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Crab cakes at Oceana Grill where the beer is cold and tasty. Photo by David Lansing.

One of the guys who works the front desk at my hotel asks me every day if I’ve been to Oceana Grill yet. “Best crab cakes in Naw-lens,” he says. Then he hands me a coupon good for 10% off. I must have a dozen of these coupons.

Here’s the thing about people who work at hotels recommending local restaurants: Either they really want you to get a taste of some local authentic food or they are shilling for the establishment. Since this guy hands me a 10% off coupon every time he sees me, I happen to think it’s probably the latter.

So yesterday I got on the computer and Goggled Oceana Grill and checked them out on TripAdvisor where there were something like 1,600 reviews. I love TripAdvisor. Mostly because the “reviews” always make me laugh.

“Well, I am super picky when it comes to crab cakes. All I have to say is that they are amazing. Yummy!” –exray, Cajun Country

“Food was better than sex!!!!” –LA Finest, LA

“The barbecued shrimp was drizzled with some kind of wine sauce that was divine!!! My 72 year old day definitely enjoyed himself!” –Tonya H, Memphis

Other than the fact that almost every review was from someone who absolutely adores exclamation points, two things sort of jumped out at me: One, many of the reviewers said they went there because their hotel concierge recommended it or gave them a discount coupon or both; two, every other reviewer talked about how they had this absolutely incredible server named Scott. Is it really possible that a thousand people would want to talk about their food server–whose name just happened to be Scott?

Obviously with this many people saying the food was better than sex and yummy and amazing (not to mention the 10% off coupon), I had to go.

Oceana Grill extends from the corner of Bourbon Street half way down Conti and must have something like 200 tables but when I checked in with the hostess, at a little after one in the afternoon, and told her I’d like a table for one, she frowned, pretended to look at her reservation sheet, and informed me that they didn’t have a table available. I looked around her shoulder at the half-empty dining room.


“Would you like to sit at the bar?” she suggested.

What the hell.

The bartender—a middle-aged woman with an 80s style puffy hairdo called me Sweetie and asked me what I’d like to drink. I told her I’d like a Sam Adams and the crab cakes.

“You got it, Sweetie.”

The crab cakes arrived before the beer, and the beer only took about three minutes. “Anything else, Sweetie?”

I told her I was good so she could go back to watching some sports talk show on the TV that was discussing whether we should be outraged or not over some NFL quarterback who sported tattoos on his arms.

The beer was fine. It was cold and tasted good. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be. I’m not sure what to tell you about the crab cakes. Maybe you could just look at the photo. Depending on your point of view, they are either yummy looking and better than sex or kind of disgusting. They had a hell of a lot of what the restaurant calls “crawfish and mushroom cream sauce” on top of them and my first reaction was, why do you need to ladle on a gallon of some gloppy sauce over crab cakes? I answered my own question when I took a bite: Because they taste bland and yucky.

After taking one more bite, just to make sure, I pushed the plate away and finished my beer. When I asked the bartender for my bill, she said, “Do you want to take them crab cakes with you?” I told her I did not.

Back at the hotel, the kid at the front desk looked up from his paper and asked me if I’d been to Oceana. I have, I told him.

“Aw right, then,” he said, smiling and offering up a high-five. “Now ya’all know!”

And I do.

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Two good things about Katrina

At first I think Cap’n Kenny has a cold or something. As he poles the boat through the maze of canals near the gulf, he keeps hawking things up and spitting them into the cloudy brown water. It’s cold out. Cap’n Kenny is bundled in four or five layers of sweaters and jackets topped by a wrap that covers his face like a Bedouin crossing the Sahara.

Cap’n Kenny makes this deep-throated murmur, hawks something up, spits. “You all right there?” I ask.

“Me? I’m fine.” He spits again. And this time, because I’ve turned half-way round in the boat to face him, I see that what he is making all the fuss about is his chewing tobacco. A big gob of dark brown spit flies over the side of the boat, swirls for a moment on the surface, and then quickly sinks. Cap’n Kenny wipes his mouth with the back of his arm.

Cap’n Kenny is a good ol’ boy. Before Katrina, he owned an auto repair shop. Afterwards, he decided he’d rather be out in the marshes and bayous fishing. For $600 a day he’ll take two fools like us out fly-fishing for redfish, black drum, sheepfish—whatever.

“Two good things came from Katrina,” says Cap’n Kenny as we move slowly along the edges of a swamp, our eyes peeled for redfish. “It got me out of that repair shop and onto the water. And it cleaned out N’Orleans.”

I ask him what he means.

“Well,” he drawls, “they say some 150,000 people never came back to N’Orleans after Katrina.” He spits a brown wad into the water. “Ethnic cleansing,” he says with a wink. “The city done got rid of the worst of ‘em, if you get my drift.”

Cap’n Kenny reaches into a pocket on his jacket, pulls out a round tin of Skoal Wintergreen, takes a pinch and stuffs it behind his lower lip. I only wish he’d stuff the whole can of tobacco in there. Maybe it would help him keep his mouth shut.

Cap’n Kenny, looking like a Cajun terrorist, out in the bayou. Photo by David Lansing.

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A view of the Mississippi across from Jackson Square. Photo by David Lansing.

There are certain things I have never done that shock even me. It seems incredulous that I have never been to the opera. Or seen a NASCAR race (even on TV). I am embarrassed that I have never been to Japan or Nashville or Sweden for godsakes. But what really makes me hang my head is the thought that I have never ever seen the Mississippi River. Until yesterday.

The Mississippi is well worth seeing, wrote one of my literary heroes, Mark Twain. “It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.”

Yesterday morning I woke up and while I was looking at the paper and sipping my coffee in the bar of the Hotel le Marais, decided I was going to walk over to the Mississippi River. Not that this was any big deal. The river is just four blocks away, although I doubled the distance by heading for Jackson Square and then crossing the train tracks to the Vieux Carré Riverview.

I sat down on a park bench and looked around. In addition to the joggers and strollers, there were three drunk young Goths singing gibberish a capella; a disheveled man facing the river preaching out loud to himself or to the audience in his head; a tiny blond saxophonist, blowing the blues, who made me think of Lisa from The Simpsons; a young woman wearing a bikini and tanning herself along the banks of the river, despite the fact that it was windy and cold out; several individuals with big smiles and dirty hair asking for spare change; an extended Vietnamese family spread out on several blankets having a picnic; lovers, some holding hands, others passionately kissing, one couple yelling at each other; and my favorite—an old man in a black cords and a green jacket, a porkpie hat on his head and an ebony walking stick at his side, reading aloud from Huckleberry Finn:

“Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there – sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up – nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshed up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres – perfectly still – just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrongs a-cluttering, maybe.”

Sitting there along the banks of the Mississippi, watching a paddle-boat slowly make it’s way up the river, seeing the river all wide and smooth and lovely, I reckon it was as dramatic as anything you’d see at the opera. Or even NASCAR.

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One of my favorite photography blogs is Münchow’s Creative Photo Blog. As you might guess from the title of his blog, Otto von Münchow doesn’t write about the technical aspects of photography so much as the creative part (his tag line is “Creativity is within us all.”) A lot of what he writes about concerns how to really “see” when we take photographs. And how it helps if we take different pictures from what we usually do. For instance, for a recent project in which he went in to his backyard to shoot rather common settings—a wrought iron bench, a gathering of leaves, some old garden furniture—he writes about expanding his vision by shooting in different ways: “It could be shooting with an unfocused lens, using long, handheld exposure time for blurry imagery, or it could be putting a 400 mm lens on the camera, using minimum depth of field, or something absolutely crazy. Again, the point for me is to expand and challenge myself so that I don’t get stuck in my present photographic vision.”

I love this idea. And he’s right. I don’t have my usual quiver of lenses and such with me here in New Orleans, but yesterday when I walked around Jackson Square, I decided to take advantage of a single lens and just try and look at things differently. To try and see the world through a slightly different perspective. It’s not so much that I was trying not to “get stuck in my present photographic vision,” as Otto says, but not get stuck in my emotional and intellectual vision of the world around me. In other words, maybe by looking at the world in a slightly different frame, I’d see and feel things that I wouldn’t normally. And that’s, I think, exactly what happened.

All photos by David Lansing.



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A hen party on Bourbon Street

The bride-to-be, her hen party behind her, grabs me for a quick photo on Bourbon Street.

When I first checked in to the Hotel le Marais, there were four or five young women at the reception desk ahead of me. They were all sipping from plastic drink cups with colored plastic sharks on top of drink stirrers. One of the women was wearing a princess tiara.

“Hen party?” I said.

The woman with the tiara wrinkled her nose. “What?”

“Are you girls here for a hen party?”

“What’s a hen party?” she said.

“You know—a bachelorette party.”

The women all laughed. “Well, yeah, but I’ve never heard it called a hen party.”

I told them that they called them hen parties in the UK instead of bachelorette parties.

“That’s kind of cute,” said the gal with the tiara. “I kind of like it.” She took a big gulp from her plastic cup and then said to her friends, “Hey, ladies—we’re having a hen party tonight.”

The girls all giggled.

Anyway, last night after dinner I was wandering down Bourbon Street, which is just a block away from the hotel, when I heard someone yell, “Hey, there’s the guy who told us about hen parties!” It was the group from the hotel.

I went over and said hello. They were all quite drunk. But seemed to be having a wonderful time. “Come over here and have your picture taken with me,” said the bride-to-be who was still wearing her tiara. I went over and stood next to her while one of her friends grabbed my iPhone to take a picture. The bride-to-be put her head on my shoulder and said, “Okay, Emily, take our picture. I’m the hen and this is my cock!”

Everyone laughed. Even me.

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