8.31.2005

Drowning Saxophone

As an undergraduate student living in New Orleans, I cocktail waitressed at a club called
G---- P----'s in the Hyatt Superdome. Some drunken Yat—as in, "Where y'at, dawlin'?—once put his hotel key and a hundred bucks on my tray and drawled, "There's five hundred more for you if the Saints take it up the ass."

"You need to watch your mouth, son," I replied, accepting the hefty tip but leaving the key behind. "Come near me again and I'll have your ass kicked all the way back to Baton Rouge." I was nineteen years old and evidently pretty full of myself, wrapped into my Danskin mini-skirt with a shiny black leotard and a push-up bra. Since this was the late eighties, I also wore Anne and Nancy Wilson bangs, way too much eyeliner, and lips lubed up like jellyfish. As fleeting as youth itself, this one moment encapsulates my memories of New Orleans—where I was so very young, yet wise enough to know that a place calling itself "The Big Easy" had a whole lot of nasty brewing just beneath the surface.

It eventually dawned on me that there were two kinds of waitresses in this particular establishment, co-eds and, well, hookers. This was never clearly spelled out, at least not to me—but only the most obvious “working girls” were asked to wait on the VIP Room, where a bunch of guys who looked suspiciously like Big Pussy on The Sopranos would sit around playing cards. Who exactly owned this place and what went on behind closed doors weren't the sort of topics a nice college girl wanted to be running around poking her nose into. In retrospect, I'd have been a whole lot smarter getting a night job Uptown, at one of the little bistros on Magazine or Maple, where they served dollar Po Boys and dime crawfish to help sell more Dixie Beer to the overprivileged student crowd. But that wouldn't have felt like much of mystery to me—and like most girls on their own for the first time, that's what I'd run off to New Orleans looking for.

I can't think of any place more suggestive to have begun assembling life's larger paradigms—such as the one where young, pretty girls have all kinds of mystical powers over balding, unhappy businessmen escaping their small lives for a few days on the company nickel. Grabbing my roommate Patti—a slim blonde from New Jersey who ground her teeth all night and hated her hair during the day—I'd check to see what conventions were in town. We liked doctors, mostly, particularly the specialists, who amused us to no end by their fascination with one specific body part. The whole city smelled like fried shrimp and whisky to me, with a hint of mildew around the edges, as we hopped the St. Charles Avenue streetcar down to the Hilton Canal Street.

The Rainforest, a rotating top floor lounge with a panoramic view of the riverfront, was a cool relief, since it intermittently "rained" into beds of lush foliage flanking the dance floor. The whole place would be teeming with members of the American Podiatrist's Association, whom we'd lure with the fetching arch of our college-age feet. We'd toss our hapless targets a dance or two before one of us morphed into Scarlett O'Hara at the Wilkes' barbecue—so very ravished she simply had to eat at once or die alone and empty inside.

Shortly after dinner, one of us would get the vapors and the other would have to take her home at once in a pre-paid taxi. But if not for the sexual and culinary politics of these carefully orchestrated evenings, I'd have never sampled the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's, the Blackened Swordfish at K Paul's, or the flaming Bananas Foster at Commander's Palace—where the new chef was a young buck named Emeril Lagasse. An exception, of course, was when my mom and dad came to town to treat me to a night out, wondering how I'd gained so much weight and wasn't dating any of the nice fraternity boys.

As it's done for so many others over the centuries—Mark Twain, Anne Rice and John Kennedy Toole come to mind—New Orleans made a writer of me. I was still in college when I published my first travel magazine article, whose subject was, not surprisingly, budget dining all over the Crescent City.

I visited a couple of times after graduation, but it was never the same after the inevitable onset of adulthood, which, more often than not, compels me to pay my own way. Patti went home and married a gum specialist, or so I heard some years later, along with the rumor that G---- P----'s had been closed down after some of the partners were indicted for racketeering. Pimping and pandering, too, I'll bet. More than any other place I've loved and lost along the way, New Orleans no longer belonged to me, so I left it behind like one of its own famous ghosts.

This morning I turned on the TV to discover that the roof of the Superdome had pretty much peeled apart like the top of a tuna can, forcing the ten thousand refugees who'd taken cover inside to seek shelter elsewhere in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. Footage of the adjacent Hyatt looked like Dubrovnik after the war, its wall of front windows imploded into the flimsy wreckage of a punched computer card.

Years ago, my Croatian ex-husband, who'd fled the battlefield on a cruise ship only to sit out Miami's Hurricane Andrew with me, told me you could forgive God for wielding the horror of destruction more easily than you could other men. I'm not so sure it makes a difference. My parents lost their home and boat in Andrew, and although they were insured for the most part, it's hard to explain the small comfort in that—something akin, I would imagine, to being a rape victim with an excellent hospitalization policy.

"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy," F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. I only know this because it was stamped in white letters on a black t-shirt that used to fit before I started hanging around the house in 3XLs with the neck cut out. What they won't tell you in film school is that tragedy doesn't always have to be written. Sometimes it sneaks up on you out of nowhere— like the unyielding passage of time, or a slow-brewing ocean storm—breaking your heart all the same.

A Footnote: This drawing I came across today played me a Bourbon Street song so mournful I could almost hear it aloud. "Drowning Saxophone" was created with eerie prescience long before Katrina by an Oakland, California painter named Eric Drooker. Click on the graphic if you want to see more of his work, or better yet, click here: American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

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