A day in New Orleans includes the following routine: lounging over coffee while discussing what to eat for lunch, and at lunch discussing where to dine later. What I haven’t mentioned is that while indulging in those meals or on the way to the next one, I cannot walk ten steps there without running into a friend or relative. New Orleans isn’t a city, it’s a river town--the banks that hug the bend of land and water being much like our snug connection with each other.
Friday morning, my father and I had a coffee date at Still Perkin’. Located uptown at the edge of Lafayette Cemetery and a block from the famed Commander’s Palace, Still Perkin’ attracts mostly locals. Dad and I rolled in chatting, and there standing with a small group of people, not moments after I just wondered aloud who we might bump into, was a woman whose child I used to babysit and who used to teach at my high school. In fact, she is running for some kind of political office and works for the mayor now. After coffee, we headed into the lobby that Still Perkin’ shares with a half dozen independently owned businesses. I entered a store managed by a distant, distant relative who, as it turned out, keeps in solid touch with my uncles. If you are seeking anonymity, New Orleans is not the place to be.
Meanwhile, my husband was introducing a paper at his conference and shaking hands with colleagues. He ran into friends of my parents. These friends live out of state. Seeing as how a joyful reunion was in order, we all paraded to Palace Café on Canal Street for lunch between conference sessions. My sister, who also lives out of state and whose work and travel commitments nearby had been cancelled on short notice, also had managed to grace us with her presence that day. A wonderful waiter doted on the seven of us. Something he said sparked my curiosity and I started gently probing for his background. The waiter once had owned two big restaurants in Denver, where my husband happened to have been a customer in those years there.
At one point, the waiter, telling us his incredible story about his return to New Orleans after years of entrepreneurship and a life-changing heart attack, stepped back and threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed, “I love life!” This is the New Orleans I love—the social engagement over plates of steaming gourmet, the vigorous exchange of commonality and affection, the joyful celebration of life.
Sitting here this morning, quietly nursing the lingering and frustrating effects of illness, I wish I were back at Still Perkin’--at a table boasting café au lait and brioche, with seats cradling my family. Views from broad windows there include the long alternately blanched and shadowed wall of the cemetery, the elegant decay of aging Mediterranean-inspired French cottages, and a stray tourist or two wandering. I often miss the comfort of being somewhere so elegant and familiar, where I was entirely known from childhood and welcomed, a place where so-and-so “went to schoo’ wit’ ya mama”. Maybe those days will come again.