New Orleans has the power to pause clocks. In the Big Easy, it feels as though Shanda and I are launched back to some past century where old laws keep developers are kept at bay. They limit donut chains and burger drive thrus, keep the beignets frying and the gumbo simmering, and maintain the fragrance of booze. The French Quarter is pungent with the smells... piss and booze, coffee and cigarettes. The textures of the place were like no where in America I'd been.
We check into our hotel and immediately take to the streets, our legs aching for movement. Brass bands and karaoke blast from the street corners on Bourbon Street. Tuneless tourists crone along. And in my pocket, my cell phone chimes in with the dings of text messages,
“How are you? Where are you? Drive safe. We love you.”
From Oregon, Indiana, Texas, South Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico, Kansas... I had a solid entourage among the karaoke with that wonderful ding.
In the morning, at Café du Monde patio, where only cash is accepted and beignets, the French donut, are the only menu item other than coffee, we joyously sit for a morning. The accompanying tink tink of the dishes, ceramic on ceramic, is almost harmonic with the place's chatter.
A lovely, albeit apathetic, waitress plops down two perfectly balanced café au laits and a plate of the beignets. I love watching the silent dust storm of powdered sugar being carried off by the breeze over the bricks. The servers are covered with a fine white paste, the thickness seems to tell of their tenure.
And the slightly greasy, sugary, doughy morsels on the plate... they were sheer and vivid joy. I could feel the entire outdoor patio pulse with every beignet-consumer’s giddy pleasure. Shanda and I happily joined in the pulsating. I felt a kid at Christmas - people bringing me sweets, all that sugary snow floating around.
|The mural by the Cafe du Monde patio|
The city also sounded a lot like laughter. The laugh I remember most is that of the middle-aged local fellow we dined with. He (let’s call him Kevin) chortled all the way home, I'm sure of it, after having swindled us two naïve tourists for at least 2 dozen oysters and a couple beers.
Our time with Kevin began as he walked with us through the streets of the French quarter, giving us the golden “local” take on the city – how it was before the storm, where his family had gone, who had the best jazz and the best oysters. Ooh Oysters… “Let’s go get some!”
Charmed by his tour-guide capabilities, and the absence of any sexual prowess, we agree and head to Remoulades. The three of us settle in happily at the oyster bar, where Joe schmoozes with the resident shucker. Kevin schmoozes and orders and eats, and then repeats. Plate after plate of oysters, he orders and eats and schmoozes, waving his hand with an “Bah!... No worries... It’s on me!”
Oysters on the half shell.
Baked Oysters - Rockefeller, Bienvelle, and Suzette.
Then quite suddenly Kevin needs to step outside for a “smoke break”. And with that… he wafts away down Bourbon Street like a breeze off the gulf, without even a dime for the cocktail sauce. The $100 restaurant bill is handed to us as the shucker shakes his head, and slips off his shucking glove. Tsk tsk Tourists, he seems to say.
But we’re too happy not to laugh at our naivete... See I have a theory that raw seafood gives a swift kick of endorphins to the head, so getting swindled in New Orleans for a few dozen oysters… Things could be worse. The night proceeds with a high buoyancy and only mild disbelief.
But the interlude over beignets must end, and the inevitable approaches. Shanda must fly back to Fargo and her husband Peter, and I must drive on to Charleston. We spend our final night together in a dingy airport hotel in Atlanta. We eat Papa John’s pizza, and appropriately, watch Tina Fey on 30 Rock.