On a last-hour sweep of the French Quarter before leaving New Orleans, I decided to walk down Frenchman Street to take some pictures and find a coffee house. I found this place by accident, and decided to give it a try. It was one of the best decision I made while out there.
It was warm inside and relaxed, with folk and indie-rock music playing lightly over the sounds of cups clanking and people talking. The lovable staff knew their regulars. I got a cup of coffee, a slice of pecan pie, and a smile from the pretty girl working behind the counter.
The pie was excellent. The coffee went well with it, too. It was like desert after breakfast. I would have stayed their longer, but I had a train to catch for El Paso later that day, and I only had so much time to see the area.
I found an antique store on Frenchman Street. The walls were covered top to bottom in local folk art, wooden chairs, and flare unseen by many outside Louisiana. There was a glass window case with trinkets inside, and it was there I found a mechanical pencil from the early 1920’s. I bought it for $5, satisfied and convinced I got the better end of the bargain. My attention returned to the streets after a brief chat with the shop owner, a nice guy, who told me about the time he found that pencil. It was during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and he went scavenging in the debris. He found it in an old cigar box, along with a speeding ticket from 1916. We laughed at the idea of getting pulled over back then, and I later told him about my trip with candor. He, like many before him, wished me well as I left to collect my things and catch my train for El Paso.
Perhaps I hadn’t noticed it coming into New Orleans, but I noticed it leaving – our country is littered – there’s a lot of wasted space, talent, and resources out here. Only now on the train do I allow myself to reflect on that. “Step out into the world with your head high.” That was a public service announcement advertised on a billboard in the projects outside metro New Orleans. It was a motivational proposal for all those broken by poverty to simply “step out into the world” with a sense of confidence. How many of these people have heeded this advice? How many will ignore it, and resume their no-where, no-way routine? Vice has such a tight grip out here.
A black man is passed out on a train-side bench, his arm hangs off the end of it, as if it’s been there for hours, and a big white police officer approaches cautiously, as if he might walk upon a dead body on duty. Our train slowly observes before switching tracks West for El Paso and beyond.
CC’s is perhaps one of the best coffee houses located in the French quarter of New Orleans. Their coffee is well-known in the area, and they distribute locally to a lot of businesses that swear by it. I had to visit their home and try a cup while on my cross-country tour.
The shop is set up like a cafe with areas to sit and talk with friends. They offer a few blends on tap that are far from ordinary. They have a passion for bold roasts. I got an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that had a complex taste and body to it. They also have free refills, which was a big plus.
They have a variety of beans you can take with you, flavored and premium. Someone suggested the “Roasted Pecan Praline” blend, which smelled great from the bag. If only I had the room to pack it, I would have bought it. If I ever visit New Orleans again, I will make a point to go there and get a bag.
The French Quarter of New Orleans is a wild place. It’s certainly not safe for young, solitary explorers like me. The lure of exotic, sensual pleasure does little to mask the danger that really exists out here. Despite all that, people are friendly and good-natured. Bourbon Street during the day has a wholesome attraction, much like the food you can find out there. I was warned not to venture far, so my miles walked were in circles, around the various Rues, each with their own handful of galleries, shops, and locals. Street performers entertain and artists create art in Jackson Square, in the midst of loud music and people, and everything is bubbling with activity.
Eventually I went to the riverfront, where a man was playing a famous blues song I’ve heard so many times before. A full moon was rising behind him, and casting a line of light across the rippling river. It was a perfect moment. I took a picture of it and gave the man a couple dollars, thanking him. A drifter sitting behind him stood up as we began talking about the little beauties of this town, and he said “I’ve lived and grown up here all my life” as he held out his hand to shake mine.
He took my hand and held it with a strong grip, preventing me from letting go. There was a moment when we locked eyes, and his friendly smile took on a more serious tension. I tried to let go. He had my hand and pulled me towards him. My heart was fluttering and I knew I was in danger. The guitar player simply sat there, looking up at me with a sad sort of look on his face that said, “What the hell are you doing, kid?” He didn’t interfere, even when the man exposed a broken glass bottle in his other hand. Things were in slow motion. I aggressively shook my hand free before he had the chance to try anything. Without making a scene, I left the riverfront, making sure I wasn’t followed, and returned to all the tourist attractions.
My impressions on the train begin to change in each passing mile. As if a picture caption was suffice, every new minute had a different title. We moved across fields of black-water marshlands. Trees grew out of water. Expansive bodies of farmland exist without crops growing; perhaps the harvest has passed. It feels like an underdeveloped Virginia landscape. There’s a unique smell of the swamp – profound and always present. Empty, one-lane roads belong to no one but the townies of rural America. Orange wisps of hair grow out of slivers in the prairie. A single baize horse grazes in a field meant for two. Next stop, Greenwood, Mississippi.
A goose flies alongside a stretch of submerged electric poles that lead to a Viking warehouse surrounded by cars and trucks. Greenwood, home of unused trains and tracks, home to scores of shoebox homes made of wood and tin, cars on the front yard, barren, uncared for, and people loitering like they did back in the Great Depression. The roads are flat and made of cracked gravel. It’s one of many thru-ways for major American industry; smoke-stack cities in power-line suburbs.
As we continue southward to New Orleans, more sights manifest in the morning. Little wisps of dust rise off the ground in a parade of soft, white clouds. I see my first alligator, sleeping in greenish-brown waters, alone perhaps, resting among the rocks and algae and fish too proud to care. Small streams of sand lead into small bending rivers. Vast open spaces of prairie are just waiting for a roaming pack of wildlife. In between the seemingly empty stretches are marks of established agriculture. People on the train are friendly and outgoing, ready to tell you about themselves and their stories of travel, life on the move, and subtle abstractions in relation to how things were compared to how they are now.