Sunday, December 2, 2007

two cemeteries and a lounge

One of Hands On’s first projects was to rebuild and renovate the Mother-In-Law Lounge. The late founder Earnie K-Doe was quite a character, as is the current proprietor, his widow Antoinette K-Doe. Ms. Antoinette is a frequent spokesperson for Hands-On, and her best friend is an historian who used to lead tours of many important sites in New Orleans. Consequently, I got an excellent tour of two of New Orleans’s most gorgeous and notorious cemeteries: St. Louis #1 and St. Louis #2!

The cemeteries are awesome. They're like ornate marble and/or lime-washed mini-cities of dead people scattered around in the middle of the larger city for living people. I had a lot of fun taking pictures that attempt to convey this idea. It's easy to see why they’re New Orleans icons.

My favorite part about the cemetery is the culture of ancestor reverence that surrounds them. People have tombs that have been in the family for generations. A lot of them are in disrepair, but some of them are clearly well maintained and frequently visited. People use the tombs as an anchor in grief. The customs and rituals involved in caring for the tombs provide a communal social model for maintaining a relationship with departed loved ones. From what I hear, the cemeteries on All Saints Day resemble nothing so much as a family reunion/cocktail party! Grief in New England is usually a private, individual thing. In New Orleans the experience is shared much more broadly with the community as a whole, and for all that is no less personal, and seems much more joyful.

I want a little city of y’all around me when I’m dead, and I want parties held at my tomb every year, ok? You can bring my favorite foods and tease me from the other side of the veil. Be there or be square!

(photos by Petra)


On the 23rd we went to the Louisiana Indian Heritage Association's annual fall powwow, which we’d read about in the newspaper. The moderately terrible weather (really rainy and rather cold) made for pretty small crowd, but the gathering was all the more intimate for its small size. It felt rather like being at someone else's family reunion. This is unsurprising, since in many ways a powwow IS a family reunion with a community outreach component. Everyone was very laid-back. The MC told stories and jokes, unhurriedly moving people through the afternoon's programming. People strolled around visiting each other and the few hardy vendors who had stayed despite the weather, or relaxed at picnic tables in the pavilion. The dancers prepared themselves -- and their elaborate clothes -- at a leisurely pace, pausing here and there to catch up with old friends.

Judging from the clothing, the people came from a much wider variety of tribes than I had expected: Louisiana, certainly, but people were also wearing clothes typical of tribes from the Great Plains, Southern California, and northern Mexico. The languages spoken, Creole included, were just as mixed. Most surprising of all, to me, was to see clothes I recognized from the tribes back home in New England -- Wampanoag and Pequot, if I’m not mistaken! The kid’s clothing frequently reflected that of their parents in color and ornamentation. I found that very endearing. Also the way they frequently danced with their eyes fixed on their parents feet, clearly working hard to get the steps right.

And then we met a celebrity! The MC kept teasing one of the performers about being famous movie star. Because of the teasing tone, I assumed he was joking. He was, but I discovered when I went over to her display table that she actually is a big movie star! Irene Bedard, to be precise. We meant to get a picture of ourselves standing with her, figuring our younger cousins especially would be excited to here that we've met the woman did the voice of Disney's Pocahontas, but we forgot. Sorry.

The powwow was held a campsite in Robert, LA, which is on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. This meant that we got to cross the really really long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. I’ve wanted to do that since we came down here, and I was delighted to finally have the excuse.

I was really glad to get a chance to meet some people from this culture that has so profoundly shaped New Orleans. Yay powwows!

audobon zoo

We found more alligators for Erika, big ones this time. Fortunately, there were many other animals around to distract her, and I didn't feel compelled to double-check the trunk of the car for reptilian stowaways when we left at the end of our visit. Highlights of our zoo trip were definitely the:
1) white tiger asleep with its feet in the air and its whiskers twitching, clearly dreaming about chasing small elephants,
2) adult sulcatta tortoise roaming around the Discovery Walk, who reminded us of Khalil,
3) pair of bobcats adorably washing one another’s shoulders,
4) strange and beautiful white alligators, whose lack of normal pigmentation is do not to albinism but a different genetic mutation: they are leucistic, and their eyes are bright blue.
5) primates. Always the primates.

The real star of the New Orleans Audubon zoo, though, is the unique Louisiana Swamp exhibit. You go along a boardwalk that snakes through cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, past Cajun houseboats (donated, I think), and over a duckweed covered river full of -- what else -- alligators. If you’re ever in town, come here.

the high life

Petra and I got to live the high life for about 19 hours this weekend. Some of the Hands On staff surprised us by put us up in a super-shwank hotel downtown on Saturday night to thank us for our work here. We were delighted, and really greateful for the mini-vacation in such a beautiful place. While the outside of the building was boring, the interior was just gorgeous. It made contemporary design look GOOD. The photos don't begin to do it justice.

We enjoyed exploring the tucked-away lounges scattered about the hotel, luxuriating in the huge comfy beds and their amazingly soft bedding, watching Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire on the big TV, taking about seventeen hot showers each and trying all of the smelly soaps (sage and lemon! real lavendar!), playing in the glass-enclosed rooftop gym, and watching all of the astoundingly fashionable people file through the lobby.

In the morning, we walked across the street to Mother's, the city's best breakfast joint, and almost made ourselves sick eating so many butter biscuits. We also had fun introducing some British tourists to the glory of grits.

The whole thing was a wonderful break from the very basic, very communal bunkhouse we've been living in for the past month and a half. It was good to get back to our friends here, though, and good to be reminded that while luxury is fun, community is really where it's at.