Thursday, November 3, 2011

Halloween in New Orleans

In front of the Basilica de St. Louis
There is a few square blocks in the heart of the Deep South that attracts both awe and splendor. Day or night these streets are teaming with life. By day, street performers entertain the thronging multitudes carrying cups of Royal Blend coffee and the bags they have accrued at shops selling pralines, Saints swag, and Mardi Gras masks. By night, the side streets are blocked off to make way for the biggest block party known to man. I speak of course of the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans, and the nights in question are those of the Halloween weekend.

When the sun goes down, the freaks come out.

The Freak: Steampunk
Mad Scientist
Or a singular Freak, as the case may be.

The Nerd took to the streets of New Orleans on Friday the 28th, admiring the gas lamp-lit streets and gazing longingly at the running lights of Harrah's casino. Entranced by having returned once again to dear New Orleans, my friends and I immediately set out for good food, and of course found the alcohol first. We took shots of Rebel Yell at a bar to the north of the French Quarter. Our desire to explore the city at night was inevitably put on hold, though.

This was also the weekend of the Cresent City Open, the Louisiana division annual fencing tournament. For two days some very legendary fencers came head-to-head to decide who the best in the south would be. Adam Brewer, Justin Mehan and Thomas Stusinsky are a mere handful of names that made fencing the Cresent City Open a worthy challenge. Though B-rated saber fencer and personal friend Adam Brewer did not win--as many of us hoped he would--nothing stops Adam for long, and you can guarantee that he will recoup his losses at his next event. He took 5th this weekend. The Polish saber fencer and World Cup winner of 2010 Thomas Stusinsky went on to win this year's Cresent City Open. Stusinsky is a studied fencer, whose tactics easily make any lesser fencer easy prey. Though I no longer fence, it was clear from the number of bouts I watched that there is no one as adept at the feint and disengage as Thomas Stusinsky. Many a fencer fell into his traps this weekend.

Jeremy Shoemaker
and a very real pipe.
After the tournament we were left to explore the French Quarter, mostly in search of a pipe and tobacco for my long-time friend Jeremy Shoemaker, and alcohol for the rest of us. By Saturday night, it was time to take to the streets once more, this time in costume. The mad scientist in me laid her now entirely blue hair over the floor and proceeded to allow my  husband to spray it into whorls of insanity. I donned my steampunk skirt, blouse, goggles and lab coat. My friend Lidia Plaza creeped us all out with her white-out contact lenses and black domino. My husband, Ben, and our friend Jeremy, did not dress up, though they looked smashing in their new clothes from the historically accurate Gap from the historical Riverside Mall, which overlooks the Big River herself, the mighty Mississippi. We took ourselves down to Bourbon Street, where already the mounted patrol were sectioning off the blocks of bars and cabarets on the second biggest night of the year. The packed street was crowded with costumed freaks, no less among them was myself in my lab coat and with my frizzy hair. However, we were never more than a block away from some very out-of-place protesters.

"Since Katrina," friend Adam Brewer said, "New Orleans is a very different town."

Notice the banners
in the background.
Different indeed. From over the heads of the thousands of people walking the street, two very large, white wooden crosses could be seen, surrounded by five or six people holding signs and banners proclaiming that all who did not at once repent would be condemned to Hell. At one intersection, just such a group carried a banner damning drunken rioters, homosexuals, heretics and adulterers (among other things) while one of the protesters shouted into a megaphone. Off to the right, a crowd of a different sort was gathered around a man on stilts, dressed as a brightly lit, intimidating Devil. People offered him tips and took pictures with him. One woman got a picture of her kissing his obscene lips. Fortunately, he was the only one who seemed to be responding to the protesters, and this he did without a single word. No one who passed them seemed to pay them much heed, or address them at all. They were part of the road block as far as the revelers were concerned. Other than to comment in passing that perhaps they were going about their tactics the wrong way, no one interacted with them, which was probably due to the fact that several mounted patrol officers were stationed near-by and that everyone was already too drunk to be offended that strangers were passing judgement on them on a party weekend. I was as non-plussed as the others, though in a state of utter rebelliousness, and simply because I could, I took a picture with the Devil. My lack of reverence you can attribute to the fact that I don't believe the presence of a man in a costume has any bearing over my morals. I do, however, enjoy a flare for the ironic on occasion.
Me and Techno Satan
Come to find out, you cannot smoke weed on the balconies of pubs. We stopped in order for Jeremy to get better acquainted with his pipe, allow those who had not eaten to eat, and of course, order more drinks. We were not the ones smoking weed, though. The faint smell of dog poop and grass came to  us from one of the tables further down, which kept our waitress from taking our order for a few minutes. However, we were all pleasantly buzzed and had no intention of getting up. We drank, talked and inhaled second-hand pipe smoke. Some of us clung to life with digging fingers, as we were all exhausted from a late night, early morning, long walk and then alcohol. However, we couldn't leave the relative disorder of Bourbon Street without partaking of a cabaret, in the best sense...sort of. We sought a place with no cover, thinking that perhaps we would get a cheap show. Definitely cheap, to the point that perhaps we may have been bait-and-switched. Lets just say the signs told us one thing, and then four very intoxicated people got a dose of reality. Apparently, there are some things you just can't get without the Internet. We left in bitterness and disappointment, until Lidia found a sticker that was blinking on the sidewalk. Order had been restored.

Street vendors selling art and jazz performers to name but a few of the sights
in front of the Louisiana State Museum, next door to the Basilica de St. Louis
The next day we walked the French Quarter, taking in the sights, spending money, and eating. I eat a lot in New Orleans. We were forced to pass up the Cafe du Monde, as there was a waiting list to the next block--literally. We ate a long, leisurely meal, and continued on to the shops.

It is hard for me to describe the feeling I get walking through the French Quarter. I am often struck with how young I feel. I am surrounded by architecture and style from a part of a city that is hundreds of years old. There are times when I step out of my year and am transported in time. We were interested in sitting most of time, so Jeremy could study his pipe and waiting for Adam to join us. A coffee shop caught our eye, though the door to the shop was not immediately visible. Lidia led us out of the warm street and under an alcove, following the signs to the coffee shop. We stepped out of New Orleans in 2011 and into a French courtyard in the mid-eighteenth century. I remembered stepping through the door of a pub, The Druid's Head, in Brighton, England, and it was the same feeling. The courtyard was cool and shady, trees not native to the area and creepers covered the peeling white-washed walls, and taller buildings helped to block out the sun light from the street. The Royal Blend coffee shop occupied the bottom floor of a building cadi-corner to the courtyard. The french doors to the sitting area and food counter opened on the courtyard. An orange and white striped tom cat came out immediately to greet us. I never could get his tag around to see his name, but he sat with us for a few minutes and followed me up to the register. Dusty tables and chairs lined the walls in a way that was neither orderly nor trendy. One girl stood along a chipped and warped counter using the all-too modern free wi-fi offered by the shop. We ordered our coffee and spent a half an hour under the vines and leaves in the cool arbor. Lidia and I contemplated the upstairs area over the coffee shop, wondering if it was inhabitable and planning our futures as a starving artist and an anthropologist perpetually in school. Our respective husband and live-in boyfriends speculated where they fit in to our plans. We confessed that we did not know.

Our stay was cut short by a phone call that was to herald our departure. We left with about as much ceremony as we when we arrived--arguing in a PC fashion over who should drive and why a Dodge Caravan is not a go-cart. We had a few set-backs this weekend, but nothing that could truly take the fun and grandeur out of visiting one of the most romantic cities in the United States. Au revoir, New Orleans. See you next year.

Enjoy this video, dear readers, of the biggest block party I've ever seen, next to Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day. Not bad for a video shot on my HTC Inspire, on the Fastest 4G Network. In case you can't tell, that's sarcasm.

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