Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Find a city, find myself a city to live in"

- from "Cities" by Talking Heads

Ten years ago, I spent the summer working the opening shift at a faux-French cafe in Ann Arbor, MI. Waking up for the 5am start-time wasn't easy (and having no one to account for my presence, I often overslept), but once I got there I loved those first couple hours of alone time. First I would prep the frozen Vie de France pastries while listening to Talking Heads' "Fear of Music". Then I would get the kitchen and coffee bar set up, move the pastries from the proofer to the oven and unstack the patio furniture. If I made good time, I'd reward myself with a cappuccino and a cigarette as I watched delivery trucks pay their visits to all the Main Street restaurants in the brisk light of dawn. And as I enjoyed those last moments of solitude, I'd ponder the lyrics of my favorite song from my current favorite album. Sure, this gig and this town were okay, but I longed for a real city, with more than just a Main Street and breakfast pastries made from scratch. But where would I go and, more importantly, why?

It took several years, but getting together with Dan helped answer those question. His career landed us in Chattanooga, TN and we look forward to going other places from here. Our mutual wanderlust has introduced so many possibilities. I'm apt to say that each new place is my favorite of all; Austin, Nashville and the Pacific Northwest have all held those honors. New York is magical, of course, but unless I run into a big pile of money I'm way past the point where I'd try to hack it there. And if money were no object, I'd sooner choose San Francisco for its better climate, stunning architecture and proximity to fresh produce.

But truly, none of those places made as much an impression on me as New Orleans, which I first visited a couple weeks ago. In just 42 hours, I fell in love. As David Byrne sang, "There's good points and bad points," but it all adds up to the most beautiful and civilized city I've ever encountered. Here were the highlights ~

A Serendipitous Meeting with a Faraway Friend Our buddy A happened to be ending a conference week the night we arrived. We picked him up from his Canal St. hotel and headed for the gayborhood bar next to our B&B in the Marigny. Though I've hung out with him only a few times (he and his beautiful wife L live in Chicago), A is definitely one of my favorite grad-school-friends-of-Dan. It helps that he loves talking about pop culture.

One of the first things he said was, "Have you guys been watching Treme?" Ah, yes! Dan and I are obsessed with this program (we don't have HBO, but we're catching up on the first season via Netflix). Anyone who loved The Wire will surely appreciate writer/producer David Simon's tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans and particularly its music scene. "You know Kermit?" Kermit Ruffins is a local jazz trumpeter who is prominently featured on the show. "I met him! He performed at one of our conference dinners." Oh, and Irma Thomas was there, too. Dan and I were practically drooling with envy. "You know that Black Eyed Peas song that goes, 'I got a feelin', that tonight's gonna be a good night'-"

"Oh, yeah!" I said. "I hate that song."

"Well, after playing a lot of jazz standards that was the last song he did, and it was ridiculous and awesome." I could appreciate that, but the story wasn't over. "I saw him in the parking lot afterward. He was wandering around with this gorgeous woman, carrying a beer in his hand. He looked like he was pretty high. He was about to get into an SUV and I knew I had to say something, so I went up to him and said, 'Wow, that was a great show. It was really an honor to see you perform.' All he did was smile, point at me, and say, 'I got a feelin', that tonight's gonna be a good night, that tonight's gonna be a good, good night...'." The three of us cracked up, Dan and I continued to laugh over that for days.

A Walk Without a Destination I hardly slept that night. I felt like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. Finally at 7am, I accepted that there would be no more rest and I'd just have to nap in the afternoon (never happened). Being so excited but tired, feeling so suddenly pregnant (I swear little peanut's "apartment" doubled overnight), the sultry, early summer air seemed like it could overwhelm me. So I took a deep breath, drank some coffee and plenty of water, armed myself in sunblock and determined that I would just let the city wash over me. From that point on, I seemed to be wandering through a dream.

We leashed up Dulce and headed toward the French Quarter by way of Washington Square Park. As the innkeeper told us, "You'll see a sign at the park gate that says No Bikes, No Alcohol, No Dogs, and then you'll see all three there." I could already tell that the people of this city have an excellent attitude. And he was right. Despite the mild lawlessness, the park was lively and green, and Dulce got to meet a few new friends.

We meandered along Decatur toward St. Louis Cathedral. Once I'd satisfied my minor craving for touristy sight-seeing (yup, there sits an actual American cathedral; no need for a tour), I was content to just absorb the bright pastel cityscape surrounding me. The architectural style - largely influenced by late 18th and early 19th century Spanish rulers - is unlike anything I've seen in this country or abroad. This shot taken later that night shows a common ironwork gallery

I love the ways that some buildings and porches abut the sidewalks, forcing interactions between residents and pedestrians, while other establishments are shielded by mysterious, brick-walled courtyards. I could spend a whole day peeking through the cracks between walls and under gates, catching glimpses like this

We wandered north toward Louis Armstrong park, then through the lower end of Treme and back toward our inn in the Marigny, just east of the Quarter. That's about the time we encountered a Banksy mural. What a fun surprise, not to mention that the work itself was quite lovely

Days later, I encountered this Goete quote - "I call architecture frozen music." It's the perfect expression of how I feel about beautiful buildings. To live and walk about a city that has long dedicated itself to prettiness seems to me a dream come true. Oh, and the oak trees! Don't get me wrong, there's dirtiness, too, and the roads are terrible, but that's all part of the package*. That town just aches with romance.

Cochon Butcher Our research pointed to Cochon as one of the best restaurants, but A clued us into Cochon Butcher, the more economical deli next door. After Dan wisely steered my away from the roast beef (they specialize in pig) I settled on the pork belly sandwich, which reminded me of the rich, succulent pork roasts my mom would make on special occasions. The best part was where the juicy meat met the braised surface. That's exactly what was in my sammy - thin slabs of tender yet slightly crispy meat, layered with mint, cucumber and chili lime mayo. It was one of the best things I'd ever eaten.

I enjoyed another one of the best things I'd ever eaten twenty minutes later when we split their bacon praline. I'd never had a praline before and I think the best way to describe this Louisiana version is "pecan fudge". The big chunks of smoky bacon within were salty prizes at the end of every creamy, sweet bite. I chewed those bits of pork like bubble gum, and the flavor lasted just as long. $2.50!!! I'm kicking myself for not buying thirty more. It makes that $7.50 Vosges bar seem like silly kid stuff.

The Best Pregnant Cocktail EverHaving discovered weeks ago that the Virgin Bloody Mary is the best non-alcoholic cocktail for a pregnant lady (it doesn't taste any different than the vodka version, and I love me some brine), I was quite pleased with the ones they were serving at the bear bar where we had taken A. The innkeeper informed us of their dog-friendly policy, so we took Dulce in the afternoon and I ordered a couple more. It was the perfect blend of spicy and salty, garnished with olives, dilly beans and pickled okra! It was practically a meal in a glass.

We sat at the bar near the open corner door and watched a gentle rain fall upon Elysian Fields. The owner approached us and introduced himself, shaking Dan's hand and giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Then he showered the dog with affection as she wagged her tail and shed white, feathery fur all over his floor. He hushed our apologies. "With the things that happen in this place, trust me, dog hair is nothing!" He chatted us up for a while and then a periodic parade of kindly, middle-aged gay men came over to pet Dulce. We just don't get this kind of society in Chattanooga.

Pennies from Heaven
Feeling so sleepy, I wasn't inclined to see a live show at a smoky bar, though fortunately Dan convinced me anyway. After dinner we set out for the Bywater District to see Kermit play his regular Thursday night gig at Vaughn's. By then it was pouring outside, but there was a sense of celebration amongst the crowd as it was the first rain in nearly two months. Waiting for the show to begin, we hung around inside for a while (got to see the table where Elvis Costello sat in that scene from the first episode of Treme - my favorite moment is when Steve Zahn's character, Davis, tries to make Kermit understand why this is a big deal and the only response he gets is, "Elvis?!"). Then we retired to the veranda to watch the rain and the gathering crowd. Kermit came out for a moment, stood in front of Dan and sparked a big joint, which he then passed to the guy collecting cover at the door. A couple nerdy dudes approached him, trying to strike up some casual conversation, but they were clearly as awestruck as we were. I don't think we were the only Treme fans in the house.

The show was a blast. In honor of the rain, he began with "Pennies from Heaven" and continued with a long set of other fun standards, alternately singing and playing trumpet. I got to dance to "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Skokiaan", and I think the heat I was emitting from my pregnant body had a way of moving people out of my way, because I was able to get pretty close to the stage. You see, there is some advantage to seeing a live show when you are with child.

Nevertheless, I was pretty wiped out after an hour, so we listened to the show from seats on the veranda and watched drunk people act silly. One more obligatory tourist trip to Cafe Du Monde and we returned to our room for a real night of sleep before our long drive to Dallas


I kept saying to Dan that I was glad we had more adventure awaiting us after New Orleans or I would have found the return to Chattanooga quite depressing. I'm glad to say that being back hasn't been depressing at all. I'd missed our cat, my workout, my routine. This is where my home is now, and home makes me feel complete. I also have a stronger desire to make the most of what I have here - for instance, instead of bitching about the lack of great restaurants in this region, I'm going to take advantage of the excellent local ingredients available to me and become a better cook. I still don't want to stay here forever, but now that I've met the city that suits me best, I don't feel so desperate to figure out where we're going. Whatever happens, it feels good to finally know what I want.

*Coming from Detroit, I don't feel comfortable in cities that aren't somewhat dirty, or where living well means spending a lot of money. For instance, I never feel like I'm dressed nice enough when I'm in New York. SF is kinda that way, too. And then there are places like Austin or Portland where it's cool to be a freak, but I suspect that really means "dress like a hipster". Being in New Orleans, I truly felt that you could be whoever you are- whether you're young or old, skinny or fat, chic or dorky - and as long as you don't act like a jerk, it's cool.

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