This is part one of a two-part post that will serve as part three of this five-part series. Now that that’s clear, let’s proceed …
Date: Saturday, December 14, 2013
Place: 241 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans
Time: 1037am, CST
Destination: The A Gallery for Fine Photography (not a generic gallery, but specifically the A Gallery)
I stepped out of the taxi and watched the driver speed away. He was so delighted at having met such a generous tipper that he couldn’t wait to spend the change. Or maybe it was the hot girl in the short tight dress standing at the previous corner who tried to flag him down. Who can know?
Actually, as he drove past the girl, the cab driver asked if I would consider walking the final block. I told him to go ahead and pick her up, because I wouldn’t mind sharing the fee. I’m thrifty like that. She was willing to wait for him to return, so he floored it. Seventeen nanoseconds later, he slammed on the brakes at my destination.
After my neck brace was in place, I searched for cab fare. All the while, he revved the engine as if anticipating the green flag from a race official. The cab raced away practically as soon as my feet hit pavement and my butt lifted off the rear seat. The door slammed itself shut. Never before had an object’s force equaled its mass times acceleration (F=ma) as much as it did that Saturday.
I went into the gallery and bought a photographic fine arts book by Louviere + Vanessa, two artists with an opening for their latest exhibition later that evening. The gallery owners said the artists would gladly sign my book then.
At first, I thought I’d wait to buy the book when I returned for the opening. The cab ride had loosened a few sticky brain cells from my interior cranium wall, and gave a moment of clarity.
I had stumbled upon a foolproof method of staying out of trouble in New Orleans. Nothing says, “I’m too dorky to get into trouble,” like lugging around a book of fine art all day, all afternoon and all night. I had guaranteed my safety for the next 24 hours.
In addition, I’ve spared you, dear reader, retina damage from reading about my tawdry activities. (Note: Real stories are available for a negotiated fee. The stories will be delivered in a generic plain brown-wrapped email entitled, “This email does NOT contain stories of Todd’s tawdry activities!”).
With my physical safety secured, I was free to explore the darkest streets of the city without fear! First stop: The highly recommended Kingfish Cocktail Bar and Restaurant at 337 Chartres. The phrase, “French Quarter,” has always made me hungry. I went there to eat and to hang – or as the French say, le hang.
Street musicians gathered on the street corners nearby. Music filled the air. Dixieland Jazz battled Delta Blues. Somewhere between musical pauses, a solo saxophonist could be heard playing a slow, moving version of Amazing Grace.
I sat at the bar nearest the open entrance, and watched and listened. I ordered an early lunch. Soon the waiter brought a steaming plate of baked chicken on a bed of rice and steamed vegetables. With surgical precision in front of me, he injected the chicken with a syringe of Cajun herbs and spices until juices oozed from the bird. It was fabulous.
Bartender Jamie was the source of all New Orleans knowledge. She and several nearby locals gave recommendations on where to go and where not to for the next 24 hours. Jamie insisted that I stay away from touristy places like Bourbon Street. “Go where the locals go,” she said. “Totally agree, listen to her,” came the remarks from others.
I planned to stay at the bar long enough for a quick lunch. Three hours later, I was sitting on the same stool, talking to Jamie and a few new friends, including a couple from Chicago who, whenever they visit New Orleans, they go wherever Jamie is working. Jamie the bartender could have her own television show.
I heard some very quotable quotes while I was there. Here are only three:
1. “A good attorney can get me out of it.”
2. “I had to find out for myself. I regret it today, but I didn’t regret it yesterday. And I may go back to not regretting it tomorrow.”
3. “No these are not the same clothes I had on last night. Just the same colors.”
Jamie gave me a bar napkin with scribblings of several places that offered free live music. The recommendations were all within walking distance. I shook hands with Jamie, said goodbye to my new friends (including the girl in the same color clothes as last night), and stood up to leave.
“Jamie, before I go, ” I said, “I’m curious to know what’s that clear liquid in this bottle at the end of the bar?
“The reason I ask,” I continued, “is because I do a 19th century photographic process called wet plate collodion. I’ve got an identical bottle that I use for handmade varnish. The varnish is a blend of grain alcohol, gum sandarac and oil of lavender.”
At least I think I said that. I may have pointed and grunted. I can’t be sure. I’m relatively sure that Jamie looked at me and grinned, and said something like, “Have a seat. You’re not ready to leave yet.” Either that or she said, “You need to leave. It’s not safe here.” Or maybe she was still making absinthe drinks and talking about the weather. I can’t be sure.
I remember her looking beyond me to the entrance at one point. Musicians stopped playing. I turned around to see what had caught Jamie’s attention. Standing in the entrance was an outline of a man. He was backlit from the bright streets, making him appear as a silhouette.
As my eyes adjusted, I could make out a thin young man wearing a long coat and fedora. The silhouette reminded me of an old medium format image of my grandfather, Harry Vinson. He knew that I had a love of photography, and my grandfather gave me a Kodak Brownie box camera model 1897 before he died.
For years it sat on my bookshelf, until one day I decided to load a roll of medium format film in it and put it back in use. The camera held an exposed but undeveloped roll inside. I developed the film and found that one of the images was of my grandfather as a young man wearing a long coat and a fedora, just like the guest at the door.
I chose to honor my grandfather by merging a triptych of his image with a ruined film from my first failed attempt at color development in my own darkroom when I was thirteen. He always appreciated a bit of weirdness, and I trust he would have approved at having been transformed into a strange visitor.
“Baby, Voodoo is injected into everything in this city,” I heard someone say.
The man in the fedora walked up to me. “Is this seat taken,” he asked.
“I think I’m saving it for you,” I said. I patted the bar stool and waved bye to Jamie. I heard someone call my name. I turned around to see the man holding my fine art book. He looked at the cover, then reached it to me.
“You’ll need this tonight,” he said.
And I did…