August 2009 - Posts
I made the long drive up Interstate 55 to Memphis. A friend of mine, Katherine, was in town for business, and offered me a place to stay on the couch of her hotel suite. I got there pretty late and we had dinner and went to bed early.
The next night we went out to Beale street. Memphis has a long and illustrious history as a music mecca, particularly for blues and rock & roll. Beale street is supposedly the heart of this. Beale is a couple blocks of nightclubs, bars, and venues. Live music blasts from each doorway, competing with other doorways, oozing out into a sort of punctuated hum in the street like tributaries creating a river. The night we went was biker night. Hundreds of motorcycles lined the street, and everybody was wearing leather.
Except Katherine; she wasn't wearing leather.
Beale street was pretty neat. We found an outdoor beer garden with a band. A couple guys were singing soul music very seriously.
Here is one of their lyrics:
"Now I'm 49,
My mind's a whole lot stronger,
My love making lasts a whole lot longer,
When people ask if I want to turn back time, I say 'no man' "
We wandered over to the B.B. King Club, where a blues band was playing. They were really talented.
We were very impressed.
Then, the front man started playing his guitar with his teeth.
The picture's not very good, but I promise this happened. It was on a crazy solo. It even sounded good.
On the way back to the car, we passed:
and what seems to be the Beale street motto.
I met up with my friend Rick, who, since I'd seen him in Sacramento a couple months ago, had set out on his own USA travel adventure. He was staying in New Orleans at a hostel, and we met up for an authentic New Orleans tradition - muffuletta sandwiches. Muffuletta sandwiches originated at Italian grocery stores in the French Quarter. Many of them claim to be the 'Home of the Original Muffuletta'. Central Grocery, on Decatur street, appears most authentic. No one seems to know where the name 'muffuletta' came from, but my theory is that it's the phonetic spelling of the cajun pronunciation of the phrase 'mother f****** lot of.' Piled high with salami, ham, provolone cheese, and olive relish, and the size of a human head, it's best to not eat an entire muffuletta sandwich. Rick and I split one.
For dessert, we had coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, another New Orleans landmark.
Look at the handsome man and his sugar-coated pastries!
Rick took off for the Mississippi coast and I wandered around until bedtime.
In the morning I drove south along the St. Bernard Highway snaking along the Mississippi River to St. Bernard's Parish. St. Bernard's Parish had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005, and I had spent the summer of 2006 gutting flood damaged houses there. The volunteers all stayed at an abandoned middle school that had been converted to a barracks. When I arrived, 10 months after the storm, 2 houses were inhabited out of 5000. Row after row of houses were in the same condition the flood waters had left them. White FEMA trailers littered the yards. Wreckage had been pushed off the streets and laid along the sidewalks and in front yards. Abandoned vehicles were everywhere. Local businesses hadn't returned. Packs of wild dogs had claimed certain areas. Here's a couple pictures from the summer of 2006:
I returned to St. Bernard's Parish in the winter of 2006 for a week, and saw that there had been a lot of progress. Many more houses were occupied, the wreckage was cleaned up, businesses were open, the community was healing. I again stayed at the abandoned middle school with the other volunteers.
This time, almost 4 years after the storm, it was hard to find any evidence that it had ever happened. Here and there buildings had been abandoned, but the neighborhoods were alive again. It was amazing to see.
The barracks was once again an elementary school:
I returned to the city and wandered around the French Quarter for awhile. It was certainly different than I remembered it. There were far more tourists and young non-natives riding beach cruisers and wearing berets. The quarter seemed crowded compared to my memories of post-hurricane New Orleans. There was less charm; it was less of an individual experience. Before, tourism hadn't returned but the attractions were all open, ready and waiting. It felt like the entire city existed just for my fellow volunteers and I. Back then, the city had this type of amazing flavor, this rich culture that you could feel in the air. All the non-essential parts of New Orleans were gone and it was pure, unadulturated, and wonderful.
But now all the other parts had returned and it wasn't like I remembered it. It wasn't bad - I will always love New Orleans - it was just different, and less magical.
I met up with Ben and we went to a couple cool bars. The New Orleans music scene is really good if you know where to look (the further from Bourbon street, the better). A band was playing upstairs at the second bar we went to. It was a week night and there were about 6 people watching the 4 person blues/soul band. 4 of them appeared to be the band members' girlfriends. The band was absolutely incredible. They were fantastically talented and we sat there slack-jawed for a couple hours listening to their set in the big vacant venue. It was surreal. It was like listening to a private show of Led Zeppelin. Like, that's not meant to happen. Apparently the band had just formed and hadn't even recorded anything yet. They need to get in a studio, like, yesterday. Jamey St. Pierre and the Honeycreepers - watch out for them!
A couple months ago - way back in the northwest Idaho mountains - I mentioned that a friend and I had composed and performed a song. Well, here it is (sorry, but you'll have to click the link - can't embed youtube videos here).
Ode to Cheese
Oh my hound dog's left me
and my truck's run dry,
Suzy done left me
for another guy,
With the whiskey low
and the beer run out,
I sure feel down and out,
But I got cheese...
What makes the night less lonely?
What makes the bread less moldy?
What can you feel to a pony?
What's like a whale's blubber?
What feels a bit like rubber?
What's better than any lover?
Oh my mother don't love me
and my dog's still gone,
If I got back Suzy
she'd be gone before long,
Drunk the whiskey bottle dry
and the well's run out,
My heart's all full of doubt,
But I got cheese...
What keeps me nice and mellow?
What's good for any fellow?
What's white and sometimes yellow?
What's the best thing to come from udders?
So good it makes me shudder,
Sweeter than cream and butterier than butter,
Well my mother stuck with me
slapped Suzy's behind,
Found my hound dog Luke
left the truck behind,
But the rain's a-comin'
feel it in my soul,
But I just don't care, y'know,
'Cause I got cheese...
Casey and I finally split paths - she had to get to a medical rotation in Corpus Cristi, 5 1/2 hours west, and I was heading to New Orleans, 5 1/2 hours east. We said some small things and drove off. I took the fairy from Galveston to Port Bolivar. There was a huge line and it took me an hour to get aboard. Here's a picture of me waiting in line for the ferry!
Port Bolvar is a narrow strip of land that spits out into Galveston Bay. All the houses were built on high stilts to avoid flooding.
The drive to New Orleans was pretty interesting. I passed through the Bayou and there was much water - swamp land, rivers, lakes, etc. The freeway was built above the water on stilts for long stretches.
I arrived in Baton Rouge as the sun was setting. The Mississippi River ran through downtown and I crossed a magnificent bridge. I turned off the freeway and tried to find a good photo spot. I ended up coming across an abandoned shipping dock extending out from the levee atop the river.
Someone had broken the lock and the entire thing had been covered by graffiti art. It was really cool. I have more pictures of it on my blog.
I arrived in New Orleans pretty late and found the address of my couchsurfing host, Ben. Ben is a cool guy and we hung out and played guitar and chatted until late at night. He's an engineer from Milwaukee Wisconsin, and incredible musician, and an all-around good dude.
Casey and I returned to Houston Saturday morning. She took me to what appeared to be a very normal-looking neighborhood. And then I saw the rocket ship trailer:
After that I was pretty sure it wouldn't be a normal neighborhood. I was right, because next door was 'The Orange Show'. The Show was built by Jeff McKissack over a period of nearly 30 years. The idea was something to do with oranges, steam power, education, and entertainment, though I'm not sure how all of these things were supposed to combine. McKissack expected over 300,000 visitors per year. He figured that by charging each one $2, he would become rich. Unfortunately, his revenue projections were a little too optimistic, McKissack died of depression, and The Orange Show became an underground cult attraction.
CLOWNS NEVER LIE! The Orange Show is a trip. Go, if you can. When you have finished visiting, they give you a questionnaire. Be sure to fill it out.
After that, we went to the Beer Can House. This is a house made out of Beer Cans. But it's not actually made out of beer cans, it's just sort of ridiculously decorated with them. Houston people are weird.
Here's the guy responsible for the Beer Can House:
Next, we went to the Saint Arnold brewery for a tour. Casey had quite the efficient itinerary and we just made it. It was about 110 degrees inside the huge warehouse. Saint Arnold offers 1 tour each week, and it's a favorite for Houstonites. Each week the founder, Brock Wagner, gives a talk outlining the history of the brewery, explaining what goes into making the different types of beer, etc. The place was packed with thirsty sweaty people holding empty beer mugs. We all watched him speak for the better part of an hour. I think he enjoyed the power he had over us. He could have said anything and we would have sat there and listened. Nobody was going anywhere - then you'd miss the beer.
It was very good. I liked the IPA the best. The heat wasn't so bad once you got cold beer. They gave everybody enough tokens to more or less get drunk by 2pm.
From there we went to the Houston Galleria shopping center, which has a giant ice skating rink on the ground floor.
Next door was the Williams Water Wall - a giant water wall sculpture in a park.
The next stop on the whirwind tour was Casey's friend's house in the city, where we played a role playing game involving werewolves, villagers, magicians, and so forth. It had something to do with the werewolves having hidden identities and trying to eat all the villagers before their identities were discovered. I'm not really sure what was going on, but it was fun.
Afterwards we hit some bars and chilled out before heading back to Galveston. Casey and I were exhausted and on the drive home we had to play loud music and keep the windows down to stay awake. It was one of those days that make you happy to be a person.
I hung around Galveston during the day. It's a long, thin island with tons of beachfront. I wandered around to the pier and saw the beautiful old oil tankers and barges and cruise ships at the dock, and the fishing trawlers dragging nets back and forth through the bay. It was hot out and when Casey got out of work we went swimming at Stewart Beach Park. I've never felt ocean water so warm. It was like a jacuzzi. It was very salty and easy to float in. The waves broke at odd angles and it was fun getting beat around by them. Little fish swam around between my legs.
We went to Houston that evening. We wandered around the downtown area and ran around to different spots. She grew up in south Houston and knew all the good hangouts. We had an amazing pepper pizza at Star Pizza and then went to a couple bars. There were many people around and lots of good live music. We listened to a few bands and wandered around.
Houston reminds me of Los Angeles, in that it's a huge, sprawling, decentralized city. It's a city built largely on the oil industry, booming in the 1980's when the oil industry there was growing exponentially. Development expanded further and further from the city center and everyone wanted to get out from the old inner neighborhoods to the new fancy developments on the outskirts. Now that the Houston-area oil growth has tapered off, many inner neighborhoods are blighted, many people live far from their jobs in the city, and regional hangout spots have evolved instead of a centralized destination that everyone wants to get to.