May 17 – We’re squandering a beautiful Friday at Cafe du Monde in Metairie after spending a mostly quiet night on Governor Nicholls Street alongside New Orleans African American Museum in historic Fauborg Treme.
Now, Frommer’s warns it’s dangerous to walk through the Treme after dark. What do they know? Besides, we weren’t walking. We were sleeping. Nothing bad happened but the sweat. Despite a voluptuous canopy of shade formed by a phalanx of graceful, flowing trees, the sweat poured off us in unbecoming rivulets.
The museum, housed in a Creole villa that dates to 1829, is closed for renovations. Much of the Treme cries out for renovation. It has endured the entropy of the centuries and the ravages of Katrina. It stands without apology, dignity intact.
The Treme pulsates with the funky rhythms of the African diaspora. Once you take the French Quarter out of the equation, it’s New Orleans’ most fabled section. It is the subject of a critically lauded PBS documentary and the atmospheric HBO series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer.
The Treme, originally called Back of Town, is the oldest surviving black neighborhood in the United States. It celebrated its bicentennial last year and was home to free blacks half a century before the Civil War ended the peculiar institution of slavery.
We walked a bit of Treme, bought a bottle of wine at a corner store and followed our ears to the weekly Jazz in the Park concert. The park in question is Louis Armstrong Park, an inviting greenspace which includes Congo Square as well as the Mahalia Jackson Theater and New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. Artistic renderings of jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden and, yes, old Satchelmouth himself enhance its charm. Armstrong Park was born Beauregard Park, named for that Confederate scalawag Gen. Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard. In Congo Square, formerly Place de Negres, slaves danced on Sundays and purchased their freedom. It is also breeding ground for New Orleans’ brass band tradition and the civil rights movement.
We had the immeasurable good fortune to arrive at Armstrong Park in time to catch Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias. Bo Dollis, New Orleans legend, was unknown to me until yesterday.
Old Bo’s battled strokes and battled an array of maladies in recent years, and he needed a walker to get to the microphone. Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis looks every bit his 69 years, and perhaps a few more. Make no mistake, he can still belt out a tune with a ragged joy that makes you feel like you’ve landed in the real New Orleans and not some touristy sideshow. Sure, Iko Iko is a careworn standard that would make Davis McAlary howl with derision, but it felt good to hear Bo holler and growl. Damn good.
I was inspired to take a little video. The sound is poor and the video shaky, but you can get a feel for the art of Bo Dollis:
Once Bo had been assisted from the stage, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis took center stage. Me? I needed a toilet in a pretty undignified way. I waited in line for one of four porta potties. When I made it to the front of the line, I discovered with considerable chagrin an absolute lack of toilet paper.
I wandered out across Rampart Street, which divides Treme from the French Quarter. First place I stumbled on was a hipster hot dog shop at the corner of Rampart and St. Ann called Dreamy Weenie.
I hesitated. I looked along Rampart and then up St. Ann. Then I hesitated some more. A woman at the corner table beckoned me with a welcoming smile. I am weak. If she bids, I will come.
As for the hot dog, I opted for the vegan kielbasa with onions and mustard. I recognized this as a culinary atrocity, buying a vegan hot dog in New Orleans. Becky, she is a strong-willed vegetarian. I ponied up the extra 55 cents for roasted garlic. At $8.18, it wasn’t a bargain. But it was good, and the bathroom was clean, vacant and stocked with toilet paper. I was close to nirvana.
After exiting the restroom, I shuffled over to chat with the woman who brought me here. Sit down, she said. I sat down. If I don’t flatter myself, I do believe Catherine had an eye for your ramshackle narrator.
Ahmed, one of the guys behind the counter, was her son-in-law. Her name is Catherine, and she used to live in the upper Ninth Ward. Took in water during Katrina, but nothing disastrous. Now she lives uptown. Catherine said she’s never been to Armstrong Park. Besides, she allowed, she was wearing the wrong sort of shoes for a concert in a park.
She invited me to look at her stiletto-heeled ankle boots. They are nice, I said. She smiled. We continued the small talk, till I made a reference to “we,” as in “we are just passing through New Orleans.” Who’s this we? Catherine wanted to know.
I’m sure I imagined it, but it seemed as if her demeanor hardened just a bit. At last, and not a second too soon, my tres-chic hot dog was ready for consumption. I bid Catherine goodbye. She said to say hi to my wife and son. I said I would.
Then I had to smuggle the hot dog back into the park, as no food or drink is allowed in the park during concert time. I stuffed it in the bottom of my backpack and never once thought of Ignatius Reilly.
I crossed Armstrong Park and found Becky and Max at the bounce house. The bounce house kids were the craziest, flippingest bounce house kids we’ve ever seen. Watch them battle for the eye of the camera. Check out poor Purnell, a 6-year-old jumping jack. First Javon, the kid in the Perry the Platypus T-shirt, decks him with an elbow. Then Max screens him out just as he’s about to show off his flip.
As for Max, well, looks like he’ll be hounded by the ponderous Wallingford genes. We like to stay close to terra firma, you see. When he’d had enough running and bouncing, we exited the park as the evening crowd filed into Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Broadway hit “Wicked.”
We wandered Treme in search of bread. We struck out at two convenience before we bought three Po-Boy rolls at a corner store.
We made our way back to the Behemoth. I fried up potatoes and onions for our self-styled veggie Po-Boy: cheese, cole slaw and Thousand Island dressing topped with fries and onions. Not Creole, but not bad.
Then we got a fitful night of sleep, haunted only by the ever-present New Orleans song of sirens and the street palaver of passing drunks.