I love Mardi Gras and costuming. Not unusual, this is New Orleans. Sometimes I spend hours, sometimes weeks on my costume. I feel sad for the week after Mardi Gras when I see that nobody is wearing a costume anymore and wonder why we have to waste our lives dressed all normal-like. Masks are more fun than no masks, and it’s not even close. Of all the costumes I ever made, this years was the easiest and my favorite ever, not because of what I wore, but because of what it did. It made people in New Orleans light up…this year I laced up a wedding dress, donned a floppy hat, built some rollerskates and carried a string of stuffed ducks. For one day I got to live the dream, I was Ruthie the duck lady; and I got to see how much she meant to this city.
Ruthie Grace Moulon (1934-2008) wasn’t someone I understood. She wasn’t someone I knew well, I was just one of the many characters in the audience of her stage, the French Quarter. Her life and her performance was one and the same. She decided on her role and never broke character. Ruthie, to me when I first arrived in this city, was New Orleans. I was young, poor and loved the quarter. I would sit in Jackson Square and drink cans of Schlitz (2 for 89cents at the Unique Boutique…it was a tough find, the Schlitz, like bobbing for apples. I’d have to stick my arm elbow deep in the ice going past all the useless to me Milwaukee’s Best’s before I found the beers I was hunting for. My arm was usually numb by the time I was happy with my choice). She would walk by and kibitz. She would walk by and bum smokes. She would walk by and everyone said hello. She was tiny and wearing a dirty wedding dress. She would yell if she felt like it or smile radiantly. She made people happy.
Took me awhile to learn her story. It was simple…she was the Duck Lady (once the Duck Girl, but that was years ago). She had ducks, they followed her. She sometimes wore a wedding dress, she was once fearless and on rollerskates. And she owned the French Quarter. Nobody could walk into bars and demand a drink and get it so easily. Friends, bartenders, strangers…who could resist a raspy voice demanding free booze and cigarettes. You had to say yes, it was an affront to the French Quarter to do otherwise. Her early years are murky, but of all the stories I’ve heard, I always liked the one where her parents, knowing she might not have had what it takes to make it in the “real” world set her up with her schtick early. Train ducks to follow her and walk through French Quarter. Repeat. Such an easy solution in a complicated world.
Her story is told elsewhere on the web, but in the end she was disappeared. For better or worse, she was led out of the Quarter and into a nursing home. She lasted awhile, but a life without bumming Kools and Buds was not enough to keep her sickly self going and she passed away about a year and a half ago. Part of New Orleans died with her. Hew funeral was a happy, funny affair. There was a monkey puppet that danced at the end. (I was described by Chris Rose as a part of a smattering of 9th ward hipsters…that angered me. 8th ward, baby, 8th…and we don’t have hipsters in my neck of the hood)
She knew what she was, in her documentary she states about the passing of another Quarter character “There’s not many of us left” ‘Us’ being the ones who lived their lives out honestly on the streets of the Quarter. Nothing hidden, nothing fake.
So I decided to be her for a day. and it was awesome. Sure a smattering of tourists thought I was Little Bo Peep (i’d demand a few Kools from them, they probably remain perplexed) but 10% of the city saw gold. I could see their eyes light up. Offers of beers and cigarettes were doled out. People gushed their favorite Ruthie stories out (and everyone has one). Even when the punchline was ’so she decked my friend’ there was such joy in the tales. Old gay men and Y’ats of all types had stories. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to think of someone so universally loved in the city. And she was tiny, never held a job, drank as much as she wished and lived life on her own terms.
I really do get inspired when I think of her, but she was right, there really aren’t many of her left anymore. My new vow for every week is to try and buy a 6 pack for the most poetic vagrant I see (no poets, though, please). We’ve got to start encouraging new Ruthies. If everybody can pitch in and toss a few beers to keep the unworking unworking we can take a step in the right direction in the French Quarter. It’ll be a dull world if we can’t.
I love Women like I love my food, and I love My Food- Mr Okra
One time I was driving on Frenchmen Street, it was about 2 in the afternoon, just bringing the bikes back home after a tour. Mr Okra was driving in front, of me right behind me was a random 20something, it was a sunny day and a nice spot for mind wandering right in front of Washington Square Park. In fact I was thinking about how Mr Okra always gave a wave to the folks I take out on tours, and they always remark how fun someone like him makes our city seem. Someone on the street, lured outside by the siren sound cadence of Mr Okra’s Banana call waved him down and vegetable deals were being made. One of those moments you just love New Orleans. My revelry was broken by a loud honk. And another, longer, this time… WTF?
I looked behind me and the hipster doofus was honking his horn. He looked disgusted. Did he just honk Mr Okra? I thought. I stuck my head out of the window; “Did you just oink Mr Okra”. Truth be told, I’m fuzzy on what happened next…one of those rages where everything goes red; but his point seemed to be that the street was for modern conveyance, the comings and goings of the industrial world. My counterpoint was that if I ever saw him in this town, any where, my 135 pounds of unpleasure would be unleashed upon him. YOU DO NOT HONK MR OKRA! is all I remember yelling. THIS IS HIS CITY, NOT YOURS. The fellow in the car, probably thinking I was way less sane than I am, backed down and sat there quietly the next 2 minutes until Mr Okra’s truck had less vegetables and his hands had more money.
Traffic started moving again, and I never thought again of that guy until today. Either he moved from New Orleans back to some bigger city where old men in hand painted trucks don’t drive through beautifully dilapidated neighborhoods selling fruits and vegetables and filling the city with catchy refrains; or he stayed here and slowly learned why we love New Orleans, why Mr Okra has the right of way at all times and normal traffic laws don’t apply to everyone in this city.
One day, I hope to be sitting in a bar…could be tomorrow, could be 20 years from now…the once hipster doofus who was in the car behind me will see me and recognize me. He will buy me a drink and say “Sir, you were right, You just don’t honk Mr. Okra”
All this came back to me because I just watched the best feel good New Orleans 10 minute movie I’ve ever seen, TG Herringtons, Mr. Okra. For those from elsewhere in the United States, watch, and listen. Mr Okra is New Orleans.
Mr Okra – A short Film. (I still can’t imbed video, this is a link to the Youtube video)
One of the most twisted aspects when studying history is the fact that it is shaped, shaded, and written by the winners, meaning if truth is subjective, the subjects don’t get to give their version of the truth. Down here in New Orleans, most everyone can whistle along, if not sing along happily, to the Johnny Horton’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’, a momentous, and rare, victory in our cities history. Obviously, we don’t have a song, or even a name, and hardly even mention the battle in 1862 in which the Union armies took over our city during The War of Northern Aggression (which as the losers, our name quickly gave way to the more unfortunate and fairly ironic ‘Civil War”. They even got to name the plundering that followed ‘Reconstruction’. Any modern Public Relations and Ad man can learn as much from history as from schooling, the game is always the same.
The Second Battle of New Orleans was another rare victory of the people over the power in New Orleans…The proposed highway overpass going right over Decatur street, with 18 wheelers shaking the foundation of the Saint Louis Cathedral was fought for decades before the smarter half of the city defeated the corporate class ( an awesome story I’ll tell in a later post). I’m fairly sure if Robert Moses and his sad followers won that, the battle would be called “The War Against Culture, Art and the Impovershed” and would be toasted in board rooms across the American Sector of our city.
Here we are in 2010, and once again, the good guys have won. I officially declare this weeks brouhaha of the Davie’s of New Orleans against the Goliath’s of the NFL the Third Battle of New Orleans. We win, we name the war…
Their lawyers came in full battle gear, $3000 suits and blackberries (actually, modern warfare gets more and more boring…the warriors of the NFL sat in their Park Avenue offices with views of Central Park dispatching missives through the internet while having their shoes shined and lunch brought up to their office, but I digress). Thinking they could outspend, if not out man our financially struggling city, they cried the battle cry of the brave, brave corporate executives that enjoy safely hiding behind unintelligible legalese. “Ceases and Desist” The battle was on…we never wanted this war, they drew first blood. That will be remembered.
Yes, local T-Shirt shops got the order. ‘Who Dat’ the chant of the hopeless Saints fans of the last 3 decades which had become something between a greeting and a battle cry of the city during this miracle year was no longer ours. It was being taken away (along with the Black and Gold fleur de lis first used by Louis the VII in 12150 as a family emblem) by outsiders; invaders to our culture, city slickers who wouldn’t know how to answer “Where Y’at” and would never deign to go to Chalmette to find out. But like an infant playing with his dads gun, the NFL had no idea of the force they were messing with.
The counter attack was swift and brutal. In a city where the citizens hadn’t been united on any single issue since the first flood waters rose bringing the decomposing bodies of our deceased to the surface and the demand for above ground tombs took root, the’r was not a single voice of dissent. From drunken Cajun ex football radio hosts to me to the nice lady at Gene’s selling me my beakfast Po Boy (Egg, ham and cheese-$5 with drink) it was unanimous. Fuck the NFL, they can pry our Who Dat’s from our cold dying fingers. When me and Davis Vitter agree on an issue (besides enjoying wearing diapers and being spanked by prostitutes) something big is going on. The NFL was suddenlt more hated than the Colts themselves. All stations were manned, old men figured out how to use email, people who would never call a politician manned the phones, lots of loud pointless threats were made at bars…the full gamut. Who knew if their antique fleur de lis fenceposts would become property of the NFL?
And in the end, just like in the first and second battles of New Orleans; out funded, out flanked, and against the odds, the disparate folks of New Orleans triumphed. Rascists from Metairie,, hoodlums from the Eighth ward, uptown doctors down town musicians and crooked politicians and preachers were able to hold their hands high and proud. We will go on to beat the Colts 35-24 in the Superbowl, brass bands will spontaneously hit the streets, Who Dats will be yelled like god intended…but in 1000 years what will be remembered is that New Orleans, through its sheer force of personality, and this city does have that, was the only group to ever beat back the corporate monolith of the NFL. Who Dat indeed.
Because after all these years blowhards with more microphones than brains still insist on shoveling insults upon our city. This is a serious offer and I have posted it 2 times on his facebook page and sent him a personal email without hearing back. Me I answer everybody who offers me a free vacation.
I find it hard to believe you are too busy to respond to my honest and generous offer, but I will repeat here so you can consider it.
You feel strongly about how Katrina was no big thing and the people who stayed were stupid. I don’t begrudge you your opinion, America has room for everyone, but a man can not be all talk from thousands of miles away, he really should stand up and tell the people who he is talking about what he thinks of them to their faces. A lesson I was taught in elementary school. It ’s just not right to not have the courtesy to face those you accuse. If you talk strong, you should act the same or else how can you look your family in the eyes.
To give you a chance, I will buy you a plane ticket to New Orleans…this is all on me, and I’m hardly rich…and a dinner at the restaurant of your choice. You can then accompany me around the neighborhoods of my city, see what people are doing to rebuild and tell them to their face how if they stayed during Katrina it was because they were stupid. I’ll take you to some relatives of the deceased and you can share your opinions. I won’t take you to people who would beat the hell out of you (although I could), just senior citizens, the learning disabled, the children,folks you don’t have to be scared of.
I’m reaching deep into my pocket to let you express your opinion…you can do it on a weekend and not miss work or you can broadcast it live to let everyone know how tough you really are; your choice.
You talk several hours a day on the radio, surely you’ll have the voice to answer my invitation…and don’t worry, I’ll be unfailingly polite and friendly, I’m from New Orleans.
Due to a groundswell of demand coming from the 1800 block of Elysian Fields, a new candidate is throwing his fedora in the ring. After carefully reviewing the candidates and realizing that I could not pull the lever for any of them, I listened to the voices in my head and decided to run myself as a write in candidate. Already I am assured one vote, which at the least will get me a tiny listing at the bottom of the listings in the Times Picayune, and at the most will lead to several votes in the next election, building to an eventual election and finally a new political sanity in our city. Less speeches, more promises (the platform took me 15 minutes, it may evolve) so here it is:
1. The nationalization (cityization?) of any empty French Quarter condo owned and unused for more than 6 months a year by a Los Angelino or Corporation. The French Quarter should be the center of our community, rather than having more abandoned homes than my own Katrina ravaged neighborhood. These houses will be available for immediate inhabitation, first come first serve, by residents through a race that will start at Sammy’s Food on Elysian Fields and will have many obstacles along the way. Details forthcoming.
2. To improve the neighborly feeling in the city and reduce the crime rate, park benches will be installed in front of any house by request of the resident. These benches will be personally installed by Jackie Clarkson who will be performing her penance for previous crimes against New Orleans humanity.
3. A ban on T-Shirt shops in the French Quarter. These will be immediately available to artists of all sorts at subsidized rents paid for with a teeny sales tax levied on all fast food places that are located within 200 feet of a neighborhood po boy place.
4. Culturally pay tribute to our own city with statues to be erected for Ruthie the Duck Girl and Benny and Clovis Martin among others. Super bowl rings for everyone in the city paid for with the money saved by renogotiating Nagins kickback enhanced garbage contracts. Any landmark mentioned in Confederacy of Dunces, starting with the Penny Arcade on Royal Street to be reopened.
5. Imported shrimp and crawfish tails banned from the city limits.
6. The new Donut shop at Claiborne and Elysian Fields must stay open well after 5 PM. Future donut shops will be licensed do they understand the importance of late night donuts to the residents of this city.
7. Vigorous prosecution of the people who litter our streets and poles with their signs advertising businesses. If a business is willing to ruin the aesthetics our city and are too cheap to pay for real advertising should have to pay some price. Certain crooked city council members have promised me they would enforce the current laws about this issue, but as certain crooked city council members were lying, I will make this a priority. It is overdue.
8. The ban on Duels that the damn Yankees placed on the city in the late 19th century will be repealed. Gentleman will solve their problems and restore dignity to the city the old fashioned way; with swords and to first blood.
9. A ban on automobiles (including parked on the street) from the French Quarter on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with free parking and public transportation to Gentilly where they will be able to keep their cars over those days.
This platform (which needs one more plank-submissions welcome) has certainly cemented my conviction to vote for myself as a write in candidate in this years mayoral election. I appear to be the only candidate listening to my own concerns.. I invite you to join me in the effort to restore sanity to our city and return New Orleans to the stature and glory it had in its past cultural heyday.
Due to popular demand, pictures will be included in this platform soon for more enjoyable perusing. That kind of thing isn’t my computer stregnth, but as a servant to the people, I respond to all requests.
Jeff Shyman (write that down so we will have our spelling synchronized on election day)
They say every era has a man. Also every man has a place. And every dog has it’s day. If the Saints day is 2010, the days that weren’t theirs would be the 60’s, 70’s, and most of the 80’s and 90’s. And parts of the 00’s. And for that long, torturous, unforgiving era of the Saints history, the man was Buddy D.
When I first started to take to the Saints during the horror of the Ditka era (and as a non-football fan at that time, it was only their god-awfullness that made them so endearing) it was exciting as the final seconds bumbled down and everyone who had “turned on the TV and turned down the sound” would go from the patient exasperation of the even keeled Jim Henderson to the Point After with Buddy D.
The man had passion, the man oozed both New Orleans and the Saints, and just as the Saints symbolically tortured the fans every year, Buddy D would torture the english language as he alternately begged, pleaded and eventually angrily degrded the team that wouldn’t lead him to the promised land. His mispronunciations were legendeary, my favorite always being Dante Stallworth morphing into Dunte Stallpepper spoken like through a mothfull of unchewed saltines. You couldn’t help but wonder how this man ended up on the radio…but as a newcomer to this city it crept up to me over the course of a few years…the truth of this cities nature, sports and otherwise, could only be represented by a man that was all heart and lumps.
The man invented the Baghead, the ‘Aints, and like a man looking for a cure that is worse than the disease, he was responsible for the Ditka era. He would jokingly swear that he would wear a dress on Bourbon Street when the Saints won the Superbowl, sure he would never have to don it. When he died in 2005 I was really sad. The deaths of famous people who I never met don’t move me, but Buddy D I listened to 3 hours a day. He taught me more about New Orleans than anyone else including a gaggle of my history teachers, and he wasn’t even trying.
I will be wearing my Buddy D shirt to the Dome Sunday, and waiting to see the thousands of folks marching down Bourbon Street in dresses the day after the Saints win the Superbowl. I’ve never organized anything, it’s not in my nature, but if that doesn’t happen spontaneously, that I will do.
As a bonus here is an awesome 3-some. Buddy D, NOLA native and 1980’s USA network late night hottie Rhonda Shear and Vince Marinello in the years before he donned a fake mustache and biked through the shopping centers of Metairie to shoot his cheating (and much younger wife). Notice him ogling Rhonda’s butt.All star line up.
While at most times I’m just another drunken lout, I seem to have accidentally become very thoughtful recently, seeing the big picture in every corner of the city and understanding my love and passion for it. I think it is because of the intensive New Orleans history course that I am taking right now, which has given me a stronger connection to our cities past (Cliffnotes: Incompetence, corruption, and vice seems to be embedded in the swampy ground we walk on, but in an endearing way, of course). Anyway, I seem to see the big picture everywhere I look, and Friday afternoon at French Quarter Fest was better than most.
I managed to actually get out of my house by 3 PM, so I had time to pick up a strawberry daiquiri from Genes before I saw the Treme Brass Band. I can’t get enough of Uncle Lionel. As I said to my friend, if I could be any other person for a day, there is only one I would choose, 75 year old Lionel Batiste. Immaculately dressed, hanky in pocket and gold on his fingers, he has the joy of life flowing through him. Women swoon, always, men gape in awe. After the Treme Brass band played, he stayed out and danced throughout the whole set of the next band, and of course, every girl had a chance to share a dance with New Orleans’ favorite uncle. The greatest moment was when a crowd of schoolchildren, very country, and very white, came over from their field trip to the Aquarium to listen to some Brass music. Those kids were just like everyone else in the city…they ignored the entire crowd and gravitated instantly to Lionel. Crowds of kids…they couldn’t help themselves. The man is electric and is so New Orleans that I always smile thinking about him either crooning or banging his big ole bass drum. (Here’s an old article on him, for anyone interested). Just a part of New Orleans that’s nice to think about when remembering why this city means so much to people.
So anyway, the day, and the pile of pabst cans at my feet, have me in a grand old mood as the Hot 8 Brass band comes out. The story of Dinneral Shavers encompasses everything about New Orleans, its beautiful and the flat out ugly that forces good people to contemplate leaving the city. The short story, a great guy and great musician killed because poor kids who don’t have anytjing don’t like the poor kids from other neigborhoods and projects. Their street is what they have, and like a jacked up West Side Story, it’s what they defend. Sad in so many ways, you can’t count. Dinneral was caught up in the crossfire of one of the skirmishes (The whole debacle here) and the thug who shot him, through horrid police work and a code of silence among the neighbors, was just acquitted. In a TV drama type twist, the main eyewitness when asked to point out the shooter, said “I don’t see anybody, I must need glasses” Wow, but who is to judge her. She may or may not regret her choice when she is older, but when I was 15 I was never asked to point out my neighbor at a murder trial, at the real risk of being shot myself by his friends. Her mother begged her not to testify, and nobody can put themselves in her shoes, but its done, thug acquitted, and the Hot 8 and the show today must go on.
Hot 8 couldn’t have done it better. They came out, they smoked, and without getting into the why’s or what’s of the matter they introduced Dinneral Shavers junior (D.J.) to the stage. Playing a drum, just like his dad did, the kid, maybe 10 years old, just kept the beat going, like his dad would have. 3 songs he stayed out there and played, and everyone in the crowd who knew what it meant was moved. Even better, everyone who didn’t know the story was moved too, it’s always a great New Orleans thing when a kid comes out to play with the bands. They always hold there own, and it says to the world that New Orleans music and culture aren’t going anywhere. Throw all you want to at us, we are passing it on and coming back for more, bitch.
I love this city. And knowing that in 10 years I’ll be marching down some street in a second line behind DJ. Can’t wait.
Haiti and New Orleans have more in common than most would guess. Both were ruled under the French, Spanish, and Americans; and both had sizable populations of free people of color mixing among the free whites in the 18th century and influencing their respective cultures. Most importantly for us, last night, at least, both places had a part in the invention of the Sazerac…New Orlean’s (and possibly America’s) first cocktail.
When Haiti was still known as Saint Domingue, it was the home of the first and only successful slave uprising in this hemisphere…the changes that caused were many, including the unfortunate financial straits Haiti still faces as after the European nations refused to recognize its independence it never regained its economic status. As the newly renamed nation of Haiti watched it’s finances collapse, both freed slaves and wealthy planters fled by the thousands to the French city of New Orleans. One of the many was Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a pharmacist who set up shop at 437 Royal Street.
His apothecary, like most places in the Quarter during that era, was also a gambling salon. With the concentration of heavy drinking gamblers in the backroom, Peychaud was selling more and more of his families “cure-all”- Peychaud Bitters, the kind of remedy that could take care of a cold, fever, depression, restlessness, and of course the most common affliction in New Orleans at the time, the hangover.
Peychaud, an inventive sort, found that the bitters did not always go down well, but when mixed with some Sazerac brand Cognac, not only did it taste a bit better, but could be sold in the back as a drink to keep the gamblers loose. He served his drink, the Sazerac, in French style double sided egg cups called “coquetiers”, which may have resulted in the first use of the term cocktail as the drunken Americans would never deign to use the correct French pronunciation. The Americans eventually changed the recipe to replace cognac with rye whiskey, and added absinthe and sugar, but the name remained the same.
Tonight as you sit in the Sazerac bar, Napoleon House, French 75 or Pirates Alley, (or sit in some far away city wishing you were here) order one for histories sake and remember that New Orleans would not be the city it is if not for the shared culture we have with Haiti.
By the way, since New Orleans history is everywhere, Peychaud’s building is still here in the French Quarter at 437 Royal. It is the home of the colorful and very awesome Cohen’s antiques, so you can still check it out.
New Orleans, remembering how the world pulled together for us after Katrina (in fact volunteers are still working on a house today, just 3 blocks from my own), we have really pulled together to try to help after the earthquake down in Haiti.. Confederacy of Cruisers wants to do our part, so during the month of January, I am 10% of what we earn from tours towards the relief efforts down there.
They are not flashy, but they are very good, with feet already on the ground. They put 99% of all money donated directly into relief programs and are given 4 stars by charity navigator. Please, check them out and see what they have done around the world and in the Gulf Coast.
We hope Haiti sees the kind of resurgance we have here, they certainly need help.