I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

New Orleans: An Oddball Photo Tour

Most of our family travel these days is about checking out colleges.  We just extended a Tulane University visit into a whole weekend so we could catch the New Orleans vibe.  This was our first visit to the Big Easy and it was pretty obvious that the NOLA populace loves its food, its festivals, and anything (or anyone) eccentric.   I will spare you the tourist board coverage, and just show you the odder sights.

Our first night out, we saw people being served a restaurant meal in the back of a pickup truck. This is at Jacques-Imo’s.

Understandably, Hurricane Katrina is a backdrop to much of New Orleans today. The central touristed areas were not flooded, but you are often reminded of its impact on the whole population as you travel. This is a sign in a restaurant, The Ruby Slipper. Tourist tip:  if you want to get a quick read on someone in NOLA, ask them what they took with them when they evacuated.  Our cab driver’s answer:  “My computer and my official Batman costume.”  Well, OK then. Costumes are VERY important in New Orleans.

Back to the Wizard of Oz atmosphere, I myself said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” when I ordered cinnamon pancakes at The Ruby Slipper and they arrived looking like a Dunkin’ Donuts Easter special. They actually tasted pretty good.

Locals favor this weekend’s French Quarter Festival.. It has 22 stages of free live music and endless food from local restaurants. In a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, Tums had women handing out a new form of antacid every 50 feet or so. See the next few photos to understand perfect fit for introducing this product at the Fest.

Fried varieties of fish, crayfish, and oysters.

This innocent looking pile of crayfish just about burned my mouth off.  This pound of pure crustacean ($6) was amateur though.  I saw people gnawing on entire turkey legs, fresh off the BBQ.

With hot sauce choices like these, the Tums marketing effort made more and more sense.

I told these two women I needed to take a photo of them because they were making me laugh by carrying BOTH coffee AND the local Abita beer at 10AM. Their response, “Welcome to New Orleans baby!”

Speaking of “baby”, this woman at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market called me baby about 10 times. I hadn’t yet realized it was a common way to address a stranger, so I asked to take her picture, on the theory she was my new best friend. Only later, and many “babies” later, did I realize it was pretty much the same as saying “dude” or “ma’am.”

I’m not sure what these two wild women were drinking first thing in the morning, but it fueled their confidence to strip topless and change shirts in broad daylight.   At the very public, central French Quarter Festival merchandise stand. I am shocked I got this photo because my embarrassed son was aggressively tackling me to block my shot. He was more mortified by my behavior than by theirs. Teenagers.

But I guess the Festival spirit caught my son too.  What started as a fun photographic game to change New Orleans street signs into family names……… 

……devolved into a “find the rude word” in the street sign game.

Speaking of signs, and street art, I liked the way that exiting patrons of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art turned public fixtures into colorful collages. Not sure this would happen in Boston.

People seem to leave a trace of themselves all over New Orleans. Touring the Lafayette Cemetery, we learned how VooDoo rituals combine with Catholic burial traditions. In this case, on the tomb for “The Society for Destitute Orphan Boys” people leave Mardi Gras beads, toys, food, and coins to keep the boys entertained in the afterlife.

They do the same for Mary, apparently.

Further on the cemetery tour, we learned that plant is called Resurrection Fern. Pretty, right? Until you learn it’s a botanical species that only grows on human remains. It is creepily poking out everywhere in those New Orleans cemeteries.

It’s a blast to tour the year-round backroom studios of the enormous Blaine Kern workshops, where they start building the next year’s floats the minute Mardi Gras ends. But this scary “doll” sporting a weird pacifier and acne could not be explained by our tour guide. It must have inspired many a nightmare as this giant water head lumbered slowly down the parade route.

I didn’t ask about the excellent Ronald Reagan prop. Some jokester craftsman made his own statement about the ex-President by adding those hypnotic “charmer” glasses.

The biggest charm of New Orleans is its relaxed sense of humor. You see it everywhere. Here, 0n the front of a shoe repair shop.

On a gentle pan-handler’s sign.

On the sign in a coffee shop.

Speaking of story-telling and humor– Don, a volunteer at the National WWII Museum was a master yarn-spinner. He’s a vet standing in front of the Higgins boat he piloted for 2.5 years in the Philippines. (Who knew that these boats, built in New Orleans, comprised 92% of the US Navy fleet.  This is why Dwight Eisenhower credited their creator, Andrew J. Higgins, with winning the war.)  Don told me the only reason he survived all those perilous boat runs under heavy fire, was that his head is so hard that the “Japs” didn’t want to waste their ammunition by shooting at him.

This looks like an ordinary lunch counter. It’s not. It’s at a foodie paradise called “Butcher.” Taking home one of those “Grandma’s Chocolate Cakes” will set you back $45! But you might also get the offer of a free shot of whiskey to go with that root beer, as I witnessed. There’s a lot of that “giving a little extra” custom in New Orleans. They even have a special name for it: “lagniappe

I come from a  hat-wearing city: Detroit. New Orleans had a number of booming hat shops. The most prominent “everyday” style on the streets was this one–for both men and women. They even had shelves full of them right here, in Walgreens.

Going along with those hats were some pretty cool shoes. These were on the doormen of our hotel. They told me they get a new uniform every six months and they never know what it will be. Right now it’s these hip Doc Martens (Alfred, $140), paired with striped seersucker shorts and long sleeve white polo shirts.

The colleges we visit tend to leave us with one unique and lasting image. With Northwestern it was Lake Michigan. At Columbia, it was the grim faces of the students—to our son’s dismay. For Tulane, the image that stands out is this. The weather is soooo easy to take and this setting (not the potential student slackers) will last for us.

But in case my son wants to be a slacker, with this choice of  literature, he should fit right in with the Tulane pool-side crowd.

11 Responses to “New Orleans: An Oddball Photo Tour”

  1. Lee Ellzey

    New Orleans is one of our favorite places to visit – never a dull moment!

    Reply
  2. Scott Farmelant

    You captured the essence of the city in 29 Big Easy photos. Impressive.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Thanks for the kind words. I would love to moonlight travelling and writing blog posts about new places. Are you a native?

      Reply
  3. Robert Morgan

    Very nice summary of the Big Easy experience, Jules! This town does have a very interesting feel–edgy and easy. Down here with Drew and a few other buds to see “Drew’s Big Kick”.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      He must feel the pressure. I am sure that as his good buds you will keep him liquored up to ease the stress. No problem doing that in NOLA.

      Reply

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