picking pretties in the Big Easy

The street car trundled along behind my teenage granddaughter’s back as she perched in a tree on St. Charles Street in New Orleans untangling Mardi Gras beads left there after last winter’s parades. I waved cheerfully at the passengers – and fellow tourists. A pile of harvested beads at his feet, my husband waited beneath the tree to provide her a shoulder to step down to the ground as he had given her a boost into the tree.

A sleek white car slid to a stop in front of me, “If you want beads, I have two bags I have been trying to get rid of,” the man inside leaned out to say.

“That would be great. This is her first trip to New Orleans. She has never been to a parade.”
He pointed out his apartment across the street, promised to return in a few minutes and did – with more than a bushel of beads. Seeing the booty he brought, she resigned her quest in the tree, scooped up her gleanings from the tree and climbed into the car to gloat. She felt so good she even agreed to go to the old mansion holding the last day of an estate sale.
I just wanted to look at the architecture. I let her talk me into paying a dollar for a another bag of Mardi Gras beads – about a fifth of the amount she received free for climbing a tree.

With her riches piled up around her, she went peacefully to the Audubon Nature Institute to visit the animals. We watched elephants perform, the feeding of bears and raccoons, petted the large goat climbing up the fence to nibble a tree’s fresh leaves and found heat relief in the misting sprays of water strategically located around the zoo.

Our last minute decision to visit New Orleans came when I realized our guest had never been there, that we could fit it in and that it had been a few years since she visited a zoo. With the summer special on the zoo, aquarium, insectarium and IMAX, we quickly planned our weekend.
The entrance of the year-old Audubon Insectarium – reminiscent of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” – had big, colorful bugs clinging to walls of grass surrounding cages of live beetles, ant colonies and hatching chrysalises as well as strategically placed shadow boxes with artistically pinned insects. During the 4-D Bug Show, my guest refused to sit down after the first poke through the seat’s cushions. The quiet of the butterfly room with 500 butterflies and a garden of flowers soothed us.

We ate our packed lunch watching a 3-D IMAX film relating the role of sardines in the food chain and included dolphins swimming into our faces. The Saturday afternoon crowd at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas discouraged long perusals in front of the silent tanks of fish. It was crowded and busy, but we insisted we had the time to wait on the lines for her to touch a shark and a sting ray. At the zoo she petted an elephant, but she absolutely refused to taste, let alone eat, any of the bugs in the restaurant at the insectarium. We couldn’t get her to eat not even one cricket doused with her favorite ranch dressing.
I guess the beignets for breakfast in the French Quarter and a lunch of sandwiches during the IMAX sufficed for her … and truthfully, I avoided eating a wax worm, but we have a cool picture of my husband’s tongue loaded with one – and he snapped a shot of me feeling the skin on the live 100 pound boa constrictor at the zoo.

We all left New Orleans with memories of new adventures – including the grandchild climbing a tree on St. Charles Street for beads.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at joanh@everybody.org)