Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
Memories of the 21st Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans
Literary Festival… and of the City that George W. DUH Forgot
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day?
I know I'm not wrong
This feeling's getting’ stronger
The longer I stay away…
But my stay in N’awlins wasn’t only planned to participate in the 21st Williams Festival. First and foremost, it was to celebrate the 60th birthday of my cherished pal Maggie Eldred, considered one of the most prolific interpreters of Williams heroines anywhere in the South and my costar four years ago in Tenn’s seldom-produced Small Craft Warnings here at the late-lamented evidEnce Room.
Maggie and Stacey Arton’s N’awlins-based Mesa Productions transferred Small Craft here to El Lay in 2003 after suffering months of my impassioned pleas to do so, since it was the one defining event that knocked me out during my first experience at the Williams Festival earlier that same year, ingeniously staged at New Orleans’ infamous Le Chat Noir nightclub on Canal Street as an adjunct production to the Fest.
Maggie’s birthday bash also re-christened the home near the Bayou she and Stacey have shared for years but have only recently been able to occupy again since “The Storm,” as the long-suffering locals call it, so this special night in their charming and beautifully resurrected shotgun house was infused with an incredible sense of spirit and camaraderie, making it a well deserved fête honoring a very special person.
At Maggie’s party I had the good fortune to meet her longtime friend Martin Adamo, who teaches academics at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), an alterative high school facility whose rigorous curriculum is designed to prepare the seemingly unlimited supply of gifted local teenagers to follow a path toward a professional career in 10 worthy disciplines: creative writing, dance, media arts, music (classical, jazz and vocal), visual arts and, of course, theatre (drama, musical theatre and theatrical design), all with coursework counting toward high school graduation.
Offering to arrange a tour for me during my stay of NOCCA/Riverfront’s impressively designed state-of-the-art performing and fine arts educational facility, located right on the Mississippi River between the Bywater and Faubourg Marigny, I was then asked by Martin if I’d also consider speaking about my career and passion for theatre to the student body while I was visiting. Considering I was on my third Hurricane, I seem to have agreed.
By noon’s early light, I was a bit unsure what I could say to these kids but, thanks to the encouragement of Martin, as well as NOCCA/Riverfront faculty members Janet Shea, theatre department chair and one of the city’s most respected actors, and drama teacher J. Patrick (“Mac”) McNamara, I had a terrific time answering questions from a sea of absolutely attentive and committed young students whose intelligence and quizzical minds made it obvious they’ll all have promising futures ahead of them. It was a motivating experience I shared that afternoon with these dedicated teachers and their eager charges, making me feel a tad less obsolete at the conclusion than I did when I first walked into the room.
But the most memorable moment of my afternoon visiting NOCCA/Riverfront might be among my first: As I waited for Martin to meet me in the echoing breezeway of the facility, the air was suddenly filled with an extraordinary sound emanating from the whizzing drumsticks of one lone teenaged media arts student named Ian, sitting on a bench across from me in front of the school cafeteria drumming out incredible rhythms on the cardboard back cover of his spiral notebook. I began to realize then and there it’s these über–gifted kids, learning their lessons well at NOCCA and made even more resilient by overcoming the destruction to their idyllic community caused by Katrina, who are our hope for the future of the arts in our society; in their capable hands, I think we can all rest well.
Speaking of that bitch Katrina, perhaps the most sobering time spent during my stay in New Orleans was a tour of the continuing devastation caused by the storm, particularly in the dreaded 9th ward, which resembles what I expect downtown Baghdad to look like. I had a firsthand peek at things since my hostess Penny and our mutual friends Susanna Styron and her daughter Lilah spent their days while I was there volunteering with Common Ground, donning Hazmat suits each dawn to go muck out houses, tear out mildewed drywall, and pull weeds (whose roots they swore smelled like human vomit) in abandoned vacant lots which once held homes.
It’s impossible to describe what one still sees around this trampled town, but even if I didn’t think Bush and his cronies were sending us all to hell in a handbasket weighed down by innocent blood and stolen oil, a trip to N’awlins almost two years after the asshole pledged with feigned assurances that there’d be a rapid governmental response, viewing the continuing horrifyingly unfair situation tells a story every Americans should know.
One of the best parts of my time spent with Penny was meeting legendary bluesman Wardell Quezergue, the guy known respectfully in New Orleans as the “Creole Beethoven.” Wardell first emerged as a bandleader in the mid-50s with his Royal Dukes of Rhythm, then went on to work as an arranger with the cream of N’awlins musicians, including Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. In 1964, he formed NoLa Records and a series of international hits followed, including “Iko Iko,” “Barefootin’,” Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,” “Groove Me,” and “Mr. Big Stuff.”
As a result of these successes and Wardell’s unearthly skills as an arranger, he came into demand in the 70s, hired by artists as diverse as Paul Simon, B.B. King and Willie Nelson, producing and arranging the Grammy-winning 1992 Dr. John album Goin’ Back to New Orleans. Already an award-winning classical composer and conductor, in 2000 Wardell created a brilliant extended composition entitled “A Creole Mass,” drawing on his enduring faith and personal experiences fighting in the Korean War.
Now 77 and legally blind from diabetes, Wardell lost his earthly possessions as a result of Katrina and was left basically destitute, but thanks to the mentorship of people like Penny, benefit concerts on his behalf led by Dr. John and, especially, the invaluable help and friendship of Jordan Hirsch of Sweet Home New Orleans—a wonderful non-profit organization dedicated to bring musicians back to N’awlins and provide affordable housing and healthcare—Wardell endures with a constant smile and the kindest heart of anyone I’ve met in years.
With a grateful nod to the support of all of the above people, Wardell was honored at JazzFest last month as a “living legend,” a long overdue tribute for which he humbly confessed in his concluding statement from the stage, “I did my best.”
One night of many spent dining with Penny and Wardell, he admitted to us hesitation about taping an interview the next day at the late Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, which would eventually accompany his appearance at JazzFest. “What will I ever talk about tomorrow?” Wardell asked with great sincerity, to which we responded that all he needed to do was reminisce about the musical greats he’d talked about working with over the piles of oysters and crawdads we consumed during my stay. “Well,” he drawled, “there’s the problem. See, I don’t remember the names too well, I only remember the notes.”
If there’s any organization in N’awlins that could benefit from the support of all of us, besides the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and NOCCA, it’s the fiercely devoted Sweet Home New Orleans. As Jordan Hirsch told the Times-Picayune, “The idea is to be a one-stop shop for the thousands of tradition bearers who've been displaced by Katrina. An overwhelming majority still want to come back home and they just don't know how to make it happen. Our goal is to pool together our resources to make coming home a less daunting task for the diaspora of artists still struggling to get back on their feet.”
Working toward the return home of all those storm-displaced N’awlins artists is really an economic necessity as well as a cultural need, as it’s the musicians and artists of the Crescent City who are most instrumental in drawing tourists to the place and, in reality, tourism is the only industry that keeps this one-of-a-kind town alive.
Aside from rekindling my romance with New Orleans, reinstating my anger at the Bush agenda, saying a memorable hello to my old friend Jolie Blonde (the affectionate resident python at John Martin’s infamous Voodoo Museum on Dumaine), and falling in platonic love with a 77-year-old blind musical wünderkind, I also got to spend an incredible day with my friend Rob Tsarnov, the aforementioned premier playwright of Crescent City, visiting the knockout sculpture garden adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art and checking out those eerie above-ground cemeteries of N’awlins.
Quintessential N’awlins counterculture artiste Rob, who admits under duress to actually be a transplantee from Tarzana, California, gave me a personalized and unique guided tour through the places he loves most in the town he passionately adores, including a long walk through the spooky Metairie Cemetery and past the not-so-final resting place of Josie Arlington, the controversial Storyville madam who, before her remains were removed to keep the curious at bay, was said to walk around at night while her tomb erupted in flames, the red glow supposedly visible from the freeway just beyond the enveloping trees surrounding her crypt.
Of course, there’s no way to write about New Orleans without mentioning the food. Oy, the food. From several trips for chargrilled oysters covered in seasoned garlic butter and melting romano cheese at the Acme Oyster House, to crawfish eggrolls at the Basil Leaf (a place that puts a brave new spin of traditional Thai cuisine), to a long worthy wait at Caffe DuMonde for chicory coffee and a lapful of powdered sugar plummeting uncontrollably from their signature beignets, or to savoring a Pinot Noir-infused veal chop topped with boursin, proscuitto, portobello mushrooms and artichokes at the tiny neighborhood Nardo’s Italian Trattoria near the Garden District, I probably gained 20 pounds in two weeks time—and it was worth every bulge.
New Orleans is, without a doubt for me, the most magical, the most haunted, the most intriguing, the most spectacularly historic (and deliciously decadent) city in North America. Being there makes me feel like Odysseus trying to escape the song of the Sirens: I simply never want to leave.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that’s where you left your heart?
If I could stay hanging there with my N’awlins friends til I croak, listening to amazing music and seeing heartfelt theatre every night, eating enormous amounts of Gulf Coast Katrina-contaminated seafood, working with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival each spring, and spending my free time sticking pins in Voodoo dolls of George W. Bush, I'd be a contented soul.
I’m still seriously considering packing up my entire ever-fluctuating legions of rescued Boston Terriers and turning over a tambourine to make a living in Jackson Square. After all, I did have a cool set of tattered Tarot cards around somewhere left over from my old Age of Aquarius years—why not finally put them to use?
For information about the 22nd annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival next March, check out their website at www.tennesseewilliams.net . For information on how to help the non-profit Sweet Home New Orleans, contact them at www.sweethomeneworleans.org . For a look at the highly recommendable Lookout Inn Bed & Breakfast, contact innkeeper/interior designer/art director/rock musician/rollerderby babe Lisa Rohan at www.lookoutneworleans.com