The Intro: I knew my first encounter with god would be epic, what I didn’t think was that it’d open up with “Hey ya baby mama’s, how ya’ll doin?”
I also didn’t think that his intro music would be played on a drum kit & it feel like a house party. Then again I’d never been to the bayou before…
Authentic To The Extreme: I try to ensure that I have a birthday in a different country or place each and every year. This makes me feel like I’ve done something important each year, kinda like taking your kids on a holiday in late August, rather then early July for summer holidays, something to look forward to all year and talk about when everyone’s back in the grind.
This time I decided to spend it with Kermit Ruffins in the authentic Vaughans pub, complete with dinner and dancing. By dancing I mean ass bouncing jazz mixed with slow stumbles and just enough room to move exactly nowhere, and by dinner I mean Spicy Cajun Crawtators from the snack rack & jambalaya on rice @ 11 in the back room from the five gallon industrial pot. Apparently one of the old boys in the band likes to cook, so on Thursdays he puts together a big ole pot of authentic Louisiana jambalaya, the kinda food that makes you smile soooo much you can barley chew. The type that when your elbow deep in the pot and your trying to gauge if you could lick the spoon would anyone notice, or would anyone care?
Now Vaughns is authentic New Orleans like the coliseum is authentic Italy, it’s been around for as long as anyone remembers and if you ever thought of fixing it up, no one would ever know it had so much history. It’s rough around the edges like European soccer games have a touch of aggression at them, everybody has a great time & if they recall, probably has a good story to tell.
Hell even the cash register is made mostly of wood and when they push the buttons on it the amount pops up on little square pieces of plastic showing the amount from possible totals of ten cents up to a dollar. Ha, a dollar, drinks weren’t expensive, thou they sure weren’t a dollar either!
We were lucky to roll up on a Thursday, it was so busy there was a steady bouncer at the door, otherwise according to the hand written poster on the door, you must “…ring buzzer to enter and show your face in the window…” I haven’t seen real deal hospitality like that since I would go to high school house parties when I was in grade eight. They knew I wasn’t a regular, but they could tell I was a good time.
With no other commercial anything within walking distance, this was pretty much just a house on the corner of a neighbourhood that probably had a lot of great parties and well it just stuck. Honestly up until about 45 minutes prior to this 29th birthday shin dig I knew about as much about Kermit Ruffins as he did about me. Much like all good occurrences, we were invited by the first two English men we ran into at the hostel and I was sold on the idea of two guys I’d never met, going to meet a guy they’d just met, to watch a guy play a trumpet they’d all seen on T.V. in a place that made “shady” sound appealing & we got to take a road to get there spelt T-c-h-o-u-p-i-t-o-u-l-a-s. I live in a place called “Red Deer”, I wonder if they think that’s as funny as I think there street sounds!?!
Hands down (or up) the greatest dinner and a show I’ve ever been part of. I think I swapped enough sweat with the locals to have the DNA to play jazz!
Touristy things to do; I’m told to go and have beignets at Café Du Monde while in New O., as it’s “Just a must.” Well I’m not one to avoid a top ten list in a new place. So at the crack of 3am after leaving Vaughns with the Austrian friend of the two English guys we’d originally gone with. We meet two, again over the top friendly locals, both about twenty. One the driver, one the drinker.
To keep up the reputation of all good New Orleanians they put our drunk asses in the car and took us to Café Du Monde. If you’ve never been to Café Du Monde it breaks down like this: Basically it’s a coffee & doughnut shop that opened in 1862 that makes the doughnuts right there, beignets in French, and sells them 24hrs a day right in the tourist heart of New O. The difference between the typical beignet and the beignets at Café Du Monde is the excessive extreme to which they apply icing sugar. There’s a four inch round plate with a medium sized doughnut on it with roughly a quarter cup of icing sugar nicely portioned across every bit of everything! Like a snow globe, without the protective globe.
It’s the perfect place to host a social get together after some light music in New O. or the perfect place to turn into a blasphemy of icing spattered clothing and sugar coated smiles. Each to there own dining experience. I’m not much of a coffee snob, so I don’t really know the general behaviour of these events. Ours seemed to roll out quite nicely across everything, very similar to the original presentation of our beignet.
behaviour of these events. Ours seemed to roll out quite nicely across everything, very similar to the original presentation of our beignet.
Side story; I’m not totally sure I’ve seen or been part of grand theft auto before, thou on the way to a nice afternoon of gator watching on the Bayou our tour bus went to pull out of a side street. As our light turned green in the business district of New O. Then zing, Right through a red light comes busting in front of us, and a tread mark away from a smashing of pedestrians rips a nice new Porsche 911. It was what I would assume a rocket from a rocket launcher would look like if it were to come screaming past my face with no set course. This little rocket was erratically spewing down the street at roughly a cool 100kph and through the next set of red lights only to lose control of this freshly jacked ride into a screeching smoke and dead halt of a parked car. After the excitement of our tour bus drivers emotions calmed a bit, I asked if that was part of the usual tour. She laughed and said “Aint no tour ya’ll gonna see twice”. I’ll I could think was, amateur!
The bayou gator tour was pretty nifty and I don’t think they could have found another man with less teeth and more of an accent then our guide. He’d lived there his whole life and knew pretty much everything about anything. He even knew all four of the exact dates it had snowed there since he was born. If ever I could ask for a little treat in my next life, it would be to count the days I’d seen snow on one hand.
Marshal, Marshal, Marshal; Marshal was the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry if you wanted her to be happy. Just a real guy, laid back like a lazy boy, honest like Mother Theresa, & tells ya how it is like Dr. Phil. Marshal was a 50 year old native of New O. whom looked 35, dressed like he was 25 and had a keen interest in people like he was 5.
Marshal was by all definition a driver, though he was more like a gifted Shaman of knowledge and hospitality. Marshal could describe his undying love for his city like a mother could describe the love for a child. He’d say things like “ya’ll like jazz music? Cause we got challs best damn jazz music in the world!”. “Ya’ll seen Bourbon street? Well I aint much on all that action, but if ya’ll like action we got the most jumpinest streets in the world!”. And things like “ya’ll like southern food? I aint big on spicy, but if ya like corn bread & biscuits, we got the best damn corn bread and biscuits in the world”. He’d finish every line with an extra pitch in his voice and one eye open a little more then the other, looking in the rear view mirror to see if you can feel the excitement. Marshals the kinda guy you’d have describe scenery to a blind person.
Marshal had originally picked us up at the airport 25 minutes late, this was apparently a usual timeline for all New Orleanians. I got used to it once I realised my rushed Alberta lifestyle was not welcome in laidback likes of The Big Easy.
Picked up, taxied around, personal tour, words of advice, invited for lunch and a brief history of the ups and downs of pre and post Katrina (pre and post Katrina I came to find was the time line of how any and all events were kept track of, it was either better or worse based on this event)… Marshal, Marshal, Marshal.
In retrospect I find it odd that Marshal makes his living picking up people from the airport. As he recounted a tale to us about how he’d never be caught in a “big ole bird”. Shortly after Katrina hit the army moved in to “help” clean up the situation and Marshal explained how they told him he would need to be evacuated via plane to a safer area. I’ve never heard a grown mans voice tremble with a low treble like his. He told me he refused to get in the plane, so the man dressed in camo clothes put his machine gun to Marshals back and told him that he was being ordered and it was for his own safety. Marshal told the man with the machine gun to his back that he’d “better go on and shoot him then and get to helpin other people, cause there aint no way he was going up in a big old bird.”
Food To Fly For: I think that every local we ran across had something good to say or recall about there city as they talked to us. As one does, I refused to stay to close to where I suspected there might be a lot of tourists, so we picked a hostel just far enough from everything that I was sure we’d get to hang out with the locals. Well on one night out for a walk to find dinner we stumble across Casamento’s . A small eatery established by Italian Immigrant Joe Casamento. If Vaughns was authentic jazz, this was authentic food. Casamentos lays out similar to the house your Grandparents grew up in. The main level is long and narrow, when you walk in there are a couple of tables off to the right and on the left is the Oyster “Bar”. There’s a touch of a wall to separate the back where there are roughly eight more tables of four. The real treat here is the kitchen. A small space about 12 x 10 feet with one or two pieces of commercial equipment and four people working in it. There’s pots of oil on an open flame stove to deep fry with, there’s sinks of dishes, there’s food and batter flying around. Having grown up in kitchens I’m in heaven. How did I get into the kitchen one would ask. Well in your typical North American restaurant there are a lot of rules on who can and cant go in the kitchen and sanitation and non-sense like that. Not here my friends. There is a sign on the curtain that half covers the kitchen reading “washroom through kitchen, please enter here”. Holy goldmine, I used that washroom about nine times while we were there, each time walking through the kitchen a touch slower and each time asking another question about the set up or how long it took to cook my deep fried soft shell crab. Dream!
The oyster bar hosts a chit chatty mother shucker there to feed and fill you with facts. Basically while you wait for your table (as it doesn’t take much to fill ten tables with a rep like this) you order a beer, order up some oysters on the half shell while the shucker entertains you about how he’s worked this job for 35 years, shows us the collection of eighteen small pearls he’s found in 35 years and bitches about how BP has pretty much killed off the whole damn country with there oil spill (we were there shortly after) and how hard it is to get oysters now. In the mean time you get to meet the people waiting next to you. So happens they drove 100miles to come for dinner here and they do once a month. With a cliental like this, we have found a true pearl in the restaurant world. In typical style they even asked us “how your all doin?” and bought our beers! I would fly there just for dinner, if only my air miles would add up a touch faster.
If I recall the story correctly, the night of the Katrina storm an ageing Mr Casamento who had not takin much more then a day off since the day the doors opened could not bear to to see his life’s work disappear and it was said that he died upstairs not of the wind or water, but from a broken heart.
Life Experience: The life experience, as they do, came in the form of a meeting with GOD! In this case god was right next door and all his buds were darned in blue crush velvet suits, big droopy sun hats and singing straight to heaven.
I personally don’t have a lot of tight connections with God as I only go looking for him when I’m in a real fix and need some quick solutions. Like when I’m being pulled over by police in a foreign country or the bus I’m on breaks down on the overnight route in Guatemala and I’m willing to bet when I look outside were not parked close to a Canadian tire store. Both of those things happened to me on one trip.
Though I was pretty sure prior to departure that before we left Canada if I wanted to meet up with him over some music, the good people of New Orleans would know where to look. Well God damn, it just so happens that the last half of our trip was spent in the cozy compound of Joe and Flos hostel, in a questionable neighbourhood walking distance to Bourbon street. Situated next to a raw wooden home with no doors on it and a plank ramp going up the front where one would typically have a set of stairs. And well right across from the Zion Hill Southern Baptise Church smack dap in the heart of the Treme. There really is a God!
Dressed in our Sunday best, I think I had a stain free shirt on and got most if the icing sugar off pants first. We strolled across the street for the 10:30am service, this kicked off just before 11am. Inside of the tiny Zion Baptise Church laid roughly enough bench space for 60ppl, with about 57 spaces left open when we pulled up a cold seat in the hallows of an empty row, forgot about New Orleans schedulin . Trying not raise suspicion as we were not regulars, we thought it best to sit in the middle. Not so far at the back we looked guilty and not to far at the front that we wanted to be noticed. Well if you’ve ever seen a best man in a track suit at a wedding, although cool, you’ll know we didn’t really blend in.
Big black ladies in even bigger sun kissed colourful hats began making there way in to take up seats, each one giving us a welcoming hello or simple smile, next up the crushed blue velvet suit with matching shoes and tie on the over sized scooter cruises it’s way in front of the front row. Then pink ladies dress suits began to make up the choir, followed in from the back, a full sized afro began to assemble a drum kit, that’s right a full blown drum kit. With a scattered mix of colors and smiles, even some crazy head pieces I can’t make sense of in words dotted amongst the crowd of now thirty-five or better.
For what seemed like the next half hour, turned out is was two hours, a boisterous mix of gospel phrases were let free. This from a Reverend whom compared talking to the lord with the over indulgence of Ihop. This was the weekend prior to American thanks giving, so lessons were to be taught. This in turn was meet with some corrections on bible quotes, personal stories and pleasant heckling from the crowd. I’m not joking; he was smack dab in the middle of a story when one lady yelled out “No rev, that aint how it went down. He had the Salisbury steak, not the ham steak!” Heck he skipped a few lines in the gospel and that was meant with some back row friendly heckling “Hey Rev, that aint it, you on about number four and we clearly aint read no number three!”. Ohh that reverend just let everyone know that the importance is in the message not in the order. This was promptly over shadowed with about the 5th or 6th round of “Halleluiah, praise the lord!!!”
I’ve been to and fallen asleep in my fair share of church weddings and Sunday masses before. Though this full choir complete with drummer, crowd heckling and partying it up with the great one on Sunday morning was about the greatest religious event of ever seen takin place.
About 10 minutes prior to the end of service the Southern twang of a ladies voice came across the microphone and the whole place turned around and looked right at us, some quick translation in my mind and yes I’d heard correctly. “Could any of ya’ll new people to the church please stand up”, as the lady two rows up is motioning with both hands for us to stand. Well I’m fairly sure that everyone in church that Sunday, had probably been at Church the week before and well by looking at the average age of the crowd being sixty-five I’d say they’d probably been at church a number of Sundays before this one. I’d also like to note that though color of skin or race does not even registrar as a difference to me in day to day life, we were without question the only two non-African American people in the church.
So like to beacons of light flashing through the sky on a moonless night, we raise for all pupils to dilate on us.
Really happy lady on the mic: “We’d like to thank all of the new members who came out today to enjoy the Sunday service and hope to see ya’ll here next Sunday”.
Reverend: “Now before ya’l leave I’d just like you to enjoy your thanks giving dinner this week I’d like to mention that gluttony is a sin and don’t go all eating every biscuit and gravy ya come across this week and ya’ll aint needin three pieces of your ma’s apple pie neither. But I know ya’ll gonna forget, so have a good thanks giving. And could ya’ll please go and say hello to our new guests on your way out the door”
And on that closing speech, each and every single person in church that day one by one came and shook both our hands and thanked us for coming. “Ya’ll coming back next Sunday?”, “Either ya’ll need someplace to go for thanksgiving?”, “Did ya’ll enjoy the service at our church?”
If ever I have believed in God it was right here, nestled in the comforts of his little church in the Treme surrounded by all the good people in New Orleans, all held together by song, story and prayer.
Unless by some freak chance all of the greatest people in New O. were hand picked to ensure we had the best service, most welcoming hosts, open car doors for a ride for coffee and beignets, friendliest police officers. Almost forgot about that one.
Side Story: We are walking down a street where two police cruisers have stopped on the side of the street with there lights on, sirens off and are frantically organising there plan with each other and over the walkie talkies (funny name for a communication device), these people are deeply wrapped up in the jobs. When we come strolling by on our way to the next great crawfish lunch, when they stop what there doing, look up at as, then ask “hey, how ya’ll doin?”, upon response they quickly reconvene with what they were doing.
Unbelievable! Each and every person was beyond friendly!
The Wrap Up: It coulda’ been they way a pick up truck rolled up outside of the Spotted Cat Jazz bar with a bed full of Po Boys after an impromptu street party began to settle, or perhaps it was the bar spilt in two that was 200 years old with piano bar in the front and hillbilly family tunes blasting out the back with full on foot pounding, or maybe it was the way a gruff man with over due dental work described his love for an eight week old alligator named Elvis I was holding on his boat just down from where they filmed river monsters, or maybe just maybe I’m a softy for amazing music, first class food & hospitality friendlier then Christmas dinner. I’d say ya’ll aint never seen no nothing till ya seen it in the BIG EASY!