Author: Pat Arnow

Running Away

We drove from summer to winter, from a charming disheveled city unprepared for another epic disaster to the clean well-lighted state of Massachusetts.

Monday evening, Steve and I sat out in the little brick backyard of our winter rental house on Octavia Street in New Orleans. A Monarch butterfly drifted by, a mockingbird annoyed Steve as it liked to do every evening. We admired the yellow flowers blooming in the branches of a tree against the blue sky streaked with a contrail. We listened to the song of the trains rolling, squealing, bumping together along the tracks on the other side of Tchoupotoulis along the Mississippi River a block away. The evening star appeared, bright in the sky. It felt like summer.

Tuesday morning as the sun rose, we locked the door of our little house with a purple door, put the key through the mail slot, climbed into my old Honda, and drove away.

Not toward our home, though. Our beloved cities of New York and New Orleans are the hardest hit by COVID-19. We headed to the Berkshires to be near loving family (even if we couldn’t hug them) and a Blue State health care system.

Through Mississippi, we drove past acres of wisteria blooms hanging from branches along the highway. Through Alabama we saw the tender green of trees just leafing out with redbuds blooming everywhere. Many hours later as we climbed to the Tennessee mountains, we saw bare tree branches with just forsythia blooming.

A man waved a banner from an overpass: “Thank you truckers.”

We stopped only for gas, using paper towels between hand and pump handle and keypad. We ate apples and oranges, crackers and hard-boiled eggs, cookies and a great big Snickers. We peed at the side of the road.

After midnight, we followed a tip that Cracker Barrel welcomes people parking overnight. There among the big campers quietly resting, we pulled up, tried to find comfortable positions, Steve in the back seat, me reclining as far back as I could in the front seat. We slept for a few uneasy hours.

At 5 a.m. we set off again in the rain, drinking lukewarm surprisingly ok coffee from the thermos.

We thought there’d be little traffic except for trucks, but there were vehicles of all kinds. The country did not seem shut down. A WalMart lot was full.

We went a bit out of our way so we wouldn’t have to see the New York skyline in the distance, driving instead up the Delaware Water Gap, stopping for a short walk on a peaceful trail, looking at gray skies, brown woods and water, patches of snow.

Late morning, we drove up to our Airbnb in Great Barrington, a duplex on a quiet street where we will self-quarantine for 14 days. Mo and Mike stopped by to deliver cookies, latex gloves, and an alcohol spray bottle. I met them outside and we helplessly waved at each other, promising walks in the country. In two weeks, we can consider being in the same room and petting Baci, who was barking her greeting from the car.

This place is comfortable, and Steve and I were soon napping hard to make up for nearly 27 hours in a metal box that is my heroic 2005 sedan, which just turned over 100,000 miles.

In the evening, we had a good dinner Steve made from the supplies we brought with us. Then Steve called me to the back door. Look up. There, over the snowy landscape, was the evening star.

Where the Trees are Winning

Tree 1 Sidewalk 0

New Orleans and New York have a lot in common besides their first names. As the infrastructure crumbles, city officials sell out to developers. Both cities cater to rich people and tourists to the detriment of most residents. And both cities are wonderful, full of interesting people, neighborhoods, and food.

There’s one thing New Orleans seems to understand that New York hasn’t worked out. Trees are more important than pavement. The big curvy roots of gigantic live oaks make sidewalks bulge and break. What does the city do? They leave the trees alone. Pedestrians hike over the lumpy sidewalks. Cars swerve around the trees that take up more parking spaces than a bus.

Is it negligence, lack of funds or is it because New Orleans appreciates its trees? I don’t know. I’m one of those pesky tourists (though a long-term one). After spending a year fighting New York government that wants to chop down 1,000 mature trees in our neighborhood East River Park this year, I’m appreciating New Orleans where trees get to be trees.

Here it looks like a homeowner has eliminated the front yard to accommodate the trees.

OK, I do have to stop romanticizing and realize New Orleans is terrible for handicapped people. Though there are curb cuts for wheelchairs on every corner, many sidewalks are impassable for wheelchairs. The streets aren’t better. They are crumbling. New York is much better for getting around. Can there be a way to have our trees and be able to get around smoothly? Look at the creative solution above. Move the sidewalk, not the trees.

New York, take note. Move the floodwalls, not the trees.

See the website for East River Park ACTION for more on the fight to save East River Park in New York.

Exile at the Beach

The owners of our wonderful little shotgun cottage in New Orleans said we could stay all winter—except for Mardi Gras week. They like to come back to their hometown to celebrate. That was fine with us. We were there for Mardi Gras last year. This year, we saw lots of parades as Carnival season began weeks ago. We were ready for quiet. 

Last week, we drove just a couple of hours to a hotel we like, the Malaga Inn in Mobile. It’s got style, a shabby elegance with a fountain in the courtyard. 

Our room opened onto a balcony with a filigreed wrought iron railing. Now, to get to it, we had to pry open the tall, heavy sash window and use the stick provided to hold it open so we could climb out. But there in front of us was a magnificent live oak tree, branches loaded with resurrection ferns. (They have that name because they look dead when it’s dry and immediately turn green when it rains.)  

The Malaga is why we like to stay in Mobile. And the fish joint, Wintzell’s Oyster House, not far away. 

Moon Pie Gras

Mobile says it invented Mardi Gras, and there were parades that night, 10 days before Fat Tuesday. Like New Orleans, people on the floats throw gifts to the crowds. But there weren’t that many of the beads we expected in the parade we saw. Instead, we kept catching packages of Moon Pies and Ramen Noodles.

To the Riviera

Next day, we drove less than two hours to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We rented a beach cottage. In a hike in the maritime forest, we saw an eagle swooping around. We’ve eaten grouper. We watched the rain on the dunes with the Gulf of Mexico beyond. I lured Steve out to the beach on a sunny midday promising shade. I built a big sand hand. 

We are at one end of the Gulf Shores, a spit of land called Fort Morgan. It’s not as overdeveloped here as many beach towns. Here, some 15 miles from the town of Gulf Shores there are houses, not big condos, and there are long stretches of coastal forests along the main road. But plenty of building is going on. 

The threat of hurricanes and sea level rise is no match for the lovely white sand beaches and clear waters here. People will build and build and come and visit. Including us.

After Fat Tuesday, we will return to New Orleans. We’ll be all fresh-faced and burnished on Ash Wednesday when every one who stayed in the city will be hungover with crosses on their foreheads. 

We’ve seen plenty of wonders of the Mardi Gras season. Here are some more parade pictures from the weeks before we came on our vacation from our vacation. Our friend Miriam, who loves Mardi Gras, enticed us to keep on going to parades and begging for beads (she’s with us showing off her throws in the photo lower right, below).

People who haven’t been to Mardi Gras think it’s crowded and dangerous. No. The parades are extravagant, noisy, musical, and exciting. People who line the routes are friendly and only step on you accidentally. (I wore sandals one day. Don’t do that.) Kids are everywhere. They get bags and bags of toys and beads. It’s really fun. Go.

Click on photos to enlarge them.

New Orleans Portraits

People and the Neighborhood–East New Orleans

While we were in way out in East New Orleans, we stopped at the New Year’s Tet Festival at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. Meet Mary.

East New Orleans is a large, low-lying neighborhood far from the center of the city. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina, it has come back in patches. There are brick bungalows, some lonely on a block, others clustered together in new subdivisions with names like Sherwood Forest. On some blocks partly rebuilt houses and abandoned houses still stand. There are blocks of empty fields that used to be lined with houses. Running through the neighborhood is Chef Menteur Highway (translated as Chief Liar), sparsely populated with businesses. 

I wanted to visit East New Orleans because I had just finished The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. I had never noticed the neighborhood before I read the book, even though I’ve visited and explored New Orleans many times. Like East New York way out in Brooklyn, in East New Orleans, there are no tourist attractions, parks, museums or exciting business strips. It’s just a place to live for people of modest means and often a long commute to work. 

The Yellow House is a biography of a home bought by the author’s mother, who raised 12 children there. The house and family’s tenuous existence show us a history of people prevailing as best they can in a neighborhood built by strivers but abandoned by the early developers and the city. It’s a portrait of inequality and discrimination. It’s a story of people whose lives have been shattered and remade over and over despite institutional neglect and abuse.

It’s an unromanticized view of New Orleans, a corrective to our gushy illusions. We drove by the address where the author’s house once stood, and it was filled with junked cars. 

Yet, here in February 2020 was the first Carnival parade ever in East New Orleans, the all-new all-women Nefertiti parade passing in front of a new East New Orleans Public Library and many families cheering and stretching their arms out to catch beads and toys. Here is the popular Tet Fest in the Vietnamese neighborhood, tables filled with people and good food. These festivals were by and for residents. We were clearly outsiders at both events, though we were cordially accepted. Here we saw the flaws and resilience of New Orleans. 

How can you not have some gushy illusions when you see the most dressed-up Stop sign ever. This jasmine is in our Riverside neighborhood.

New Orleans Week

Latter Library, New Orleans
This old mansion is our neighborhood library. I got a library card right away.

New Orleans January

As I sat in Audobon Park admiring a live oak tree by a charming bridge, a group gathered–a woman wearing a chiffon skirt and carrying a white bouquet in a Mason jar, a handsome, nervous-looking man in a slim suit, a few friends.. A very informal wedding. They were from Florida, they told me when they came over to ask if I had taken any pictures they could have. As I Air Dropped a few photos, they told me they picked the spot because it was pretty and free. The groom was in the military, about to be deployed.

New Orleans home

We moved into our sweet little shotgun cottage not far from the Mississippi and Audobon Park and Magazine St.

Here’s the front of our little house.

Right away we visited the Tree of Life–the live oak planted in 1740 and now covered in Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. We found it bike riding around last year in Audobon Park.

See Steve under there?

We’ve had an oyster po’ boy, a cup of gumbo, a root beer snowball from Sno-LA.

Tybee Island

I’m going backwards–before we headed west to Alabama, we stopped outside of Savannah, Georgia, at Tybee Island. It looked like an appealing off-season spot to get an inexpensive room with an ocean view to watch a couple of rainy days go by. 

It was. Under cloudy skies, we watched the MLK parade.

Tybee has an endearing and proud shabbiness, though there are many neat little cottages and modestly sized hotels and apartments.

We had a full moon while we were there, and the clouds parted long enough for us to see it and have our moon kiss. (Sorry, it’s the sappy thing we do.)

I ate crab legs at the Stingray with lessons from the waitress who really put some body English into the instructions. It was inspirational, and I cleaned the hell out of the shells. Crack, wiggle, pick.

They are replenishing their beach with dredging. Opinions on beach dredging?

The gulls liked it, flocking all around the fountain of sandy water being dredged from the distant sea.

Montgomery

Each of the steel monuments represents a county where there were lynchings. This is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the lynching memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama, opened in 2018. There are 800 steel posts etched with the names of the victims, 4,400 people in all. In this section, the monuments hang from the ceiling, heavy, forbidding, heartbreaking, beautiful.

Here is one of the life-size sculptures by Dana King of three women, a tribute to those who sustained the momentous Montgomery bus boycott.

We stopped in Montgomery specifically to see the memorial. We found a small, Southern city with a fabulous civil rights history proudly on display but also chilling–for instance, a historical marker for the place where slaves were warehoused, literally, between slave auctions.

Here’s a link to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice website.

Yes, it is worth a trip to Montgomery. Bonus for a visit: fried catfish with cheese grits at Central Restaurant downtown. Steve’s bonus: the local AA baseball team is called the Biscuits, and he got a hat.

Southern Meander

The long way to New Orleans from New York. First night, Chincoteague Island in Virginia, just over five hours from New York.

Wild ponies roam the National Wildlife Refuge. I met this one with four others on a dawn walk. There were geese, ducks, gulls, a lighthouse and no people.

Refuge Inn, great place to stay, right by causeway to the island. Bill’s Prime on Main Street, great place to eat.