often considered the northernmost city of the Caribbean.
We walked quickly past the big hotels and the gamblers and made our way to Bourbon Street.
It’s not the same in bright sunshine with freshly showered bricks. And I don’t know if it was just the suggestion Cheryl put in my head, but I could detect a faint smell of vomit on the air in the shadowy places.
All day and all night, is how our B&B host described Bourbon Street. He suggested hanging out in the quickly gentrifying Marigny at Mimi’s or at one of the music joints on Frenchman.
But we had to see the famous Bourbon Street, even if just in the light of day.
The revelers were out but not in force. They walked along carrying all manner of brightly colored drinks in plastic cups, blinking rapidly in the daylight. Like vampires with too much of a good thing, they were soon chased back into the dark recesses of the pubs.
We walked to the end of the festival part of Bourbon Street, to where the residences started.
It was 12:30 p.m., so we ordered up a couple of Bloody Marys and found a quiet, shaded spot in the courtyard of one of the many pubs named after that old pirate Jean Lafitte.
We had the place to ourselves, and we could people watch to our hearts’ content through the gates.
Soon a group of women seeming to represent at least three generations paraded into the courtyard and took seats at nearby tables.
The matriarch, or who I assumed to be the matriarch, approached me and asked if I would take a photo of her daughter and her grandchildren.
I obliged and nearly dropped the camera from laughing when one of the older sisters or cousins, a tall, blond, stick figure of a woman said the bartenders assured her she was a long-lost cousin of the old pirate Lafitte.
The restaurant workers in New Orleans do know how to throw a compliment or at least keep you guessing.
After a delightful libation, the spice of which cleared up our senses, we decided to forsake the dank-smelling Bourbon Street for something a little lighter and prettier on the eyes and nostrils.
We walked down St. Phillip, following the worshipful sound of “The Saints” being played on a trombone by a young man sporting an LSU shirt and a thick pair of eye glasses.
We crossed over the street car tracks again and, perhaps drawn by the sunshine, made our way along the river toward Drago’s Seafood, which is not in The Quarter.
But we much desired oysters of the gulf variety, so we gladly traded the already bustling streets for the upscale confines of a hotel restaurant.
“Betcha I can guess where you got your shoes,” a man said suddenly from a bench along the walkway.
He stepped in front of me and would not let me pass.
This just a few moments after a young homeless man asked for money and then accused me of ignoring him for how he looked before apologizing that he couldn’t be as fancy fancy as me.
“You got a camera?” he asked Cheryl. “Because you’re gonna want to document this.”
She just smiled at the con artists while I played his game.
“Betcha I can guess the place down to the town and street where ya got yo shoes,” he said again.
“Ok, I said,” resignedly.
He had his mark, and who was I not to play along at this point. Besides, my shoes desperately needed a polish after the salty and slushy winter we’re having in Chicago, and he promised me a polish.
“Do you think I can do this?” he asked, one more time.
He bent down in front of me, pulled out a small plastic bottle of something and put a dollop on the toes of both shoes.
“I’m a tell you where you got your shoes,” he said, once more.
“Ya got your shoes on yo damn feet!” he shouted. “They on yo damn feet.”
He asked me to come sit down on the bench, where he proceeded to polish my shoes and told me a story about being a single father. He asked me if I could believe he made a living this way.
“That’s $20 dollars for the shine, because you needed a shine brother,” he said. “And $20 for the lesson, because you needed the lesson.”
He finished polishing my shoes and explained his pricing policy again.
“That’s $20 for the work, because I’m supporting myself and my kids, and $20 for the lesson,” he said.
I stood up and pulled the two dollars I had on me out of my pocket. He quickly took them and looked a little disgusted.
He looked over at Cheryl. “Help this brother out,” he said.
She just laughed.
I said thank you, doffed my cap at him, and we made our way along the river for another half mile or so to where the oysters were cold and fresh.
I told Cheryl I like this town, as I have told her in many towns before.
But this time I really mean it.
By Tim Akimoff