When it comes to New Orleans, you can have a “glass half-full” or a “glass half-empty” attitude.
Either you see anniversary celebrants enjoying a romantic dinner at the Court of Two Sisters, or the aging transvestite hawking her wares on Bourbon Street. You hear the joyous sounds of Zydeco music from the band on the corner, or the lewd cursing of the drunken frat boy at Pat O’Brien’s. You smell the enticing aroma of Cajun cuisine in the French Quarter, or the fresh puddle of vomit on the sidewalk.
I’m a cynic, but I take the “glass half-full” approach to New Orleans. My family loves the city’s character, even with all the blemishes that repel respectable folks, and we especially love the Jazz and Heritage Festival. That’s where we were last weekend. The main action is out at the fairgrounds, with its sweltering temperatures, stick-tight-laden grass, and sea of sweaty bodies packed in around a dozen stages and 60 or so booths selling local food and crafts.
We rented bicycles this year to take us the two-plus miles from our hotel in the Quarter to the fairgrounds. The only viable alternative is the cadre of tour buses that picks up fest-goers at regular intervals from the Sheraton, but waiting in line with the rest of the drunks beginning at 7:30 a.m. has disadvantages. NOLA is the one place you can get away with being inebriated that early - in fact, it’s expected of you, since there’s always a Bloody Mary stand in the lobby of the Sheraton to get you started on your staggering way.
Buses get to the fairgrounds via Canal Street, and pedal pushers by way of Esplanade, which has a bona fide bicycle lane, rather than a collection of diminutive and fading stencils on the pavement. As you approach the fairgrounds from either angle, the water hawkers start appearing, begging you to pay a buck for a bottle. Usually, you do.
The venues are distributed amongst various tents and stages, with bands scheduled throughout the day in what aficionados call “cubes.” My son likes to wander around from venue to venue, catching various bands, with emphasis on the blues and jazz tents. But the biggest acts – the closers every day – are usually at the Acura Stage, so the idea is to set up camp there and use it as a home base. By “camp,” I mean a blanket, a few folding chairs and a small cooler filled with water bottles, some of the water having been substituted with colorless alcohol. Occasionally a key act will be at what used to be called the Gentilly Stage, and that was the case Friday, with Robert Plant. The closer Thursday was Santana, at Acura, and Saturday was Eric Clapton, also at Acura.
Crowds begin gathering early at the gates. In 2012, when the Eagles were a headliner, we got there at around 8 a.m., though the gates don’t open until 10:30. For Santana, we arrived around 9:45, and there was already a massive crowd. Once the gates do open, the ensuing melee would put the Land Run to shame. I saw a woman of about 350 pounds bulldoze her way through the crowd with unbelievable speed, crushing everything in her path. Anything that survived her girth was taken out by the folding chair swinging from her back.
After we got through the security people (who are more concerned with weapons than illicit booze) and the ticket takers, I headed for Acura at a jog, but dozens of sprinters blazed past me. Still, I got a pretty good spot at first, but my husband and son were taking leisurely strolls, so other aging rock fans spread out their blankets before our own arrived. (I didn’t make that mistake on subsequent days; I carried the blankets myself.)
Since my sister and her husband were arriving later, we tried to arrange our blankets – which paled in comparison to the blue plastic tarps being staked out all around us – and take as much space as we could. The cluster of former hippies next to us struck up a conversation and explained that after 27 Jazz Fests, they were old hats. “Hope you don’t mind if we smoke,” one man said to me, and I told him, “Nah, I used to smoke cigarettes myself.” He said, “It ain’t cigarettes I’m a-tawkin’ ‘bout.” (It’s not the first time I’ve felt stupid, nor will it be the last.)
As we continued talking, another couple tried to ease their lawn chairs in between our two blankets. “Is this spot taken?” the man asked, knowing it was before I affirmed it in the most threatening tone I could muster. “Y’all from Oklahoma?” he asked, and I admitted we were. He looked at the woman and said, “C’mon, let’s move. They might have guns.” We didn’t, but we repeatedly took advantage of the stereotype, accurately introducing my sister and her husband, Al, as being from Florida, and fibbing that we had folks from Georgia and Texas joining us.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Jazz Fest (other than seeing some of the best artists in the business for a reasonable price) is the cuisine. My husband pounded down several po’boys –duck, alligator, and softshell crab, which I call a “leg sandwich.”
I myself stuck mainly with boudin and its variants – at least, while at the festival. In the evening, when we pedaled back to the Quarter (with some trepidation, since everyone going our way either via bicycle or car had been drinking), we enjoyed muffulettas and Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House; rabbit dumpling, ‘gator and other tidbits at Cochon; and other southern favorites at Mother’s. Our first night in town, before the Fest, we even ate at Antoine’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the country – although “good old Louisiana Back-bay Bayou Bunny Bordelaise, a la Antoine” is not on the menu. We consider those four restaurants must-do’s for anyone visiting NOLA for the first time.
Another highlight is people-watching. In 2012, the focus one day was on a woman sporting breasts that would have each filled to overflowing one of the gallon-sized “puke pails” some JF attendees carry. On the front of her skimpy tank top was emblazoned the phrase: “I have a screaming o----- every time.” Even the menfolk were disgusted. This year, we saw several people older than we are – probably in their ‘60s – dancing drunkenly and waxing sentimental for the Summer of Love. Fortunately, they kept their clothes on. About the most disturbing incident involved a tipsy man of about 65 trying desperately to pick up three teenage girls sitting behind us the day of Clapton. They rebuffed his advances, and one of them even shrieked, “Ewwww!”
So now, we wait to see what next year will hold before booking our scalp-rate hotel rooms. We ought to get the news around January. My sister is still hoping for Sir Paul.