Missing New Orleans

I’ve always kept a mental list of places about to disappear, such as the ruins of Angor Wat in Cambodia. Never — ever — was New Orleans on that list.

My first visit to New Orleans was as a college student, driving 36 hours straight from Vermont to attend Mardi Gras. I kept returning — with the annual Jazzfest becoming the ritual adult vacation for me, my wife and a gathering of friends.

On that first trip so many years ago, I climbed over the wall of the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery and played a game of tag with friends among the mausoleums and statuaries that still haunts me to this day. Even then, we didn’t need Anne Rice to tell us New Orleans was a place that spoke about the epic struggle between life and death, where vampire and horror stories came to life, where voodoo and gris-gris made music. And the food was to die for.

New Orleans, with its gumbo-like history of French, Spanish and Arcadian influences, was a port city, and that meant Jews settled there and were part of its great history. You have but to walk downtown and see the names of old-time retailers such as the Rubinstein Brothers’ store to get the idea.

And let’s not forget that it was Morris Karnofsky, a Jewish peddler, who bought Louis Armstrong his first cornet, sharing with him a family feeling that Armstrong valued so greatly that he wore a necklace with a Jewish star for the rest of his life.

Occasionally you read about someone saying they saw Caruso sing, or Babe Ruth hit a homer. Well, I saw Professor Longhair play in New Orleans. I heard Dr. John and the Radiators at Tipitina’s, Irma Thomas at the Lion’s Den and Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor. I danced to Tribe Nunzio at Café Brasil, saw the Iguanas at the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl Nightclub and Marcia Ball at Jimmy’s.

New Orleans was the Purim carnival to end all Purim carnivals.

One highlight of my life was a night at Preservation Hall, when the band invited me to join them on kazoo for an encore of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They gave me a solo.

Many are the memorable musical moments at Jazzfest, in the Gospel Tent, at Congo Square. But among them, one outshines the rest: standing in the rain to hear Randy Newman sing “Louisiana.”

A Jewish angle? One night after hearing the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars play at the Dragon’s Den, a rumor spread that Adam Duritz (the lead singer of Counting Crows) was playing an unannounced set at a club on Toulouse Street. He came on at 2:30 a.m. and played till around 5. When I left, there were still people in the bars.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize the city.

New Orleans may have been one of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities in America. Once after leaving Crabby Jack’s on Highway 90, we witnessed a bank robbery in progress. I lost my appetite for a full 15 minutes.

That city had to be one of the most obese in America. I can understand why. One of the dishes I miss most was worth waiting in line at Jacques Imo’s for: the deep-fried roast beef po’boy. You heard me: the New Orleans version of a roast beef hero, with all the fixings, dipped in batter and then deep-fried.

My idea of moderation was that for 51 weeks of the year we didn’t live in New Orleans.

You are talking to a man who ate a dish called “debris” at Mother’s, to someone who looked forward each visit to the Camellia Grill’s chili-cheese omelet, with a pecan waffle on the side, a coffee milkshake and a dessert of pecan pie from the grill. And nothing was better than ending up, or starting out, at Café du Monde for beignets and chicorée café au lait.

New Orleans was unhealthy in oh-so-many ways but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the happiest city in America. I smiled from the moment I landed and kept smiling for weeks after I left.

The smiles will be a long time returning. Our friends, the Suttons, owned several jewelry stores downtown and will now relocate. I haven’t heard yet what happened to Al Palma, our Argentine-Jewish cab driver who became part of our regular crew. Al always said of New Orleans: “You got to know people here, and you don’t know people.”

But we did: We knew Al, for one, and I hope he’s OK.

New Orleans will rebuild. It is inevitable. People still live on the hillsides below Mt. St. Helens and Pompeii. After World War II, they rebuilt London and Warsaw and Berlin. People returned to downtown Manhattan after Sept. 11 and we continue to live in California along the fault lines.

Man is stupid — and loyal. If history has taught us anything it is that we have an enormous capacity to forget tragedy and to ignore its lessons. That’s part of what makes us human. And New Orleans is all about being human — in the best and worst ways.

The city may never be the same. But then again, what is and who is? New Orleans’ll be back one day and I’ll be there, too, at the first chance. Missing the New Orleans that was. Enjoying the New Orleans that will be.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood