The spirit lives
October 16th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: An all-but-empty Bourbon Street, 8:30 p.m)
In 1718, a French Canadian named Claude Trepanier built a house right where I was sitting. The property was given to him as a reward for his participation in the Bienville expedition party that cleared out a spot on the Mississippi riverbank and named it Ville de la Nouvelle Orleans.
From his gallery, pretty much the view I had the other night, he watched them lay out the city in 1721 – building St. Louis Cathedral next door and the Place de Armes catty-corner across the street, now Jackson Square.
Sometime between 1743 and 1762, the waiter wasn’t sure of the exact date, Jean Baptiste Destrehan, Royal Treasurer of the French Louisiana Colonies, replaced Trepanier’s cottage with a grand home here, including the French doors next to our table. Those doors survived the Good Friday Fire of 1788 that burned much of the French Quarter and part of this house, and all that fate and providence, nature and war, pestilence and plague have thrown, blown and washed over this beleaguered, magical ground for 300 years.
And I had a Sazerac – okay, two – a fine piece of drum, some crabmeat, and a bite of Nora’s gumbo as history and New Orleans moves on through this to what’s next. The grand house is now Muriel’s, a restaurant with a capacity of 1,000. There were maybe 50 of us there this night downstairs and another 50 or so upstairs and on the deep wraparound gallery. The waiters were masked and gloved, and the tables were properly distanced, separated by six-foot panels covered by Impressionist paintings. We had dinner with Manet and Monet, and a view centuries long.
Touché is a little bar on Royal Street, and the home of the world’s best Bloody Mary – at least the parts of the world I’ve roamed. This one was first concocted by Donna Sayer, a bartender and mistress of Touché for more than 20 years. It starts with a trip through the door at the back of the bar into the kitchen of the Rib Room of the Omni Royal Orleans to collect drippings from the standing rib roast, a key ingredient in her mix. Back in the bar, the vodka is added. It comes from a big jar on the bar where myriad peppers of varying intensity and color are steeping. It’s a drink in a tall, frosted glass. And lunch. And unforgettable.
Bars in New Orleans are closed for now, Bourbon Street strangely quiet and eerily subdued, but Touché was open due to being part of the Omni. The bar itself had no stools and the few tables were half-in, half-out of the big doors on Royal. Donna’s Bloody Mary came in a plastic cup in her gloved hand, but it came.
The French Quarter is theatre to buskers of every description, the street their stage, the bucket beside them their hopeful admission charge. They are all around Jackson Square, all along Decatur Street by the French Market, in front of the steps to the Moonwalk along the river, several deep in competition for attention.
This morning there was but one.
He sang and played a small drum set, accompanied by a sound system. The songs were soul hits, catnip for people of a certain age – mine – who had gathered to listen sitting on the Moonwalk steps – all at least six feet apart and masked, at least 30 feet from him. As he sang, his assistant would collect the money offered.
His assistant was a chihuahua in a tutu. During an Otis Redding medley, she carried a lot of dollar bills back to him between her teeth, including a couple from me.
Our hotel was a Hyatt, and our room opened onto a lovely interior courtyard. On the other side of the hotel, rooms opened onto a courtyard with a pool. And 80 to 90 rooms were occupied by victims of Hurricane Laura evacuated from Lake Charles, now living in a hotel with their kids, their dogs and their cats.
And now, as I write this, Hurricane Delta is headed their way.
None of this is fair, the whole of 2020 hasn’t been fair, but this part of the world is dealing with it, making the most of each day from what that day offers.
Sometimes it takes a visit to somewhere else, a getaway if you will, to give you perspective on where you are. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of a nasty campaign and what seems a national nasty mood, there is still a sense that this will pass. There is still evidence that we are part of something larger and longer than this moment, and that we will carry on.
For instance, right after I got home I had a wonderful pastrami sandwich from Hazel’s Lucky Dice Delicatessen, born in a bar during COVID.
I’m a Memphian, and we are still here.
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