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New Orleans Is a Pousse-Cafe
In the beginning they called it L'Ile de Nouvelle Orleans.
The city is entirely surrounded by water, and down through history its people have learned to be afraid of that water. High levees whose purpose is to protect New Orleanians from all that water border the city. They have not always done the job intended. The levee breaks and flooding after Hurricane Katrina provided just one more opportunity for a reaffirmation of their faith that water is the enemy, the very devil.
Post-Katrina, I heard a woman from the Lower Ninth Ward say on CNN that the levee breaks in her neighborhood were the work of "our enemies." It was clear that she was not exactly sure who the instrument of the devil was in this case, possibly "terrorists," but it was equally clear that she was sure that the devil had a hand in it.
Water for New Orleanians is a nasty business, embedded in the language, language with the mystical quality of calling up vivid images, emotion, sensation instantly. Old dirty water is an image poet James Nolan equates with home:
...we can always
go feed the ducks near
the solemn stone lions
at the City Park lagoon
and siphon off some
black tadpole broth
where swans preen
in mean perfection
and stale bread crusts
bob,bloat and sink
among mosquito hawks.
The late civil rights leader and poet Tom Dent associated water with images of evil, such as "riversnake," and bad history such as "...stuffed black mammies chained to Royal St. praline shops..." in his poem "Secret Messages," a blues ballad to jazz immortal Danny Barker.
In her narrative poem "Madhouse," Brenda Marie Osbey, poet laureate of Louisiana, emphasizes through her narrator Felicity the need for Vaudou protection from water:
"...The bahalia women are coming from around St. James carrying the bamba-root in their hands. Believe on those hands, and they will see you through seasons of drought and flood..."
And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have inspired new verses, such as these lines from a new poem, "The Good Shepherdess of Nether," by Andrei Codrescu and David Brinks working in concert:
...near the heady waters of the 17th Street Canal
it's Sunday, August 29, 2005
O Good Shepherdess of Nether
throw me a rope made of your best linens
pull me up to your thighs.
When a reporter for The New York Times showed legendary New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint photographs of his flooded New Orleans residence, the musician's first glimpse of his home in the aftermath of Katrina, he was silent, studying them, then said:
Good heavens, I'm getting drenched just looking at these pictures. The water is whipping my body.
When New Orleanians are not in the midst of a disaster made by water, they generally prefer to forget that water and its dangers exist, turning their backs on some of the most gorgeous water views, already making carpetbagger real estate speculators salivate in the wake of Katrina. Check it out, the next time you visit, soon, when we are prepared to receive you in the style to which you are accustomed. You will find, for instance, that views of the Mississippi River from residences or restaurants are few and far between. All those flooded homes in Lakeview were without a view of the lake.
The energizing electricity of this life on the edge, way down here at the end of the world, surrounded by all that water, is among the most seductive of the powers of our siren city. And its citizens and visitors alike are charged with creativity by zillions of conflicting ions continually bouncing up against and off each other.
While New Orleanians know deep down that water is a source of both their charge and impending disaster, however, most days they'd just rather not think about it, content to enjoy their good little life with a Sazerac and a plate of soft-shell crabs almandine behind the closed cafe curtains of Galatoire's or inhaling the aroma of Oysters Ellis passed by a favored waiter like Tommy in the Rex Room at Antoine's or taking the first bite of Ella Brennan's ridiculously sinful Bread Pudding Souffle -- conceived as something "light" to respond to the "nouvelle" craze -- in the Garden Room of Commander's or watching the maitre d'hotel at Brennan's working that old black magic with his flambe pan, playing with fire, making it dance on the tablecloth without burning it, letting the flames soar to the ceiling as he browns the butter and sugar and burns off the rum for Bananas Foster. They'd rather be eating gumbo z'herbes and fried chicken with Jessica Harris and Leah Chase on Maundy Thursday at Dooky Chase or debris with Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's any day of the week or hear Patrick Van Hoorebeck of the Bistro at Maison de Ville catch a newcomer once again with his comment "we serve the second best creme brulee in the city." The newcomer, without fail, inquires, "And where is the best to be found?" Patrick replies, "I'm still looking for it."
Why think about the breaks in the levees when they know the levees will break again eventually, since their cries to Congress have been ignored for the forty years since the levee breaks of Betsy? New Orleanians would rather contemplate the bottom of a glass while perched on a high stool next to the eccentric ghost of Germaine Wells in Arnaud's bar or keep company with the shades, as they say in Vaudou lingo, of Owen Brennan at the Absinthe House or Tennessee Williams at Cafe Lafitte...or smell the pipe smoke of Faulkner, still haunting Pirate's Alley all these years after he described it in letters to Miss Maude as "...the very best place to live."
They would rather listen to Charmaine or any or all of the Nevilles, moving to the music, body to body, partners changing casually, seamlessly, on a steamy night at Tipitina's or come home happy, covered in mud after the proverbial rainy day at Jazz Fest, or put on headphones for the Marsalis Magic Hour to hear Wynton's quartet do "Free to Be" or hear Allen Toussaint in concert sing his "Southern Nights" or get on the glad rags to hear a talented young surgeon, reinventing himself as a pianist in his New Orleans debut, hands racing madly across the keys of a concert grand in front of the altar at St. Louis Cathedral, playing the awe-inspiring compositions of nineteenth-century Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who married the salon traditions of Europe to wild Congo Square dances to produce a unique New Orleans sound, heralding the advent of jazz. They would rather stroll through secret gardens with Roy Guste or read Creole novels with Jervey Tervalon or birdwatch with Poppy Z. Brite or feed the gorillas at the Audubon Zoo with Randy Fertel in memory of his eccentric father or reminisce about the Irish Channel with Mary Helen Lagasse or buy luscious antiques at Patrick Dunne's Lucullus.
New Orleanians for the most part don't sound like anyone else in the South -- more like people from the Bronx, only softer, more musical. They would rather hear the sound of their voices -- "Where yuh been, dahlin' " -- or read the work of people like Patty Friedmann, who can capture those dialects, which vary among each of the eighty-seven separate and distinct neighborhoods of New Orleans, than brood about a watery demise.
Instead of worrying about water they know they can't keep in check forever, they would rather swing with the local pastimes -- curing a hangover with the traditional Monday plate of red beans and rice at the Gumbo Shop, drinking green beer at Parasol's in the Irish Channel on St. Paddy's Day, or lining the streets to give kisses to Italians in tuxedos, the price for the prized green, white, and red crepe paper flowers on St. Joseph's Day, or tossing dog treats to canine revelers parading with the Krewe of Barkus, or...
...they would rather rub shoulders with those they take to heart, like that sensational redhead Lolita Davidovich, who wowed them with her portrayal of Bourbon Street's exotic dancer Blaze Starr, the paramour of crazy-like-a-fox Earl Long. And Lolita's director Ron Shelton, who bowled them over with his understanding of a great love story. Davidovich and Shelton fell in love with each other and with the city, and New Orleanians loved them back -- as they do Francis Ford Coppola, who generously lends his French Quarter house for literary causes.
They would prefer to play with those who have never been strangers, such as Julia Reed, whose home-cooked buffet dinners for casts of hundreds are legendary; Harry Shearer and his bride, composer and jazz singer Judith Owen, who come to New Orleans for inspiration breaks; Roy Blount, Jr., whose rambles about the city are famously funny; Rick Bragg, who can't get his heart out of the New Orleans box; and Mark Childress, who can tick off a thousand reasons why New Orleans should be saved for the rest of the world.
They would rather scream their lungs out pulling for the Saints, begging without real hope for a winning season, or begging for throws from masked float riders, such as Christopher Rice, a float captain for Orpheus. They would rather roam the Vieux Carre looking for Lestat with Anne Rice, suck crawfish heads and laugh with one another over the latest peccadilloes of politicians and bet on the lottery or the horses at the Fairground, and tend balcony gardens, drenching the unsuspecting caught walking below when they sprinkle their plants. (Sometimes they gleefully and quite deliberately turn their hoses on foul-mouthed, ill-mannered college brats caught with their pants down peeing through the iron fence on St. Anthony's Garden or on the doorways of cathedral neighbors.)
They would rather get high on music, and food, and each other, enriching their bodies and their souls, than worry about things over which they have little control.
I said they, because technically speaking I am not a New Orleanian. I have spent two thirds of my life in the Big Easy and everything I am or yet hope to be has been shaped by the city and its people and most days I feel like a New Orleanian myself. My early years, though, were spent in coastal South Carolina and coastal Panama and so my view of water is somewhat skewed. In those places, when the water comes in, it goes out. And the rhythm of that coming and going is the rhythm of life.
In the little below-sea-level, below-the-levees bowl that is the New Orleans I love, I will suddenly begin to feel closed in, claustrophobic. All that water and not a drop in sight except on a sweating glass, next to a hot baguette and a plate of butter on a crisp white cloth with small bowls of bearnaise sauce and powdered sugar, waiting for the hot sticks of fried eggplant and souffle potatoes to be dipped into them. Not a drop of water in sight except when it rains, and when it rains it pours.
This trapped feeling gets me in its clutches and I long to see an expanse of water, especially from a hammock on an old screened porch on Pawley's Island or Sullivan's or Edisto, watching the waves come in and go out. Or walking my dog around the battery at the tip of the Charleston peninsula and stopping to stare out to sea. When the pull of the tidewater becomes too strong, I head to South Carolina for a few days or weeks.
I can't always get away when the ocean craze, a genetic disorder common among Carolinians, comes on me, but there is a New Orleans release for my claustrophobia. And it is as sweet and fine as being in Carolina. I walk up to the levee at the Moonwalk and watch the currents of the river. A phenomenon I experience there has become synonymous with my love of New Orleans. Almost always there are waves of air, layers of conflicting intensity and temperature. It's like wading into the waves at the beach, and the gentle tickling caresses of these layers of hot and cool and warm and cold are a sensual indulgence. It reminds me of being with well-loved friends and tasting the subtleties of the pousse-cafes that were the special forte of the one-armed bartender at Tujaque's, who amused us with his mixology expertise, formidable in spite of his handicap.
Each of the liquors is of a different flavor and color and density and the trick of the bartender is to get each of the layers to stay separated until he serves the concoction with a flourish. The drinker sips through a straw from the bottom layer to the top, tasting the distinctive qualities of each, finally savoring the blend of all on the tongue. Exquisite. Like New Orleans.
When you try to examine the layers of this pousse-cafe that is New Orleans, you frequently are confounded by layers within layers, contradictions, sudden about-faces, split personalities, delicious surprises, confrontations with the elements. The roller-coaster ride of it all makes you giddy with pleasure...if you get it.
The weather, of course, is a heady distillation of intoxicating extremes. We have a saying down here, based on experience: "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."
I first saw New Orleans in 1963, just a week or so after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On the plane down, all conversation was about the man accused of killing the president. Lee Harvey Oswald, who had lived in New Orleans, had himself been gunned down by Mafia henchman Jack Ruby. People were still in shock. It struck me then, just for a moment, that the city I was about to visit was a place where things happen. Then the plane began its slow approach across Lake Pontchartrain, and you could see this city glimmering on a bit of land in the middle of acres and acres and acres of swamp, located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, and I was immediately caught up in the exoticism of the environment.
At the time, I also was caught up in the fiction of William Faulkner, his rhythm and meter and poetic allusions. So I checked in at the Hotel Monteleone, reputed to be his favorite, and strolled down Royal Street, a street of dreams for all who favor artistic craftsmanship and objects with a history -- spectacular French furnishings of the eighteenth century, for instance, and cases and cases of exquisite antique jewelry intricately crafted for Creole women adored by their men. I met friends at Brennan's, a restaurant situated in a U-shaped arrangement around one of the most beautiful courtyards in the French Quarter.
Earlier, when the plane tipped down in New Orleans, the captain noted that it was hot for November, 82 degrees, with humidity hovering near 100 percent. During brunch at Brennan's, I got my first taste of the untamed wildness that characterizes New Orleans. A blue norther came barreling in, blasting us first with the kind of sound-and-light show only God can make and then drenching the city with torrents of rain blown about crazily by twisting winds. Seeing this storm from a huge window overlooking the courtyard was exhilarating, as was the shock of stepping outside to discover that the temperature had dropped 40 degrees during our three hours at the table.
That night, I walked the Quarter with my friends, listening to music. It was cold and misty and the streets still glistened with diamondlike droplets from the earlier storm. One friend suggested beignets at Cafe du Monde to cap the evening. We cut down Pirate's Alley, which runs from Royal to Jackson Square, the heart of the old Creole town. The alley is named for an early lover of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, the buccaneer who helped Louisianians and Old Hickory defeat the British in 1812. Buildings on the alley overlook St. Anthony's Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral. One narrow building tugged at me, a Greek revival townhouse of the 1830s, narrow and tall, with balconies and guillotine windows overlooking the garden. I said to my friends, "I will live in that house one day," more as an expression of my delight than a prediction.
I did not know it -- there was no plaque on the building then -- but it was here that William Faulkner, who came to New Orleans in the '20s as a poet, found his voice as America's most famous novelist. Later I learned that it was the beauty, the exhilarating extremes, and the easygoing freedom of New Orleans that inspired Faulkner, putting him firmly on the road to the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I do live in that house now. And I love watching the weather through the tall windows, as it breaks over the garden. And I love watching the people passing through the alley on the way to their dreams.
Most of us agree that the most important layer of our multilayered concoction, the one that provides its strength and charm, is its people. It is the blending of people that sets New Orleans apart. West Africans and Native Americans have mingled their heritage with that of the Spanish and the French and West Indians and Celtic Americans. The Acadians and Islenos and Sephardic Jews and the Italians and the Basques and the Germans and the Yugoslavs have mixed it up with the original Creoles and then been salsified by Cubans, Mexicans, Hondurans, Panamanians, Argentines, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, Chileans, Costa Ricans, and Colombians, then reggaed and vaudoued by Jamaicans, Haitians, Santo Domingans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Bahamians, and Barbadians.
Andrei Codrescu said in his foreword to New Orleans Stories, published some years ago:
...I had the fleeting thought that everyone, dead or alive, returns to New Orleans. If people can't come back in their lifetimes, they come back when they are dead. And everyone who ever lived here, the costumed Spanish and French dandies, the Victorian ladies of Kate Chopin's age, the whores and ruffians, and the poets, are still here. In a city like New Orleans, built for human beings in the age before cars, it's possible to move about the streets with ease and there is plenty of room for everyone.
There has been room for everyone and the blending has produced strange and wonderful variations on cultural themes.
The best Italian crooner since Frank Sinatra is Harry Connick, Jr., an Irishman from New Orleans, and the hottest Latin music in town is by Los Hombres Calientes, led by the latest Afro-American trumpet-playing jazz sensation, Irvin Mayfield.
The city's most famous watering hole is named for the most famous of Frenchmen, Napoleon, but the Napoleon House has always been owned by the Impastata family of Sicilian heritage. The best Italian restaurant is the creation of an Irishman, Ralph Brennan, and Italian chef Greg Piccolo tantalizes his patrons with exquisite French entrees and desserts at the Bistro at Maison de Ville. Susan Spicer, whose Anglo name is perfect for a chef, introduced New Orleanians to Nouvelle Cuisine with Caribbean style.
There are beautiful cafe au lait-colored Creoles with blue or green eyes or paste white skin and black-as-night eyes and tawny blondes with big brown eyes and Celts with natural red hair and copper skin and opal eyes and freckle-faced children with black, black hair and inch-long lashes. The combinations for beauty increase geometrically with each generation.
As if the genetic overtones are not sufficiently beguiling, New Orleanians are incessantly giving in to a form of benign schizophrenia, egged on by Janus, continually trying on new personae, reinventing themselves for both the serious drama and the musical comedies that are the fare of the theater of daily life in New Orleans. Multiple personality syndrome is not a disorder in New Orleans, it is high art.
Just when you think you have finally figured someone out, like Durrell's Justine, that person will disappear from the plot, only to reappear in a new scene, reborn, known to you only by her place card at a dinner party, perhaps, or a piece of jewelry given to her by her mother, which she always wears, or the perfume she adores. She has sensed, perhaps, that she has become too familiar, even too loved, and must shake things up, take on again the ability to excite and entice. Just like New Orleans, the old courtesan herself.
In her marvelous book New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America's Most Interesting City, Carol Flake explained it, saying that no one wants to be thought of as ordinary in such an extraordinary city.
Everyone wants to be noticed, as a friend of mine said recently, "to have their names up in lights." And, if they like it a lot when they are seen to shine, they are also quick to applaud generously the new roles created and played well by their friends, their neighbors, their fellow New Orleanians, and those outsiders in the audience who get it and are, then, allowed to join the players.
This layering of diverse and ever-changing personalities -- the heterosexuals, the homosexuals, and the undecided; the black, the white, and the lovely Creole blends of all; the silk-stockinged rich, the poor, and the in-between; the native and the newcomer and those just passing through now and then -- has remained cohesive because of a deep and abiding concern for one another in spite of the diversities, a communal sense of humor and tolerance for the failings and the foibles and absurd eccentricities and weird appearances of our neighbors and our visitors.
New Orleans, because of its eccentricities, regularly inspires flights of fancy. Storytellers come to New Orleans and their imaginations soar, taking them on trips into the world of creative thinking that might not otherwise occur. Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler's imagination took him beyond the stars and back again with his allegorical novel Mr. Spaceman. An alien spaceship captain is on a mission to reveal himself to Earth's people, to tell them they are not alone. He has been observing Earth's peoples and places and has beamed up to his ship twelve people to help him understand human thoughts and their strange jargon of jingles, their strange customs, the way they treat each other and other species on their planet. He's excited about being at the center of a dramatic event, but fears his fate at the moment of revelation. He must appear dramatically at the moment of the millennium before thousands of people and the media. New York's Times Square is on his screen, a location that would satisfy his orders. His twelve friends warn him of the dangers but admit that Houston would be no better. And he fears humans are going to tear him into little pieces and put those pieces under a microscope and other machines and study these relics of him for eternity. At the last possible minute, while putting his friends on a bus back to their lives, the last man to board gives him an alternative.
"You should appear in New Orleans. They might understand there."
"The Big Easy," I say.
"It's just down the highway."
"Let the Good Times Roll," I say.
"I'm sure they've got a big party tonight," he says. "Plenty of media."
"Thank you for the suggestion."
"I'd be comfortable there," Hanks says, and he winks and he nods and he disappears into the dimness of the bus and the door closes.
In spite of our differences we have sought out each other's company over, always, the very best food, ingenious dishes created from a poor people's basics: beans, rice, okra, fish, crabs, oysters, shrimp, peppers, garlic, onions, and file with the best breads imaginable -- biscuits and cornbread, the Southern staples, of course, but also French breads, Italian foccacias and muffuletta loaves, tortillas and pita, sweet callas, and beignets. And elegant desserts created from everyday things such as bananas and sugar and rum. Ours is comfort food even for the aliens among us.
Our differences have not separated us. We eat oysters together, we get down and boogie together, and we walk the dirge together. We manage to love each other a bit, help each other a bit, and live in relative harmony right up close in each other's faces.
One of the players in the ongoing theater of New Orleans is always the past. As Faulkner said, "The past is not dead, it's not even past."
The city has a heritage of nurturing great storytellers of the past such as Faulkner, bringing them into the fold and caring for them when they've been discouraged by taunts such as "count no 'count." And this heritage is continually renewed, with contemporary writers such as Bret Lott and Stewart O'Nan finding confidence in the tradition the city has of revering its storytellers, especially when they are young and feeling their way.
It's simply a matter of the good manners and generous hospitality of the past, which remain hallmarks of New Orleans at a time when manners and hospitality are rapidly disappearing elsewhere.
Walter Isaacson reminds us that the vibrancy of New Orleans is related directly to the layers of life of previous eras, which remain alive just beneath the newly applied coat of life, each layer of the past contributing to the present and to the future.
Just now, Walker Percy is recommended reading for anyone who would understand New Orleans and the challenges ahead. Walker used to hang out in the Quarter, alone, when he was writing. He once rented an apartment next to me and we got to know each other sufficiently well for me to be invited to some of his think-tank luncheon sessions at Bechac's in Mandeville, looking back across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans. He was a combination of Calvinist work ethic and Catholic guilt and intellectual twists of humor. He was a good man and he worried about the future of Americankind.
He looked upon New Orleans as a possible way back for the rest of America, a model for national salvation, if New Orleans could just finally get its act together and come to grips with the big issues of education and jobs for the poor, and expanded opportunities for the marginalized to move up the class ladder.
In his essay "New Orleans, Mon Amour," he emphasized that the heroic deed has not been the style of New Orleanians but said that, if in its 250 years the city has produced no giants, no Lincolns or Lees, "it has nurtured a great many people who live tolerably, like to talk and eat, laugh a good deal, manage generally to be civil and at the same time mind their own business. Such virtues may have their use nowadays."
His essay, written originally for Harpers, was published in 1968 and it is as meaningful today.
"The peculiar virtue of New Orleans, like St. Theresa, may be that of the Little Way, a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed," Mr. Percy said.
We've had a good everyday life together. We have had it all, down here at the end of the world, jumping-off place to nowhere, down here where the edginess of it all is exhilarating, seducing, inspiring.
We can have it again and will, but first we must face the big issues Mr. Percy cited in 1968 and which are with us still.
Now we must find the inspiration for a new, unfamiliar role; we must reinvent ourselves as heroes, capable of not only bringing a great city back, but of making it better for all New Orleanians; capable of facing down that old demon water and overcoming it with skill and ingenuity; capable of preserving the precious originality of New Orleans neighborhoods and their style, the music of New Orleans, its food, its lingo, its soul.
A wise man said to the Athenians:
Look at the city's real power day after day,
and fall in love with her,
and if she seems great to you, remember that men built
these things who knew what needed to be done and
dared to do it,
and if they fell short of their goal,
they never thought to deprive the city
of their talent;
they gave her their best.
If we do just that, then we will enjoy once again our Little Way.
Copyright 2006 by Rosemary James
Excerpted from My New Orleans by Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Rosemary James New Orleans Is a Pousse-Café
BALLADS TO THE BIG EASY BY HER SONS...
James Nolan Nasty Water
Walter Isaacson How to Bring the Magic Back
Wynton Marsalis Soul Model for America
Roy F. Guste, Jr. I Am Creole
Jervey Tervalon A Very Big New Orleans Family in a Very Small World
Randy Fertel Bring Back the Clowns
Christopher Rice Orpheus
Barbara Boggs Sigmund New Orleans
Ella Brennan The Secret Ingredient
Poppy Z. Brite Funkytown, or How New Orleans Made Me a Birdwatcher
Patty Friedmann Home Is Still New Orleans
Mary Helen Lagasse The Channel, New Orleans
Leah Chase Our Slow Curve
Charmaine Neville Come as You Are
Andrei Codrescu A Leafy Angel
Rick Bragg This Isn't the Last Dance
Elizabeth Dewberry Cabaret Stories
Paul Prudhomme It's Magic
Mark Childress What It Means to Miss New Orleans
Julia Reed The Second Stage of Passion
Patrick Dunne Carlotta's Vases
Julie Smith Portrait of the Artist
Harry Shearer The Street
Jessica B. Harris Taking Yansa to See Miss Marie (with Apologies to the Shade of Jorge Amado)
Stewart O'Nan When Worlds Collide
Bret Lott Walking the Dog with Joe
Ron Shelton Miracles of the Ordinary
Robert Olen Butler Mr. Spaceman Arrives
Roy Blount, Jr. An Epilogue: Spice of Life