the crescent city for awhile

I write a column about my adventures for my hometown newspaper, the Lititz Record. They even gave me a press pass when I thought I was going to enter Tibet illegally with some equally testorone laden Tibetan friends. For better or for worse, that didn’t happen and now I just use the press pass to strike up conversations with interesting looking strangers disguised as an interview.

I really enjoy doing the column and it forces me to write, something I have found trouble focusing on during this trip. I also get recognized by random people around town when I go home. That might be the best past. Anyway, here’s the column I submitted for this week:

Things in New Orleans are going well. Too well. Just like my father, good luck makes me expect a sucker punch from fate. The first good news, my mentor in writing offered me a free place to stay. I first started talking to Tom Laird after reading his book, The Story of Tibet, on an Indian train en route to Dharamsala to start my march with the Tibetans. Rarely does a nonfiction book capture me so thoroughly. Tom scored a writer’s dream: 19 personal interviews with the Dalai Lama to discuss the history of Tibet. Combing these interviews with his scholarly knowledge of the country’s history, Tom created a book that beautifully wove the Dalai Lama’s karmic and sometimes mystical views of history with the academic account. I emailed Tom my effusive praise and he soon generously offered his help for my writing.

Now I stay with him and his wife Jann plus their sweet old dog Abigail. They live in Algiers Point, a cute and friendly neighborhood that makes me miss Lititz. However, Algiers Point posses two advantages over our fair town: only a five minute ferry ride across the Mississippi to the French Quarter and being an old stomping ground for two luminaries of the Beat Generation, the opiate genius of William Burroughs and the intense observer, Jack Kerouac. Take heart Lititz. We still have General Sutter of Gold Rush fame, the first hard pretzels in the New World and a lion in the park. Not too shabby.

Tom and I often spend the day together running errands as he tells me about adventures around the world. He proudly never went to college because he knew you could learn more outside the classroom. Instead, he hitchhiked from Europe to Kathmandu six times, lived in Nepal for 30 years and covered stories around the world including the best photographs of the 1990 Nepali revolution. The stories usually take most of the day because of his attention to interesting details and asides about philosophy, writing, Buddhism and the accounts of people he found interesting. It’s a great way to spend the day.

In more good news, nothing endears you to a city like falling for a local girl. I met Anh through couchsurfing soon after arriving in New Orleans. Lex’s Corner of Internet Phenomena: couchsurfing.com is a social networking site where members offer their couches to people passing through town. It’s safer than it sounds because when someone emails you for a place to stay, you can check the references that other users left for them. I never had a bad experience with couchsurfing and never heard of one from the dozens of couchsurfers I have met. It’s a wonderful way to open up adventure and the opportunity to see a city in the best possible way. I love this site.

I already used it to make several new friends here in New Orleans. That’s how I wound up at dinner with Anh and Amelie, a 20 year old model from outside Stockholm. Amelie just began her several month solo tour of America and Asia where she’ll stop frequently to work with some of her favorite photographers. Cute as a button and tougher than she looked, Amelie reminded me of my sister who surprised me with her hard-bitten handling of the swarms of amorous men in Bombay. By the end of her stay in New Orleans, Amelie and I called each other brother and sister in Swedish. Anh, a native of New Orleans, exhibits the massive civic pride I encounter so often in this city. Finishing up an art degree from Tulane, she plans to begin culinary school next year. During our meal of pasta and cheap beer, I little realized I would spend almost every minute of the next week with these two girls.

I even met Anh’s parents, Tac and Tam, the next morning. They planned to continue their road trip around the country the next afternoon so her mom came over to make a final meal of beef pho. While she cooked and ordered the girls around the kitchen in broken English, I heard about her father’s life. Of Chinese descent but raised in Vietnam, Tac already received an engineering degree and started his family by the time the Communists won control. They threw him out of the country with almost nothing and he wound up in a refugee camp outside Los Angeles with his wife and two children. He eventually moved to New Orleans and used his hobby of electronics to begin a successful business. A classic example of the American Dream. Later crushed by Katrina, a refrain I hear far too often.

I still see the devastation from the storms as I walk around the city. I try to find the vibe of this place. I talk to everybody. I wrestle with little black kids and teach them a fireman’s carry. I watch the trolley cars slowly trundle up St. Charles Street filled with tourists. I eat a muffaletta po-boy at the Po-Boy Festival. Eddy the cop tells me about searching for crack and guns while finishing up his MBA. Duygu, a young Turkish scientist, describes her work on digit regeneration and the homemade jewelry business she runs on the side. Fast talking with a coked up guy from Belize who told surprisingly funny stories about his Scottish terriers while fist bumping me on every punchline. I listen to heavy metal with a weed dealer while my friends puked from hits off the vaporizer. I love meeting these people.

My column might not be as frequent until I hit the road again. It’s hard to concentrate on writing when you have a cute girl and need to make some money fast. I’m going to stay here and work for awhile to fund my further travels. For now, I want to end this column with a tribute to my uncle, Gerard Ferdinand Pelger, Lititz’s man about town. Many of you have probably talked to Jerry on Main Street or during breakfast at the dearly missed Chimney Corner. He’s always a friendly guy but what amazes me is his encyclopedic knowledge of Lititz’s history and people. He’s even better at the Mennonite game than Bernie at Hendrick’s Flowers. For any recent transplants, the Mennonite game is connecting the dots on how everybody knows each other, where they work, who they married and basically everything in the intricate network connecting the people of Lititz. Jerry remembers it all and fascinating stories frequently come up as well. He’s led an interesting life and I always enjoy our conversations. This one’s for you Jerry.

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Lex Pelger

pelger@gmail.com
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