Friday, July 21, 2006

Bamboozled in the Big Easy

As I write this, I'm about five hours off reprising my role as a Bountiful Days of '47 Parade PA announcer, and hoping that the exploits are at least as interesting as those I documented last year.

In the meantime, though, I'm actually doing more thinking about the trip I'm heading out on tomorrow morning, back to my old mission stomping grounds in Chicago. It's been seven years since my last visit to the Windy City, so I'm obviously excited. Seven years is far too long a gap between slices of Giordano's Pizza.

I'm sure my dad will agree. His conference in the Loop is the genesis of my excursion. So, like with New Orleans two summers ago, I will be tagging along in the hopes of getting some much-needed "away" time.

Strangely, my New Orleans memories are starting to take on the same kind of eerie atmosphere I have for seeing Sammy Sosa hit a Home Run at Wrigley back in '99: it's still a fun memory, but the knowledge of events to come tends to overshadow it. Saying "I went to Wrigley and saw Sosa hit one out" used to bring looks of Home Run Race nostalgia from friends; now it brings raised eyebrows as we wonder if he was swinging a loaded bat with loaded arms.

Same deal with New Orleans, only without the "bad guy" element. The whole Katrina mess, from the devastation of the hurricane itself to the social upheaval and chaos afterwards, pretty much dominates any thought of The Big Easy these days. Like seeing Ray Charles in concert back in 2000, I'm glad I got down there in time.

Some key memories...

1. BBQ Shrimp. I've been a huge fan of jumbo shrimp for years, but for the most part I had only sampled the traditional unseasoned kind, with the zenith example coming at Alioto's Restaurant in San Francisco, where I shelled out twelve bucks for a four-shrimp cocktail--and each item was two-inches WIDE. I had never had much interest in combining the field of BBQ with seafood, but after eating the BBQ shrimp at a little French Quarter restaurant just off Bourbon Street, I am converted. Rather than baste the shrimp in a thick traditional Southwestern BBQ sauce, the New Orleans version was cooked in a thin BBQ marinade, then served to you shells, heads, and all. Simply incredible stuff. I only wish I remembered the name of the restaurant...

2. Swamp Boat Tour. On our last full day of the trip, my dad and I decided to go take one of the swamp boat tours we had seen so many advertisements for. Our guide, a genuine Cajun local, had an uncanny resemblance to my old Institute teacher/mentor David A. Christensen, only with a moustache and tattoos. A full tour complete with multiple alligator sightings led to a recommendation to a local diner that didn't advertise to tourists. It was via the authentic gumbo that my week of cajun caught up with me, and segued into an episode at the Alamo Rental station I hesitate to recant in this space.

3. $20 Shoeshine. I like to think of myself as a fairly streetwise fellow, having lived in South Chicago and all. But this assumption was once again proven wrong as I mistakenly went along with what I thought was an innocent con at the south end of the French Quarter. While strolling the river bank, I encountered a seedy-looking fellow that suckered me for a shoeshine in a moment of weakness. Obligated to pay, I recoiled in horror to find that all I had to pay was a $20 bill, and my "friend" couldn't make change. His two associates nearby didn't look like they had change, either, and since no one was equipped to take debit cards, I found myself cursing my tormentor and my own gullible soul for hours to come.

(Interesting note here: I felt a tremendous surge of righteous indignation at being scammed by a career con man, as most would. Despite his pathetic circumstances, it's hard to feel sympathetic to someone who makes his living ripping people off, especially after they've just conned you. When I saw the aftermath of Katrina, I wondered whatever happened to the guy. Is he now a victim I should pity? Or is he just busy victimizing the other victims, according to an opportunist schedule? Should I fold my arms smugly, assuming justice has been done, and completely disregard the thousands of totally innocent people that were unjustly victimized, or...ugh, see what I mean?)

4. The Music. Our hotel was right smack in the middle of the French Quarter, a block off of Bourbon Street, and everywhere I went I heard the strains of zydeco music. Tubas, accordions, all mixed in with Jazz. It kind of makes up for the fact that we didn't catch any actual shows. If there is anything that triggers my trip memories, it's zydeco music and mini alligator heads (I bought mine for $10).

5. Bourbon Street, or Disneyland? For the most part I tried to avoid Bourbon Street, and stuck to the more touristy parts of the French know, the ones where you can get ripped off for a shoeshine. But one evening my dad and I decided to try a recommended restaurant about four blocks away on Bourbon Street. Around 8pm, we hit the street, me wondering how much like the infamous media legend the real BS would turn out to be. I expected hundreds of people my age, engaged in all sorts of lurid activity, chucking strings of beads at each other. Well, there were plenty of lurid establishments in between the restaurants and shops, but there were also a lot of older people out walking the street...meaning flat-out ELDERLY people. This may have been the one time in my life I was glad my dad's vision isn't so good; in spite of the age-spanning crowd (high numbers even for a Thursday night), there was plenty to shield your vision from. Another legendary moment: the woman on the sidewalk in the bikini trying to talk my dad and I into entering the strip club she worked at. Not what I would call a Fathers-and-Sons outing. Not really what I would call a Fathers-and-Sons town.

But the shrimp was great.