Tag Archives: JoAnn Clevenger at Upperline

Missing JoAnn

At this time of year, I frequently think of the Gulf region, where revelers from Mobile to New Orleans and beyond are celebrating the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras. When I think about New Orleans, I always think of Upperline, the Garden District restaurant that is the domain of JoAnn Clevenger.

I had heard about the charms of JoAnn and Upperline for years before I finally made my first reservation. When you called to make a reservation, JoAnn usually answered the phone. She would find out where you were visiting from, what brought you to New Orleans, if you had previously dined at Upperline, and where you were staying. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was being pre-screened; if I was, I always made the cut.

On that first visit to the restaurant, I was visiting New Orleans in August (which some people would say is crazy to begin with, but I enjoy the city at all times of the year). I had an early reservation and had the bright idea to take the St. Charles streetcar up to the Garden District and walk around until the time of my reservation. It was a bright idea, but not a smart one on a sweltering August afternoon; within minutes, I was drenched in sweat and looking for a shady place to sit. The shade was no balm, however, from the oppressive heat.

Drained, and close to the restaurant, I decided to seek a merciful respite and went to the door of Upperline, where they were still preparing for dinner service. I told JoAnn that I had a reservation later (when they opened, actually) and asked if I could come inside until time for my meal. I probably looked pretty pathetic, and I was led to my table and asked what I would like to drink. “Ice water for now,” I said.

As I cooled down, I had the opportunity to observe JoAnn and the chef going over the evening’s menu. She would sample a dish thoughtfully and make her comments or suggestions. After a few minutes of this, the chef headed back to the kitchen and JoAnn took the helm at her station at the entrance.

I have always been interested in being privy to the details that go into the makings of an exceptional restaurant. One evening, dining at Brigtsen’s, another standout New Orleans eatery, I watched as chef Frank Brigtsen quietly walked through each dining room of the shotgun house that houses his eponymous eatery. After he had finished his walk-thru, he adjusted the volume of the music and headed back toward the kitchen. It is such attention to detail, I think, that distinguishes a great restaurant from a good one.

Back at Upperline, customers began to arrive and the restaurant came fully to life. The art-covered walls, curated by JoAnn, featured New Orleans scenes and New Orleans artists, and JoAnn circulated among her guests in what was, essentially, her own vibrant salon. When she came to my table, we chatted about Birmingham and she told how her menu’s “Hot & Hot Shrimp” was inspired by a visit to Birmingham’s award-winning Hot and Hot Fish Club. The meal was wonderful and, by the time I left, I had resolved to eat at Upperline whenever I was in New Orleans.

I kept my resolution, often taking friends there for their first time, and was never disappointed. Whenever one went to Upperline, JoAnn was always dressed in her signature black and red tunic. I learned somewhere along the way that she had eight of them in her closet. She always adorned it with her Girl Scout pin from her years growing up in rural Louisiana. She was fond of garlic and, in the summer months, a garlic-filled menu would be available. She admired Thomas Jefferson and the menu often featured dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. A “Dorothy Parker” cocktail was garnished with three Red Hots. Dishes from Creole and Cajun Louisiana were always available, often with daring twists.

JoAnn Clevenger has been a finalist for the James Beard Award as “Restaurateur of the Year” on multiple occasions but has never won it. Anybody who ever dined in her restaurant would know that nobody deserves it more.

JoAnn has that very rare ability of seeming to remember you whether she really does or not. On my repeat visits, she always gave the impression that she recalled me from earlier visits. One time, after I had been away from New Orleans for a while, she said, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.” I replied that it had been three years. At the end of the evening, as I was going to my cab, she sidled up beside me. “Don’t wait three more years to come back,” she said with a wink. “If you do, I may not be here anymore.”

She was still there, greeting diners at the door, three years later. And three years after that. She was still making time to chat with each of her guests. The food was always superb, made moreso by the ambiance.

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and things began to shut down, the Upperline website announced that “Upperline is on pause and looking forward to reopening
as soon as it is safe for our beloved staff and guests.”

By November 2021, the pause was still in effect and JoAnn Clevenger, now in her 80s, announced that Upperline was closed permanently.

The pull of New Orleans has always been strong for me, and I’ve been away for too long. But now, with Upperline closed, the pull of the city is just a little less urgent.

Happy Mardi Gras. Pray for Ukraine.

Notes from Neutral Ground

  Thursday, 9/7/2017: As I cross from Mississippi into Louisiana, WWOZ – “the most indispensable radio station in the country” – plays the instantly recognizable opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and my spirits lift immediately (www.wwoz.org).

I am traveling to New Orleans to present a paper on Joan Didion’s California at the American Literature Association’s symposium, “Regionalism and Place in American Literature” (www.americanliteratureassociation.org).

I love the Stones and am rocking out and singing along behind the steering wheel as I pull into the Louisiana Welcome Center north of Slidell. However, since I am aware of criticism over the past several years that WWOZ has sometimes strayed from its mission of promoting local New Orleans and Louisiana music, I wonder how “Gimme Shelter” fits into the scenario.

I don’t much care at the moment since I am immersed in one of my favorite songs from arguably my favorite rock ’n’ roll band ever. I muse that it may be a reference to the fact that Texans and west Louisianans are seeking dry ground after Hurricane Harvey or that Floridians and others on the east coast are fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma. For either group, New Orleans is a place that is not in the crosshairs of the storm this time.

Instead of calling them “medians,” New Orleanians refer to the grassy strips between lanes on their broad streets as “neutral ground.”  On St. Charles Avenue, for example, the grassy area in the middle that the streetcars travel is “neutral ground.” I realize that in the current tropical storm scenario, the whole city of New Orleans is “neutral ground” with visitors coming in from all directions.

The Stones wrap up and immediately the track segues to Merry Clayton’s solo version of “Gimme Shelter” and it all makes sense. Clayton, a New Orleans native, provides the fierce back-up vocals on the Stones’ original of the song, challenging Mick Jagger’s dominance in the process. Her solo version, recorded a few years later with a shrieking horn back-up, is a skillful and equally naked vocal performance. You must give it a listen.

Getting out of the car, I am approached by an agitated man who tells me to give him gas money to get back to Beaumont. I am inclined to help him but I feel a need to engage him for a moment to see if he’s really a flood victim or if he’s scamming.

As soon as I start to talk, he says, “If you ain’t gonna help me, bye!”

“I just need to …”

“If you ain’t gonna help me, BYE!”

“But …”

“BYE!” and he’s gone, approaching another car just pulling up.

A half hour later I am at the Hotel Monteleone, check into my room (which happens to be across the hall from the Tennessee Williams Suite), and unpack.

There is a little time before the symposium’s registration and opening reception so I go to Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley off Jackson Square (www.faulknerhousebooks.com). The proprietor is talking to a group of European customers. One is particularly interested in reading Faulkner and asks what he should start with. I walk past and whisper “As I Lay Dying” to the proprietor and the conversation continues as I browse.

Outside, a bored young tour guide stops in the alley and I hear him say, “The writer William Faulkner lived here. Also, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here.”

“That’s not true,” the proprietor says to his customers. “Faulkner lived here, yes. Tennessee Williams, no.”

The ill-informed tour moves on.

“Should I chase him down?” I ask, joking.

“If I chased down every tour guide who gave false information in that alley, I’d never get any work done,” is the reply.

I find the book I am looking for at Faulkner House, pay, and am leaving as the European guy decides to try a book of Faulkner’s short stories (good move).

I stop by Napoleon House, one of my favorite spots in the French Quarter, and text my friend Deb that I am there; it is one of her favorite spots, too. Her response includes the terrible news that one of her good friends, a woman in her forties that I also know, has died.

I absorb that piece of sad news and move back to the Monteleone, symposium check-in, and the reception.

After a quick appearance at the reception, I get dressed for dinner. I am going to Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. It is my habit on New Orleans trips to try to have dinner at one of the New Orleans classics, at one of my favorites, and at some place new.

Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) is one of the stalwart classics that I have never dined at. After recently viewing a charming documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, I decided I could not delay a trip to Commander’s any longer so this will be my first visit to the turquoise landmark. 

Commander’s vaunted hospitality is alive and well and I am greeted warmly by every staff member as I make my way to my table in an elegant dining room. I have often said I would like to write a column or book about the “solo diner” and I always find that the best restaurants in New Orleans have no problem making a solo diner feel comfortable. I judge a restaurant partially by its treatment of solo diners and, with only one notable exception, New Orleans comes through splendidly.

The tempting menu is full of tasty offerings, making it hard to choose what to have from Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s selections. The waiter, upon learning that Birmingham is my home town, asks me if I know the Bright Star in Bessemer where the late summer “Taste of New Orleans” event features a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant. I tell him that I know the Bright Star very well and have attended Chef McPhail’s dinners there.

Finally, I order a group of “tried and trues.” As I choose a meal of turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, and bread pudding soufflé, the waiter smiles and says “a Paul Prudhomme meal.” Prudhomme sealed his reputation at Commander’s where his tenure preceded Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and McPhail. He introduced Cajun influences to Commander’s – making Cajun food a national sensation – before going on to open his iconic restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the Quarter.

The dinner is lovely and the ambiance is magnificent but I have a long day of presenting and listening tomorrow and, leaving Commander’s, I retreat to my room to practice my presentation one more time before sleep.

Friday, 9/8/2017: After the symposium’s opening plenary session, in which it is announced that a number of presenters cannot make it to New Orleans due to impending weather, I present my Didion paper at the “California” session at 10:30. It goes well, I think. I field a lot of questions during the Q and A that follows.

Lunch follows that, and then sessions that stretch to 7:30.  Papers on the “undead” seem to be trending; these I avoid. There is impressive scholarship at the symposium and I hear a lot of good papers, but by the time the day wraps up I am famished and have made no dinner plans.

I remember that I have time to get to Willa Jean (www.willajean.com), the new-ish restaurant (2015) in the Warehouse District that I learned about at a recent Alabama Chanin event in Florence. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Kelly Fields, who named it after her grandmother, and the general manager is Leah Richard, who I met and was terribly amused by at the Florence dinner. It is part of the ubiquitous John Besh Restaurant Group of New Orleans restaurants that impressively cover New Orleans like kudzu covers the South.

Willa Jean is a shiny spot, sleek and chic with wood accents. The menu is inventive and fun, with offerings like Cookies + Milk and a wo’Manwich and an impressive selection of juice-based drinks. An array of enticing pastries is available just inside. I opt for the WJ Burger, an Angus beef burger with herb/pecorino fries. The burger is offered with American cheese but I ask to substitute the menu’s pimento cheese for American. The dessert menu provides too many tasty options and I finally choose a chocolate pudding generously sprinkled with crushed pecans.

I notice how young the wait staff – the entire staff – is at Willa Jean. It’s not unusual to see older waiters in New Orleans where it is a career choice rather than a part-time job, but Willa Jean is full of attractive fresh young faces. Looking around the room, I realize that I am at least 25 years older than everybody in sight. As I leave, a three-some arrives that looks my age (or older) and I am relieved as I decide to walk back through the Central Business District and to the hotel.

Streets that used to be dark and somewhat deserted in the CBD are now bustling, with new restaurants and other establishments on almost every block. In a late summer evening, there are groups of people chatting and walking, going into lofts and coming out for a night in the city.

My first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans was a mere four and a half months after the flood when many areas were still without power and some places looked like the flooding had been days, rather than months, ago. It is heartening to see what much of the city has become (although there is still plenty of recovery left to do) on each visit back.

I get back to the Quarter and consider going in search of live music but I realize that the Quarter on a Friday night has become, for me, as depressing as a New Year’s Eve party – too many people too desperate to have too good a time. Maybe it’s my age. I retreat into the more staid Monteleone where the crowd at the Carousel Lounge is getting geared up for a late evening of carousing.

Saturday, 9/9/2017: It’s the final day of the symposium and I start the day at the second of two sessions on New Orleans regional literature with impressive papers by college students – one on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and another focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

At another session that I am looking forward to, I am disappointed. The session is supposed to deal with native cultures in the Americas and the four presenters have topics of interest to me. The first paper deals with Nahua structures in central Mexico and the presenter has time to give her entire presentation. However, the second presenter announces that she is an Elder of the Apache Nation and that she is going to use her status as entitlement to go beyond her allotted time.

It is a shocking moment and the moderator should step in but doesn’t.  Everyone sits politely as the Elder inserts lengthy asides and largely toots her own horn of accomplishments and vents her anger at the plights of the native cultures. It is the sole uncollegial moment in what is a very collegial symposium. When the Elder finally reels herself in, there are only minutes left for the final two presenters to sketchily synopsize what their work entails.

The last two papers – one about hymns written in indigenous languages and another about tribal performance as theatre – were of particular interest to me and I am sorry I am not allowed to hear them due to a brazen and unprofessional power play.

At a reception later, I have the opportunity to tell the presenter who was supposed to talk about her hymn research that I had wanted to hear her paper. “Thank you. I wanted to present it,” she graciously replies. I admire her calm in the situation. I am livid still.

After lunch, I sneak away to my favorite New Orleans gallery up the street from the hotel. Elliott Gallery (www.elliottgallery.com) is owned by Catherine Martens Betz, who is knowledgeable and pleasant. It is at Elliott Gallery that I first learned about and developed a great affection for the French abstract artist, James Coignard (1925-2008), who had a studio for a time in New Orleans. Elliott Gallery offers the largest collection of his work in the world and I must visit it whenever I am in New Orleans.

On this visit, Catherine is closely watching the weather radar since Irma has not yet made the predicted northward turn. If it doesn’t turn, it could make a beeline for New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast. I have noticed the same thing and we commiserate over that anxiety.

After my visit with Elliott Gallery, I return to the symposium and one of the sessions I most look forward to about “Rough South Regionalism,” including papers about Harry Crews and Larry Brown, has been canceled due to the participants being in the projected path of Irma.

The closing reception includes a session with the editors of four regional academic journals and the opportunity to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues. By this time also, Irma is making the predicted turn northward.

I am asked for restaurant recommendations for future trips to New Orleans and I highly recommend Upperline, among others.

“What sets Upperline apart?” I am asked.

“Well,” I answer, “the menu is outstanding but I’d have to say that what makes it unique is JoAnn.”

What I do not mention is that I have a reservation at Upperline tonight (www.upperline.com). JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline, is always present at the restaurant. It is full of artwork she has collected – most of it New Orleans-themed – and she circulates among the diners, seemingly interested in everyone’s story, throughout the evening. She glides through the restaurant as if it is her own private salon; in ways, I guess it is.  I try to make an Upperline dinner a feature of every visit to New Orleans.

Andrew Thornton is the Upperline chef, but the menu is very evocative of JoAnn. She is a fan of garlic so a “Garlic Festival” is a menu feature each summer (including garlic in the dessert). Thomas Jefferson is a hero so a Jefferson dinner is a recurring event and the menu is always peppered with dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. Dorothy Parker-themed cocktails are featured on the drinks menu. 

The menu is highly influenced by Creole cooking styles and I have never had a bad bite at Upperline. Tonight I stay traditional, ordering Oysters St. Claude as an appetizer. My entrée of Sauteed Drum Meuniere is on a bed of succulent cooked greens and cornbread. For dessert, I order a pecan encrusted Crème Brulee.

As I wait for my cab, a waiter asks me where I’m visiting from. I tell him I live in Huntsville but Birmingham is “home.” His immediate response is “Frank Stitt.” He’s a fan of the Birmingham chef and we discuss Highlands Bar and Grill’s perpetual James Beard nomination as Best Restaurant.

About that time, JoAnn walks up and I say, “And we also need to figure out what we need to do to get JoAnn the James Beard Restaurateur of the Year award.” She has been a finalist or semi-finalist many times but, like Highlands, she’s never taken home the prize. Anyone who has ever dined at Upperline knows she deserves it.

Sunday, 9/10/2017: I decide to check out early since I have a long drive ahead with a stop in Birmingham. The bellman who takes my bags down tells me that most of the new guests arriving since Friday are people from Florida, escaping Irma.

“I pray for them,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s not headed our way. We’ve had our turn with that.”

I tell him that maybe for those taking shelter in New Orleans, the way New Orleans has sprung back will be an encouragement for whatever they might be returning to in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“Takes a lot of time, lot of patience,” he says. “They’ve had it before, too.” 

It’s a glorious morning in New Orleans. I take a photo of the Esplanade neutral ground as I leave the Quarter. I drop by Willa Jean, grab an almond mini-bundt cake and café au lait for the road, and get onto I-10 east toward the lake, out of the city.

Shortly after I cross into Mississippi, WWOZ’s signal begins to fade away. The last song I hear is a jazz instrumental of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” I know the words and sing along:

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed,

Some forever not for better,

Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.

I turn off the radio.

By the time I get to Birmingham, Monday school closings are being announced. The remnants of Irma are headed our way. 

Ghosts of New Orleans

IMG_1955  When I drive to New Orleans from Alabama I have the habit of tuning my car radio to 90.7 somewhere between Laurel and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I initially meet with static but somewhere between Hattiesburg and Lake Pontchartrain the static resolves itself into WWOZ-FM (www.wwoz.org), the great public radio station broadcasting from the French Market, and that’s what I listen to in my car and in my hotel room throughout my New Orleans stay.

At the top of every two hours (on the uneven numbers) the “Livewire” music calendar presents an exhaustive list of all of the live music in the clubs and performance venues throughout the city on that particular day. It was on the “Livewire” calendar many years ago during a drive into town that I learned about an authentic jazz funeral that was going to happen during my stay. I began immediately to make plans to be in that second line of the funeral for a veteran New Orleans drummer and the next day I attended the first real jazz funeral of my life.

I was in New Orleans this past weekend to deliver a paper at an American Literature Association symposium at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. While there, I got an abundant dose of the variety of music available from the diverse volunteer deejays gracing the WWOZ airwaves. The collective musical knowledge of the WWOZ deejays is itself a thing of wonder. One deejay was a new father and all of his music for two hours contained the word “baby” in the title or refrain; early on Saturday morning, all of the music dealt with addiction, drugs, or alcohol but was leavened with songs of redemption and atonement.

Of course you can get a live web feed of WWOZ from anywhere in the world nowadays but there’s something about hearing it on the radio and actually being below the Salt Line.

New Orleans has always had the reputation of being a haunted city but that has not been a huge factor in my New Orleans. This trip was a little different, though, and more heavily influenced by my recent landmark birthday and other family events than I thought it would be. Perceptions are influenced by what’s happening in one’s life and it seemed that this particular trip – while mostly work-oriented and still a lot of fun — was a more elegiac experience of New Orleans than usual. There were constant reminders of experiences and people past; passing comments and glimpses were suddenly fraught with meaning.

IMG_1940 On the first night, after checking into my room at the Monteleone and picking up my credentials for the symposium, I dashed a few blocks to the Napoleon House for dinner. The Napoleon House (www.napoleonhouse.com) contains decades of memories for me and centuries of memories for its city. The dusk and carriages outside, the patinated walls and classical music of the old house, and the blended patter — of locals and tourists, young romantic couples and aging habitues, the sometimes surly and always knowledgeable waiters and bartenders in their tuxedo shirts and bowties, a rowdy group of guys in town for a bachelor party — all melded into a series of personal memories of people and events and time spent in a city that I never get tired of visiting.

Leaving the Napoleon House, I walked uptown into the Central Business District and then back downriver on Decatur to Marigny and the music of Frenchmen Street. After an evening spent walking and reviewing my paper to be presented I found myself sitting in the Carousel Lounge at the Monteleone (www.hotelmonteleone.com). I sat looking out a window at Royal Street – watching the passing parade – while also watching NFL football (Steelers vs. the evil Patriots) and the revolving bar.

On separate occasions that night, and in separate places, I overheard snatches of conversation by symposium attendees and others recounting stories about the likes of Faulkner, Capote, Hemingway, Welty, and Williams and their time in the city. They are all long gone. But all of them spent time in the Monteleone and at the Carousel, as did so many others over the years. Those stories and that history are among the reasons the Monteleone and the Carousel are popular tourist attractions and always so crowded.

One day — in the not that distant future, probably (it’s all relative) – I will be gone too and my trips to New Orleans will be over. But the revelers will still come and the Quarter will be full of frivolity and the Carousel Bar will still rotate and the gracious and raucous life of the Quarter and the city will endure whether I’m there to share it or not. More stories will be told; more memories will be formed; more ghosts will come and go.


That’s the kind of trip New Orleans was for me this time.

Each morning I got up early and wandered down to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral for some quiet time before the symposium sessions began. I have been going to that cathedral early in the morning for years but this time I found myself lighting candles for family and friends in trouble and in need. I’m not a Catholic but it couldn’t hurt and right now we all need all the help we can get. 100_2265

On my final night I went uptown to a favorite restaurant, Upperline (www.upperline.com). As always, JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur, was presiding over the restaurant like the seasoned pro she is, making everyone feel welcome and special from the moment they walked in the door. As she dropped by the table we discussed the fact that it had been a long three and a half years since my last visit. JoAnn explained the genesis of the “Dorothy Parker on the Bayou” cocktail she created with Dorothy Parker gin, various liqueurs, and orange bitters. “Dorothy Parker” is garnished with three Red Hots.  Fittingly …

After dinner I returned to the hotel. I had a long drive the next day but I walked back down Royal Street and listened to a lovely duo of street performers on the corner of Royal and St. Louis. Tanya and Dorise (www.tanyandorise.com) have attracted a following in the Quarter with their violin and guitar renditions of an amazing array of music. Although they play a little bit of everything, when I last saw them – close to 11:00 p.m. – they were playing contemplative and thoughtful songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the Pachelbel Canon.”  When Tanya and Dorise broke into Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”  the gathering crowd erupted. The mood was shifting again but then a brass band appeared up the street, leading a wedding party and its second line back to the Monteleone. As the second line passed, I took it as a cue to trail behind and return to the hotel myself with the sounds of Tanya and Dorise floating in the sultry air behind me. The brass band dispersed outside the hotel as the last of the wedding party disappeared into the lobby. Tanya and Dorise

I left Sunday morning to drive back to Alabama. WWOZ was playing gospel as I approached the lake. Past the north shore, another WWOZ deejay was playing a show about “letters” with early bluegrass and country music like the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Ralph Stanley, and the Louvin Brothers. In her second hour she interviewed a local band about a square dance they were playing on Monday night. Just before Hattiesburg, the intermittent signal had disappeared completely and the deejay, “Hazel the Delta Rambler,” was gone.

She had become another ghost of New Orleans.


“The Most Essential City in America”

100_1065  One July Sunday morning during my Tuscaloosa years I was awakened around 5:30 by the ringing telephone. On the other end was my friend Beth Thompson with her soothing Mississippi drawl.

“Are you up?”


“Well get up. I’m thinking we should go down to New Orleans for lunch today. I’m craving a Napoleon House muffaletta.”

Instantly I was wide awake. “When are we leaving?”

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”

100_2248We got to the Napoleon House around noon, had our lunch, and spent the rest of the day wandering the French Quarter and the city. Later we parked on St. Charles near Audubon Park and walked to Cooter Brown’s at Riverbend for oysters. After an afternoon and early evening of rambling, we swung by the Maple Leaf to catch a set of jazz and arrived back in Tuscaloosa in the wee hours of Monday morning. That is just one example of a perfect trip to New Orleans.

For me, they’re almost always perfect.

Beth and I took pictures on my cheap camera during that trip in 1983. When I got them developed and shared them with her I apologized that almost all of them were fuzzy and out of focus. “Isn’t that what New Orleans looks like?” asked Beth. Beth passed away in 2002; I still miss her.

“New Orleans is the most essential city in America.” I heard those words spoken by a Chicago-based printmaker whose work was featured in a New Orleans gallery opening I attended in 2012.

That was the first time I heard it put in quite that way but I immediately understood what he meant and wholeheartedly agree.

100_1099The singularity of New Orleans – its people, cuisine, music, ambience, architecture, landscape, culture, “below the Salt Line” attitude – is often imitated but the city has a feel and a vibe that is only authentic in New Orleans. A friend – a jazz aficionado who has never visited New Orleans – once told me point blank that he “hates” New Orleans jazz. I was not offended and assured him that if he ever heard New Orleans jazz played in New Orleans he would probably feel differently.

In 1994, I took a friend from Indiana to New Orleans for his first visit. We exited the interstate, turned onto Rampart, and took a right onto Toulouse to get to the hotel. I’ve always enjoyed the shock of that moment when one turns into the Vieux Carre. As we drove down Toulouse my friend grabbed my arm and said, “Are we still in America?” From the back seat I heard my friend Joe mutter, “Are we still in the 20th Century?” It’s debatable.100_2255

I have long had a passion for New Orleans and some of my favorite memories occurred there. I first visited the city with my family on a Sunday day trip in 1971 when we were living in Jackson, Mississippi. I was 16, we were only there for a few hours, we ate at a Burger King on St. Charles on the way out of town, and I fell for the place hard and fast. As we drove down Bourbon Street and out of the French Quarter at dusk I remember thinking I’m going to have to explore this place more and often when I grow up.

By the time I was in graduate school I was fulfilling the promise I made to myself at 16. Tuscaloosa is only a five hour drive from New Orleans but, since I didn’t have a car through most of my college years, I became a regular traveler on Amtrak when I couldn’t catch a ride with friends who were heading down. I could hop the Crescent in Tuscaloosa shortly after noon on a Friday and the train would be crossing Lake Pontchartrain before sunset. Local friends would meet me at the train station in New Orleans and I’d cram as much of the city into a day and a half as possible. More than once I’d be at the Café Du Monde at sunrise on Sunday drinking chicory cafe au lait and eating beignets before heading back to the train station to catch the 7:30 Crescent back to Tuscaloosa. I usually slept on that trip home, alerting the conductor to be sure I was awakened as we got to Tuscaloosa.

In my salad days I would brag that I could go to New Orleans with very little money and still have a great time and great food. It seemed to be that no matter how much cash I left with, I’d pull into Tuscaloosa with a dollar left in my pocket. Remember the red beans and rice at Buster Holmes’s place on Burgundy? I recall wonderful meals at Buster’s with the sassy waitresses delivering the mounds of food and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” playing on the jukebox.

As soon as I pull into New Orleans I take a deep breath and relax. There are many places that I love but my passion for and comfort in New Orleans is unique and special. There are always new places to explore but I am drawn also to the places and people I have known and returned to for decades: Acme Oyster House; Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s; Brigtsen’s; Faulkner House Books; hanging out on Frenchmen Street; Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub; Herbsaint; Muriel’s; Napoleon House; Snug Harbor; Upperline, with JoAnn Clevenger circulating graciously among the diners as if we were in her very special private salon; and more. 100_2262

As the tenth anniversary of Katrina and the flood approaches, I still remember the agonizing aftermath of the storm. I had spent a few days in New Orleans in August 2005 just a couple of weeks before the storm. For some reason, I had an impulse to take the long way down and had headed down to Mobile and left the interstate. I drove through the fishing village of Bayou La Batre in Alabama and into Mississippi taking the coastal highway along the Gulf past Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis and into the backroads of southeastern  Louisiana.  The sights and sounds of that detour stick with me today; it was my last view of those places “before the deluge.” They will never be the same.

That trip was fresh in my mind on the Sunday night before the storm hit as I watched the grim forecasts until late into the night. One anchor even suggested that “we might lose a major American city tomorrow” and I switched the channel. He might have been right but I was in no mood to hear that kind of talk.

I finally went to bed and turned the television on early Monday morning to see what had happened overnight. It looked like New Orleans had been spared the direct hit and the brunt of Katrina and I began to focus on the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts, both of which had suffered more extensive hurricane damage.

Later that day the reports about the flooding in New Orleans began to appear and I watched the man-made disaster of the levees breaking with horror, sadness, and disgust as the various levels of government inefficiency were slowly revealed. I still remember the next weeks as a dazed period when I could not get the developing story out of my mind. For the weeks that followed if anybody dared say anything that I thought was insensitive to the situation of New Orleans, the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf coasts, and the plight of the people down there, my anger could clear the room (and did a few times).

I returned to New Orleans four months after the storm. I had to be a first-hand witness. Starting in Mississippi a few hours from the city I was stunned as the damage and sheared trees began to appear along the interstate. My horror only increased as I approached Slidell, north of Lake Pontchartrain, and crossed the shaky temporary I-10 bridge over the lake at 25 mph. Abandoned vehicles still lined the interstate and much of the city was still pitch black at night. There were signs of life and vitality when I pulled into the French Quarter on a Friday night but much of the revelry felt more like a wake than a celebration. I drove away from the city shaken by what I had seen.

I made a quick day trip four months after that to have lunch at Galatoire’s and celebrate the reopening of that legendary restaurant. John Fontenot, my Galatoire’s preferee, was living in a FEMA trailer but was cheerful as ever. “Tell people to come back,” he said. “The city needs them to come down and spend their money.”

I have tried to get back at least once a year since the storm and it is amazing to see how much progress is made although if one looks closely it’s very clear that there is still a lot to be done. Many businesses have come back and some never reappeared. New businesses are popping up and there are hundreds more restaurants now than there were before the storm even though the population is still decreased. The areas frequented by tourists have recovered nicely. Open your eyes and pay attention, though, and there is plenty of healing and rebuilding that still must be done.

Even though I have never lived there I always feel that New Orleans is “mine” in some special way. My grief and depression when the flood happened ten years ago felt unique to me but I know that people all over the world felt that their experience of the tragedy was unique as well. And none of us non-residents will ever fully understand the grief and loss of the citizens of New Orleans who lost everything in the flood. Many of them were never able to return.

Despite our different experiences of the event, what we all shared was the hope and certainty that New Orleans would be back.

In the aftermath of the flood I found myself constantly thinking of the Louis Armstrong cover of the standard “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” It constantly was playing in my head and frequently was playing for real in my music system at home and in the car. The tune sustained and inspired me somehow.

Those of us who viscerally missed New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina know all too well what it means. And those memories make us cherish the place even more “each night and day.” 100_2227