Monday, June 30, 2008

New Orleans welcomes the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

June. My calendar marked and my bags packed, I’m off to the 32nd annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference. From the west coast, east coast and in between, newspaper columnists travel across the nation and gather at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. The theme: New Orleans, we haven’t forgotten…

We spend considerable time immersed in Katrina info as shared by many columnists in post-conference columns and blogs. For three days, we renew friendships, listen to Katrina stories of devastation and reconstruction, and taste the fabulous food of New Orleans.

Friday night we work up an appetite as we parade through the French Quarter tagged the Columnists Comb and Kazoo Band. With beads, kazoo and party umbrella, Jenn and Stu Bykofsky, the Philadelphia Daily News, and I pose for a photo opp. Better get us now. It's the only time we stand still. Second-line behind the Storyville Stompers, columnists two-step, side-step and step-on-toes to the Aquarium of the Americas. Adjacent the Mississippi backdrop, we dine and listen to a first-hand witness to the loss and rebirth of the aquarium.

Laughs in order and somewhat needed the columnists kickback in the hospitality suite for camaraderie, nightcaps and Zapp’s spicy Cajun Crawtators.

Boozed out, plump as a piggy and sleep deprived, Sunday I wander with the locals and home-grown and discover that smiles still go on.

Along the St. Charles line, Tamara Mellon waits tables at O’Henry’s Food and Spirits. A young mother of two sons, Tamara, wears the smile of optimism. Residents of Slidell, a hard hit zone of the flood waters, Tamara and her husband John lost their two businesses, sustained major damage to their home but not their spirit.

I’m not sure what the secret ingredients for crawdads, mudbugs and sweet potato fries may be but I suspect the bright, cheerful persona of Tamara has something to do with the extraordinary flavor. Her gracious personality and spunk energizes the afternoon.

Early that evening I join columnists Anita Hanaburgh, the Leader Herald, and LJ Anderson, the Palo Alto Daily News, at the Café Giovanni, for encore Opinionated Vodka Stiletto martinis, the conference official drink.

After several nights dodging Frat Boys, venders and baring a little skin on Bourbon Street for beads - yes, I was tossed one string - a trek to the outskirts of the French Quarter tempts my curiosity. Armed with the names of the best jazz venues and restaurants this side of the quarter we cross the Esplanade for Girl’s Night Out. Destination Frenchmen Street, New Orleans.

Along Frenchmen Street, the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, The Marigny Brasserie and the Santa Fe Mex-tex restaurant extend southern hospitality: chilled margaritas, watermelon mojitos and crispy shrimp. The atmosphere jazzed and gentle; foreign to the hype and colorful people of Bourbon Street, the welcome mat is huge.

One particular funky rustic building, the Spotted Cat, begs us to enter. Above the entry a windsock shaped like a white cat with black spots dances in the early evening breeze. An open-door policy with patrons along the walk and chatting on the street, we accept the invisible invite. Cash only, $4 beer, one drink minimum per set.

Just a columnist’s kind of place.

At the bar rail, I order a Bud Lite and note the balloons, birthday cake and lone sugar cookie with green frosting. It’s someone’s special day.

In a loose white shirt with a black crown with green, purple and gold jewels and a smile as wide as the Mississippi, it was easy to spot the birthday king. Al Carnival Time Johnson. A forty-year icon of Mardi Gras, Al wrote the unofficial song of Mardi Gras “Carnival Time”. Born in the Ninth Ward, the native son lost his home with the high waters of Katrina. With the help of fundraisers and friends, Al’s destination is Musician’s Village.

A birthday tradition, we dig into our pockets, pull out dollar bills and pin George onto Al’s shirt. Soon, he’s joined by Abraham and even a Grant or two. Happy 69th birthday Al.

I watch Diane, the woman next to me move with the rhythm; massaging each note with harmony - somewhat envious of the easy release into the moment. As the saxophonist tops a high note, she accents the shrill sound with the sway of her shoulders and a tap of her foot. Lost in the music.

Still ahead of my alcohol, I’m not ready to lose my California reserve. Yet.

From guys on motorcycles to a woman aided by a walker, exuberant, spirited and poignant, to the woman dancing on the bar, they party. Against the far wall three slot machines yet no players. On stage the jazz revs up and the crowd takes to the miniscule dance area.

Another swig of beer and square of birthday cake, I find myself on my feet, swinging with the beat. Outside the revelers dance under the spotted cat and I realize I could quickly become one with the cat, sashaying my tail and meowing into the early hours.

But the midnight hour nears and like Cinderella at the ballroom we cross back into the French Quarter and transform again into tourists.

At the Café du Monde, we pose for pictures and tip generously. As we sip café au lait and the powdered sugar drifts from the beignets like fairy dust I glance again towards the forbidden boundary and whisper into the balmy night, “I’ll be back.”