New Orleans has sat at the top of my top ten list of places to visit for a very long time. When my soul sister, dance partner and restless girlfriend, Miss Cocky, phoned me one day last year and said “guess what I did?” I couldn’t have imagined that she had signed us up for three nights in a hotel in the Big Easy – one of those ghastly timeshare deals.  Although neither of us will ever be the timeshare type – we don’t like corporate tourism, big hotels or condominiums that resemble each other no matter where you are, windows that don’t open, big dollars for rooms that you only want to sleep in – it seemed like a good deal at the time and, most importantly, it was going to get us to New Orleans! Well done, Cocky!

I can’t say I really knew much about the place except for stories of spicy food, festive people, soulful music and dancing in the street – all enough of an attraction for me! A few years back, while at the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas with our good friend Jean Trickey, we had the great pleasure of meeting her friend Ruby Bridges. Ruby was the little black girl who was the first to integrate an all-white public school in New Orleans in 1960 and has gone on to be an inspirational speaker against racism and promoting tolerance. We have stayed in touch and she has always extended a welcome to look her up if we were to make it to her Louisiana homeland.

Of course I knew of the stories of Hurricane Katrina (my stormy namesake donchyaknow) and the devastation of broken levees, rising waters, and flooded lives that in many cases have not yet been rebuilt. It seems like yesterday that our TV screens filled with images of cars full of desperate people crawling bumper-to-bumper over the bridges leading out of town trying to escape the watery mayhem. Days later the scenes got more horrific – people stranded on the top of their houses, waiting for boats to rescue them or refusing to leave their homes out of fear, anger, stubbornness or sheer determination. Yet that was seven years ago so it was about time that we got down there to see what was happening on the ground, to hear some of the real stories, to experience the magic that remains, and to support the local economy.

Cocky and I decided that we would make it a roadtrip, a cross-country sojourn that would include visiting friends and experiencing out-of-the-way places throughout the south. We met up in Connecticut, me arriving with a friend driving from Ontario to Boston, Cocky coming from her home in Maine, staying our first night with her partner Peter and his cousin Mary Faith and Patrick – all friends from beautiful Lake Temagami. So we started heading south with a definite northern send off, a friendly gathering of nishnabai and neighbours in a pretty little enclave of New England.

We set out on a Sunday heading down I 95 – through all those huge cities – New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. Except for one close call and about twenty-five minutes of slowdown in Maryland (and, as it would turn out, a speeding ticket as determined by an eye in the sky and mailed to the house later), we flew past all those millions of people in their cars without problem – rather fortuitous I would say. If there is something that I have returned from this particular roadtrip with, after a couple of thousand miles on the US interstates, is the feeling that you are constantly just one small jerk of the wheel (or jerk of a driver) away from a crunch, rattle and roll – or worse – and it is divine providence, however you want to define that, or sheer luck, that allows you to survive barreling down a highway in a tin can surrounded by other tin cans moving way too fast!

Our next night was spent with friends, also from Temagami, who live in Richmond, Virginia – our gateway to the south where the accents got thicker, the weather got warmer and the pace got a little slower (not the cars however). Erin, Jay and their kids were well into the start of the new school year so we didn’t have much time with them, just long enough to eat a delicious dinner and take a brisk evening walk through the tree shadowed streets, but with their southern hospitality Erin and Jay set us up to stay at the family home on Gaston Lake in Northern Carolina the next night.

What a place! We spent close to twenty-four hours enjoying the comfort of the beautiful house, the hot sunshine on the docks and the incredibly warm water. Looking up and down the long shoreline full of homes and boathouses, we recognized that this lake must be a-buzzing with water toys and people through the summer months and weekends, but arriving on a week day at the end of September, we had the place to ourselves! Nary a soul! Well there was the whirring of the kingfishers in flight and the banging of hammers as local carpenters built more docks (a sound which, I must admit, I find rather…arousing) but mostly it was Cocky and I, reveling in the continuation of summer, swimming, drinking wine and resting up for our nights to come in New Orleans.

From there we headed across the Smokey Mountains into Townsend Tennessee to see my old friends Kathy and Stan and the Tennessee sweethearts William and Missy. How I love all these warm, sweet folk! Once again it was a quick evening of wine, food and chatter before heading out in the morning, but well worth the detour just to soak up some of that smoky friendliness with a bluegrass kinda twang to it!

Although I am not a follower of the GPS (I have my own internal KPS system and love to read maps and find my way in and outa places – getting lost is adventure, not failure), Cocky wanted to bring one along and get used to using it, so there were really three women inside our car. I generally tried to get along with the woman who was always telling us where to go. I often say that I have never known a man who likes a woman telling him what to do but then will put that GPS box in his car and take instructions from the bitch all day long – I just don’t get it! I learned how to program her, to get a variety of information out of her and to read between her instructions, but I also knew how to turn her off.

So I was driving on a back highway of Tennessee, headed toward Alabama, with the GPS turned off and Cocky busy on her cellphone, when I pulled into the parking lot of a gas station to check the map and see where we should turn. I didn’t notice the curb beside us, and in a Tennessee two-step I was up over the curb, the axle resting on the concrete, the rear tire spinning in the air. I got out, feeling like the fool I was, and we investigated the situation.

The back of Cocky’s car has three bumper stickers – I Love Obama; Turn off Fox News, it’s bad news for America; and a Canadian flag.  As we looked in dismay at the car, we were approached by a blonde bullet of a woman named Tess. She had noticed the bumper stickers and told us she was Canadian, from Alberta, a truck driver who had been living in Tennessee for twenty years. She then told us that we should watch ourselves “in these parts” with that Obama sticker, there were a lot of rednecks around, though, don’t worry, she was going to vote for him. She recommended that we don’t let anyone try to push or pull the car, but call AAA and get a truck with a winch to lift us up and off the curb or we’d rip the bottom off the car. She was so helpful, giving our location to the AAA operator, and keeping an eye on the people who arrived. They would generally come with a smile on their face, assess the situation, see the bumper stickers, roll their eyes and leave us alone. We waited an awful long time for the truck to come and had a few offers of help – an old guy across the street with his motorized wheelchair offered to pull us, another came with a yard mower with I don’t know what intentions in mind. But then a great big tattooed hulk of a guy got out of his truck and the old guy said “this is exactly who you need” – and that nice ol’ hulk picked the car up and moved it off the curb and we were back on our merry way, no harm done. There are friendly people everywhere whatever their politics.

We got to Meridien Mississippi and pulled into a Jameson Inn, which became our favorite $50 a night roadside chain in the south. It had a swimming pool and it was still in the 80s (high 20s celcius) that evening and so we swam like a couple of fish returned to the water. We were soon visited by the only other variety of people at the inn – workmen, staying there while working on a huge new coal plant being built nearby. They were from all over the south, polite men, who knew better than to talk about politics, religion, guns, abortion…you know, all those taboo subjects. But that’s exactly how we spent the evening, those good ol’ boys never having met a couple of northern bush babes with big mouths and strong opinions like Miss Cocky and I. Cocky never failed to ask everyone we met how they felt about Obama (“I don’t want to be rude but…”) and we mostly got positive responses – I hope our own informal cross country survey will prove accurate on election day in November.

We had our first southern barbecue at the Rib Shack in Meridien, where the ribs were tender, the sides – beans, peas, collard greens – were excellent, and the men were super friendly. I think you get back what you give out and Cocky and I always try to keep it friendly and appreciative and, truly, that is all we ran into everywhere we went.

Finally we pulled into New Orleans. After what they said had been eight straight days of sunshine – unheard of in hurricane season – we arrived with the rain and spent the next three days ducking in and out of the downpours but I don’t think we ever got very wet and we were always very warm. We came into a big city totally surrounded by water, crossed by bridges, with neighbourhoods that often seemed lower than sea level. We went to our hotel, the Wyndham Riverfront – upscale for us, a result of the timeshare sales package – down the road from the huge Harrah’s Casino, across from the touristy Riverwalk Mall, but also walking distance to the French Quarter, Mardi Gras World and a thousand great meals, street scenes and musical moments.

Cocky and I are all about dancing, so each night we made a plan that was based on music. The first night was at the famous Rock n Bowl, a bowling alley, zydeco-flavored dance floor, huge, friendly and real serious about its dancin’. It’s been around forever, had to change locations, was affected by the flood, but is back to doing a good business.  Horace Trahan and Ossun Express was the band, and they played three straight hours of zydeco and its variations. The dance floor was always full of hard core dancers. We met a lovely man, Richard Moten, a musician who had just finished a gig and decided to stop in on his way home. I got to dance with this nice man all night (and am now keeping an eye for him on the HBO show Treme which he has been in a few episodes of as a standup bass player) while Cocky tried out a series of partners who came and asked her to dance and tried to get her to follow their distinct moves. Sometimes, fellows, you just got to let the woman dance, especially when she has great rhythm and a strong sense of style. One of them tried so hard to control her movements that he hurt her ring finger and I don’t know if she has been able to put the ring back on yet!

We spent the next morning escaping the rain in the overwhelming Mardi Gras World. Since we probably won’t ever be there for the Mardi Gras krewes, we felt that we should check out the scene and according to our very helpful friendly local bartender, Kurt, it would be worth it. We were among the floats and costumes and larger than life sculptures, made of styrofoam and paper mache and painted like rainbows. Obviously a huge amount of work, effort, money and materials. that alone spirit and spirits, goes into the fifty-plus parades that happen in the season of Mardi Gras. It was a fantastical place to be, part museum, part factory, part art gallery. We couldn’t help but wonder at the waste and the toxicity of all this stuff, including the plastic baubles and beads distributed in the “throws” but, trying not to be party poopers, we just put on our festive faces and enjoyed the layers and layers of historical parade-making.

That night we headed out to see our new friend Richard who was playing his contrabass in a jazz club at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourban Street. We didn’t really have plans to go to this infamous street now taken over by partiers more interested in drinking than dancing, but we had hoped to see Richard play. Unfortunately his gig had turned into a private wedding party and we couldn’t get in, but we could buy a drink and hang outside and listen to their smooth brand of classic jazz. The drinks, two glasses of chardonnay, served in plastic glasses no less (since everyone wanders about the streets with their drinks) were to be $35! Yikes! Cocky managed to get them half price in her outrage. Yeah girlfriend!

We hailed one of the bike-taxis that move people about the crowded streets and got one with a female driver. Turned out that Bella, our driver, wasn’t only Canadian, but she was a Hammer girl – from my very hometown! That was a great little meeting of the sisterhood right there! What a strong peddler of a sweetheart Bella was! She toured us under the full moon, thru the puddled streets, out of the French Quarter and over to the Biwater, past what can only be described as “revelers”, everyone in a constant state of yearlong pre or post Mardi Gras!

We spent the rest of the night on the much more musically inclined Frenchmen Street….as people said, what Bourban Street was before it went so touristy. Over the next three hours we danced to live bands playing reggae, blues, R & B, funk, New Orleans brass, and ended up in the infamous Apple Barrel Bar listening to a guitar player who was maybe someone well-known but was now a gristly ol’ guy who could really play that geetar. What a great night, in and out of venues, no covers, relatively inexpensive drinks, friendly people and not too many of them. These are the spots you want to find when you are in a new city. Satisfaction of spirit.

The next morning we had to hold up our end of the bargain and go to a presentation where they would try to sell us a timeshare. Wyndham is apparently the biggest timeshare corporation in the world, according to them and their charts. Leading up to our trip, I talked to a number of people who have taken advantage of these offers, willing to get a nice room in a big hotel in exchange for listening to the pitch. We both knew that we wouldn’t be buying anything, this is not our style of travel nor do we have that kind of money, but it would be a learning experience. Everyone said that you just had to be clear at some point that you weren’t interested and they might get cranky with you. I assume the company makes enough sales to make these offers of “free” rooms (which are not at all free – in our case, with room fee, very pricy parking, tips and taxes it worked out to about $80/night in downtown NOLA – I think a good price, not counting our precious time spent at the presentation).

We were shuttled to a different hotel where there was a room full of waiting couples and “friendly” sales people descending on them. For about two hours, the woman in charge of our pitch showed us picture after picture of big hotels in cities, modern condos on beaches, chalets in snowy mountains, paying little attention to our comments that they weren’t our preferred style of accommodation.  The pitch goes without any talk of what this would cost. After asking what our “fantasy” four vacations for the next two years would be, she went on to tell us how much they were saving us, somehow forgetting that this was just “fantasy”, talking to us like we were stupid not to save ourselves money when we showed that we weren’t interested. She had started with the line “whatever you decide here today, to buy or not, we will part as friends”, but of course we weren’t friends and she sure didn’t act like one when we left without signing. They send in a cleaner-upper to make a last ditch effort on a smaller deal but you just have to say a very firm no and stick with it. We were all hungry with low blood sugar by this point, and I don’t know if they make more sales that way or if offering a little food would be wise. Anyway, once they got the “NO THANKS” out of both of us, they released us, gave us a $75 dollar gift card (that we used against the extra charges on the room) and took us back to our hotel, never to bother us again….up until Cocky went with the gift card and some cash to pay the outstanding charges on the room and found out that they had already put them all on her credit card. I think a rather shifty way of doing business, as you should have a chance to look at your final bill, agree with it, and choose how to pay on check-out. They tell us some people take advantage of this system many times to get “cheap” deals on rooms. I guess if you like staying in $200 a night hotel rooms, it is a great deal. I’d just as soon find places through the internet or by talking with friends, and stay in more personable, reasonably priced places with character, giving my money to smaller local businesses.

Once that little piece of business was thru, with time passing much too quickly, Ruby Bridges and her husband Malcolm picked us up and took us on a tour of New Orleans. It was a rainy day, and even though the city was quite dry by their standards, we at least could feel the sense of what excessive moisture can do in this town. We visited several neighbourhoods, our enthusiastic guides wanting us to see the range of damages and reconstruction that has occurred.

We mostly visited the 9th Ward, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina with her rising waters, storm surges and heavy winds. Divided by the big industrial canal and the levees that were to protect the city, there is much talk about why these levees failed in the storm. The system was not yet finished, but while it managed to protect the French Quarter and the downtown of the city, which is where the money is made through the number one industry of tourism, it has failed more than once to protect the poorer parts of the city.

The Bi-water neighbourhood had less damage than other parts of the 9th Ward and is showing signs of gentrification as young families buy up relatively inexpensive historical houses and bring the place back to life. It is a colorful mix of styles with businesses of all kinds. The multi-hued houses felt very Caribbean to me, the community very alive and according to Malcolm, a lot of spirit was returning to this part of the city.

Also in the Upper 9th Ward was the Musician Village, a beautiful example of people and organizations coming together to honor and take care of the artists that have provided so much joy and cultural richness to the city. Part of a Habitat for Humanity reconstruction project, conceived by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, there have been something like 75 homes built to house musicians and their families who lost what little they had in Katrina. It also has the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a concert hall and teaching venue to support up and coming musicians, keeping alive the tradition of music that has been the lifeblood of New Orleans.

It would be our luck to hear Ellis Marsalis, the father of Branford and Wynton, a renowned jazz pianist in his own right, play later that night. But that afternoon we were humbled by what we saw everywhere in the 9th Ward – simple houses, some damaged beyond repair but still not torn down, others beautifully reconstructed and others built to replace those that were destroyed, for the most part eloquent, small and efficient homes, all that any of us should ever need.

We crossed the bridge into the Lower 9th Ward and this is where the signs of real loss lingered everywhere. From the remainder of cement footings, emptied of the homes that they had supported, to the boarded up buildings that must be filled with molds and fungus now, to the houses in mid-repair, there was the evidence of the catastrophe that was Katrina all around us.

Fats Domino was born in the Lower 9th and when Katrina was charging in, he refused to leave. He and his family barely survived, in fact there were rumours of his death, but he was alive, rescued and relocated while they rebuilt his home. He is a proud and true New Orleanian, besides a musical hero.

After the flood waters resided, one of the celebrities who came to town and has accomplished a lot for the people of the 9th Ward is Brad Pitt. He raised funds and oversaw the construction of many new homes in the Lower 9th, energy efficient, designed by architectural students and administered by his Make It Right Foundation. The new houses in the area have numerous features – cars parked under the houses which are raised on cement posts, screening that would keep flying debris from breaking windows, solar panels, architectural details that keep some old Orleans flavor in the construction.

In all that we saw, one of the most encouraging signs for me was that the homes were very reasonably sized – not huge mammoth houses that are being built in the suburbs across Southern Ontario, single family dwellings taking up enough room for a big clan. One of the continuing battles in the 9th Ward was the presence of tour buses, a reality that has many of the locals running out of patience. It has been very hard for them to return to any normalcy, and having large buses of camera-gawkers driving down the tiny streets all day is frustrating them. As we toured in Malcolm’s car, we tried to be respectful of this, leaving people on their porches to their privacy. Since we were there, they have passed a law that the big buses aren’t allowed on the residential streets of the Lower 9th and the tour companies and the city are working on alternative ways of allowing people the opportunity to witness what is happening there.

In the middle of our tour of the recent past in New Orleans, we also went past the public school, William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby made history back in 1960. It was also damaged and is under reconstruction, as many of the surrounding houses are. Ruby and Malcolm also lost their own home in the hurricane. A lot of sadness and disruption has happened in New Orleans.

I remember, back in Little Rock in 2007, Ruby telling us some of her experiences as a little girl in the middle of the insanity, brought on by the racist laws of the times and the place. It was a very hard decision for her parents to expose their young child to an angry society, but more than just feeling it was her right to receive a better education, her mother also saw it as important to “take this step forward…for all African-American children”. Ruby says that since this was, after all, New Orleans, and she was only six years old, she thought that all the crowds and noise on the street as she arrived at the school was just another Mardi Gras parade! Unlike in Little Rock three years earlier, where the white community came out in angry protests every day against the integration of Central High, in New Orleans the parents withdrew all their white children, refusing to allow them to be in the same classroom as a black child. In the beautiful innocence of youth, Ruby had never really seen or known any white people, so her teacher, a Caucasian from the north, Barbara Henry, who taught her alone in a classroom that whole first year and treated her with love and kindness, effectively showed her that there are decent white people, demonstrated through the goodness of her open heart.  Unfortunately Ruby would be exposed to the nastier side often enough.

It may be difficult for some of us to think of a time when our schools and workplaces weren’t the mix of skin tones, linguistic accents and cultural backgrounds that we live in today in many parts of North America, but unfortunately it isn’t impossible to believe just how cruel, small minded and fear-driven people can be…there are still constant examples in the news of racism, homophobia, sexism and bullying. Blaming the poor and oppressed for the discomforts of the more fortunate, going to war rather than seeking peaceful solutions, fighting for individual gains instead of negotiating for a more just collective society. We remain indebted to every little black girl, brave gay boy, every teenager who resists the temptation to go join the war machine….every freedom fighter and promoter of tolerance that plants those seeds in a garden of love rather than a climate of fear and hate.

Ruby’s image is perhaps most famous as the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With”, depicting little Ruby in her white dress and shoes, walking between the legs of the US marshals escorting her to school. The painting is now hanging in the White House. When Ruby and Malcolm visited the White House last year to see the painting, President Obama thanked her for being an important part of his journey to the Oval Office. Imagine what a moment it was for them all.

We finished our tour of New Orleans with a visit to Parkway Bakery, where the Obama family had also been taken, to enjoy what are said to be the best po’boys in the city. An unassuming place in a working class neighbourhood, also brought back to life after the hurricane, the sandwiches were excellent, as was the time spent in this humble eatery with these gracious hosts, Ruby Bridges and Malcolm Hall. The afternoon with them was fascinating, we had great laughs but we also felt the sorrows of the millions who have struggled in New Orleans and throughout the South. As in other places of great hardship, I often feel that beauty rises like steam over rivers formed by tears and flood waters.

That night we went to Tipitina’s to enjoy a benefit put on by the Fess Foundation with George Porter Jr’s band backing performances by Ellis Marsalis and Dr. John and others. It was a great show of hot blues and jazz and R&B music raising money for renovations to the house of Tipitina’s patron music saint Professor Longhair. There were the famous local pianists, as the Professor was, and the Tipitina Interns, young musicians who are the next generation to come out of New Orleans. What a great night it was, an exciting and appropriate way to end our time in this great city.

We headed back up the interstates to Maine. Through the power of the internet, I was able to find us live music in out of the way venues, and hotel rooms nearby. The first stop was in Montgomery, Alabama, a night of torrential rain but it was dry and hot at the Capital Oyster Bar. The gumbo was great and the oysters sweet. Johnny Neel, an old blind southern rocker who played with and wrote songs recorded by the Allman Brothers, Dickie Betts and Wet Willie, played a growling keyboard to a small local crowd.

Cocky and I got in some good dancing with the locals, especially our new friends Jimmy and Beth. Jimmy is a very interesting guy (safecracker? Mr. Budweiser Man?) who had an accident that left him mostly paralyzed in a wheelchair, but he could control that chair and smoked up the dancefloor and we had an awful lot of fun dancing with him. The Capital is a super friendly place with a history of bringing great music to Montgomery, so if you are ever passing through, check it out, there just might be some hot licks waiting for you.

The next day, road car-ma got us and we had to hunker down for a couple nights on the outskirts of Lagrange, Georgia with cooling system problems. What could have been a disastrous and expensive experience (overheating in the pouring rain on the interstate? crooked mechanics? bad restaurants? bad coffee!) turned into a lovely couple of days of rest at the Jameson Inn, swimming in the pool though the weather was kinda chilly, even by our standards, eating great sushi and Korean from just across the road.

We had super friendly and professional service from Jimmy and Josh at Mike Patton Honda – I must speak out for them, as people are often so leery of finding honest people when stuck in a strange land, and these guys were not only honest but very helpful and very nice. Along with the folks at the hotel, they made our unscheduled stop in Lagrange a pleasure!

Then we were back on the road, spending the next night in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina with Cocky’s step brother and his family. It was the night of the first presidential debate and it was unfortunate that they were very much on the other side – “right of the tea party” as Jamie himself said. Needless to say, we didn’t watch the debate together – instead we had a wonderful dinner on the patio and sipped wine in the hot tub under the stars. This was perhaps the only place where we were on the opposite side of the political mirror and considering how that first debate went for our guy Obama, just as well we didn’t watch it.

Another internet search brought us into Allentown, Pennsylvania for our last big hurrah before getting home. There was an open mic jam in a groovy little place on the outskirts of town called Grumpy’s BBQ Roadhouse – and fitting as it was, the food was New Orleans style spicy jambalaya and gumbo and ribs, the music was a mix of older blues musicians playing with teenage musical interns, and the dance floor was once again friendly and hot!

Cocky and I blazed a trail on dance floors across sixteen states and fueled up on Starbucks and sushi in most of them. We fell in love with New Orleans and already have plans to visit again, next time the New Orleans Jazz Festival which happens in the springtime, when, Ruby tells us, the weather is perfect and sunny. I don’t know if we would do the whole roadtrip again – it was a long drive – but it would be hard not to return to the Capital Oyster Bar in Montgomery, stop in for a swim at Gaston Lake in North Carolina, visit all those old and new friends we spent time with this trip. Whichever way we get there, we’ll be sure to laissez les bons temps rouler, in big, easy and beautiful New Orleans.