nola marker

For our first full day in New Orleans we made the pilgrimage to Cafe du Monde. We weren’t impressed; they taste like fried dough you get on Boston Common. Even the obscene amount of powdered sugar they’re buried in can’t hide that. I told Mtuseni it was just something you had to do, like having boerewors in South Africa. The best part of the experience was the trio playing some snappy jazz right outside the cafe — a great way to perk up the morning.

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beignet big deal

The requisite beignets at Cafe du Monde. We didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I knocked most of the sugar off mine, I wanted to keep my teeth through the day.

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du monde pair

Yep, we’re at Cafe du Monde. I’d prefer another trip to the Waffle House.

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We crossed over to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, which is stunning. For someone who attends church in a strip mall, Mtuseni doesn’t get the opulent church thing. Growing up Catholic and ringing gold bells as an altar boy, it’s old hat to me. I lit a candle and sat for a few minutes and talked to my father, who passed a few months earlier. He would’ve loved this trip.

St. Louis Cathedral exterior in New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral looks a bit like Cinderella’s castle with the multiple spires.

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Painted ceiling and altar at Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

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Altar in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

The altar reminds me of my grandmother’s church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in Massachusetts.

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The beignets weren’t a very substantial breakfast — we were used to filling up on free hotel buffets. We scouted someplace for an early lunch and the Johnny’s Po’Boys sign drew me in. I’d been craving a fried oyster po’boy since we crossed the Louisiana border. But the recent hurricane had stirred up algae — no oysters! I got a tuna po’boy that was as big as my arm (not my intention). I gave half to a homeless guy sitting in front of the cathedral. 

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poboy shop

I love old sandwich shops like this. Kinda got the diner thing goin’.

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Johnny's Po-Boys sign in New Orleans

I swear my tuna po’boy was not much smaller than this guy’s!bb

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We strolled through the French Market until the heat again became stifling, so we popped into the Jazz Museum. I had no expectations other than air conditioning, but I was totally impressed! Well-curated exhibits, tons of cool photos, artwork and mementoes: they pack a lot into what looks like a small space.

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good jazz sign

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jazz mural

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Louis Armstrong's first cornet in New Orleans Jazz Museum

Louis Armstrong’s first cornet. I remember seeing him on the Ed Sullivan Show as a kid. “Well Hello Dolly!”

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Mtuseni immersed himself in an exhibit on Professor Longhair. He listened to every recorded narrative and song clip — and was fascinated that he taught himself to play piano on a broken one he found on the street.  We ended up meeting the professor again at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland weeks later. He was a cool, talented cat!

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longhair better

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We even got to see a free jazz concert by the Nicholas Payton Trio in a sweet little studio. Great show, great talent! The museum was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening break from the heat.

Check out video of the Nicholas Payton Trio on our Instagram!

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concert stage

Great space for a free concert at the Jazz Museum. Mtuseni doesn’t know jazz — but he loves live music.

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After dinner we took the trolley to Frenchmen Street for a little more live music and a little less crazy chaos. Weeks of togetherness and relentless heat finally got to us: We had a sidewalk screaming match that entertained and spooked the tourists, but then hugged it out and watched a great band in a little bar, sitting right up front. You can’t be angry too long in New Orleans! 

Check out our Instagram for some music from Frenchmen Street!

The next morning we had breakfast at The Governor — a great spot with caricatures of Louisiana politicians from times past… and their criminal exploits. One young woman’s job seemed to be just going from table to table asking people if they’re happy. She was like sunshine moving through the room. NOLA felt like our first taste of real Southern hospitality.

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governor pair

Good breakfast. Great, friendly vibe. We loved this place — and we’re not big smilers in the morning!

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After breakfast we took a trolley to the Garden District to check out the pretty homes and lush streets. We walked round a while but — surprise! — it was super hot! So we hopped on the trolley back into town and just strolled the streets, enjoying the architecture. The ornate balconies reminded us of Long Street in Cape Town, a similarly lively and fun street in Mtuseni’s neck of the woods.

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pearl oyster balcony

This image could be from Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa!

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fern balcony

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Far down Bourbon Street I noticed a building that looked much different from the others in terms of age and history. Sure enough, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was built in the 1770s — and is one of the oldest bars in the country. It looked like the Hobbit lived there! 

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Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar in New Orleans

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar — tell me a hobbit didn’t once live there!

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blacksmith bar sign

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blacksmith hearth

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Inside you could sense the old blacksmith doing his work at the brick hearth. I would have easily sat and enjoyed the ambiance and a beverage or two. But our time was winding down. Mtuseni could see how smitten — and a little bummed out  — I was, so he convinced me to get a frozen purple voodoo cocktail to go. It was so cold. And so good. And so strong! Thank god we still had a little walking to do before we took off.

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purple drink

Damn, two sips of this voodoo cocktail and I look drunk. It was the heat, I swear! I tried to save the cup; it didn’t last the trip.

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We returned to the French Market and got some souvenirs. Mtuseni got a hat that said “laissez le bons temps rouler”— once I explained to him what it meant. We did have good times — great times — in New Orleans, and were sad to leave. Mtuseni says we really celebrated his birthday there, since Montgomery was such a bust.

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french mkt

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We took one last look around the city from the rooftop where the car was parked, then headed down Canal Street and onto the highway. Next stop… Memphis.

trumpet bw

I loved this photo from the Jazz Museum. It seems to capture the energetic, laid back, fun vibe of New Orleans.

welcome sign

From Gulfport it was a fairly quick drive to New Orleans. We arrived early afternoon, parked downtown, and strolled Canal Street until check in. It felt great to be in a place with some grit and energy after so many sleepy southern cities.

la bridge

Mtuseni was a little freaked out on the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. Leaving New Orleans he thought we were gonna blow off the side.

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We popped into an outlet mall near the casino to escape the swamp-like humidity. I bought Mtuseni a Fossil watch for his birthday. He was thrilled; it’s practically a luxury brand in South Africa. He’d never heard of outlet stores and was fascinated by the concept. The rest of the trip he could spot an outlet mall sign a mile away! 

After recharging in the hotel, we skipped over to Bourbon Street and quickly came upon a trumpet player and drummer jamming on a corner. The street was packed with people in various states of lucidity — all grooving and smiling and having a good time. Let the party begin! I’d never been to New Orleans but certainly knew what to expect. Mtuseni didn’t have a clue; he was wowed.

Check out video of more sassy brass that night on our Instagram!

After a while we grabbed dinner where I introduced Mtuseni to gumbo, which I love. Then we went back out into the crowd — even livelier in the dark and after who knows how many drinks. People-watching galore!

Mtuseni isn’t a drinker, and I’ve become a lightweight over the years, but we both are crazy for music. I was psyched when we came upon some zydeco, and gave Mtuseni a probably half-assed backstory. But all you really need to do is hear it — and feel it! Zydeco just makes me happy. Mtuseni said his mother uses a washboard to wash clothes, not make music. 

We saw a few bands in different bars before finally heading back for the night. We had another long — and hot — day ahead of us. 

Check out video of a great band at Prohibition on our Instagram!

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prohibition pair

I didn’t have a huge ass beer at Prohibition, but I did have enough to grin about it.

miss sign

After celebrating Mtuseni’s birthday the night before, we returned to downtown Montgomery on Day 17 to see some sites on the Civil Rights Trail. With the Memorial for Peace and Justice closed, there weren’t a lot of options; that had been the main reason to stop in Alabama. 

Even during late morning, with all the government offices, there were hundreds of empty parking spaces everywhere. And no people up and down the wide quiet streets. It felt like a Twilight Zone episode.

Maybe the streets were empty because the heat and humidity were mind-boggling. It felt like the sun was ten feet above us and white hot. (And it had been record-breaking heat above 90 every day since we began the trip!)

Having seen the experience of slaves at the Museum of African American History in DC, I told Mtuseni to imagine what it must have been like picking cotton in the fields all day in heat like this — and certainly no AC or refrigerator to come home to. Actually you can’t imagine it; we were melting just walking a block. I don’t know how they did it. 

The story of Rosa Parks has always fascinated me. The courage and impact of one woman’s simple act, to just say, “Enough.” I’ve always wanted to see where she waited on that day. I don’t know what I expected, to see a bus stop and streetscape from the 1950s I guess. To really get a feel for her life then. But the bus stop is nothing more than a sign, surrounded by modern buildings. All context was gone.

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bus stop sign

This was pretty much it for Rosa Parks’ bus stop. My face pretty much explains my impression.

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We passed on the Rosa Parks Museum. Montgomery had been so underwhelming and we knew it wouldn’t compare to the museum in DC. So we walked back up to the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, who created the stunning and emotional Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. As a big fan of architecture and the new more immersive style of memorials, I was excited to see it. 

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Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama

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But even this disappointed. I’d expected it to be massive but it’s quite small, tucked on a little plaza to a building. It’s lovely, meticulous, tranquil — but the size limits its impact. It feels like a fountain in a mall. Sorry, Maya!

We did stumble on a cool mural commemorating the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. I think that was the highlight of the city visit.

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"A Mighty Walk from Selma" mural in Montgomery, Alabama

“A Mighty Walk from Selma” … luckily we came across this mural while staggering in the heat.

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Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama

Yet another church that wasn’t open. When I was a kid churches were open all the time… if you needed to pop in for a quick prayer or respite from the world.

We made our way to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where MLK was pastor in the late 1950s, but like the church in Savannah it was closed for a private tour. And that closed our visit to Montgomery. We got in the car, cranked the AC, and made a beeline for our stopover in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The Gulf of Mexico was pretty much what I’d heard: flat and gray and hot. For someone whose soul is fed by the ocean, I didn’t even go on the beach. Mtuseni did, and created a surprise for me that will have to wait for an October post.

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gulf pool

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Our hotel was right across from the beach and had a small pool. I plopped into it, ready to be refreshed and awakened, but it was warmer than bath water. There was no escape from that sticky heat outdoors.  

The best part of Gulfport was finally solving the mystery of the Waffle House! There was one sitting by its lonesome in a field next to our hotel. We’d started seeing the yellow-tile signs as we entered the South. They were everywhere! I had no idea what the place was. Mtuseni wasn’t curious, but I had to know.

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waffle house sign

After seeing this sign along highways across the South, we finally discovered what delights awaited inside!

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So breakfast the next morning was at the Waffle House. I love diners. I almost did my practicum documentary on a diner in college. The movie Diner is one of my all-time favorites.

I was psyched to sit at the counter and order simple over-easy eggs, bacon, and toast. After weeks of the same free buffet in hotel after hotel (where I never used that awful waffle machine) a made-to-order breakfast was heaven. I explained to Mtuseni the whole diner culture, sitting at the counter, the short order cook right in front of you, the waitress calling out orders in shorthand and knowing the regulars by name. Pure Americana. I was immediately a Waffle House fan.

And of course I had a waffle, too! (It was tasty, but I didn’t finish  it.)

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waffle house ctr

I look fat in this picture. Partly it’s the shirt — and partly it’s the effects of sitting and driving for days. For the South, I probably look anorexic.

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(Just joining us? Since everyone’s in various states of corona lockdown,  we’re reliving the Long-Distance Dad road trip from last fall! Start the journey with us back on the August 30 post. Ride along with us — in your easy chair — across 10,000 miles into October.)

alabama sign

Well, I’ve already fallen behind the perfect “one year ago today” posts for the arm chair road trip. I can see now why it was impossible to post in real time during the trip; there was not one minute of extra time!

Days 16 was pretty much the low point of the trip — with one exception. After hitting the gym in the morning in Atlanta, we set out for Montgomery, Alabama.

This has never been high on my list to visit — or anywhere on my list — but Rosa Parks and the bus boycott are important events on the Civil Rights Trail, which I wanted Mtuseni to see on the trip given his experience in South Africa. And I did want to see the new National Museum for Peace and Justice, informally known as the Lynching Memorial, which is supposed to be a profound experience. I thought it would give Mtuseni a deep sense of the violence and repression of that era, with its parallels to apartheid.

I had read some things about Alabama, including recommendations to just drive through fast without stopping, but I brushed them off. It didn’t take long before I understood.

Five miles over the border I got off the highway to a small gas station and store surrounded by nothing. I parked to the side, not needing gas, and Mtuseni stayed in the car. When I returned, an old guy in his 70s was standing near the car. He glared at me and then at Mtuseni, back and forth, his grizzled face dripping with disdain. His message was clear.

I could feel waves of hatred directed at us. Mtuseni contentedly munched his umpteenth bag of salt and vinegar chips, thankfully unaware of the scene unfolding few away from him in the blazing sun.

I was unnerved. And pissed. I felt like a protective papa bear; nobody was going to openly exhibit such prejudice toward my sweet kid. I narrowed my eyes to slits and returned his glare. For a second was I ready to say, “You wanna go, old man?” But then I thought, “This is the Deep South. He probably has a shotgun in the back. Just get in the car.” He kept glaring at us as I drove away, not shaken but a little shocked. And disgusted..   

When I was in South Africa, Mtuseni had to point out to me the disapproving looks we got from old, white Afrikaaners. I had’t noticed. They were more subtle in their bigotry, maybe because they’re the minority. But not that old southern cracker. He showed off his prejudice — and ignorance — proudly. 

At our hotel outside Montgomery, I talked for a while to the young Black girl working the front desk. Telling her about the incident, she didn’t flinch. She said it’s common, and told me about White guests who won’t touch the pen she hands them to sign the register, or who won’t look her in the eye. I was floored. Welcome to Alabama, where it’s still 1949. I won’t return.

And on top of that, she told me the lynching museum was closed the next day. That was really the main reason we were there, and I doubted we could kill time for an extra day to see it. 

But there was one bright spot: It was Mtuseni’s birthday! We’d never been able to celebrate it together before. We headed into “downtown” Montgomery — which is basically a few mid-size office structures, some government buildings, and about 50,000 empty parking spaces. Even Mtuseni, who’s generally impressed with everyplace in America, said, “It’s dry here.”  

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riverfront sign

Nice sign. We didn’t venture down there. It looked desolate and creepy.

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We skipped the riverfront, despite being a couple blocks away. From the map, it clearly was no Savannah or Charleston. We scouted out the few restaurants and found a decent-looking Italian place, full of what seemed to be government office workers.

Mtuseni had a good meal, including his first time eating shrimp. The servers brought over his birthday dessert and sang “Happy Birthday” shortly after his entree was delivered. (Really, how hard is it to time that? The place wasn’t even busy.) But Mtuseni was happy. Birthdays aren’t generally big celebrations at home; there’s no money. His smile on his 27th birthday on a trip across America salvaged a pretty crappy day. 

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mtu bday

Our first birthday together…. 27! But he’ll always be my little yellow polo shirt boy with the book bag, my first glimpse of him in 2009.