New Orleans. Part Seven.

‘House of the Rising Sun’

By sunset the worst of the thunderstorm had passed, but the wind and rain weren’t done with us just yet. After spending hours with grumbling stomachs, the three of us finally left the apartment and made our way the Gumbo Shop for dinner. We were barely a third of the way up St. Peter when a freak gust of wind popped John’s blue Walgreen’s umbrella completely inside-out. John swore and fumbled with the hateful thing while Amy choked back laughter. Undeterred, we pressed on.

Anyone who really knows me will tell you that I’m big on “firsts”: The “first time” we saw this, the “first time” we did that. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but the simplest is that I love creating history.

Dinner at the Gumbo Shop was one of many such “firsts” in our newly adopted city. It was my first taste of New Orleans cuisine back in 1995. It was the first place I took Amy to eat when we visited the city together two years later. And now, blustery weather be damned, it was going to be John’s first meal here as well.

Gumbo Shop was less than a five minute walk from our apartment. The less dawdling tourists you had to step around, the quicker you got there. Once you located the wooden restaurant sign swinging overhead, a dimly lit hallway led to a pair of glass doors located at the end of the passage, just off to the right. One door was propped open, the other closed. In front of the closed door stood a prominent “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. So we waited. Cool drafts of air conditioning wafted out from the open glass door into the hallway, seeping through our wet clothes and chilling damp skin. We shivered and shuffled while waiting on our greeter* to spot an open table. There were two wooden benches in the hall for waiting customers, but we were too hungry and anxious to bother.

(*—I’m happy to note that she still works there: a quiet, but kindly woman named Gerry…)

The rain kept coming, so dining in the courtyard was out. Still, the forces of synchronicity were with us: we were seated at the same table I first ate at in 1995. The table was flush with the wall, directly beneath the same faintly scratched dining room window I stared out of as a solitary “transplant” two years earlier. Then, as now, I found myself hypnotized by the endless stream of bustling foot traffic up and down St. Peter.

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The three of us ordered the same appetizer, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo. The distinction was in our choice of main dishes. I had the Jambalaya, whereas John decided to try the Red Beans & Rice with smoked sausage—a dish Amy was already a fan of, so she ordered it as well.

When our food arrived, Amy and I watched John’s first few bites of his Red Beans & Rice with interest. Judging by the pace in which he began to spoon in bigger and bigger mouthfuls, it was safe to say his premiere meal in New Orleans was an instant hit. He polished off the smoked sausage first then tore off chunks of french bread to mop up the rest. Seeing this, I began to relax a little and more readily enjoy my own dinner. The rest of the meal is a (happy) blur, but whatever uncertainties faced us in the weeks ahead, we always had the solace of good food nearby to help put our move into perspective.

So much about the Pontalba era is fragmentary. As I write this, our first arrival in late April of 1997 was close to 20 years ago. Nevertheless, a few key memories stand out.

For example, I remember next to nothing about our first night strolling Bourbon Street as a trio, save for the distinct feeling of being a trio. We had likened ourselves—sometimes jokingly, sometimes reflectively—to the fictional “coven” in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire: Lestat, Louis and Claudia.

John’s brash impulsiveness and impatience lent itself easily to the ‘Lestat’ role. Amy, both conspiratorial and contrary to John’s ways, was a recognizable ‘Claudia’. I strolled between these two as the brooding, over-sensitive ‘Louis’, wondering how long the three of us could live under the same roof before our little social chemistry experiment openly blew up in our faces.

Formative traditions became our anchors: a certain glibness in our banter (particularly between John and Amy), our inclination toward (mostly) cheap eats, along with a few key watering holes by which we could comfortably acclimate to our newfound “localness”—such as the darkened Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, that shambling French colonial lit mostly by candlelight, or the Old Absinthe House, whose walls were bedecked by business cards and dusty, drink-stained dollar bills.

We couldn’t afford to eat at the Gumbo Shop on a regular basis, so Amy attempted to stretch our thinning budget by stocking up on boxes of Zatarain’s “Dirty Rice” or “Jambalaya”, the latter made more substantial by adding inexpensive links of andouille sausage we picked up from the nearby A&P.

dirty_rice_300

Being stuck indoors in an apartment with little to no furniture made us stir crazy more often than not. Consequently we ate out far more frequently than we should have. We discovered inexpensive but surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall spots like Fiorella’s; a Cuban grill called Country Flame; fat and gooey chili-cheese burgers at Yo Mamma’s; or, on really late nights, cheap but greasy-good breakfast fare at Poppy’s* or (further down Bourbon) Clover Grill.

(*—Sadly, Poppy’s is no longer in the Quarter…)

Friday nights were reserved for watching Millennium on television while eating Hamburger Helper. Yes, Hamburger Helper—and anyone who laughs at this hasn’t tried it “our” way. It was here in the Pontalba that Amy began the tradition of adding Chef Paul’s “Meat Magic” seasoning mix to the browning hamburger. She tried giving the cats little bowls of it as an occasional treat, but the Chef Paul’s made it too spicy so they stopped eating it.

Amy’s 32nd birthday fell on the third day we lived in New Orleans. We celebrated by having lunch at the Gumbo Shop, sipping daiquiris in the late afternoon (we ended up picking up go-cups at The Riverboat Cafe on Decatur (later “Corner Cafe”, now “Corner Oyster Bar”), and then capped the evening with a Jazz dinner cruise on board the Steamboat Natchez. She absolutely loved it.

natchez_night

Especially memorable was the first time we watched Interview with the Vampire in New Orleans:

The apartment was dark, save for the pale flickerings of three glass votive candles we lit for ambience. We sat cross-legged on the floor, occasionally glancing out of the waist-high “Alice” windows that overlooked Chartres street to our right. A greenish haze blanketed the rooftop of the neighboring Le Petit Theatre and the blurred patchwork of French Quarter buildings sprawling beyond it. Behind us, the distant chatter and revelry from Jackson Square below echoed throughout our mostly empty apartment. It was unreal, yet only too real—I could feel the slightly bowing hardware floors beneath me, and smell the intermingling of different incenses drifting in from the square. Our candlelit apartment was a set piece come alive.

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Watching Interview with this much dark and palpable atmosphere, it was hard to distinguish where the film’s New Orleans ended and ours began. The gravity of our move, of what we had just accomplished by pulling up roots and coming here, was beginning to sink in. How otherworldly it felt to be sitting in the (literal) heart of the city while staring at a nearly mirror image of it on a screen. I understood how rare such experiences were, even then. It was one night of many such surreal nights to come.

Less sublime, perhaps, were a few of the discoveries we made by day.

The heat was wilting, of course. No point in bitching about that. And I’ll clear up a common misconception for visitors: it doesn’t matter how long you live in Louisiana, you never get “used to it.” Trust me. You just find yourself mentioning it a lot less.

Tourists made everything slower to get to. Navigating around them added at least 10-20 minutes to any given venture. Not much point in bitching about that either. Sharing the streets with an endless stream of (understandably) enthralled visitors was part of the price of living in the Quarter.

From our location in the Pontalba, running low on groceries typically meant a trip on foot to the nearby A&P store on the corner of St. Peter and Royal. Now this I bemoaned plenty. A&P was small, cramped, poorly stocked and reeked of cheap smoked meats crisping under a heat lamp. I detested it thoroughly.

Whenever Amy announced it was time to go back to our A&P for one item or another, I sensed an almost sadistic amusement—a certain Schadenfreude—in watching my lip curl at the very suggestion of it. Short of raking up wet horseshit, I can’t recall a task more soul-sucking than having to edge my way through narrow aisles congested with shuffling, pit-stained (occasionally shoplifting) gutter punks or bewildered tourists looking for last minute toiletries or cheap souvenirs. The checkout lines took forever and a day, and small wonder: the cashiers looked dead inside, and rang up items just as slowly and dejectedly as the dead might.

We lived a few blocks away from the French Market, but that was a longer walk back to the apartment and best reserved for stocking up on produce and spices. That, and (travel tip) if you’re looking to buy a tin of Cafe Du Monde coffee to take home, it’s usually cheaper at the French Market than elsewhere in the Quarter.

John was especially put off by the apparent lack of shopping conveniences, and chose to voice his displeasure frequently and stridently. Yeah, he understood it wasn’t the West Coast, “but still.”

We had two temporary salves for this. The first was a 20 minute walk to the Riverwalk mall. The second was Amy’s idea: a quick stop by Central Grocery on Decatur (“Home of the original Muffuletta!”) to pick up fixins’ for deli sandwiches.

Central-Grocery

The Riverwalk stroll wasn’t about convenience, of course—even the French Market was closer to us by comparison. Rather, it was how we reminded ourselves that New Orleans wasn’t entirely cut off from the rest of the country. This sprawling two story complex offered most of the usual chain mall fare but with a few regional gems in the mix.

In those days, my favorite Riverwalk stop was a housewares store that sold Louisiana themed ceramic and glass wares. Amy and I loved to window shop here, usually by rifling through kitchen utensils emblazoned with local recipes, bright red crawfish or both. John indulged our repeat visits to this place with little or no comment. He sensed its importance to us, and was largely respectful of it. His contribution was to read aloud the names of novelty hot sauces he felt were particularly inspired, such as the ubiquitous “Slap Ya Mama”.

Whenever I think of our earliest days in the city, I am brought back to that curio store, and how I would daydream about having a home of my own in which to display these little regional curios. Even our Pontalba apartment with furniture would have been an ideal showplace for them, or so Amy had wistfully remarked upon at the time.

Alas, our budget was tight and Amy’s credit card debt was steadily climbing (no thanks to John and me). We tried sticking to cheap food court lunches. Amy and I favored Popeye’s. We’d both get the chicken strip combo with mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and strawberry soda. John would wander around and go to different places depending upon his mood, but often defaulted to mall Chinese. We would then take our food outside on the second floor balcony overlooking the Mississippi river and the “Dixie Gates” (official name: Crescent City Connection, which we disliked and summarily ignored).

This balcony view was particularly nice on days where the river breeze drifted across the deck. John would prop his feet up on a second chair, light a cigarette, and the three us would spend the next half hour or so enjoying brief spells of reflective silence interspersed with tangential musings about our future. It was a “safe” spot for our unusual dynamic, however tense it might have been elsewhere in the city.

On less “responsible” days, the three of us would get daiquiris and sip them out on that same balcony while pouring over our purchases, mainly from the Disney store. We would then head home to eat dinner inside the apartment (rare), or give in to our impulses (less rare) to eat at Court of Two Sisters or another nearby “spot”, before heading out to Bourbon Street.

I was the first of us to land a job. It took about two weeks, but I was a decent typist and scored well on the various skills assessment tests the local temp agency put before me. Prior to our move to New Orleans, I spent the winter months in Connecticut wrangling mainframe reports into spreadsheets for a company called Hamilton Spares.

I think that gig helped. With that kind of experience on paper, and a growing technical literacy, it wasn’t long before I landed my first role as an administrative assistant: I was going to work downtown for Shell. Better still, I would be working at One Shell Square, the same towering limestone building I used to glance up at from the streetcar during my first (failed) move.

So I had a job. Amy and John were delighted and relieved. It meant we could stay in the Pontalba a while longer yet. After I landed the Shell contract, they confessed to dragging their feet a bit on their own job searches.

You see, while I (har-de-har-har) “slaved away” at work, a typical afternoon ritual for them was to shop for cold cuts at Central Grocery, then pick up some fudge from the Cafe Du Monde store. Having secured these items, Amy would prepare deli sandwiches for both of them, fill a plastic “go cup” with pink champagne, then make her way to the river where she would find an open bench by the Immigrant’s Statue on the Moon Walk promenade and read for a couple of hours every afternoon. Her “summer book” was Dracula, but she also read P.D. James mysteries and Peter Wimsey cases by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Not even a week had passed before John’s umbrella was reduced to a sad metal spider destined for one of the Quarter’s overflowing trash cans. He tossed it in a fit of pique one rainy afternoon on Decatur street—a portent of many dead umbrellas to come. He spent the rest of the afternoon ducking under Amy’s umbrella when they weren’t dodging for cover under hanging balconies. Amy’s umbrella didn’t last much longer. New Orleans didn’t have much use for umbrellas. Not cheap ones, in any case.

John had no bed in his bedroom. He slept in-between two thin blankets that lay crumpled on the hardwood floor. When it was time for him to turn in at night, he’d announce that that he was “going to floor”. His other exit line was “I’m hitting the sack”, which was equally absurd. During the week he would bring in cups and plates to eat from at night and very rarely brought them back out to the kitchen again. Each of us had a running “What the hell” habit in the Pontalba. Compulsive dish hoarding was John’s.

A few weeks after the initial move, our meager belongings arrived from Connecticut. This wasn’t an entirely good thing. Now the living room was dotted with random, half-empty boxes, most of them banged up, thrice-taped and hastily scribbled up with Sharpie markup from the move. No one was happy about this, but we didn’t have a place to store their jumbled contents, so they just… sat there.

Apart from boxes, there was Amy’s television, a VCR, a portable CD player, a cedar chest (which became a makeshift “bench”), a small typewriter table and Amy’s computer, which she dubbed “Marius” (from The Vampire Lestat)—all of which were spread throughout the living room. Unless you counted the four poster bed frame in the main bedroom, we had next to nothing in the way of decor.

We did enjoy adding little bits of accoutrements throughout the place, however.

For example, one of the first weekends we lived in New Orleans, John bought a vial of “Come To Me” oil from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo along with a matching sigil pendant. These and other small treasures were well guarded by a small cadre of Star Wars action figures he had propped up along the low-lying window sills in his bedroom.

Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
Entrance to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana

Around that same time, Amy bought a small plaster skull from one of the local occult shops, either Esoterica or Witches Closest. John felt it deserved a name, so he dubbed it “Merlin”. Amy sat Merlin on top of the television set and there he remained as our companion for rainy nights when we stayed indoors and watched movies.

John and Amy eventually found jobs within one week of each other in July. John’s first job was located on St. Charles near Lee Circle. Amy worked at CNG Tower further down Poydras near the Superdome. Amy, who detested organized religion as a matter of principle, surprised us all when she agreed to take on a contract role for a non-profit “ministries” organization. The day she was asked to set up the “manger” display for Christmas made for particularly good joke fodder. Would her hands sizzle and smoke upon touching the figurines?

John left for work before Amy, so every Friday morning Amy would sneak into his room to gather up all the cups and dishes he had squirreled away during the week and hastily slip them into the dishwasher and run it before she left for work.

We often had lunch together at One Shell Square (Subway) or Chik-Filet (on the St. Charles side of my work). Other times we met at the food court at the New Orleans Centre Mall, usually for Chinese. Sometimes we brown-bagged our lunches and ate outside, near the back mall/food court entrance. Lots of conversations about “life, the universe and everything” unfolded here.

Most days we were able to walk home together, save for Fridays which I had off. We’d meet at One Shell Square, or “OSS” as we called it, and walk back to the French Quarter. We didn’t have a car during the Pontalba era, nor did we take buses or streetcars because it didn’t seem worth it (that, and we never figured out the bus schedules). The morning walk wasn’t bad, but the late afternoon trip home could be downright grueling in the heat or pouring rain. In the summer, we cut through One Shell Square because it was air-conditioned.

In short, we began to form routines. A daily rhythm.

Once we made it to the Quarter, we’d sometimes stop at Royal Blend for coffee. On Fridays, John and Amy might stop at Absinthe or Kieffer’s for a drink. Occasionally I met up with them there. John wasn’t particularly keen on going to bars after work, as Bourbon before dark was too depressing for him—for both of them actually.

We discovered Royal Blend during our first week in the city, and it became one of our favorite “spots” from the start. The coffee would never win awards but the courtyard was lovely, as so many courtyards nestled throughout the French Quarter are. A small, darkened archway and a tiered granite water fountain just beyond it enticed curious pedestrians to venture in from Royal street. After ordering your drinks, you could either sit inside at one of the many two-person nooks that wrapped around the courtyard, or lounge outside in the courtyard itself. We often favored the latter.

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Toward the very back was “our” table. It was made of black wrought iron, as were the chairs. The courtyard was paved with a mosaic of rough slate tiles. The table was a bit lopsided (the uneven slate didn’t help) but thanks to a large canvas umbrella and a nearby cluster of leafy banana trees it was nevertheless a calming oasis from the heat.

Here, Amy and I would sip iced mochas while John drank obscenely large ceramic mugs filled to the brim with black coffee, which he would have to lower very slowly onto the rickety table to prevent it from sloshing all over.

Once situated, we’d lean back in our iron chairs, listen to the light trickle of water cascading down the fountain and happily lose ourselves in discussions about life in the city, the day’s events and its many (many) peculiarities.

We spent the weekends strolling the various streets in and around the French Quarter. They was never a shortage of oddball exchanges or occurrences to partake in along the way. “Only in New Orleans” was the running catchphrase between us and scarcely a day had passed that at least one of had not invoked it. Most of these anecdotes were funny (like overheard arguments with lovers and/or inanimate objects). Some were not.

Every now and then we happened upon something that hinted at the city’s underlying darkness, like the day a homeless man lay dying before us.

During our earliest days in the city, we found ourselves walking down Canal Street to fulfill two quests. The first was to set up our telephone service. The second was to visit the Ignatius J. Reilly statue (from Confederacy of Dunces) located in front of the Hyatt hotel.

Ignatius

A few minutes into the walk, a homeless man, either severely drunk or in dire of medication, staggered in our direction. His clothes were dark, lined with crust and he reeked of alcohol and sweat. I confess we instinctively feared touching him. So we gently ducked the guy, mumbled our apologies (ostensibly for not having spare change) and kept walking.

After a moment or two, we glanced back. He tried the same “charging” tact with someone else, only this time he lost his footing and slipped. He fell hard and cried out. It’s possible he intended to stage a fall for dramatic effect but overplayed it, or perhaps it was purely an accident. Doesn’t matter. The man’s head had struck the brick sidewalk with enough force to crack his skull open. Even from where we stood, we could see blood seeping from a deep gash in the very crown of his head. At this point, someone had called the paramedics.

Amy, John and I looked on in helpless silence. The old man cried incoherently as he flailed wildly on the sidewalk. This was no act. A small group of tourists, likely the same ones he had just accosted, urged him to stay still but to no avail.

John whispered what we were all thinking: “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

Numb with shock, paramedics en route, we eventually walked on.

Later, after concluding our errand, we walked back up Canal from the way we came. The man was no longer there, but Amy managed to grab me by the shoulders just as I was about to step into a residual puddle of the old man’s blood. John had walked ahead of us and somehow missed it, but I must have been in a daze.

This sad day put an abrupt end to our ventures down Canal Street. The whole of it was depressing to look upon anyway: a littered stretch of tacky t-shirt shops, cheap daiquiri pits and soulless high rises. Having both paid our respects to Ignatius (and by extension, his creator, the late John Kennedy Toole) and crossing off our original “to do” task, we had little reason to return.

We dealt with the day’s earlier events much as any local would: we sought out copious amounts of rich food and drink.

Adding to our growing list of “spots” was our favorite evening destination: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. By the time we arrived, the interior was already dark, save for a single candle lit at each table. The bar’s hired entertainment, “Johnny G”, was beginning to warm up toward the back on the bar’s old piano, thus marking the transition from jukebox time to Piano Bar time.

Each visit played out more or less the same. The moment “our” table near the entrance became vacated, we’d plop ourselves down and order Dixie beers or whiskey sours. Sometimes we could enjoy conversations, even above the din. Sometimes the back room where Johnny G played was simply too loud to compete with.

In fact, rolling our eyes at Johnny G and his ever-morphing band of intoxicated tourist groupies had soon become something of a minor pastime. Mr. G enjoyed a number of drinks on the house (whether the house liked it or not), but he always drew a crowd. His nightly repertoire was mostly classic Dixieland fare, but he was known to throw in the occasional “Piano Man” or “Just A Gigolo”. Johnny incorporated two notable affectations for these performances: raspy gravel vocals and “scat” improvisation of lyrics. Both flourishes were clearly intended to (subconsciously?) invoke Louis Armstrong.

It was the scat-singing really got our eyes rolling—many verses would simply trail off with nonsensical gems like “zopple-dopple”, which made us laugh in spite of ourselves.

Johnny dispensed with these gimmicks for House of the Rising Sun, a song he played with a notable warmth and almost eerie authenticity, as though he wrote it himself.

Otherwise, it was all a good deal of silliness. Whenever he sang the name of the city itself, it often came out as one long, slurring “Newaaarleeens”—as though trying to sing with a mouthful of wet cement.

The later the hour, the drunker Johnny G and his swaying coterie got. The drunker they got, the more “zopple-dopple”-ing Johnny G threw into his repertoire.

Strange, I have come to miss him rather terribly.

I miss his silliness. His kindness to strangers.

But it’s too late to tell him that. John Gordon (b. Gordon Jones), “Johnny G”, died on March 3rd of 2008 from complications with Alzheimer’s. He was 70 years old.

In the final months of his life, Johnny’s former wife brought him out to North Carolina when he could no longer care for himself. This was in June of 2007. When Johnny passed away the following March, she flew him home to New Orleans for his funeral mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Rampart Street. A “second line” parade and jazz band leading up to Lafitte’s was held in his honor. Then he was interred.

Lafitte’s is still dark inside at night. Still candlelit. The same splintered wooden tables are there. But it’s not quite as it once was.

That is to say: we didn’t know how we good we had it back then.

Honestly, we didn’t have a clue.

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