The Battle of New Orleans



It was the last trip before I quit drinking. I actually scheduled rehab in May; two weeks in August. I’m particular that way. My wife and I used to say we’d travel for art. We’d seen 19 of the 30 odd genuine Vermeers in our travels, and there was an exhibit of Degas’ work in New Orleans in July. A little known fact: he had lived there with his cotton-trading uncle in the 1870s, after the Franco-Prussian war.

We had booked one of the most storied hotels in America, the Maison De Ville at the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Streets, in the French Quarter. It was an old town house (mansion, really) with a carriageway and a stable yard surrounded by slave quarters turned into bedrooms. There was a tall Jacaranda tree in the stable yard and tables and chairs. One of the slave quarter rooms was the one where Tennessee Williams, between binges, finished A Streetcar Named Desire, banging it out on his Smith Corona between bites on the bourbon bottle and meals in the four-star restaurant.

Which describes a lot of what I was doing too. While I hadn’t come to New Orleans to drink per se, I had come to eat, and that led me to a lot of places where you can drink. Also, there’s a cute tradition in New Orleans where the local grocery will deliver a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a muffaletta to your hotel room. A muffaletta is an Italian baguette sliced open, piled with tapenade, salami, mortadella and provolone, then pressed and heated so the oil seeps through the bread. It’s also unique to New Orleans, a full meal and fabulous. The Maker’s Mark is pretty good too, and they go together well.

The next best thing was oyster po’boys for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fried oysters piled high on baguette with melted butter, mayo and sliced pickles. Draughts of Dixie Beer traditionally accompanies this. I also had occasion to try a Sazerac, said to be the very first ‘cocktail’, made where it was invented, at the Napoleon House, which had been a bar before the US was a country. Rye whisky, Peychaud’s Bitters and Herbsaint anisette were in it, replacing the cognac and absinthe of the original.

All this fun and gourmandery had inevitable results. My wife woke up in the middle of the night and found me gone. Not in the bathroom. She put on her dressing gown and searched the upstairs hall. No sight. She went down to the desk and asked (knowing I was prone to sleepwalking) if the clerk had seen a middle aged man in boxers and a singlet wandering around. The clerk said with a straight face, “Ma’am, we ah trained to ignoah thu pecu-liarities of our guests.” She went upstairs, resigned to getting dressed and looking for me on the perpetually crowded party hell of Bourbon Street around the corner.

Bourbon Street sounds romantic, but it wasn’t, not back then, pre-Katrina (everything I’m relaying here is pre-Katrina, which may not be fair to the New Orleans of today). Bourbon Street back then was packed wall to wall, night and day, with drunks. Every storefront was gutted to sell huge volumes of mint juleps (that was all that was on offer). Upstairs, were all strip joints. The crowd of drunks heaved up and down the eight or nine blocks, filling innumerable huge trash cans with plastic go cups. Women were constantly being urged to pop their tops for beads, and some carried so many strings they could hardly walk. It looked like the funeral scene from the movie Gandhi, except with drinks.

This was the living circle of hell my wife was going out to face, in the hopeless task of spotting a sleepwalker in boxers and undershirt, when that described half the men on the street. She was headed downstairs and out the door, when she looked in the old-fashioned paneled telephone booth in the lobby. I was seated on the floor, fast asleep. She woke me and got me back to bed.

We saw the Degas exhibit the next day, including the anchor painting, A New Orleans Cotton Office, which was the only work Degas sold to a museum in his lifetime. Coming home from the museum in a cab, we passed, on one of the green treed streets lined with genteel Colonial Revival homes, the bright yellow house Degas had lived in, which figured in one of his gayer paintings. We asked the cabbie to stop, and I was going to get out and take a picture and read the plaque. He didn’t even slow down. “We don’t stop around here.”

That afternoon, which was hot (New Orleans in July is at its emptiest because it is at its hottest) was perfect for swimming. The hotel owned a few other slave cottages two blocks over, with a pool. They loaned us a key so we could change in one of the cottages. The one we got was decorated with prints from Jean Jacques Audubon’s Elephant Folio of The Birds of America. I thought that a little obsessive, until I read the plaque (there are plaques on every building in the French Quarter). This was the cottage Audubon had stayed in when he completed the Birds of America. Everywhere we went had not just artistic atmosphere, but real masterpiece history.

The next morning, we went to Jackson Square to eat beignets dusted with sugar at the Café du Monde in the shadow of St Louis Cathedral. With chicory café au lait, we were having exactly what New Orleans has had for breakfast since the civil war. Afterwards, when I was walking up on the embankment which keeps back the Mississippi River, a flaneur approached and said “Give me ten dollars if I tell you where you got your shoes.” I fell for it. He said “You got your shoes on your feet. That’ll be ten dollars.” I was fairly sucked in, but I split the difference and gave him five.

Apart from the trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, we didn’t leave the 80 or so old city blocks which make up the French Quarter, and we had no reason to. We were sorry to head back to Canada, but the heat was really oppressive, even under the sleek Panama hat I’d bought at a courtyard sale (houses in the French Quarter are all walled and have courtyards with the slave quarters behind the house).

Despite flying in a tiny DC-9, we had spent the points on seats at the front of the plane. I had reserved the steak (not the fish) when we booked, but they’d run out in the tiny kitchen by the time the flight attendant got to us. I hate fish, and I was a bit grumpy at being denied my tiny perfect airline steak with crusted potatoes (Air Canada front cabin was cooking some great food at this point in its history).

The flight attendant stopped by later and said “The Captain is sorry you didn’t get the meal you ordered, he asked if you’d like to visit the cockpit?” I jumped at the chance and followed her up the aisle. You can guess this was pre-9/11, after which I never would have gotten near the cockpit, but Air Canada was on its best customer satisfaction behavior that day.

I sat in the jump seat and buckled in. The Captain introduced himself and the First Officer and gave me his card. We were approaching Toronto from directly south, flying over the Niagara Peninsula. The Captain said, “We have to lose a little altitude and wait, let’s do it here.” So he circled the Falls and gave us all a close look at the mists rising up. Then across the lake and into Pearson. Just before final approach, I returned to my seat, completely chuffed.

Before I left, I asked him about the plane. Air Canada had just re-equipped with Airbus A320s and was going to start selling off the DC-9s. I said “You must be looking forward to the new planes.” He said “No, I love the DC-9, it’s a sports car to drive, where the A320 is a bus, and completely automatic. You still get stick feel in a DC-9. Also, did you know they were designed for easy servicing? Nothing you need to open to service is higher than a man’s arm can reach.” When we deplaned in Toronto, I looked back at the tired old plane with new respect. It was true, the wings and engines and cargo bays were all low-slung, and easily reached from the ground.

I did a lot of drinking on that trip, something I stopped for good a month later. But I still remember almost all of it, and almost all of it was fun.