Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ghosts in the Crescent City

Staying at the Hotel Monteleone was a little fancier than our usual French Quarter digs. 

My Auntie and I just returned from a family visit to New Orleans. A trip to NOLA is a weighty thing for me. There's a veil of loneliness, as perceptible as the summer humidity. But I'm drawn to New Orleans in spite of that. My cells respond with deep recognition to the heat, the vestiges of Mardi Gras beads hanging in the oaks and the briny smells of the French Quarter.  New Orleans is filled with ghosts for me. It was this way before Katrina and now even more so. I grew up there with my grandmother, Bootsie, pointing out old houses, "See that house on St. Anthony? That's where we lived in 1930, I put your mother and Aunt Caryl to lay on the sunporch when they were babies." Or we would drive past the small three bedroom, one bathroom shotgun house on Eden Street where my grandparents, mother, aunt, and three great aunts (Dot, Sis and Kitty) lived in the 40's and Bootsie always said the same thing, "It was one of the happiest times of my life." Or we'd go by the small white Greek Revivial house on Melpomene where my father was born.

Then there was Bootsie's house on Marshal Foch and Aunt Dot's and Aunt Myrt's on Milne Boulevard, all washed away by Katrina. Those were the houses I grew up in. Gone. And most of the people are gone too. I loved them, so I love their ghosts, but ghosts are bittersweet. I'm happy to have the memory, but I'd rather have the person. Please excuse my mournfulness! But it's not surprising in a place where the dead are buried above ground creating little cities of marble tombs and the city bus says "Cemeteries" as a destination.

But before I get too gloomy, I have to tell you, we did have fun. We always do. How could one not? The food is delish and rich, the cocktails are plentiful and there's music on every corner. And the highlight was visiting my forever stylish and elegant Aunt Mary Ellen and Uncle Ron everyday. For the last few years, Mary Ellen has been sharing the treasures from her closet with me and this trip I came home with a full-length fur coat, sable collar and a six-foot long white "fox fling".  Mary Ellen bought the coat on a very cold trip to Chicago in the early 80's. It's muskrat with a fox collar and the label says Alper-Richman furs. It'll be a bit of a challenge to wear, but no doubt some winter party or event will present itself.

I had to buy a new suitcase to get this creature home. 

In between family visits my Auntie and I strolled the Quarter shopping, eating and drinking. It was 94 degrees, but there was a breeze coming off the Mississippi. And stopping for a little refreshment helped.

We sampled absinthe at a small corner bar in Pirate's Alley. The bartender was passionate about absinthe and explained the rich history as she performed the mesmerizing ritual of putting a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon placed over a glass, slowly pouring absinthe over the cube, lighting it and letting the cube melt, then dripping ice cold water into the glass from this fabulous absinthe fountain creating a cloudy, refreshing herby licorice cocktail with quite a kick. Ah! l'heure verte, as they say (they being the artists of the Belle Epoque.) We each bought two absinthe spoons to use at home.

Taking a break from the midday heat, we popped into this shop, Wise Buys on Chartres and made friends with Charlene and Liz. Auntie found a smart mustard-colored linen jacket and I bought a super soft and perfect for traveling dress and slim pants made of Modal, a textile created from beech trees.

Look at all this gorgeous color and she wears it so well.

Another fast friend I made was LeAndra Shipps at Red Lantern on Royal Street. Chatting with strangers who quickly become friends is one of the best things about New Orleans. You can start a conversation with a store owner, the person waiting in line with you, the person standing on the corner or just about anyone and they'll happily chat back.  Unlike San Francisco where they look at you like you're crazy or they're scared you want something. And usually some connection is discovered. A famous NO quote is "My mama knows your mama." Come to find out, we were practically neighbors when she lived in San Francisco a few years ago.

And walking through Jackson Square we saw this just-married couple celebrating with friends. They looked so stylish, simple and darling I had to take a pic.

One of my favorite restaurants is Mr. B's and it's conveniently located across the street from the Hotel Monteleone. The rich dark interior is a welcome break on a hot day. We enjoyed two lunches there and
the strong an spicy Bloody Mary was only $1.50!

For one lunch we sat at the bar and had this rich Gumbo Ya-Ya (chicken and sausage) and a delicious French 75 cocktail (sparkling wine, cognac, lemon and a little sugar).

As they say about New Orleans Creole culture, "A love of ease, exaggerated self-esteem, prodigious self-indulgence, lavish hospitality and a refined and lively interest in the arts." I can relate to that. 


  1. I'm so touched by this post about your family. Your childhood memories and connections to both people and place are beautiful. And all connected to meaningful style. Thank you!

  2. What a lovely post, Lesa. You brought tears to my eyes and awe at your ability to describe with such poignancy your memories of childhood in the magic city. We consider ourselves so lucky to have taken a couple of trips to NOLA and environs pre-Katrina, with your Auntie and Koberg as hosts/guides. Memorable trips remembered with more than a tinge of nostalgia.