The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Seven

The mighty Mississippi, looking downstream.
The mighty Mississippi, looking downstream.

By Sunday morning, the French Quarter returns to its usual lazy self, devoid of most of its tourists (except the ones on the cemetery tour), and we felt more relaxed. We ambled across to the Toulouse St. Wharf, where we would board the steamboat “Natchez” for a brunch jazz cruise. It was a hot day, or at least it felt like a hot day; I missed the cloud cover we’d gotten yesterday and the day before. Still, there was plenty of shade in the waiting area, and shortly we were herded aboard. They have a streamlined operation, checking tickets and bags and then tickets again with a speed that kept the line moving. We settled in to our table with a view of the river–the wrong view, we soon discovered. We were on the “right” side (they don’t mess around with port and starboard for the tourists), which when you’re going downriver is on the wrong side of the boat to see all the things the tour guide talks about. But because we were aboard early, we ate our brunch quickly and found seats outside on the correct side. It was also the shady side. Good times all around.

The French Quarter as seen from the Natchez deck.
The French Quarter as seen from the Natchez deck.

The Mississippi is a big, sprawling river, and we saw quite a few cargo ships going both directions. I don’t remember half of what the tour guide said, I was so preoccupied with watching for what might be coming up next. We went about seven and a half miles downriver, turned around, came back and turned around again, and I never got tired of watching the shoreline. We probably should have switched seats when the steamboat turned around to return, since we were now in the sun, but I wanted to see the other side of the river. So we sat, and sweltered a bit, and marveled at what it must have felt like to those early explorers, coming across the river in their journeys.

The paddle wheel of the steamboat.
The paddle wheel of the steamboat.

One thing we noticed that we never did remember to ask about was the lack of pleasure vessels on the river. The last time we were in Portland, we drove along the banks of the Columbia and saw fleets of yachts and houseboats, and that river is open to commercial traffic too. It was odd.

The Battle of New Orleans monument. It's buried way back in there.
The Battle of New Orleans monument. It’s buried way back in there.

We passed the site of the Battle of New Orleans, which has a bitty version of the Washington Monument, only it’s to Andrew Jackson and his troops.

The tour guide also pointed out the Natchez’ “rival,” the Creole Queen. “It’s not a real steamboat,” he said, and proceeded to explain that it’s powered by a diesel engine where the Natchez has actual steam engines. We were glad we hadn’t been taken in by any phony steamboats.

After the cruise, we walked upriver as far as the Riverwalk outlet stores, where we went inside briefly for some cool air, then walked back to our rooms by way of Canal St. Being the geniuses we are, we didn’t think to look for pedometer apps until two days ago, and it’s been amusing to see how they disagree with each other as to distance covered even though we walked the same route. They turn out to be sensitive to whether you’ve got the phone on your person or just tucked into your purse, and despite the unreliability, it’s been fun tracking how far we go.

The "fake" steamboat, the Creole Queen.
The “fake” steamboat, the Creole Queen.

We read for a few hours until it was time to eat dinner, and the Plot Whisperer wanted to go to the first place he’d ever voluntarily eaten seafood. Seafood is a new thing for him, and still not a favorite, so when offered the seafood-free gumbo he leaped on it. I had shrimp etouffee and it was delicious, though now I’m craving red beans and rice.

Tomorrow, we head home. It’s been a real adventure.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Six

Another gorgeous house.
Another gorgeous house.
These are some of the skeletons on the lawn. There were a lot of them.

Today dawned overcast and sticky, enough to make me grateful we didn’t come here a month earlier. Humidity is draining. This, on the other hand, was a perfect day for riding the St. Charles streetcar through the Garden District, looking at the marvelous houses. Of course, most of New Orleans had the same idea, and we were fortunate not to have to wait long for a streetcar. We paid for a day pass and got a nice seat with a window and a strong breeze, comfortable even though the day wasn’t very hot.

Some of them are more like mansions. I scoped out the ones I would like to live in, though there were surprisingly few I’d want to settle down in. One mansion had hordes of people lined up along the sidewalk, looking at its elaborate pun-riddled skeletal Halloween display (“Marrow-lyn Monroe,” for example) There were also a ton of churches and a couple of synagogues. At a Jewish temple, a man was setting up greenery on a booth for Sukkot, which begins tomorrow. Many of the houses had been turned into apartment buildings, and a lot of those had women’s names, like Antonia, printed above the doors or in the front garden. It was a nice touch.

I like the stairs. Very different.
I like the stairs. Very different.

Our driver was some kind of speed demon, because we were chasing another streetcar the whole way up St. Charles until a supervisor told him to stop and turn around. This meant we all had to get off and go to the one ahead of us if we wanted to ride to the end, which we did. At the end of the line, we all got off again and waited for the driver to flip all the seat backs and start up the controls at the “rear” of the car, effectively turning it around without moving an inch. The driver was a little scary in her efficiency.

This was one of my favorites.
This was one of my favorites.

I felt guilty about having a nice comfortable seat when I saw how many people were using the streetcar as actual transportation and not as a tourist vehicle. Most of them had to stand, and at one point the car was over-full of people. I wonder if they resented the tourists. I certainly resented the tourists, once we left the streetcar at Canal St. and headed back into the French Quarter.

You’d pretty much have to decorate if you had a big house on St. Charles–even just a token couple of pumpkins.

I don’t ever think of myself as a tourist when I’m here, though I do plenty of touristy things–I also shop at the local markets and avoid Bourbon St. So the flood of daytrippers that hit the streets on Saturday gets on my nerves. They clog the streets and fill up the restaurants and make walking around miserable. We ended up at Bubba Gump’s for lunch, one of the more expensive meals we’ve had, though it was delicious. The plan was to have lunch, get beignets for dessert, and finish our shopping for gifts.

Unfortunately, the tourists had descended on the Café du Monde like a horde of poorly-dressed locusts. Café du Monde has a number of features that make it ideal for tourists: it’s famous, the food is good, and it’s the cheapest thing you can get in the French Quarter, with a plate of three beignets costing an even $3 (cash only). There was a line stretching from the entrance all the way back to the little amphitheater across from Jackson Square. We decided we didn’t love beignets that much and went to do our shopping. Having finished this, the Plot Whisperer suggested seeing what the line looked like now, just in case. And for a miracle, the line had completely disappeared. We hurried across the street and were immediately shown to a table that hadn’t even been bussed yet. We didn’t care.

Full of seafood and beignets, we headed back to the hotel for a restful afternoon. I had enough of a headache I didn’t feel like facing the tourists again. We didn’t venture out again until 7, when we went to the Mona Lisa Restaurant for pizza and lasagna. On the way, we fell in behind a wedding party, complete with brass section and a bunch of guests waving little handkerchiefs. The bride was dancing. We left them at Royal St.; they turned right, we went left, and that was all we saw of them. Only in New Orleans, I suppose.

On the way home from dinner, a pack of bicycles playing very loud music overtook us, and we had to weave through them as they waited at the intersection we were crossing. Their wheels were all woven with lights, an excellent precaution when riding at night, but here it just looked like a party. We’d also seen a Segway tour and a couple of walking tours, making me feel slightly guilty at not making the most of our New Orleans experience by doing as many tours as possible. Then I remembered I’m here because I love the city, not because of the tours. We stopped at the market for more Coke and ambled along to the hotel. Tomorrow, we have a jazz cruise and a quiet Sunday planned. I’m looking forward to it.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Four

A Halloween "crèche" complete with audio of a demented doctor.
A Halloween “crèche” complete with audio of a demented doctor.

This was a less-busy day for us. We saw a couple of small museum exhibits–very small ones. One was on currency, specifically antebellum, Civil War, and post-war currency of the South. What drew me to this one was their display of counterfeit currency and a digital copy of a booklet handed out to bankers of the period on how to identify counterfeit money. I wrote about counterfeiting in my upcoming book, Wondering Sight, and while this exhibit wouldn’t have made the book more accurate, it was fun to see the practical results of the counterfeiter’s art. Some of the bills were really realistic.

The Cornstalk Hotel. We almost stayed here. The fence has corn cobs on the posts, in case that's not visible in the picture.
The Cornstalk Hotel. We almost stayed here. The fence has corn cobs on the posts, in case that’s not visible in the picture.

After the museums, it was time for the real purpose of this day: shopping for souvenirs. Except we did our shopping on Royal St., which is known not only for its many art galleries, but also for its many shops. There’s a huge variety, with some of them being typical gift shops and others featuring local artists and artisans. I managed to leave the street with only a new pair of sandals and a blouse purchased from an Egypt-themed store that was tiny and adorable. I managed this feat by not going into any jewelry stores, though I’m regretting not buying the earrings at the Egypt store. We had lunch at Belle’s, which is a ’50s themed diner that also serves things like red beans and rice. The jambalaya had a great flavor, but was maybe a little too dry; I still call it a win.

One of the many lovely buildings in the French Quarter. I like the ironwork on this one.
One of the many lovely buildings in the French Quarter. I like the ironwork on this one.

After lunch, we had to hit the open-air market. This is a true tourist trap, not that we cared, and among the stalls that sold variations on the same thing we found a couple of unique items. I like shopping at places like this because the sellers are usually outgoing and dynamic in their efforts to sell you things. I don’t know why that isn’t annoying, since I hate the hard sell and will generally refuse to buy from someone who’s pushy unless it’s a deal I’d have taken regardless of their salesmanship. But it isn’t annoying.

These guys had the right idea: keep the angel locked up.
These guys had the right idea: keep the angel locked up.

All of this meant a lot of walking, so we called it an early day and came back to do some work, then went out for dinner to a dive bar/diner that advertised Steak Thursdays–$6.99 for a steak dinner. I have this theory that some of the best food comes out of hole-in-the-wall eateries, so I had the steak dinner. I was half right; the mashed potatoes came from a mix and were flavorless, but the steak was tender and juicy and cooked exactly as I’d specified. The Plot Whisperer made the waiter/bartender get the weirdest look on his face when he asked if they had any lemonade. We might as well have had UTAH tattooed on our foreheads.

Tomorrow, lunch with an old friend, and the much-anticipated bookstore crawl. I intend to locate the store that was the inspiration for the bookstore in my new series The Last Oracle. It has to be seen to be believed.

Forget About the Rope

ropeSeveral years ago I was in a writing group with a bunch of friends. We’d take turns bringing stuff we’d written and having everyone else critique it. One of mine was a chapter from a young adult fantasy novel I was writing (that will never see the light of day). In that chapter, the two protagonists stop at an inn for the night. I described it as something like “not very high-class, but better than sleeping on a rope.” This was a detail I’d read somewhere about old flophouses and it amused me, so I thought I’d use it as a throwaway line.

Not one person believed it.

Everyone in the group said it was impossible. I repeated that I’d read this in an historical context and no, I wasn’t making it up: in some really cheap lodgings, people would sleep either by sitting on a bench and leaning against a rope strung across the room, or simply hanging on it in flophouses when the beds were all full. They accused me of either misremembering or, yes, making it all up. I gave up and just took the detail out. It annoyed me, because I knew it was clever and interesting and I of course knew better than they did, but I took it out.

Weeks later I got a phone call from one of the people in the group, who was very excited. “We saw it,” she said. “The rope. It was in a movie and people were sleeping on it. You were right.” I forbore gloating. Much.

Now, just because something’s in a movie doesn’t mean you can count on it to be true—often it’s the exact opposite. And the truth about the rope story, historically, is more complicated. Some of the records about it can’t be sourced. Some people who refer to it, like George Orwell who in Down and Out in Paris and London reported this as one of the cheapest lodgings in London (the “Twopenny Hangover”) never actually saw it. I’ve seen a picture of men sitting on benches, leaning up against a rope, dating from the 1930s, and I’ve found a song by Paul Graney called “Tuppence on the Rope” that refers to the practice, and that’s pretty much it. So would I go to the mattresses for this particular detail? Not really. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that in historical fiction writing, I’ve found that sometimes I have to forget about the rope.

It’s kind of a hard call to make. At one extreme, it implies that you can never, ever write something true that someone without a lot of knowledge about your historical era might not believe. And there’s always going to be someone whose knowledge ends just where your obscure fact begins. This is where good beta readers come in. In researching my Regency fantasy adventure series, I came up with some historical facts I thought were cool that my beta reader said “That sounds too modern. No one will believe you didn’t just screw up.” And she was right. Real experts on the Regency period might know the truth, but the average reader would just believe I was wrong. And I didn’t need those details. So I forgot about the rope.

But that’s not really the point of this story either. It’s not about trying to game the system, working out whether something you’ve written will throw certain readers. What really happened was that I came up hard against the reality that there were some details I was including simply because I was showing off what I’d learned. I wasn’t writing for my readers; I was writing for the experts who would know I’d done my research and, I don’t know, pat me on the head and give me a cookie for Getting It Right. And that’s bad writing no matter how accurate your facts are. It’s one thing to have a visitor to Almack’s in 1812 make a comment about how no one’s going to introduce a new dance there in her lifetime as an Easter egg for those who know the quadrille and the waltz are coming along soon. It’s another to put Captain Gronow in your story solely to establish when that happens. For me, forgetting about the rope is all about examining my own motives. Am I doing it to look cool, or am I doing it to write the best story I can?

The writing group is long gone, but I still have those friends. They haven’t forgotten the story of the rope. For different reasons, neither have I.