John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas in N.O. means Mardis Gras

The winter smell of the sweet olive tree in our front yard has been complemented by the backyard perfume of angel trumpet blossoms.

The angel trumpet ˜ alternately known as the wedding bell tree because its blossoms hang face down and devil’s trumpet because of psychoactive content it may share with its jimpson weed cousin ˜ began last winter as a stalk about an inch thick and 18 inches long.

Mrs. Sarah Tillman sent a bucket full of those stalks to The Panolian. I put two in a container of water. Before I could get back to New Orleans with it, roots were sprouting from the stalks. I stuck them into the ground in the backyard. They quickly grew so large that I removed one to make room for the small tree the other would grow to. Now we are rewarded with a daily display of its large, yellow-gold blooms and deep-sweet evening fragrance.

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The journey from Greenwood to New Orleans was the second I’ve made since Amtrak consolidated its separate dining and lounge cars into one car called the “Cross Country Cafe.” With the consolidation rail travel ambiance is further eroded. Formerly, the dining car offered white-table-cloth service spread out over the car’s entire upper level.

The lounge car offered a bar, cafe, snacks and seating on its lower level and observation car seating above. Groups could gather at one end of the upper level to party and converse while singles and couples could read or share snacks, drinks or tete a tete at the other end without much overlap.

Now, seating in the lounge area of the “Cross Country Cafe” is limited. Train crew will shoo away groups that attempt to congregate in the small number of  seats. On the other end of the car, the table cloths are gone and the menu is more limited.

Nobody– train crew included– is happy with the new arrangement, but Amtrak was able to cut six jobs and one rail car and so bowed to the economic necessity. Even with the cutbacks, the food chosen from the limited menu is still good.

Once in New Orleans, the St. Charles streetcar is within walking distance of Union Station and once again serving a portion of Uptown. It arrived within the 10 minutes that is its new interval of service. Every window was open that warm afternoon as it clanged its way through Friday afternoon traffic on the crossovers of the avenue’s neutral ground.

Restoration of streetcar service from Lee Circle to Napolean was celebrated last month with a parade, of course. The famous St. Augustine High marching band led a procession of streetcars decked out in holiday greenery and red ribbons.  From the St. Charles/Napoleon terminus it’s a long, short walk home.

Mardi Gras is early this year– February 5. That means the season will crowd Christmas. Already king cakes are on sale in the grocery store. On Sunday, a marching group practiced on the basketball courts across the street. Their pink tights and black costumes ushered in another round of colors to complement the seasonal reds and greens and the flowering bushes and shrubs of every hue.

And also across the street, the FEMA trailers are thinning out. From the 30-odd small trailers that have housed storm victims since it was completed in March, 2006, several are now missing as occupants get their eviction notices and are forced to find other housing. The news is that the rent for alternatives to those trailers has increased drastically within the limited availability of rental property that is within the reach of this city’s working poor.

Meanwhile, the ranks of New Orleans’ homeless have grown drastically as displaced workers, legal and illegal immigrants share their space under bridges and under cardboard with the seasonal influx of homeless who find their way down to New Orleans during cold weather.

It is the season of many seasons and many contradictions. And increasingly, the contradictions of the nation as a whole follow those that first become painfully most apparent in New Orleans.