Freesteel Blog » New Orleans – November 2000
New Orleans – November 2000
Psychonomics is a psychology conference held by the Psychonomics Society in a different American city each year. This year was the turn of New Orleans. New Orleans is quite different from most American cities in that it is old and still has a centre. Becka and I flew out a few days early for touristing before the five day conference schedule (8am to 8pm) began and we would no longer have the chance to see the light of day. She had been to the Psychonomics conference before and knew the deal.
We stopped over in Newark for a day on the way to visit my father in New Jersey where I grew up. A few trees and hedges had been chopped down, others had grown imperceptably bigger, the pavements were wonkier, the river was cleaner. Other than that I noticed no change.
From there we flew to New Orleans in the morning without a guidebook or hotel reservation to speak of. We hoped to work it out as we went along. At the airport we were chuffed to discover the lightly publicized local bus system. This gets you into the city for a grand total of $1.50, as opposed to $40 for a taxi or $10 each for the “Airport Bus”. We could tell we had reached town because of the cluster of obligatory but entirely unnecessary skyscrapers you always get in an American city, no matter how cheap the land.
The first thing we needed was a map, which we failed to buy because we didn’t know what kind of shop sold such items. However, we did stumble across the Public Library where they handed good ones out for free. They also had a Yellow Pages directory.
The streets of New Orleans are a mesh running parallel and perpendicular to the curve of the Mississippi River. The heart of the city is a sub-grid of eight by twelve streets called the French Quarter. The streets leading out of this often maintain the same name for five miles of so. When a hostel gives its address as 2253 Carondelet Street, you start pacing along it from the centre, block after block after block, under highway flyovers, through trash blown back streets and dodgy neighbourhoods until after about forty minutes you may have just reached the fourteen hundreds. Becka, who was carrying the big pack as well as her large cardboard Psychonomics poster, was not amused.
Eventually we arrived at the International Youth Hostel, which had no rooms spare. They directed us to Prytania six blocks back (still not close enough to town to be practical). We were getting concerned about the need for a bed that night, so we paid our money for a one night stay in a room with no TV. Then we wandered into town to hunt for food.
Food hunting with Becka is a bit like being desperate for a pee when the nearest public lavatories are a mile away and you are rushing round the park looking for a tree to hide behind. In this situation one would expect your acceptability threshold to decline the more desperate you become, but this doesn’t take account of the fact that your judgment becomes impaired by the pain you are in. You find yourself running past perfectly good spots because someone a quarter of a mile away on the road in a car might see you squatting in the bushes. Becka was knotted with hunger after no food on the plane and got it into her head that she needed a Mexican. After a bad false move into a Burger King she miraculously found a superb one on Iberville Street that we came back to twice. We were lucky that time.
The odd thing about the billboards in the city was that half of them, including the very large ones on the tops of the buildings, were for heart drugs. The American Heart Association was in town for their annual conference, and there were, reputedly, 35,000 of them all in their suits with name badges and AHA tote bags with the dreadful slogan: “Touching Hearts Through Science”. The business was huge. It was they who had booked out the whole city that week, explaining why it was so hard to come by a hotel room.
Clearly, no expense was spared in advertising drugs to these doctors in the hope that they would prescribe them to their patients. The malignant implications of accepting sponsorship and advertising from drugs companies like this obviously goes straight over the heads of the AHA when it comes to holding a city-wide party for 35,000 people. These doctors are supposed to be experts, deciding what is right to recommend. They ought to be able to work out what’s good and bad about the drugs available without the help of these costly lies which do nothing but raise the prices on products over which a monopoly is asserted by patent protection, and for which they do not have to pay since the costs are entirely passed on to their hapless patients as an item on their medical bill. Accepting and encouraging this form of advertising (by conference sponsorship) is tantamount to stating: “We don’t care how much these drugs cost.” And they don’t. It’s a form of commission. People pay the doctors once to see them and get them onto a course of drugs which may last for the rest of their lives, and they pay again as a percentage of the drugs cost back to the doctor who prescribed it in the form of advertising and other sundries. No wonder they are so rich.
I’d always wanted to see the Louisiana swamps. So did a lot of other tourists. There is a thriving Louisiana Swamp Tour industry with their own special busses giving people lifts out of the city to their tour boats only forty minutes away. The alligators were, unfortunately, hibernating: sleeping on the bottom of the river buried in mud. If I had had a car I would have threaded my way along the road network as far as I could towards the mouths of the Mississippi. It looks like a weird place to be. Much of the swamp land has been channelled and drained to prevent the river from flooding the city and to look for oil. They also logged every original tree in a period of thirty years because, as we know, nothing is more harmful to an economy than poisonous snakes and virgin forests.
In the morning we went out of our way to find a genuine American diner, and knew we had found the right place when we noticed that a quarter of the room was taken up with fat cops eating breakfast. Then we moved out of the hotel, bought a one day bus pass from the St Charles tram driver (the tram is one of the city icons) and moved to the India Hostel which is favoured by backpackers. We’d checked it out the night before on our search for better-valued accomodation, taking a shortcut through a decidedly dodgy part of town in the dark. The hostel was miles out of town along another road. There was a FAQ poster on the kitchen wall, and one of the questions was: “If it’s late at night is it a good idea to walk back from town even if I am not drunk?” Answer: “No, it is not a good idea. Take a taxi or a bus.”
Becka always wants room for two instead of a dorm. The room for two in India Hostel looked pretty bad and insecure, so we weren’t that interested. (We hadn’t seen it the night before because people were in it.) How much worse could a dorm be? Well, pretty bad. I don’t know if we’re getting soft in our old age, but we’re certainly more fussy for the price and we were still miles from town.
We lasted a night there before moving on to our next place, The Empress Hotel, which was a hit. For the same price as a room in the India Hostel you got security, a TV and your bed made every morning all at a distance of four blocks from the French Quarter. The TV was great with all this Florida vote recount business going on. It was depressing to see how, with the addition of lawyers, a straight-forward technical problem of defunct counting machines and bits of paper can be turned into a bigger mess than an oil spill. I mean, you know they’d be more careful if the process involved sorting hundred dollar bills from one dollar bills and counting them. No bank would trust a broken machine. But if it’s people’s votes, that’s alright then? I wondered what happens afterwards and whether they were going to grind them into dust as they do with used dollar bills so no one can find out what really happened.
At last we got to work. The conference was held in the Hyatt Hotel by the American Psychological Association. Registration was free because the conference is a reinvestment of the money earned from the revenue of their academic journals. It’s amazing what can be achieved when there are no shareholders to pay off. Since the conference was so highly subscribed it ran from 8am to 8pm with six streams of talks of, on average, 20 minutes each. Others presented a poster during one of four two-hour poster sessions among about a hundred other presentations. We didn’t get to see outside for much of the day. In fact there was not a single window in any of the rooms. Once I had to walk at least half a klick through an attached shopping mall to find out if it was still raining or not. The TV news was obsessed with the rain. You had at least three weather reports per news session, probably because it was cheap, up to the minute and non-controversial.
We settled into a routine of going back through town in the evening and finding interesting places to eat. On Bourbon street there was nothing but bright lights and loud music competing with each other through open windows. It was horrible. Most of the advertised restaurants were unabashed tourist traps, but we did discover in a small veggie place called Old Dog New Trick. And the other place I’d recommend for excellent food and value is the “Barracks Street Cafe & Yogurt Shoppe”, which doesn’t look like anything at all even from the inside, but would definitely be my regular spot were I local. The journey between the Empress Hotel and the conference always had to be done through the French Quarter even though both were four blocks north of Rampart Street, the northern boundary of the quarter. This was to avoid the dodgy neighbourhoods in between and stick to the “safe” corridors. If we were feeling especially insecure we’d go several roads into the quarter before going across just to be on the safe side.
After several days the TV began to drive us nuts with its ads that were interesting the first time round, but not after they were repeated over and over again. We began reading the local newspapers instead. The big new casino in town, “Harrah’s”, was having cash troubles and was asking the city for a hundred million dollar rebate. Worryingly, the city deigned to consider it. Becka found out about the football game in the big concrete bubble-like stadium in the city. The local team, the Saints, were playing in the NFL. They were enjoying a straight run of wins and were now really popular. The game was going to be a sell out if we didn’t get our tickets in time. In fact the team was doing so well they were making noises about a bigger stadium and were reportedly throwing their weight around with the city in order to get them to pay for a new stadium or else, I don’t know, they were going to move someplace else?
We missed the last talk of the conference and got into our seats right at the top of the bowl with an excellent view and eighty thousand other spectators. All the cheering and fireworks were saved for the home team when they scored, which didn’t happen very often. The visitors beat them soundly. Becka and I spent most of our time trying to work out the rules, gauging the importance of each indeterminate event by the reactions of the people around us and the changing numbers on the scoreboard. The American habit of using every available device, including the scoreboard display most of the time, for the purposes of advertising did not help us at all. Sometimes, between the rounds, the giant screen used for closeups and replays for the benefit of people not in the front rows was commandeered along with the PA system for the display of TV ads.
The next day we left for home. The bus developed a fault on the way to the airport and we changed to another one on the way. There was no waiting: we stepped directly out of the old bus onto the new one without touching the road. The bus system, it seems, has a charter for serving the public and the duty to permit access to anyone, be they in a wheelchair or carrying a bike. Bikes go on a bike carrier on the front, but you need a pass. Passes in your name can be collected for free from the bus company, but they will only issue you with one once you learn how to operate their bike racks. Details can be found at Jefferson Transit at the bottom. The exceptional reasonableness of this attitude is in such contast to the transport problems in England. I could easily rant about this for ages, but basically if a city like New Orleans needs a large low-paid workforce to work in their vast number of hotels and so forth, it cannot afford to take chances with its transport system and must run one that is good value, comprehensive and doesn’t ever make people late. In England, on the other hand, trains and busses are seen merely as devices for enriching a small number of corporate investors rather than serving a social purpose. As a consequence it is about as laudable as the American health care system.