Not long ago my son Booker was in Lake Charles, Louisiana on business and though his accommodations weren’t spiffy—unlike his trips to New Orleans—the local cuisine, as he described it, was better than anything I’ve eaten in months (I eat a lot of turkey sandwiches and chicken soup). I haven’t been to Louisiana in a long time, all three visits were pre-Katrina, but I made a strenuous point to Booker that he had to have the red beans and rice. A day later he reported that the dish was the blandest accompaniment to a meal he’d ever tasted, and when his colleague asked why he ordered it, he replied, “My dad told me to!” They doused it with a lot of hot sauce, shrimp and Andouille sausage, and it still fell flat. I simply shook my head, but did realize that one person’s backfin crabcake was another’s haggis or durian. In the early-1990s, when my wife and I went to Sicily, one of my brothers said, “When you’re at the market in Palermo, the first order of business is to get an ice cream sandwich from the old guy at the edge of the square. It’s made with real cookies to hold the ice cream, not the cardboard we had growing up.” Like Booker, I did my duty, had the ice cream sandwich, and Melissa and I looked at each other, and said at the same time, “It’s good, but it’s an ice cream sandwich!”
Anyway, my first trip to New Orleans was in 1974, when my freshman college roomie Mark and I drove from Baltimore to Houston at spring break, with lots of stops on the way. We got there around four p.m., parked in a Tulane University lot, and went exploring, and drinking, and as happens when you’re young and on an adventure, we almost immediately ran into two friends, Dave Adam and George Davis, wearing beads (even though Mardi Gras had passed) and ordering hurricanes from a vendor on Royal St. (Same thing happened to me earlier that year while in Berkeley just after Christmas and I ran into a Johns Hopkins senior with whom I was nodding acquaintances, on Telegraph Ave. outside Rasputin Records. Given the coincidence we became fast friends and shared an Indian meal together.) Mark and I were agog at the mild debauchery in New Orleans and dove right in, finally meeting some kids from Tulane who showed us what student union building to crash in for the night. Kind of fuzzy, but still exhilarated, the next morning we drove to Houston—still emerging from backwater status—and it was more sedate, especially since we were staying at his parents’ house and had to walk around the block to smoke a joint.
The accompanying photo—my mom, and brothers Gary and Jeff—was taken, as I recall, at Commander’s Palace, on a family reunion that was, for whatever reason, in New Orleans. It was a weekend jaunt (I think my oldest brother gave me a “scholarship” to pay for the airfare, and he put up the whole family in the magnificent Pontchartrain Hotel) and aside from a two-hour riverboat ride (tourist attraction, but we were tourists and though I didn’t think of Mark Twain once, seeing the Mississippi ripple was spellbinding), and some very casual browsing at antique shops and getting a mint julep at the Old Absinthe House, we ate well: not only holes-in-the-wall po’ boys, gumbo and muffulettas for lunch, but Galitoire’s, Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s at night. The merriment level was off the charts, and I think our mom was a little surprised at how boisterous her five adult sons got, but she had a ball. As it happened, it was the last time all six of us were together, as Mom was a year later diagnosed with brain cancer, and unfortunately didn’t have Jimmy Carter’s magic beans, for she succumbed to the disease after 14 months.
I spent five days in New Orleans several years later, including Christmas, with my friends Michael Gentile and John Ellsberry, and it was no less spectacular. We stayed at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon St., and sitting on the balcony, sipping beers in the afternoon, it was a wonderfully lazy atmosphere, watching the people walk by, and poking fun at them, or pointing out the hot-tomato dames. One day we ventured outside the city and it was a completely different world; no prejudice intended, but the Huey Long-characters we encountered at crab shacks or gun shops were straight out of Deliverance, but the bark was worse than the bite.
One night, we were on the balcony again and heard a lot of commotion: there was a rap concert nearby and after it concluded about 100 youths ran down the streets of the French Quarter and caused a lot of mild (comparatively) mischief, breaking some windows and shouting some unfamiliar slogans. When a dozen stormed into the lobby of our hotel, it was, until the cops came, kind of perilous, not what we bargained for.
I had to cut the trip short since my Baltimore City Paper partner Alan called and said we had a potential buyer for the weekly and needed to get all our records in order before the Dec. 31st deadline for a deal. Turned out the potential owners, who ran a number of shitty suburban papers, and threw out a BIG number, were just chumming the waters, a fact we found out only after hours and hours of negotiations. At a bar in Baltimore that New Year’s Eve, thinking I was missing out on a meal of shrimp etouffee with red beans and rice, I told my pal Joe Potts about the sessions that failed that afternoon in our lawyer’s office, and he simply said, “1987 will be the year for you and Alan.”
Take a look at the clues to figure out what year the picture’s from: Other People (Martin Amis) and Cities of the Red Night (William S. Burroughs) are published; Squeeze’s East Side Story is released; Bob Rafelson's remake of The Postman Always Ring Twice is released; James Bond returns in For Your Eyes Only; Walter Cronkite (thankfully) leaves CBS Evening News; California has a Mediterranean fruit fly infestation; Muhammad Ali loses his last fight; Jared Kushner is born and Bill Haley dies; Ringo gets married in London; Time Bandits is released; Sportswriter Dave Anderson wins a Pulitzer for “Commentary”; the Archbishop of Canterbury “advises” that homosexuality is a handicap, not a sin; and a poll shows Margaret Thatcher is the most unpopular post-war Prime Minister.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023