Ridin' on the City of New Orleans
December 10-12, 2008
Wed 10 Dec
[The beginning of my annual Christmas trip to England.] Landed New Orleans at 236, the skies cloudy and a light rain falling. Collected my bag at the carousel, and made my way to the airport shuttle bus for the ride into town to my hotel, not a bad deal at just $15. By now, thick, dark clouds produced a steady rain, and when I reached my French Quarter hotel around 430 it was really pouring. Settled into my large comfortable room at the Hotel St. Marie, just ½ block from the fleshpots of Bourbon Street. I‘d made my booking on-line last March at an Internet special rate. My room has a tiny balcony overlooking an interior courtyard studded with palm trees and tropical plants and there is a swimming pool in the middle. I was afraid that at the price I’d paid the accommodations might be kinda crummy but I was happy to find otherwise. Lay down for about a half-hour and then went out to explore Bourbon Street.
Not a lot of people out due to the inclement weather. By now it was blustery and my little cheapo umbrella kept blowing inside out. Went to St. Louis Cathedral (RC) in Jackson Square for a freebie: a jazz concert of Christmas music by Philip Manuel, which lasted about an hour. At the emcee’s urging, a show of hands revealed perhaps ¾ of attendees were tourists. Afterwards, walked about looking for a place to eat. Decided on Chartres House Café, a short distance from my hotel. Had a muffaletta sandwich, a Crescent City specialty -- salami, ham and Provolone cheese, topped with an olive salad, dressed with vinegar and oil on a grilled roll -- accompanied by frîtes and a pint of Abita beer, a local brew. A huge sandwich; with everything this meal probably amounted to something like 2000 calories. I didn’t even want to think about the grams of fat. Hoped that such rich fare wouldn’t give me indigestion. Couldn’t finish the sandwich so had the remainder put in a doggie-bag for later.
Afterward, walked the length of Bourbon Street. Loud music coming from the pubs and strip joints. Transvestite clubs proclaiming in lurid neon, “Men More Beautiful Than Women.” Touts outside txttx bars try to lure you in. Rang Bonnie and then Isabel on my mobile from a hotel lobby -- the only reasonably quiet place I could find -- across the street from Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Had read about the "gentlemen's clubs" but reports gleaned from the Web (e.g. Trip Advisor) had nothing good to say about them. In my opinion the French Quarter is a shameless tourist rip-off; prices in restaurants and shops are sky-high. Encountered a group of fellas trying to entice me into the “Where you got dem shoes” scam but ignored them and walked on smartly, having been forewarned in the guidebooks I’d consulted. By 930 I’d had enough of the cold wind and driving rain and went back to my hotel, drenched despite my brolly. Set out everything -- shoes, socks, trousers and overcoat -- to dry. Wished I’d worn my rubbers. Went to sleep with the wind howling outside and sheets of rain beating against the windowpanes.
Thu 11 Dec
“From my apartment I could hear that rattletrap streetcar named Desire running along Royal [street], and one named Cemeteries running along Canal [street], and it seemed to me the ideal metaphor for the human condition."
Awoke at 300A with intestinal rumblings and grumblings and a little heartburn. Took an acid-reducing pill, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. That muffaletta sandwich has evidently gotten the better of me. I kept thinking of the Old Testament reading for Advent 2 last Sunday in church:
“Jerusalem has received double for all her sins.”
My digestive tract is now exacting retribution for last evening’s excesses. I guess I can’t handle a lot of greasy fried stuff any more. Got up around 600 to the banging and beep-beeps of a garbage truck emptying nearby dumpsters. As my shoes were still not dry, had to use the in-room hair drier to finish the job. It was still raining as hard as ever when I went down to breakfast at 645. The hotel dining room was crowded with a noisy tour group which was checking in just as I came back from supper last night. A continental breakfast of cross ants (yeah, I know -- croissants -- but that‘s what I call ’em) and jam, orange juice, and coffee.
Up to my room and showered, and when I went out around 800 the rain was mixed with snow, which within the next 15 minutes became mostly snow. Gusty winds impeded my walking and blew my brolly inside out several times. Walked about the French Quarter and took some photos, then went back to the hotel. Miserable weather for my first (and perhaps only) visit to Sin City! Sat in the breakfast room (by now, happily, the tour group had moved on) and wrote postcards which I’d bought last evening, and drinking cup after cup of decaf coffee. Became stir-crazy after a while and went out for another short walk around 10 o’clock. By now the snow was turning to slush in the streets and accumulating on rooftops.
Returned to the hotel to check out at 1100 and leave my luggage with the concierge. Seeing that the snow had just recently turned to rain again, went out to walk to the Mississippi River levee. Stopped at the French Market in Decatur Street and decided to have a café au lait and some beignets at the famous Café du Monde. Delicious, but perhaps I was a fool for indulging in yet more fried food after last night’s upset. (As it turned out, this time I got off scot-free!) Wanted to ride the streetcars but there wasn’t enough time. Went back to the hotel, and had the front desk arrange a taxi to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (Moderne, 1954) for my train departure at 145.
Called for my pre-booked ticket at the counter and directed to the Magnolia Room, the first class lounge. On my way, noticed a crew filming. A query to other passengers there (which was being used by the film crew as well) revealed a team were shooting a movie with the working title My Own Love Song, to be released in 2009. There was a tent for the actors set up in the main waiting room. Boarded my train, the Chicago-bound City of New Orleans. At the platform next ours, there was a special Amtrak train which -- I learned upon asking Mark, my sleeping car attendant -- was to be used in filming a scene in the movie.
Left the Big Easy exactly on time, and from my bedroom window, saw the “backside” of New Orleans: row upon row of ramshackle “shotgun” houses lining the tracks. A few minutes later we were rumbling over a long causeway through the swamps west of Lake Pontchartrain. Saw hundreds of large white waterfowl; I believe they are called Snowy Egrets. By 255 when we reached Hammond LA the countryside resembled that of east Texas with its vast, dense stands of pine trees. Everything here appeared to be covered with a layer of snow 3-4” deep. Shortly thereafter the sun came out and the sky began to clear from the west. At 400 stopped at McComb MS, (which, I found out later, is the birthplace of Britney Spears -- I thought, Dear Reader, you’d relish this little morsel.) Recalled from my graduate school days that a fellow teaching assistant, Bill, told of fearing for his life upon encountering an angry mob here in 1961 while participating in the Freedom Rides to end segregation in public transportation.
Went to the dining car at 600 for dinner. Ordered a New Orleans specialty, Crawfish Étoufée served over rice, with pecan pie and coffee for dessert. Sat at table with a couple from northern Illinois in the livery business: their offerings include supplying horses for hansom cab hire in Chicago’s Old Town and organizing hayrides and sleigh rides on their farm. The dinner -- included in the ticket price -- was something of a disappointment. For one thing, this is my first experience with Amtrak's Cross Country Café, actually a sort of lounge car, not a real diner. There were no tables covered in white linen with real silverware and cloth napkins, with the meal served with verve and panache by white-gloved wait staff in natty starched uniforms, which I fondly recalled from 50+ years ago on the Wabash Railroad's Bluebird, where the cuisine compared favorably with that in posh restaurants.
The food here was just okay, with stingy portions served on Styrofoam plates. The pie came microwave-heated, in a tough plastic bubble, which I had a heck of a time opening. Sheesh, this is not even up to airplane grub. It was served by an unenthusiastic and blasé wait staff; I wondered if they’d undergone any training. Should have followed the example of a patron at the next table, who ordered the Flatiron Steak, which looked appetizing and at least came served on a china platter, with baked potato and a roll. At Memphis, got out for some fresh air and took a brief tour of the recently-renovated station. Left 1040 on a chilly, moonlit night. When I got back to my bedroom, Mark had made up the bed and I turned in shortly thereafter.
Fri 12 Dec
Slept fitfully. Awakened around 300 by much shouting and bumping of suitcases as passengers -- mainly, I think, Southern Illinois University students -- boarded at Carbondale. Got up around 530 to shower in the lower level bathroom. Upon returning to my cabin, found that my watch was missing. Located it, stuck in a corner under the bed and had to call upon Mark to retreive it. For a quick pick-me-up, availed myself of the free coffee and juice bar just down the corridor. Collected my baggage, and reached Champaign at 630, about 20 minutes late. Brian and Jim were inside the station to meet me, and drove me to Decatur amongst snow flurries on a grey, chilly morning thru the flat, bleak central Illinois countryside.
[Complete itinerary for this trip: Dallas - New Orleans - Decatur - Chicago - London - Venice - Nice -London - Cambridge - London - Oxford - Bridport - Bradford on Avon - London - Dallas. Travel by rail in Italy, France and England.]