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A Newcomer's Guide to New Orleans
by Alec Vance


     Even more poorly maintained than the roads of Washington D.C.,the streets of New Orleans have a pothole-to-pavement ratio of about 4:1."Ooh, look, there's a smooth patch!" the driver, said excitedly, veering his car to the left. Speed limit signs are not posted, as the potholes, cracks and other deformations keep people from going too fast. An unloaded Ryder truck can be made fully airborne, I discovered, by hitting one of these just right.But that's not all you'll have to worry about. Intersections are often unmarked by stop signs, stoplights, or white lines, leaving it to anyone's guess as to who has right of way. Right of way seems to be established by tradition, nerve, mass, and velocity. I often try to err on the side of safety, angering drivers behind me. Your best bet is to follow another car and do what he does whenever possible, whether it seems legal or not.
    A wide, oak-lined boulevard--as many of New Orleans streets are--separated by "neutral ground" does not mean that your driving experience will fare any better. It's easy to make the assumption, as I did, that because it's wide enough for two-and-a-half cars going your way that you can pass a car hugging the left side on its right. Wrong! The right lane, even if there are no cars parked there, is the Parking Lane. Even the most maniacal driver (and there are many of these here) will not pass you on the right under the safest of conditions. The only time it is acceptable to veer into the Parking Lane is when you want to make a right turn, or park. Therefore,the main rule is: HUG THE LEFT CURB at all times, even if you never plan to make a left turn and there's 15 feet of open pavement to your right. Straddling the middle of the road will cause drivers to pretend to try to pass you on the left--which they will never actually do--and honk incessantly.
    DRIVE AS FAST AS THE POTHOLES WILL ALLOW, even if you feel your transmission is coming loose, or people will get very impatient. You do not want to piss off other drivers. Many are armed. Just the other day a driver pissed off another driver, and the latter got out of his car to do him some justice. Fortunately the first driver was armed, too, and beat him to it.
    Another problem is STREETCARS, which go up and down the neutral ground (or median) of St Charles Avenue and Carrollton Ave (where we live). Almost all streets here being one-way, most of the few two-way streets are separated by neutral ground. Knowing when and where you can make a U-TURN is difficult enough for the untrained, but when there's a streetcar coming and you're stuck in neutral ground it can get very stressful. I know, I was almost hit by a streetcar last week. Fortunately I reversed into the lane I came from. I haven't yet seen a streetcar hit an auto--but I've witnessed many near misses--my own being the closest. At this point you will be saying, why drive at all when you can take the streetcar? In the middle of the day a streetcar goes by every 30 seconds,it seems, making it very appealing. Especially since they're beautiful machines, built in the 1920's in High Point, NC, powered by electric lines above. It costs a dollar each way, which isn't too bad. Unfortunately if you want to take a streetcar at night (your ideal designated driver) you can wait (as I have) up to an hour and a half for one. You don't want to be Downtown (the nearest stop to the French Quarter) by yourself waiting for an hour.

    Just about everyone told me to watch out for the crime before I moved here. It's the murder capital of the world, people kept saying. I'm going to look pretty foolish saying this if I end up a corpse, but so far I've had very little worries. The area we live in is completely mixed black-and-white, lower- to middle- middle class. There are lots of schools and lots of kids. Most of the families with kids seem to be black,though our immediate neighbors are both white with tiny tots. Three blocks one way gets into white upper-middle class homes, three blocks another into mostly student-rented houses, three blocks away from the Avenue behind us gets into a neighborhood where every other house is a slot instead of a window. Maybe my attitude is a little naive, but there's something a lot less threatening about walking by these places than seeing them on the news or driving by them when you're lost. You're not a cop, you're not there to buy--they leave you alone. Of course I don't walk there during the night.
    As a city, N.O. is very different from most big Southern cities, or even Chapel Hill [North Carolina]. Even the poorest neighborhoods feel pleasantly residential--due in large part to the fact that all the houses are old (though certainly very run-down inside), and it's a planned city that really takes the edge off. There are trees--oaks, palms, maple, magnolias, willows--everywhere. Of course the CBD (Central Business District, aka Downtown) and the Warehouse District are another story--but few live there. Across the board, New Orleans residents are generally grounded by some sense of tradition and community which is hard to pin down, but definitely mollifies racial tension that is more obvious in places like Atlanta or Chapel Hill, where property rates and developers have forced lower-income folks into less than pleasant surroundings, while the whites move into pre-fab ranch style houses.

    There are almost none of the worst excesses of American architecture evident in New Orleans. Ranch houses, split-levels... all that yucky crap is practically unheard of in the city--largely due to the fact it appears no building--like road maintenance-- has gone on since 1910. We live in the American sector, which means Georgian and Victorian homes, Southern antebellum-style mansions, and a lot of fascinating oddities. Gardens, front and back; balconies.... and iron burglar bars over every window and door. Most all houses are two-storied, high ceilings, and share a wall with a neighbor. Some areas have a predominance of one-storied "shotgun" houses built for working class families at the turn-of-the-century, where one room leads directly into another--no hallway, no privacy.

    There's almost a different dialect of English here. Some key phrases and terms:
  • BEIGNET (ben-YAY)... An extremely light, flaky, hollow, rectangular doughnut covered with powdered sugar. Shawn says you can only get these at CAFE DU MONDE, though most stores sell beignet mix. Once you've eaten these, you will scoff at regular doughnuts.

  • CAFE DU MONDE... one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Supposedly the oldest coffee shop in the world. Serves but two things: coffee & CHICORY; and beignets.

  • CARONDOLET, ESPLANADE, etc. Knowing a smattering of French can be a disadvantage here when speaking street names. Carondolet rhymes with "i wanna bet", Esplanade rhymes with "lemonade."

  • CAJUN... to do with the descendents of French Canadians (lived in Acadia hence 'cajun) expelled by the English long ago, now living in Southwest Louisiana. Lafayette is the capital of Cajun country, some two-hours drive to the west. New Orleans is not Cajun town, but there is still a Cajun influence, mostly catering to tourists. Cajun music is kind of like Appalachian honky-tonk with a smattering of blues and zydeco, usually sung in Cajun French with an accordion and a fiddle. Cajun French is a dialect of French, with its own vocabulary--almost like my former French teacher Billy Ray Schmit from Texas' rednecky "laysay fahr." (laissez faire)

  • CATHOLICS... If you don't like 'em, don't come to New Orleans.

  • CHICORY ...something in the coffee here. Kind of like chocolate, but less chocolatey. A root, actually. During either the Civil War or the Revolution or some other big bad war the bad guys tried to hurt Louisiana troops by cutting off their coffee shipments from going down the river. In order to survive, they took the coffee they had and mixed it with chicory with (to get more bang for the buck). After the war, everyone was used to the flavor and they preferred it that way.

    Of course, I highly suspect that this is a myth. It is sometimes called CREOLE coffee or "European-style" coffee.

  • CREOLE... a very misunderstood term, as it can simultaneously signify white, black, French, Spanish, Carribean, and a style of cooking. Not to be confused with CAJUN. Basically signifies people or things of a non-American descent, the "good-old days" before the nineteenth century when the yankee influence started invading. Creoles included French aristocrats, blacks escaping a slave revolution from Haiti, and generally any person from the era when French and Spanish influence was predominant. Long after New Orleans was Americanized, Creoles held on to the reins of the city's social and political power. White and black Creoles mingled more readily than Creoles and Americans. These days it is generally applied to architecture (as in "Creole cottage", a townhouse style you'll find in the French Quarter) or food, as in "Shrimp Creole" which I had yesterday. Can also mean "home-grown" as in "Creole tomatoes" or "creole okra."

  • DESIRE... there are no streetcars that run to that part of town anymore; but you can still catch "A Bus Named Desire."

  • DITKA... former Chicago Bears coach, now heads the Saints. A local celebrity, he somehow escapes blame for the fact the Saints have reached an all time low. A recent Burger King ad (many national corporations do ads specifically tuned to Louisiana sensibilities, or lack thereof) stars Mr. Ditka trying to do a New Orleans/Cajun accent, intentionally mispronouncing lagniappe as "lagnap".

  • DRESSED... What you say if you want your hamburger (or any sandwich) with lettuce, tomato, and mayonaisse, etc. "I'd like a cheeseburger with tomato and lettuce" will cause confusion. Ask for a "cheeseburger dressed, no mayo."

  • DRINKING. They've finally started implementing the 21-and-over rule so popular elsewhere, but you're still more likely to be carded for buying cigarettes. Nonetheless, drinking remains a very popular pastime here; in fact New Orleans was where the cocktail was invented! The first cocktail was the Sazerac, invented by a "pharmacist" who also invented bitters.

  • DRIVE-THROUGH DAIQUIRI STANDS... Only in New Orleans, home of the Daiquiri.

  • FRENCH QUARTER... nothing French about it except for the street names. The architecture is Spanish.* My cousin Matt calls it the Tourist Quarter... an apt moniker. Frat Quarter, or Fat Lout from Ohio Quarter would do just as well.

  • GAMBLING. Now that it's legal there's slot machines in most bars. Casinos are still pretty much relegated to riverboats, but they've been trying to build a huge one downtown. Unfortunately it's been plagued by scandal and has sat there unoccupied for some time.

  • IT'S NOT THE HEAT, IT'S THE STUPIDITY... a popular local t-shirt.

  • LAGNIAPPE (LAN-yap)... doesn't appear in my French dictionary, but means 'an extra something.' Kind of like, buy one, get one free. Sometimes means Dessert, sometimes means a supplement to the newspaper. (See DITKA)

  • LAISSEZ LE BON TEMPS ROULER... literally "let the good times roll", the unofficial motto of New Orleans, but saying it is about as cheesy as hanging off a trolley in San Francisco singing "Rice a Roni, the San Francisco treat."

  • MUFALETTA... a round, "Italian" sandwich piled with meat, meat, and more meat. However, the defining quality of a mufaletta is the olive salad. Otherwise, it's just a hoagie or something.

  • NAPOLEON. Some of the diminutive emperor's followers escaped here after he met his Waterloo. Some planned his escape and built him a house for his impending arrival after rescue from exile, The Napoleon House, which today is a bar. It never happened, but if it did, we might all be speaking French. There's not only a Napoleon Avenue, but other streets are named after his conquests, e.g. Constantinople.

  • N'AWLINS. Nobody says that except guys who want to sell you a t-shirt. Even worse than saying, as many tourists do: "New orr-LEANS." 99% of natives say "New ORR-lins", though for some reason newscasters are generally in the habit of saying "New ORR-lee-ans". (Note: the orr-LEANS pronunciation is acceptable in song, and is in fact the only way to do it if you're singing about N.O. It's also the way to pronounce Orleans Street and Orleans Parish. How these people can be sticklers about this when they pronounce French street names like my dad in Paris is beyond me.)

  • NINTH WARD... an area of town that gets in the news a lot. Must be the crime. People there have funny accents--the stereotypical New Orleans accent.

  • PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC... see CATHOLICS. People here work at their own pace.

  • RED BEANS AND RICE... despite the massive amounts of seafood that New Orleanians ingest, this is the number one mainstay, eaten traditionally on Mondays (washing day). Popeye's Fried Chicken is based here, and surprisingly serves "the best" according to a city-wide poll. Popeye's also serves a lot of other local dishes, such as Crawfish Etouffee.

  • RICE, ANNE: The best-selling vampire writer lives in an historic convent here that she bought, which could explain why there are so many Goths in town. (There's a street in the French Quarter I call the Goth Quarter because unlike the rest of the frat-boy and tourist-ridden area, everyone wears black, nylon, PVC, leather, fishnets, freaky makeup and instruments of pain.) She had a big party on Halloween that no one invited us to.

  • SHOW US YOUR TITS.. a popular expression in the French Quarter, where tourists come from all over the country to shout it and/or expose themselves. No longer confined to Carnival.

  • TROLLEY... ain't no such thing. There are, however, streetcars.

  • WHERE Y'AT? ... "How are you doing?"

  • WHO DAT SAY DEY GONNA BEAT DEM SAINTS, WHO DAT? WHO DAT?.... fans of the Saints often go from "When the Saints go Marching in" into this little ditty. (Note: anyone can beat the Saints, but that does not stop the chant.)

  • YOU AN YER MOMMA... interjected into conversations, as a friendly non-sequitur. "How's you an yer momma down dere" is not a question, but more of a greeting. A person need not have a mother to be a subject of this.

  • WWOZ.. a really great public radio station that plays gospel, blues, jazz, dixieland, cajun, bluegrass, honky-tonk, and zydeco.

  • ZYDECO. A mixture of cajun music, blues, and Carribean/African rhythms. Usually performed by blacks, as cajun is by whites, but in both cases there's some serious overlap and it's difficult to draw lines, fortunately. Many cajun bands have black members (some are all black) and many zydeco bands have white members. There's a lot of racism here, but there's as many exceptions.

* Shawn would like to add: "It is a common misconception that the architecture in the French Quarter is Spanish when, in fact, it is not. The French built the French Quarter and when it was ceded to the Spanish, it burnt the hell to the ground. The Spanish, in between their siestas, put the house back up but didn't bother adding any of their own style to anything. They built it exactly like it was. The reason people think that the architecture is Spanish is because the Spaniards rebuilt it, but they don't realize that they rebuilt it like it was before."

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© copyright 1997 Alec Vance