New Orleans Day Three

This and the previous post are late because the wifi was flaky/nonexistent yesterday.

Already? So soon? But we’ve only just arrived…

Last night we booked a spur-of-the-moment Save Our Cemeteries Tour of New Orleans’ oldest and most famous St Louis No. 1 at 0945 for 10am, so we did not linger over café au lait and beignets this morning. Besides which they needed our table – it was much busier than during the week. 

The sidewalks on each side of Bourbon Street had been hosed down, and the street itself had been washed – with soap!   

The French Quarter has distinctive odours in the morning; sun-hot brick and plaster with occasional hints of urine and sewer, just as in France. The musty scent of old building drifts from dark hallways when both sets of street doors are left open (often there’s an outer door of shutters that opens to reveal the solid house door). Blasts of arctic air issue from bars and shops hoping passers-by will be drawn in by the promise of coolth. I wonder just how much electricity this city eats to run the AC and the ice-making machines. As time passes the scents of coffee, deep-frying fat, crab and shrimp roasting for stock emanate from businesses  preparing for the day.

 This morning we noticed the cockroaches. Squashed on the sidewalks, about one every 10′ or so. The Tourist Info shop at Basin St sells gilded plastic cockroaches, but the very nice tourist info lady couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me why, just that residents have exterminators visiting regularly and yet the cockroaches survive. We also noticed metal manhole lids labelled ‘GARBAGE’ set into the sidewalk, some polished by passing feet, others obscured by concrete. Now we have Internet, I can investigate; yesterday we idle speculated about attempts to raise the soil level by creating middens under the streets.

Included in the displays at Basin St are a couple of the ten-dollar notes issued by the Citizens Bank of New Orleans in the 1860s. ‘Dixieland’ may have its origins in English-speaking Americans referring to these as dixies, from the French dix printed on the notes.   

Due to vandalism and theft only official tours are allowed into St Louis cemetery No. 1. The first burials in NO were in graves, but this was quickly recognised as insanitary due to the high water table, not to mention frequent exhumation by floodwaters. There  are several types of vaults ranging in size from what look like ovens set into walls through individual family vaults to the large vaults set up to house the remains of groups of people such as the Italians or the French.   

The oldest section of oven vaults. The cemetery was originally enclosed by a wall of vaults.

All work on the same principle: the long, hot summer and the humidity speed the natural process of decay so that a body placed on the main shelf within the vault soon becomes a pile of bones and dust. When the next body is interred the previous resident slides off the back of the shelf and falls to mingle with the remains of its ancestors. It’s a lovely idea, and I thought the occasional child’s vault looked lonely. 

The tombs are in various states of repair; since access was restricted many have been refurbished with new lime plaster on their brickwork. Others are gently crumbling away under the onslaught of sun, heat and moisture.

If everyone in the family agrees, a plot can be sold to a new owner. Nicholas Cage loves NO so much that he plans to be buried here:

The stains on the marble insert remain where lipstick has been removed: ghostly kisses from female fans.  

People circumvent the security to leave offerings at what they believe to be the tombs of those who can help them in some way. Each set of Xs marks a wish or a curse. The tomb of Marie Laveau is now pristine white, but I saw members of the previous tour group twine hair elastic (she was a hairdresser) around bits of metalwork as they left. Our guide, Pam, brought the cemetery and NO burial to life by telling us about her family and the three vaults to which she holds the deeds. I’d never had occasion to think about the politics of burial, that it may matter (at least to one’s descendants) where and with whom one’s mortal remains spend their time.

This is, of course, a Roman Catholic cemetery, reflecting the culture of NO at the time it was founded. As Americans arrived – and died – a Protestant section was required. Part of this survives:

Protestants apparently prefer to be buried in the ground, even if their coffins were heard knocking against the brickwork when the water table rose.

And then we walked through Congo Square to Little Vic’s for more of the muffaletta we tried during the food tour, and continued down to the dock for a cruise on the steamship Natchez. We sat at the bow marvelling at the industry that lines the river bank and the sheer volume of traffic on the river. Including ocean-going container ships, as the river is nearly 200′ deep at this point. The camera cannot do justice to the scale of what we saw: look at Google Earth.

The scent of cooking cane sugar, like brown sugar and golden syrup combined, announced the Domino sugar refinery. (The white poles and chains support the steamboat’s gangways.)


The journey downriver took 60 minutes; upriver, against the current, took 90 minutes. And this is the low water season.

After dinner at the French Market we returned to Frenchmen Street for the evening.

James Williams and the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys at the Spotted Cat.

And then we sat on the hotel balcony listening to distant sirens and a solitary musician noodling classical guitar. Tomorrow we collect a rental car and head out … but where? If we have wifi I’ll let you know tomorrow.


About sarahw

A zoologist who draws, a spinner who weaves, a person who thinks.
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