New Orleans never disappointed
September 11, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
New Orleans always opened your eyes.
There is no American city I have visited more than New Orleans, somewhere
over 30 sojourns during the past 25 years. Every time I saw something new.
I saw the radiant smile from Irma Thomas as she delivered a huge plate of
red beans and rice before going on stage at her Lion's Den nightclub. At
Cafe du Monde I saw children who laughed and rolled in beignet powder as if
it were gentle snowflakes.
I was dazzled by the tall headdress of Mardi Gras Indian Felton Brown and
the deep pride with which he wore it. During Mardi Gras '80, I saw the
tattooed "With Ricks, There Is No Tricks" bondsman as I got a friend out of
jail for smoking a joint.
I once saw a cockroach the size of a Volkswagen crawl across the bar at
Lafitte's Blacksmith Bar (circa 1772, the oldest building in the
Mississippi River Valley), and another time I fell in love on a Sunday
morning in the garden of the Lafitte Guest House.
New Orleans is America's most soulful city. No wonder starchy House Speaker
Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wanted to bulldoze it.
I began making annual pilgrimages to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival in 1984. I stayed at the Olivier House in the French Quarter.
Immediately after checking in, I would meet my Chicago friends at the
resplendent outdoor fountain at Pat O'Brien's. I would quietly throw a
penny into the fountain and make a wish for the future.
Today, I wish to go back to New Orleans.
What is the worth of travel if it is not seeing life different from home?
New Orleans never let me down in that regard. I will always carry my trips
in my pocket like lucky pennies. John Steinbeck said, "People don't take
trips, trips take people." New Orleans helped me better understand my place
During the jazz fest in 2001, I led a two-car caravan of Roth, Cleo, Carrot
Top and others to the dingy Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge in a rough
neighborhood on the outskirts of the French Quarter. "K-Doe," as locals
called him, had huge 1960s hits with "Mother-In-Law" and "Certain Girl,"
later popularized by Warren Zevon. When we arrived, K-Doe was sitting at
the bar in an indigo suit stitched with rhinestones and musical notes. His
wife, Antoinette, was behind the bar. She was also his seamstress, backup
singer and manager. The bar held only 100 people, but it was packed with
blacks, whites, gays, straights, hipsters and squares. K-Doe loved the
crowd and sang wide-eyed rhythm-and-blues backed by a surf-punk band. Life
is best lived through these incongruous moments. K-Doe died of liver
failure a few months after our visit.
A year later, I visited New Orleans and found myself in the middle of a
battle over ice cubes at the century-old Galatoire's restaurant in the
French Quarter. After a 2002 renovation, the regulars were upset that
hand-chipped ice cubes in the water had been replaced by machine-made
cubes. How New Orleans.
In 1994, I came to the jazz fest in an unusual way. Along with Bill
FitzGerald, his brother Chris, Tom Cimms and a few other guys, we took a
12-day trip on a 28-foot-long pleasure craft from Lake Michigan in Chicago
down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to Lake Pontchartrain. We did most
of our boating during the day, but we were frantic to get to New Orleans.
Our tiny boat already had curled around downtown into the lake. We were two
miles from our final destination at the New Orleans Municipal Yacht Harbor
when the swells suddenly picked up. We didn't see them. The waves pounded
against the boat. We took on water. Twinkling lights from the distant New
Orleans skyline moved like shooting stars. We made it.
But we were humbled by the force of Lake Pontchartrain.
By journey's end, we were brought together as friends and united in respect
for nature and the forces that surround it. The fierce spiritual winds of
New Orleans forced you to open your eyes to all that was around you. That's
how so many friendships are made in New Orleans. Large contingents of
Chicagoans began making regular trips to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival. In recent days jazz fest fans such as WXRT's Tom Marker and
WLUW's Tom Jackson have kept Chicagoans abreast of events in New Orleans
and the Gulf Coast.
I will always see my friend Paul Cebar grinning and panning through the
400,000 albums at Jim Russell's Rare Records on Magazine Street as if they
were gold. Music was everywhere in New Orleans, and there are many more
songs to be sung.
The jazz festival -- there's a lifetime of memories, and don't even get me
started on the Crawfish Monica with its creamy white pasta sauce. There's
Mavis Staples singing Mahalia Jackson in the gospel tent. Alex Chilton on
stage bitching about his early Sunday morning slot at the fairgrounds, and
legendary Bourbon Street stripper Chris Owens singing and dancing in a
Vegas-type revue. Can you imagine a stripper being booked at the Chicago
Blues Festival? Such audacity was New Orleans. And that is what New Orleans
will be again.
Before the year is out, I will take Amtrak's City of New Orleans to the
Gulf Coast. "Good morning America, how are you?" asked late Chicagoan Steve
Goodman when he wrote the train ballad "The City of New Orleans." Amtrak
service to New Orleans has been suspended. Due to severe infrastructure
damage from the hurricane, the City of New Orleans will now run from
Chicago to Jackson, Miss. No alternate transportation is available between
Jackson and New Orleans. [Visit www.amtrak.com for more information.]
When the 1985 Bears went to the Super Bowl, I was sent to New Orleans for a
week to write features. It was a last-minute decision to include me in
"Team Sun-Times," so there wasn't anywhere for me to stay. I knew the
Quarter fairly well from previous visits and had to file a story the day I
landed. I interviewed a voodoo priest who was selling pin dolls of the
Bears and New England Patriots. After our conversation, I told him I had no
accommodations. He knew of the Olivier House, a 40-room townhouse built in
1836 on Toulouse Street by plantation owner "Madam Olivier." I will never
forget walking down Bourbon Street on a quiet afternoon alongside this
distinguished voodoo priest to visit "Madam Olivier's" house.
The priest then introduced me to turnip-faced hotel clerk Sherrill LeMoyne,
who handed me a business card that only read "Raconteur." Although this
entire event consumed only 15 minutes, I became friends with Sherrill and
the Olivier staff for the next 15 years. I was a loyal customer even
through the years when they had a collection of exotic birds in the
courtyard that would wake me up way too early in the morning.
On that same trip in January 1986, I sold Lucky Dog tube steaks at St.
Peter and Bourbon streets, the busiest corner in the French Quarter. The
hot dog was popularized as Paradise Vendors in John Kennedy Toole's 1981
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces. I stood behind a
7-foot-long, wiener-shaped push cart and shouted out classic Lucky Dog
lines like, "You got the teaser, I got the pleaser" and "Don't be a meanie,
buy a wienie." Bears quarterback Jim McMahon walked by me without blinking
The Lucky Dog was a cloudy window into New Orleans' soul. Since 1947, the
hot dog street vendors generally have been drifters, dockworkers and
unemployed mimes. They had a collective heart that beat deep into the most
humid of nights. They were New Orleans.
New Orleans was the only city in America where I took time out to visit
cemeteries. Soul singer Jessie Hill of "Ooh Poo Pah Do" fame was buried in
a folk-art-inspired grave at Holt Cemetery near Delgado College. On one of
my more recent visits, I stopped to see the great Louis Prima, who was
interred in a majestic tomb in Metairie Cemetery, off what used to be
Interstate 10. The lyrics of his hit "Just a Gigolo" are carved into his
tomb. My wish is that those artists, along with thousands of other princes
and paupers, still rest in peace.
E-mail Dave Hoekstra at dhoekstra@...