Saturday, December 7, 2013

NOLA diary: You're different here. Or at least I am.

I'm getting used to New Orleans.

What I mean by that is, pretty much from the moment I step off the plane, the city starts working on me, transforming me, altering my nature. Maybe it's that brass band that greets me at baggage claim. Maybe it's the friendly cab driver that takes me to my hotel. Maybe it's knowing that I'll be spending the next several days eating some of the most delicious food of my life. Maybe it's just the humidity. But I see things differently here. More specifically, I see people differently. I'm less, um, judgmental. I'm friendlier. I start conversations with strangers. I smile a lot.

I can see the Mississippi from my hotel window and the huge American flag at the ferry dock across the way in Algiers. It doesn't exactly look special from here, a thin horizontal gray bar across the middle of the picture on this cloudy day. And then, suddenly, a huge cargo ship cruises into the frame, then quickly exits it, reminding me that the river was a superhighway before there were superhighways. I could do this all day.

Except I can't. I have a lunch reservation at Antoine's, serving old school Louisiana Creole cuisine continually since 1840. Well, except for few months after Hurricane Katrina damaged the building and, because of the lack of electricity, caused the loss of 25,000 bottles of wine from the climate-controlled cellar. Antoine's is huge: 14 dining rooms, several hundred employees, and one very cool bar (more on that later). After Katrina, Antoine's had to track down those employees and, even though business took years to rebound, put them back to work. Did I mention that it's still owned by the same family, and that, by tradition, they are never open on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Mardi Gras? Take that, Walmart!

Everybody in New Orleans seems to work in a restaurant or a bar. Walking through the French Quarter, you pass them by constantly, identifiable by the chef's aprons or the customary white shirt and bow tie worn by wait staff, while they take smoke breaks or make phone calls. According to a New York Times article that I read the other day, the city still has fewer people than pre-Katrina, but an incredible 70% more restaurants.

So, last night, we're at Hermes Bar. It's part of Antoine's, so you can order food. They have absolute classic New Orleans cocktails like the sazarac, Ramos gin fizz, and French 75. And on Friday and Saturday they have live jazz. Last night it was drummer Shannon Powell, a master of funky New Orleans rhythms and a bit of a staunch traditionalist.  The bar was fairly full, but not uncomfortably so. There was a table adjacent to ours where a group of 10 people or so were celebrating Christmas. In this group was a woman who was getting more and more tipsy as the evening progressed. Of course, so was I and so was everyone else, but she was one of those enthusiastic drunks. In another context, say, Chicago, I might have called her obnoxious, but here, deep in the heart of New Orleans, she was an inspiration. She was joie de vivre personified. We may have been in Hermes Bar, but she was Aphrodite.

And that's what I mean about me being transformed by New Orleans. There is no dance floor at Hermes, but that didn't stop her. Very soon afterward, it didn't stop us, either. Our new friend kept upping her game, though. At one point she appointed herself the solicitor of Shannon Powell's tip jar, working the crowd to make sure the drummer got paid.  Suddenly, our plan for one set, a bite to eat, a cocktail or two and then off to bed after a long travel day turned into a party, complete with a cheerleader.

Shannon Powell is amazing. Besides jazz, he easily dips into Meters and James Brown style funk, Cuban-tinged rhythms and works the cowbell like crazy on songs like Big Chief. He sings, too, sort of, at least enough to exhort the crowd to merriment. We were easily persuaded, to say the least.

The Saints play tomorrow. I'm pretty sure my NOLA transformation will be kicking into a higher gear. But first: Lunch, more music tonight, and a side of red beans and rice.

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