Ode To The Big Easy
A Love Letter To The City That Care Forgot
When morning shines its judgement on Bourbon Street, its neon trappings fade in saturating sunlight. The asphalt is swept and sprayed and the sidewalks hosed down. Baptized in water and disinfectant, the thoroughfare reopens to traffic and the wayward block is reclaimed by the Quarter. A temporary absolution of the night before, resetting the cycle for the night to come.
It’s a ritual return to normalcy not unlike Hyde’s reversion to Jekyll. In the daylight hours, Bourbon is just another rue in this small section of the city.
I find myself in New Orleans again. It has been almost a quarter century since I first visited, and ten years since the last. If America is the great melting pot, the Crescent City sits apart like a simmering saucepan of a much different recipe. Its flavors are strong and its rich spices can overwhelm. Its ingredients are not for everyone. And to those inclined to taste, it’s best served in moderation.
My first trips here in the late 1990s were for business. I say business, but they were in essence boondoggles. Back then, I provided marketing support to one of the U.S. military branches. One of their recruitment strategies was to attend broadcasting industry trade shows around the country and distribute commercial PSAs about why someone would enlist. This effort included a 10×10 booth and a staff to physically hand out broadcast quality tapes to anyone interested. That, and make sure the branded tchotchkes were freshly stocked.
Needless to say, the tchotchke to tape giveaway ratio was no contest. If you tried to conceive of a more costly, less efficient way of distributing free content to broadcasters, you’d be hard pressed to think of one.
Yet, this was the program funded by our tax dollars, and as young, cheap labor at my firm, I attended several of these trade shows. As conference attendees would browse the vendor exhibits in enormous convention halls, they typically had three reactions to our booth. The first was to stop and salute. The second was to ask “is this where I enlist?” and a third being the quizzical “what are you doing here?” Sometimes the salute was followed by one, or both, of the questions. The few tapes that were accepted were likely out of a sense of charity to a young man who was equally befuddled by the absurdity of our presence.
However, no one should have felt sorry for me. I did get to travel, usually to either the great convention meccas of the day: Las Vegas and New Orleans. Two cities of sin that could not be any more different.
I’ll be blunt. Las Vegas is an artificial construct of sadness and depravity. Sprung from the desert, bathed in neon and noise, it’s a desolate beacon that attracts our worst attributes. What typically happens in Vegas is a loss of dignity. What usually stays in Vegas is your hard-earned money. Clean and soulless, it sends incoming revelers back to whence they came no better for the experience. In the rare instance when someone is enriched in any way, it’s purely of a monetary nature.
When Stephen King had his lead antagonist Randall Flagg set up his HQ there in The Stand, many thought it was a little too on the nose. I disagree. It was the only logical choice. If you have ever spent an entire week in Las Vegas, the thought that you may actually be in Hell will eventually cross your mind.
Now, to be clear, I do not hold up New Orleans as an antithesis. People do come here with bad intentions and poor decisions are no aberration. Dignity is surely to be lost in multitudes on any given night. Overindulgence is expected. This is a party town after all.
But, still, it’s inherently different.
First and foremost, it’s a real place. It wasn’t invented. New Orleans happened organically – at a peculiar confluence of empire building and strategically important geography. With a messy origin and history, this melding of civilizations and ethnicities has created a concoction that showcases the benefits of chaos theory.
It’s a culture influenced from everywhere but uniquely its own. Evolving through a hard lived existence – its food, its music, its talent are all gifts to the world. New Orleans has given us far more than we can ever give it.
Las Vegas only takes. Its architecture and attractions are all cheap facsimiles of the greatest hits of human achievement. A hodgepodge of superficial cultural derivatives, propped up and presented for entertainment purposes. It is Hearst Castle writ large, without the original art.
Vegas can never buy what New Orleans has earned.
My convention missions to provide the world free recruitment commercials were led by a Pentagon-based officer who had a tendency to go AWOL for stretches of time. This client – we’ll call her Major Redhead – would show up at the start of show, address the troops and then disappear for a few days before checking in again. A newly divorced mother in her early forties, word among the team was that the Major would meet up with her boyfriend at these locations and execute a few secret assignments of her own.
But this was actually a blessing for the servicemen and women I got to know during these trips. They didn’t want an officer around anyway. As the kid on the team, they would let me tag along occasionally during non-booth hours. We would grab lunch from Central Grocery & Deli, the third generation Sicilian-American deli that invented the muffuletta sandwich. They introduced me to dinners at Port of Call, when it was still a somewhat local dive and a table could be had to enjoy the best hamburgers along the Mississippi. They took me down the dark and quiet end of Bourbon Street, and introduced me to the gas lamps and ancient timbers of the inexplicable piano bar called Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. No matter where we were, these soldiers knew all the best places to go and how to get the most of their per diem stipend. They were better than Yelp or TripAdvisor – which in time made the places I just mentioned much harder to get into on subsequent visits.
But as great as those folks were, I spent most of those early long trips with just my own company. I walked everywhere, wandering every block I found interesting from the Warehouse District to Marigny. I dandered through the Garden District. I once stayed at a B&B north of Route 10 in the heart of Treme, prior to Katrina and before the rainbow gentrification of the area east of Esplanade took root.
One day in March of 1997, I happened to step inside the Dumaine Corner Gallery. It was there I met a grandmotherly woman named Almarie Pittman Little. This was her gallery and it featured several interesting pieces, including a wall dedicated to her own work, which was even more interesting.
As I explored the space we began talking, less about art and more about life in general. She was inquisitive but not nosey. It’s hard to explain, but Almarie was just someone who you just wanted to talk with. She exuded positive energy and an aura of kindness.
We spoke for at least a half hour. I wish I could recall more of the details of our conversation, but I really can’t. The fact that she made such a lasting impression leads me to believe Maya Angelou was correct when she said “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Almarie painted many subjects including scenes of New Orleans, but what she was most famous for were her black heritage folk paintings. These pictures were collected by people all over the world, including Oprah Winfrey, who once purchased five of them upon her visit to the gallery a few years before.
The paintings were vibrant in color and depicted everyday life along the Mississippi Delta from one hundred years ago. She said they were inspired by where she grew up and the stories she was told from her childhood.
The thing that I found strange about these paintings was that while they were entirely comprised of black folk, Almarie was a little old white lady.
As I looked closely at the pictures, I did have a sense of relief that it was obvious I could not afford to buy even a small one. You really couldn’t help but notice the generous use of watermelons as featured cuisine, be it either meal or snack. Every painting had watermelon in it, as well as other displays that could be viewed as pejorative stereotypes.
I found the juxtaposition between this sweet woman and her art baffling. There was no sense of malice or ridicule intended by Almarie, she clearly loved the subject matter of her art. But out of context – out of New Orleans – how else could these paintings be perceived?
Even if I wanted to, there was no way I could hang one of her paintings in my apartment in Queens. I mean, 1997 was a long time ago, but not that long ago.
Anyway, my confusion did not detract from this wonderful, chance encounter – the kind that makes travel so rewarding.
As I left to go, Almarie took out a piece of parchment paper that had the Max Ehrmann poem ‘Desiderata’ printed upon it. Apparently, it was subject of a widely distributed poster in the 1960s and 70s. I imagine Almarie handed out more than a few of these copies to visitors to her gallery over the decades.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Almarie turned over the back of the copy and inscribed a message wishing me success “in all [I] strive to do” in the future. She then carefully rolled the paper and secured it with a rubber band, handing it to me as if bestowing a diploma commemorating this encounter of strangers.
After accepting the paper, I asked if I could take her photo in front of the gallery. She obliged. I snapped the picture and was on my way.
When the trade show convention travel for the year had ended, I had to file a review of the initiative that included recommendations going forward. I was honest. The entire effort was a quantifiable waste of time and money, and I said as much. The program was discontinued and we planned other initiatives that would better effectively communicate the virtues of enlistment.
In retrospect, I feel bad about my role in spiking the program. Major Redhead had a good thing going, and I ruined it for her. It may have been the best thing in her life during that time. She was a nice lady and deserved some fun and happiness. If I could apologize to her, I would.
Only now do I recognize how the ambitious idealism of youth can be so goddamn annoying.
On its surface, the New Orleans that most people see looks much the same as it did 25 years ago. The architecture of the French Quarter still drips with wrought iron. The downtown buildings that were built in the 1980s are all the same. Nothing over a handful of stories has been constructed as far as I can tell – the amazing National World War II Museum being the lone exception. Gentrification of the Warehouse District is noticeable, as is a good amount of refurbishing in the Garden District and the aforementioned Marigny. But it all looks more or less the same as it has during each of my seven or eight trips here. The devastation of Katrina that forever changed the poorer wards of the city left little mark on the places business travelers and tourists typically roam.
After my flurry of visits in the 90s, it was another six years before I returned to New Orleans. I made a point to visit Almarie at her gallery. Not remembering exactly which street it was on, I walked up and down Rampart looking for it. After passing the New Orleans Visitor Center a few times on the corner of Dumaine, I went in and asked a staff member if she knew what had happened to the gallery. The person inside confirmed my fear. This was indeed the place. Almarie had passed away in 2002 and her gallery was subdivided.
Walking down Rampart this week I stopped by to take another look around where Almarie’s gallery once stood. The portion of that subdivision on the corner of Dumaine and Rampart is still a visitor center. I went in and waited as a young man at the desk informed a visiting couple about a few tours they were interested in taking. When they left, I struck up a conversation with him.
His name is Jordan Waters and he is originally from Las Vegas (of all places). He was not aware of the history of the building nor, not surprisingly, the artist who spent so many years there. I showed him my photo of Almarie and told him about her, the gallery and how I first stepped inside when I was about his age so many years ago. He’s a really nice kid who seems to love what he does.
On that previous trip, when I originally discovered that the gallery had been converted to a visitor center, I was saddened that a local, understated institution like the Dumaine Corner Gallery could disappear so unceremoniously. It is shops like that which make New Orleans the place that it is. But while talking with Jordan, I changed my mind, and I told him so.
I said to him that I imagine Almarie would be very happy to know that he was there in that same spot – welcoming strangers to her beloved city, much like she did for so much of her life. If it couldn’t be an art gallery, this new purpose may be the next best thing. Especially if people like Jordan work there.
As for Almarie’s black heritage art, I have no doubt that it would be viewed as verboten today. Perhaps a black artist could create it ironically and have it accepted, but no chance someone that looks like Almarie Pittman Little would be able to paint and commercialize such content in 2021.
While her paintings remain the same ones that were celebrated as recently as 20 years ago, our attitudes have obviously evolved. If Almarie were alive, I wonder what she would say. Would she stop painting these subjects? Would she defiantly continue her life’s work? Would she be wrong to do so?
I also wonder how Almarie’s still living patrons of color view her work today. She had quite a few. Does she get a pass because they may have met her and, like me, believe her intentions were good? Is it okay because she was a woman of a different time?
Regardless, the thing I want to know most is – what does Oprah think – and especially what did she do with the five paintings she bought from Almarie in the early 1990s?
On this week’s trip I wanted to see the famous trumpeter Kermit Ruffins perform. I have been a fan of his for years and knew that he had recently opened a place in the Treme – where he not only performs, but barbecues for patrons on occasion. He often says he is a chef that also plays the trumpet. This is accurate.
Years ago I saw Kermit play in New York City. In all honesty, it was a bit disappointing. Kermit’s love of “reefer” and Bud Light is no secret, and on that particular night, it was clear he probably had enjoyed too much of both.
But no matter. The allure of Kermit and the reason he is so beloved is that he is authentically himself. He wants to entertain and wants to enjoy life while doing it. He is the embodiment of the Big Easy and he is unapologetic about it. You’re either on board, or you’re not.
So while searching for when I might be able to catch him play at his bar, I was disappointed to find the only scheduled days he takes the stage were Tuesdays and Sundays. Having arrived late Tuesday, I had missed him once, and leaving Sunday afternoon, I would miss him again.
Despite this, I was inclined to see his place anyway. I checked the bar’s social media on Thursday to find who might be performing that night. I saw a recent post saying that he was performing around 6:30 pm that evening, not at his club, but at a place called 2127 Prytania at Mangolia Mansion. His set was to be followed by Cyril Neville (the youngest of the Neville Brothers) and Grammy award winner Irvin Mayfield after 8 p.m.
This all seemed very strange so I called the number on the Magnolia Mansion website. The woman who answered explained that I didn’t need a ticket, just to show up. She said that the show is in the mansion itself, so seating was very limited. I was also informed that if I wanted to enjoy the red beans and rice from Kermit’s place, I’d have to purchase two drinks first.
As implausible as this all sounded to me, I took a Lyft over to the Garden District to see for myself. I walked up the stairs and entered the exquisite antebellum mansion. It was finely decorated and to the right of the grand entrance hallway were a series of three rooms, each opened to the other, filled with antique couches and seats. By the front window was a makeshift stage with various instruments.
The seats that were left were either reserved or already occupied, so I ordered my two drinks, got my food ticket and went back out to the porch for the red beans and rice. Of course this being New Orleans, I didn’t really need a ticket. The lady behind the giant pot just doled out a healthy serving filled with slices of an unknown type of sausage. It was delicious.
Soon after, Kermit and his band arrived. The faint smell of weed accompanied them.
Now situated standing in the back of the second room, a woman announced that the show would start shortly and that if anyone wanted to take one of the reserved seats up front, the cost was $40 and they would credit that amount to your bar tab.
I immediately raised my hand as I was already near $30 in drinks at that point anyway and the night just started. And even if I wasn’t… are you kidding me? That’s all it would cost to see this show being performed in front of – maybe – 75 people? Maybe fewer? It all seemed insane. How is this really happening?
I took my seat up front and this intimate concert started.
Kermit unabashedly embraces the legacy of New Orleans’ jazz history. He opened with ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’ just as Louis Armstrong famously did in his day and played a few other Satchmo staples like ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and ‘Shine.’ He played a rendition of ‘Pennies From Heaven’ in the style of another legendary son of NOLA, Louis Prima. Kermit cracked jokes and laughed with audience during his set and at one point invited his daughter up to sing a couple of songs. He even introduced his fiancé as his future ex-wife, to which she did not seem amused. I got the sense that this was not the first time she had been introduced this way.
And while Kermit may not be the musician he once was – I overheard him tell someone that he had to stop playing Skokiaan – he is every bit the entertainer you’d want to see if you get the chance.
Not long after his set was finished, Irvin Mayfield and Cyril Neville took their places at the front of the room. Irvin was reverential to his elder and the two are dedicated collaborators who clearly love playing together. It was a treat to see Cyril perform, but Mayfield was a force of nature. Famed for his trumpet, he was equally adept playing guitar. I love Kermit, but Irvin’s horn playing was on another level.
It was a masterful performance that concluded a magical night in New Orleans. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to stumble upon this happening. I didn’t want to leave.
Talking with one of the organizers after the show, I was told they do this every Thursday and have for a couple of months now. I told her that when people find out about it, they are going to be overrun.
My bar tab came to $68 before tip. I have no idea how any of them make decent money doing this. Anyone could have walked in and watched for free. I would have paid twice that without a second thought. Probably more.
Still in awe of the dreamlike night I experienced, the next morning I looked up Irvin Mayfield. I knew the name but was not very familiar with him until that night.
Imagine my shock to learn that only two days prior he had been sentenced to 18-months in prison by a Federal Court. Apparently, he and a business partner had bilked $1.3 million from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a charity for which they both served as Board Directors. One of the items he apparently purchased with the stolen funds was a gold-plated trumpet.
I had two immediate thoughts. The first was this is the most New Orleans thing ever. I mean, where else?
The second was this might explain the weekly show and why they don’t go out of their way to advertise it. Checking my digital receipt, my credit card was charged to “The Mayfield”. I‘m assuming that is Irvin’s legal defense fund.
I regret nothing.
For me, the intrinsic value of travel isn’t measured by tabulating the number of things that you want to see. It’s in all of the discoveries you happen upon in the space between items on your check list. Perhaps I’m just lucky, but New Orleans continues to provide me the kind of unplanned, unexpected joys you can only experience by being open to them.
This week while enjoying my coveted hamburger at the bar at Port of Call (still as good as I remember), the guy next to me said, “New Orleans is a fat boy’s dream.” So true. Yet, in a city known for its unique and diverse cuisine, perhaps the greatest dish they serve is food for the soul.
This piece appeared first in the author’s Substack, Sailing to Byzantium