Sunday, July 24, 2011

Trail Ride to the Fountain of Youth

"Isn't it a lovely day for a bike ride?!" I exclaim cheerily on the phone at 10am on Saturday.

I am lobbying hard on this call as I am restless, not having been able to sit on my bike for days due to good old-fashioned Southern flash floods down here in New Orleans.

A mild 85 degrees Farenheit, only a dab of humidity, with the sun shining pleasantly--this is a rare phenomemon on a mid-summer's day here. I knew that the odds of talking my friend Clancy into driving 45 minutes away to Mandeville, cycling ten miles to Abita Springs Brewery, and then ten miles back with a belly full of beer, were a little higher on a stunning day like today.

The small time adventure for du jour was to begin in Mandeville, the 1830's development of real estate baron Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville who also owned a plantation in New Orleans located in the present-day neighborhood of Marigny, adjacent to the French Quarter. With its milder climate and proximity to Abita Springs, Mandeville began as a weekend getaway for the well-to-do of New Orleans who would take a steamboat across Lake Pontchartrain, listening to live music being played on board by jazz greats such as Kid Ory and Papa Celestin.

Without neither a steamboat nor New Orleans wealth, Mandeville is still an attractive destination to me on this sunny Saturday. The plan was to drive 24 miles over Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, on the longest over-water bridge in the world. Originally the brainchild of de Marigny, his vision was to create artificial islands in the Lake linking them with the Causeway like the Florida Keys. The islands were never created, but the bridge eventually was in 1948 by the state legislature.

From there I proposed a ten mile bike ride along the Tammany Trace Trail. Formerly a railroad track, the once-abandoned trail system was purchased by St. Tammany Parish from the Illinois Central Railroad in the early 1990's and converted into a bike and pedestrian path using local and federal dollars. Thirty-one miles with thirty-one bridges from beginning to end, today it still connects the towns of Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville, Lacombe, and Slidell, passing through natural springs, a state park, and suburban neighborhoods, over swamps and streets and former train trestles.

And, like all good adventures in this part of the world, the journey planned involves a good drink. Our trip was to take us to Abita Springs, home of Abita Brewery. Formerly a settlement of Choctaw Indians, the small town was inhabited by French settlers in the 1700's. By the early 1900's, like Mandeville, Abita Springs also became a weekend getaway for the New Orleans elite who took advantage of cooler climates and cleaner waters created by natural springs.

In the 1980's the waters took on an equally therapeutic purpose, becoming the home base for Abita Brewery, now one of the most popular and ubiquitous of a large handful of local breweries in the New Orleans area. Abita beer is a faithful old pal of mine at each and every bar I've met down here. So naturally, once at Abita Brewery, the agenda included a tour of the current brewery, lunch at the former brewery now serving as a pub, and then a cycle back to our car in Mandeville.

"Sure," Clancy utters, with a bit of sleep, a mild hangover, and overall reluctance in his voice.
Not many are willing to schlepp out of New Orleans on the weekends, but as a recent divorce, for the time being, Clancy is somewhat of a captive audience for my ideas of adventure.

By noon we arrive in Mandeville. It is just over the lake and barely forty minutes away, yet it is as different as possible from the Big Easy as can be. Driving to the trailhead in old Mandeville, we cruise by large cookie-cutter houses sandwiched side-by-side to one another, large surburban mom-mobiles, dogs and picket fences. We arrive at the trailhead next to the old depot where there is a Saturday open-air market going on with middle-aged ladies selling pickled okra, pickled eggs, pickled pickles, quilts, elaborate dog ties involving glitter and gold lame, and other handicrafts native to the North American housewife. We could have easily been in the Mid-West, Upstate New York, or anywhere USA.

When Clancy and I finally begin our bike ride, I am delighted by the pristine, paved trail flanked on either side by tall pine trees and ground cover foliage. It reminds me of the Campbell Creek Trails in Anchorage, Alaska, near my old apartment, though I am certain I won't have to deal with charging moose here. On this trail we pass over and ride next to swamps, with pockets of cool air delivered from nearby springs.

Without the honking cars, cat-calling, crater-sized potholes, and on-going construction that I've become accustomed to on my daily commute to work in New Orleans, the ride on Tammany Trace seems to last forever. My vehicle of choice is my cheap but trusty old second-hand mountain bike with hybrid tires; Clancy's bike is even cheaper, a heavy steel frame with cruiser tires, resembling something from a Pippi Longstocking movie. But we are not in Alaska, and so there is nothing wrong with our low-rent gear on this beautifully paved trail on this Louisiana day.

Without the usual survival-mandated stimulation, we are footloose and fancy free, feeling 15 years younger. We carry a conversation, race eachother, capture some dramatic action shots with our phones, watch turtles pass underneath one of the trail bridges, and exchange brilliantly clever jokes involving a turtle hospital.

By the time we arrive at Abita Springs, the sun starts to rear its cruel, unforgiving head and it begins to heat up, and we have sweat through our shirts. Abita Springs is a charmingly restored town, with a restored train depot and the Abita Opry music venue. There is a medium-sized outdoor pavilion designed by turn-of-the-century New Orleans architect Thomas Sully, and a park with a play area for children. I begin to feel as if I am on the set of one of my favorite tv shows from my childhood, Little House on the Prairie, and begin walking around when it starts to sprinkle, immediately creating dampness under the powerful Louisiana sun. Upon inquiring as to the whereabout of the brewery, we are directed about a mile or so further down the trail.

Clancy and I make haste as the sky quickly descends into an opaque grey. About a quarter of a mile down the trail, large barricades appear, and behind it, a half-naked trestle under construction for restoration. Determined to sip a free pint of beer (or two), we walk our bikes down what looks like a former ravine, now possibly a horse trail. After crossing a narrow footbridge over a spring, we quickly ascend another horse trail nearby and find ourselves on a stretch of wide road behind a large, industrial-looking building. At last.

Upon locking our bikes to a stop sign in front of the brewery--the only bikes in front of the brewery--we make our way inside and it begins to thunder. We are a pair of soggy, mangey mutts by the time we make it to the courtyard, waiting with about 75 others to enter the brewery and start the tour.

Where New Orleans is a hodgepodge of colorful characters, local and transplants of different races and sizes, just outside of town here, I am surrounded by what looks like an alumni party of LSU. There are large men in polo shirts, and women with full faces of makeup, ironed hair, and revealing tank tops. And there are lots of them. And then there is Clancy, barely 115 pounds, skinny little white legs protruding from damp jean shorts, thick-rimmed glasses perched on his Irish, freckled face; and then there's me, also soggy, but Asian, well-tanned, flip flops, an old exercise shirt and a pair of well-loved hiking shorts brought down from the mountains of Alaska. Unlike in New Orleans, no one is speaking to us and we stick out like sore thumbs, being tossed about in line by people noticeably larger and dryer than us, all of us thirsty for beer.

After sipping a free pint for 20 minutes, the tour still has not begun, and I'm not enthusiastic about watching yet another non-informative informational video with objectively bad synthesizer music blaring in the background, packed in line like sardines with sorority girls and large frat guys. With a break in the weather, Clancy and I decide to return to our bikes to make it back to old Abita Springs, so that we can eat lunch at the old brewery pub on the other side of the horse trail.

Only after we ride away does the thunder and lightning strike, rain coming down like water out of a spigot. I am nervous as is Clancy, on his old school bike made with enough steel that could probably conduct electricity better than a lightning rod. His tiny white freckled legs are spinning the fastest I've ever seen them, and by the time I catch up to him, he has hopped off his bike.

But, instead of making his way down the trail in the same artful manner he did before, I watch him hurl his bike down the ravine like a bag of potato chips. He runs down the trail, into the cover of the forest, chasing his bike seat which has flown off the bike en route into a couple trees. The panic and calamity reduces us both into peels of laughter, and on our way to the old brewery pub, I watch his seat pop off a couple more times.

"I'm fine," he claims between chuckles. "With a little butt pressure, the seat will be fine."

Eventually we arrive at the pub. Once perched on bar stools inside, we are surrounded by a magical row of glowing taps. I select my third Abita light for the day and he picks an amber. We practically swallow our burgers whole, chase them down with fries, and sip more beer, hoping the weather will relent.

But even after more than an hour, it refuses to do so.

Deciding to tackle the unavoidable, we wheel our way home for ten miles. I'm having troubles seeing through the drops assaulting my face. Clancy's keys fly from his pocket at least twice. His seat leans to and fro, popping off now and again. I am now less appreciative of the cooler temperatures making this Louisiana rain an uncharacteristically cold one, creating a bit of a chill in me. Riding through the sheets of water coming down on us slows our pace. It's a ridiculous situation, stressful really, but at least the lightning has more or less stopped and we are kept warm by hilarious laughter with every mishap. It's the response of children who are without a care in the world. Or adults who are a little tipsy with a little beer and a little fear.

An hour later we are at the car, sobered up by the ride and the rain. Our hands are shriveled from being submerged in water for so long, and our bellies are sore from laughing so hard. On our drive back to the city, water oozes from my clothing onto his car seat and pools up underneath on the floorboards.

Sometimes I have really stupid ideas. I have not lived here very long, but I know Louisiana well enough to understand the phenomenon of flash floods, even on the sunniest summer day. But the thought of a trail ride, the thought of funny little old towns just outside of big time New Orleans drove me to defy logic on a momentarily clear Saturday morning bookended by days of flash flooding. What is the source of my annoyingly persistent quest for a small time adventure? Maybe I do it to keep from getting bored of the place I live in. Maybe I do it to keep my mind stimulated. Maybe I do these things to keep me looking young; well into my thirties, I am often mistaken for being ten years younger.

Or maybe it was just the beer.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Come Dancing

My sister should have come in at midnight,
And my mum would always sit up and wait.
It always ended up in a big row
When my sister used to get home late.

Now I'm grown up and playing in a band,
And there's a car park where the Palais used to stand.
My sister's married and she lives on an estate.
Her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait.
She lets them get away with things she never could,
But if I asked her I wonder if she would,

Come dancing!
Come on sister,
Have yourself a ball.
Don't be afraid to come dancing,
It's only natural.

- the Kinks

It was Friday night when I stood there in BMC on Frenchman Street in New Orleans with two friends, gawking, all of us at once disgusted and intrigued at the site before me our eyes as if we were staring at a car accident. Two Australian tourists, young males in their early twenties, are wooing two young ladies by gyrating wildly to the music, incorporating moves reminiscent of the late '70's, involving wide-leg stances and shoulder popping movements. The young men were talking--no--screaming at the women in painfully thick Australian accents as they tanked up with more drink. My friends and I are forced to step outside, laughing so hard tears well up in our eyes.

Though I was admittedly entertained in a macabre sort of way, I would have been disappointed if that had been a premonition of my weekend.

Luckily, Frenchman Street and surrounding blocks are stuffed to the gills with at least a dozen music clubs, playing a multitude of genres for the musically hungry. We amble down the street only to discover Frenchman's newest venue Mojitos, which has replaced a reggae-metal club I used to revile on a regular basis. Upon passing through the gates I step into another world, or at least another country. My friends and are are part of the handful of non-Latinos present, and not a hipster is to be found on the premises, on a street that is frequently choked with horn-rimmed glasses and plaid button-up shirts.

At Mojitos, the music is sung in Spanish with Cuban rhythms. Tonight there is a band with youngish members, about 10 of them; men on the horns, drums, guitars, and vocals, and a steamy bass player woman with mermaid like hair wearing leopard print. They are playing fast-moving salsa music, and the crowd has the moves. I dare not entangle myself in this new language, but rather enjoy a tecate beer with lime as my friends and I stand under the misters dangling above in the open-air courtyard which is doubling as a dance floor. This band and these dancers are muy cool.

On Saturday, a unanimous decision is made to go dancing at Mimi's in the Marigny. Not much of a clubber myself, I agree to go because it is old-school funk night, and because I've not yet been. This, and every night is hipster night, but the funk brings all sorts in, providing a refreshing range of race and scenes. Serious hip-hop dancers are abound, as are sorority girl types in addition to the status quo Marigny matrons of hip. The DJ is a woman in her forties, mixed-race donning an impressive set of dreadlocks. And, after sufficient social lubricant is imbibed at the reasonably-priced bar, my friends and I are dancing. Tonight is the first night in years I have danced to anything being played by a DJ.

Well-rested but still tired on Sunday, I have the urge to end my dancing days weekend Cajun style. Since having learned to play the old-time fiddle almost a decade ago, most of my dancing days are few and far between and involve a partner and American roots music derived from folkways. Cajun two-step dancing is my favorite because for a clutz like me, all one needs is simply to be able to count to two. That, and the fact that one is not alone; with a half-decent dance partner, two left feet can be transformed in Ginger Rogers.

A historic and world-famous music venue, Tipitina's hosts a Cajun dance every Sunday, the fais do-do. So named for the French phrase of endearment gently urging children to go to bed, it is said that such was the name for the Cajun dance parties that followed suite after the children were tucked away under the covers in Cajun days of old.

I have been to Tipitina's fais do-do on prior occasion, and recall a dimly-lit dance floor with men and women of all ages, women in dresses and heels with flowers in their hair, aptly led to dance gracefully to the lilting accordion and fiddle music being played live on stage. It is old-fashioned, but a very musical and very charming way to end the weekend.

Arriving at Tipitina's door with my friend and favorite New Orleans Cajun dance partner Clancy, we are chagrined to learn that this is the one weekend it is canceled. Scratching our heads and our smartphones for an alternative, we make our way to Mulate's Cajun Restaurant.

Nestled next to the convention center and the tourist-laden Riverwalk, we find exactly what one finds next to a convention center and a tourist-laden Riverwalk; boatloads of overweight tourists sitting around tables eating overpriced food, listening to live Cajun music played at a remarkably slow tempo suitable for a tourist-dinner scene. We belly up to the bar and order what end up being possibly the most expensive drinks I have ever purchased in New Orleans.

Perched with our beverages, we watch the dance floor, which is surprisingly studded with a handful of knowledgeable dancers. We conjecture as to whether they came with the band from some small bayou town outside of the city. I recognize the fiddler, in his twenties, as a man I exchange old time fiddle tunes for Cajun ones on previous occasions here in town. Other than him, the remainder of the band are seasoned middle-aged men, who resemble the dance floor denizens.

"That cute couple reminds me so much of my parents," shares Clancy. I look over at the dance floor.
"Yeah, except that your dad has both his arms," I state, observing that the sleeve of the man is tied in a knot.

After 20 minutes we finish sipping our overpriced cocktails. Clancy and I are spoiled, having been to Lafayette and Eunice to barns and outdoor patio saloons with dynamic, for-dancers-only rhythm. Musicians there play music that would leave these diners covered in sawdust.

"Come on, Clancy," I plea. "I know this is really dinner music, but let's just have one dance for the road."

As neophytes to the Cajun-dancing cause, Clancy and I are having a difficult time matching the traditional two-step to the dinner-tempo and fumble a bit. At the break, he yells "Play faster!" in French. Clancy, a bi-lingual first-grade teacher learned his French living in Paris for a year, and it shows.

"Clancy! Can you not sound like such a Parisian, man? Cajuns might not dig that!" I plea as he laughs. Immediately, one-arm beelines towards us with his partner.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

I immediately prepare to apologize when he explains that his dance partner is a French native, teaching at another of the public bi-lingual grade schools in New Orleans. She and Clancy exchange questions and banter when another tune picks up.

We trade partners for a waltz. My partner is surprisingly graceful and leads me through a series of well-timed steps with his remaining arm. We must have been a strange pair; a thirty-something year old Asian-American in a dress and a heavy-set middle-aged white Louisianan native with one arm, wearing a blue denim button-up shirt with one sleeve tied, cowboy boots, and suspenders. We are sauntering in the traditional circular conformation around the dance floor when I notice that we are being recorded by a multitude of iphones.

Clancy and I continue on for half a dozen more songs. At the break I introduce him to the fiddler and meet the rest of the band hailing from the tiny little town of Bayou Lafourche in the heart of Cajun country a few hours westward. We talk about old-time music, and Cajun music, and Cajun dance. The bandleader is embarrassed to confess that he plays on Bourbon Street but invites us to watch their gigs in Cajun country proper some day.

Eventually Clancy and I leave. Though not the fais do-do I was expecting, I feel complete having made some funny Cajun connections and sneaking in a couple Cajun two-steps before putting the weekend to rest.

I once had a Vietnamese language teacher in Vietnam share with me her observation: "It's funny. Asians seem to love to sing karaoke. Westerners seem to love to dance."
What is it that makes one feel the need to move in a rhythm? And why is it so ubiquitous in some places and not in others?

I think dancing is beautiful, even just to watch. When I had an oldtime band in Alaska, what I loved most was playing square and contradance gigs. I never really connected with the dance itself complicated with its multitude of moves; nor did I connect with most of the typical Alaskan attendees of middle-aged folks wearing socks and birkenstocks, both men and women donning long, pony-tailed hair. But I found magical the phenomenon of seeing a community of people moving in time to the notes and rhythms emanating from my instrument. They were so synchronized to the music, and we musicians were so synchronized to their dancing. When done gracefully, it always struck me as a beautiful way to engage with other people.

I love that a girl can go to a dance in this town on any given night of the week. Swing at the Spotted Cat, Maison, the WWII Museum. Zydeco and Cajun two-step at Tipitina's, Mulates, Rock N Bowl. Funk it out at Mimi's. You name it, you can dance it in New Orleans. I've never lived in a place where I had the option of making this part of my normal routine until I moved to Louisiana.

This weekend I will be training for a bike trip through the Florida Keys I will be taking in August. I will attempt to ride 20 miles this Saturday, and 44 miles on Sunday.

And then, I think I will reward myself Sunday evening with a fais do-do at Tipitina's.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Only the wisest and the stupidest never change.
-- Confucius

It is 93 degrees Farenheit and my colleauges, boss, and I are standing on a grass street divider, directly under the blazing sun in the middle one of the major arteries in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. Before our eyes is a bulldozer, well in the process of demolishing a decrepit, two-story commercial building that stood in Central City for decades. It is the culmination of over six months of much legal, real estate development, and social work involving just about everyone in the office. And at this very moment, the shell of the building is being reduced to a collection of dried siding, crushed up like burnt out matchsticks.

When it stood, at various points in time the building housed Woods' Barber Shop, a handful of small commercial businesses, and possibly a handful of apartment units. By the time it was purchased from a local church by my place of employ, a local nonprofit housing developer, it was for the most part a behemoth of a building, with barely a facade; the rear of the building had fallen out long ago. But Mr. Woods' barber shop, an institution through the decades, remained, as did a squatter in the unit over the barbershop.

Months ago when its file landed on my desk after closing, the building caused a stir. In addition to the building, on the premise also stood a trailer the size of a small house from which a local business sort of operated, a non-operational pick-up truck, and a cargo container full of just about anything imaginable including medical equipment. The sole proprietor of the trailer had begun demolishing the structure himself and removed his items two weeks before closing but then suddenly abandoned his efforts without notice. By the time my workplace had closed on the building, he was nowhere to be found. The staff construction manager arranged the proper demolition of the half burnt-out trailer and removal of the truck. I reviewed the closing documents, finding no evidence of a lease, and referred the matter to legal counsel for consultation on the legally proper procedure for eviction of the squatter. Simultaneously, two to three other staff members assiduously made contact with the squatter to connect him with alternative housing and case management services. Arrangements were made for the elderly barber to move shop to the neighboring building which was in the process of redevelopment and slated for operation in another three months. But three months turned into four, five, six...

An elderly man, Mr. Woods supported numerous children through university, with the same hands, now calloused and hardened, that continue to hold clippers and shears today. On any given work day, one can still spot at least three cars parked in front of his shop, middle-aged children escorting their elderly parents with walkers to get a haircut from the only acceptable barber in all of New Orleans. Little more than a couple of barber chairs behind a window with the words Woods Barber painted on them, for decades Mr. Woods and his patrons have withstood the test of time and maintained their places in the world. Both Mr. Woods and the squatter above were loathe to relocate, despite the obvious hazards to their well-being posed by decay of the building itself. It was rumored that the squatter's dog fell through the floorboards prior to my work's acquisition of the place.

Eventually, both parted ways with the building, Mr. Woods relocating to his new location just next door. So too left the squatter, with sadness but without hostility. Within months before demolition, the squatter was spending little time in the building himself, but his personal possessions remained, in some strange sort of way staking his claim at a life which seemed to match the building in its phases of decay. Eventually he moved out his belongings, making as many separate trips back as possible, for papers, odds and ends, empty keg containers.

On this scorching afternoon, the demolition crew conduct the procedural check through the structure to find it empty. And I wander around it as well, relieved that this attractive nuisance and eyesore no longer has a chance to cause harm. In less than a year at this job, I have come to find solace in the demolitions of structures blighted beyond repair that scourge the city.

But I recognize that this sentiment towards demolition is not always shared. I wasn't with my parents in California ten years ago when the burned out remnants of their home of over twenty years was demolished after a fire. And I wasn't living in New Orleans yet when three of the crime-ridden public housing projects in Central City were demolished, the homes of thousands of families. Having partnered in the rebuilding efforts of one of those projects as mixed-income rental apartments, I am well aware that the efforts of my workplace are not unanimously greeted with open arms, regardless of subsequent drops in crime or any improved quality of life for low-income residents.

But when the building crashes down into rubble, my attention is immediately diverted to the mailman who is standing behind me on the sidewalk. He is clapping hands, a quiet smile on his face. Passing cars are honking and cheering.

As the din of the bulldozer continues, I look behind me at the Flint-Goodridge Building. Formerly an African-American hospital with the only African-American medical doctors in New Orleans, it currently houses senior citizens, at least a dozen of whom have pulled out chairs in the past twenty minutes and are now perched under the shade of an oak tree. Their expressions are inscrutable and I cannot tell if they are glad or mad at the spectacle before them.

Driven by heat of the sun to join them in the shade, I stand amongst them, a fish out of water, saying nothing other than the initial exchange of polite greetings. Though it is pretty obvious, I volunteer no information as to my involvement in this change and quietly enjoy the cool of the oak tree's shadow.

For the next fifteen minutes, a running commentary ensues. Some of the men nod their heads, others project which pieces of the buildings will fall next.

"Yeah, I knew there was nothing holding that part up," says one man.
"I won't have to keep my curtains shut no more," says another.

From the corner of my eye I see Mr. Woods quickly peak his head in and out of his new shop.

This month marks my one year anniversary in New Orleans. I moved here for the music, but I decided to stay for so many other reasons. On this blistering hot day, it occurs to me that perhaps one of those reasons is because the city is constantly pulsing. Smalltime explorers like me are frequently cursed with short attention spans, and change has a constant allure. Admittedly I am a nester, quick to cull together a home in all the crazy caves I've lived in, and I am also a creature of habit, searching out similar haunts in all the cities I've at one time called my home. Yet there is nothing more frightening to me than seeing nothing change in the world around me. Movement is the oxygen in the little fishbowl worlds I create for myself wherever I live.

In the past year, already I've witnessed blight come and go in this town. I've seen new restaurants with new ideas take the city by storm; I've also seen some old ones revived and reliving. As much New Orleans history, society, and architecture has remained the same, just as much in public housing, public education, and public funding in this town has changed. Whether it is for the better or worse is a longer conversation.

Later in the day, the staff discusses the plans for redevelopment of a small commercial building on the same site. Possible vendors are proposed: a small coffee shop run by an existing neighborhood nonprofit, a police substation, a used bike shop, business incubators for local entrepreneurs. And then, amongst the excited discussions of new plans, I am reminded that nothing is so simple.

"I got my haircut the other day," interjects one colleague.
"Mr. Woods says he is looking forward to moving back in when the new building is ready."

Photos taken by Ben Trussell and used with permission