Congo Square Revisited: Halloween in the Big Easy, and Other Nearby Attractions
As I prepare for my inevitable Never-Ending Tour and the inescapable expatriation that that will likely involve, I find myself standing at the crossroads (again) and taking inventory of my life and environs—particularly the USA—to see what’s left to do here and what’s worth keeping here . And even though I’ve been to some 150-odd (as you know, some very odd!) countries, there are still some gaping gaps in my knowledge of people and places that I’ve often been very close to, but never actually experienced. So when a friend asked if I wanted to meet up at the family digs on the Mississippi gulf coast, I checked my calendar and my frequent flyer accounts. Yeah, that works. Even though I grew up in central Mississippi, I’d never been to the coast. Can you believe that?
So for almost a week I’ve prowled the Gulf of Mexico coast in and around Mississippi—Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, and all the rest. In general “all the rest” are nicer—than the Big Three, that is. Growing up north of here, those three are all I ever heard much about. I didn’t miss much. Even with the casinos now here, there isn’t that much to see or do, their traditional centers now in decay with the gravity now shifted beach-ward toward the slots and tables, just sparsely occupied commercial strips and even sparser shopping centers and malls. I only wish I could have seen it before Hurricane Katrina, to have a better comparison of life and its living before and after that singular catastrophic event.
Strangely enough, much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast—the actual sandy strand—is single-family residential, many stately mansions and temporary beach homes separated from pure white sand only by the perambulations and peregrinations of US Highway 90 in its making a mockery of county lines and state borders east to west. Apparently there were many more before the deluge, the beach now left with a gap-tooth sorta-happy smile and many ‘Land for Sale’ signs. Except in the gambling centers, there isn’t much commercial development or amenities, either, just miles of beach. Admittedly, in the Mississippi Sound and intra-coastal waterway the water isn’t quite as azure as your true gulf beaches, much less your Caribbean, but still it’s nice… and relatively cheap.
Some of the smaller communities have kept their traditional centers and communities intact much better than the Big Three. In fact both Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis are picturesque little gems by any standards, the former the traditional home of renowned artist Walter Anderson, the latter no more than an hour from Sin City—New Orleans. Then there are dozens of little ragtag settlements comprising not much more than a few churches, a few gas stations, and a mall if they’re lucky, like Waveland and Gautier (pronounced ‘Gotye’), but they’re not of much interest IMHO, unless they’re blessed with a beach or barbecue (got tofu?).
So after a week of cruising and carousing, I feel as if I’ve come to know the coast almost like a local, but the epiphany (aka “aha moment”) only came when we took a day-trip to New Orleans (pronounced “N’awlins”). Every trip has an epiphany or it’s not much of a trip in my book (literally). For some reason, even though I’ve been there several times before, I never really ‘got it’, i.e. internalizing it like a local does, seeing it as a city in and of itself, not just a tourist destination. I like it. All of a sudden it’s a southern version of my favorite city in the world—San Francisco—in which that Market Street becomes this Canal Street and that North Beach becomes this Bourbon Street. Okay, so there’s no City Lights bookstore here, but there’s no Mardi Gras there, either, fair enough, trade literature for music.
Music rules in New Orleans, and it’s not just the jazzy kind. Sure, brass bands predominate, and are among the world’s best. But there’s rock and roll, too, and plenty of blues, Lord knows. You can talk music with anybody in New Orleans, like talking textiles in Guatemala, or silver in Potosi, and they’re all telling me where to go, to hear the best music, that is. Hint: it ain’t Bourbon Street. So the first night, a Wednesday, I hear free rock in downtown Lafayette Park featuring local super-group Raw Oyster Cult (I love it—don’t fear the rapper, maybe?) and free jazz up in Armstrong Park the next, featuring Kermit Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band, tres cool. Did you ever notice how much Kermit looks like Lil Wayne? Subtract twenty years and add twenty dreadlocks, and you couldn’t tell the dif. I reckon ev’body in N’awlins is related by less than six degrees of separation.
Part of Armstrong Park contains Congo Square. This is the ultimate destination of my pilgrimage and where my America begins, just as surely as Boston Harbor or Independence Hall in Philadelphia. For this is where hundreds of slaves—slaves, mind you—used to gather on Sundays to celebrate life with African-derived music and dance, until the embattled slave-owners finally shut them down. Jazz, gospel, blues, zydeco and rock-and-roll are direct descendants of those gatherings, and that’s what makes New Orleans so special today. Just like those early 1800’s when the city was half-black and half-white, so it is today, perhaps the only city in the world where races mix and mingle in total freedom, equality, and joy, without rank nor rancor. Good ol’ southern boys can come here to escape the Tennessee Taliban and the Mississippi mullahs, getting their heads out of their Bibles long enough to wrap ’em around some boogie.
Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. New Orleans has its problems and Louisiana has even more. Most of the people who ragged on FEMA for their Katrina performance neglected to notice that the Mississippi coast was similarly wiped out and bounced back without all the problems. New Orleans is dysfunctional and corrupt like no other place in America, and the state is no better (ex-mayor Nagin is up for twenty corruption charges). Crawling back to Mississippi on the back roads of Highway 90 is like time travel, until you cross the state line, where the road suddenly is freshly paved and the right-of-way cleanly clipped. It takes a Louisiana to make Mississippi look good. Blame it on the French.
But you can forget all that on Halloween night on Bourbon Street, which functions something like a Mardi Gras for locals. Even with on-and-off rain all evening, the party is still going strong after midnight, with revelers in various flourishes and fashions of dress and undress and taking over the streets. The French creole culture may be all but gone, still extant only in some awkward place-name translations—’little woods’=petit bois; ‘Elysian Fields’=Champs Elysees, etc—but the joie de vivre lives on and les bon temps are definitely gonna’ rouler, if I have any say. ‘NoLa’ is as close as you can get to an ethnic city in the US. Where else are casino restrooms labeled phong ve sinh, after all? I’m jazzed (pun intended). This just might be a good place to die… not that I’m in any hurry. I still lack fifty countries, after all, not to mention Maine, the Dakotas, Winnipeg, Nova Scotia and maybe another North American state or province or two…