Thanksgiving 1994 (Regina Schrambling's Gastropoda)
I could lie in that miserable bed and somehow be zipping along in a rental car on an impossibly bright afternoon, crossing the Mississippi from Algiers back toward the French Quarter after turducken at Kelsey's, John Hiatt's "Buffalo River Home" blasting from the tape deck ("tearing through the cotton fields and bus shelters, the South running helter-skelter;" "I've been taking off and landing but this airport's closed;" "just when you think you've been gypped, the bearded lady comes and does a double back-flip").
I went that first time after my consort moved there for a couple of months to shoot it for National Geographic, back in the good old days when a photographer could actually be underwritten in his desire to live and breathe a story. I joined him for one week in slave quarters converted into a rental apartment in the Garden District, and we just soaked the place up, to the point that I noticed a Times-Picayune story about a do-gooders' plan to serve 25,000 or so turkey dinners to the poor and had to make my way to the Convention Center to help. Surprisingly, almost more volunteers than takers showed up -- it was pretty much a horde of white people in "Feast of Friendship" commemorative aprons standing around with a bunch of photographers. I remember being dejected but hopeful: Maybe poverty wasn't so bad in a city that had already struck me as one of the most troubled in America, with blood almost literally running on the sidewalks. Maybe all the needy were off having the Norman Rockwell experience on their own?
I think I knew even then how silly that was. But that day we just blithely got in the car and went to eat turducken (overrated) and then to a run-down house where the young cooks from Nola were holed up and had invited us for their potluck after Bob struck up one of his singularly engaging conversations while we ate at the pizza bar one night. That was a revelation, too: guys sleeping on mattresses on the floor in otherwise empty rooms for the chance to cook with Emeril, a hero a couple of them had not even met. But they could cook -- I had the best duck of my life, in confit with rosemary. Everyone had kicked in a specialty: pot stickers; smoked turkey glazed with roasted garlic; apple-habanero chutney; New Mexican carne adovada; mushroom soup, even canned cream corn, with six types of bread. It was so New Orleans (as was seeing a great-looking young black guy with his girlfriend being fawned over at Nola another day at lunch and wondering what celebrity he might be, only to learn he was an employee who was being treated to lunch to experience how patrons were treated -- a concept every restaurant should adopt, actually).
The rest of the trip was a heady blur, although I'll never forget the artist who shared a joint before taking us to a three-hour lunch at Galatoire's and too many drinks at the Napoleon House, or Jamie Shannon serving us amazing gumbo and then driving us in his little red convertible to meet his seafood supplier and refusing Bob's quicker route because he thought it was too dangerous, or Anthony at Ugglesich's talking us into his trout Muddy Waters and barbecue oysters and crab cakes, washed down with a Barq's and a $2.50 chardonnay, and the local arts official we ran into afterward at a coffee bar saying he could tell by the smell where we had just eaten. Duck at the Upper Line, biscuits at the Sonniat House, a muffuletta from Progress Grocery, a Ferdi po' boy with debris at Mother's, Vietnamese food after the surreal farmers' market out near the Camelot apartments in New Orleans East, Sazeracs and snapper with crab at Brigtsen's with Susan Spicer across the room on a Saturday night -- those are memories I will always be almost able to taste.
It was a truly enchanted city. Bob was so smitten he wanted to move there for good, but reality reared its unavoidable head. Even then it was clear that it would be an impossible place to make a living in, and not just because temptation beckoned from every corner. A good friend once posited that the only way to thrive in New Orleans would be as an alcoholic millionaire. And has that ever been made clear, in the cruelest way.
Only a soulless dry drunk of a millionaire would let it be devastated and then just make photo-op cracks about the good times he let hurl there.