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Jazz; stroll New Orleans at dawn, and you'll know why they call it the "Big Easy."

It's a typical morning in the theater called New Orleans. As the large cast assembles, the sunrise over the bank bathes St. Louis Cathedral in a golden spot.

There's Ruthie, the Duck Lady-now duckless and too old to roller-skate-taking a break on a bench in Jackson Square.

The Wizard pushes his wishing well toward Royal Street.

Painters roll their carts into the Square and begin hanging their artwork on the fence.

The wail of a jazz sax wafts in the air as Rasheed entertains early risers at Cafe du Monde; competing for airwaves, a massive tanker moves upriver, bleating like a lost lamb looking for its mother.

As pedestrians dodge the drips from overhanging balconies lush with freshly watered plants, shop owners hose down their banquettes, cleaning away last night's excesses.

A gangling, white-faced mime takes up his position on the comer near the off-brand priest collecting "for the hungry."

Glaring malevolently through long gray locks and speaking in tongues, the, Bead Lady promenades with a silver hard hat on her head. Last week's chapeau was a red motorcycle helmet.

The curtain is up; the show has begun; and it's only 8:30.

If you're an early morning stroller, it's fun to deduce which of the passersby have just gotten up and which ones were out all night. (The man in tails is an easy guess.) Day people and night people won't meet again until late afternoon when foot traffic trickles into neighborhood bars and Quarterites are either winding down or gearing up.

The endless parade of both conscious arid unconscious eccentricities provides a fascinating feast for people watching, and the city's old French Quarter makes the perfect backdrop. Curious customs and behavior derived from the many cultures that New Orleans adopted over the centuries flavor the days and nights. What would be regarded as strange and bizarre behavior in another city is not only tolerated in the "Big Easy," but cherished. Even tourists get into the act, dropping their inhibitions like so many unwieldy packages.

The pace is Southern slow, but the pulse is quick. That rare sense of the unexpected lies in wait around every comer. Stories hover in every bar and behind every walled courtyard. The city's architecture, its party atmosphere, even its misty, sultry air evoke rich imaginings. Even the foods sound sensual: mirliton, cushaw, garlics, Creole tomatoes, okra, grits, chicory and roux, gumbo and etouffee. No wonder countless literary greats have embraced the hedonistic old' river city as either a sometime sweetheart or a lifetime muse.

New Orleans' principal allure is a way of life found only in foreign lands if at all, mostly exemplified in that old part of the city that. simply cannot be duplicated anywhere else; While other areas, notably the mansion-filled Garden District, are quite worthy, full of Quirky charm and genteel ambiance, the real heartbeat of New Orleans is the Vieux Carre, on-stage since the early 1700s. By now the act has evolved into a 13-block constancy of good music, good food, and good times.

No longer dominated by the tacky T-shirt shops and sleazy strip joints found in the first six blocks of Bourbon Street, the Quarter has a new focus along riverside Decatur Street. Rivers of tourists stream by a fetching assortment of entertainment stretching past the new Aquarium of the Americas, specifically designed to swell the city's coffers with family-style tourism. Other attractions along the levee are on the drawing board, prompting enthusiastic predictions of a rosy future funded by tourism.

At the same time, residents wonder if the fragile, crumbling old Quarter can comfortably absorb the expected overflow of bodies; automobiles, and tour buses. What the French Quarter will become in ten years time is anybody's guess.

When I first moved into the Quarter, my intention to follow in the footsteps of all those famous writers, I staked my claim on one of the little tables half on the banquette and half in an open doorway of the Napoleon House on the comer of St. Louis and Chartres (pronounce it Charters, please). Because I lived upstairs in a garret apartment, I didn't have far to go. i

At this musty old literary hangout, classical music blares forth (purists grieved when the old gramophone with scratched records was retired some ten years ago), and witty, intellectual repartee seems to be going on at every table. Rather than the philosophy of Sartre or Camus, probably customers are only chatting about trivialities, or debating the relative merits of an in-house muffuletta-a huge, heavenly Italian sandwich-as opposed to one from Central Grocery (a subject good for at least a half-hour's discourse). But you have your fantasies and I have mine.

Eventually, my Napoleon House habit gave way to the habit of eating regularly. Writing on a computer in an office, while not as pirturesque, was more efficient and hence more productive than sitting in a beat-up bar writing in a beat-up notebook. Likewise, my romantic but airless garrett was sacrificed to fiendishly hot New Orleans summer$. Now I, live in a pricey apartment with central air, two balconies, and a swimming pool.

Lately, with my old notebook rescued from premature burial on a sagging bookshelf, I began returning to the "Nap House." It is exactly as before, just as though I had never left, except for more tourists to usurp my table. Classics still play, table service is still ostentatiously slow, and passing buggy drivers still spiel out tales of the failed conspiracy to spirit away the imprisoned Napoleon to "Nouvelle Orleans," where he would reside in this very house.

I'm not sure but what the tables have turned, so to speak. Could it be that sitting in a beat-up bar writing in a beat-up notebook, while less efficient, is more productive than writing on a computer in an office? I'll find that out soon enough. In the meantime, this place still offers the French Quarter experience distilled to its essence-and is likely to do so for years to come. As long as places like this are cherished and cared for, I'll be here.

Often now I sit and watch the expanding world of the Quarter amble by the Napoleon House, grazing my way through a muffuletta washed down with Dixie Beer and desultorily trying to identify Mozart or Hayden. At such time"s, the past hovers so tangibly I can almost feel-its breath.

Then I always remember the words a man named Charles Dudley Warner wrote back in 1887, maybe sitting in the,, same ancient bar: I suppose we are afl wrongly made up and have a fallen nature; else why is it that the most thrifty and neat and orderly city only wins our approval, and perhaps gratifies us intellectually, and such a thriftless, battered and, stained, and lazy old place as the French quarter of New Orleans takes our hearts?"

Visitors to New Orleans are especially pleased to find everything they need located in one compact area adjacent to the riverfront. While excellent restaurants are scattered all over town, large concentrations of the best are located in and near the French Quarter and the CBD.

Because parking is always a problem, shoe leather is the favorite form of transportation, but part of the fun is getting around by carriage. streetcar, and riverboat. Carriages wait at Jackson Square; streetcars rattle up scenic St. Charles Avenue and along the riverfront; riverboats leave from behind the Jax Brewery and Riverwalk during the day and evening, churning up and down the river with their calliopes tooting madly as though auditioning for antebellum extravaganzas.

For an overview, consider a bus tour. Both New Orleans Tours and Gray Line of New Orleans have tour desks at major hotels and ticket offices along the riverfront. They offer city tours, boat cruises, and golf packages, as well as tours of nearby swamps, Cajun country, and River Road plantations. Sponsoring on-site entertainment and weekend celebrations in adjacent Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the new Aquarium of the Americas is exceeding all projected attendance figures as it lures thousands into its cool, fishy interior. Nearby, the French Market is always lively with weekend shows and flea markets plus a 24-hour farmer's market.

In Jackson Square street performers entertain constantly, and the Presbytere offers exceptional art and history exhibits. In City Park stands the New Orleans Museum of Art with its many splendid collections. The small specialty shops in the Quarter overflow with everything from pralines to voodoo charms. For extra immersion into the scene, try lodging in one of the Quarter's charming small hotels and guesthouses.

The city's many festivals bestow good cheer upon visitors and locals alike. For further information, including festival dates, contact the Greater New Orleans Tourists & Convention Commission, 1520 Sugar Bowl Dr., New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-566-5011.

-Marda Burton
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Author:Burton, Marda K.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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