Friday, September 30, 2005

Missing New Orleans

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #270, September 30, 2005)

PHOTO: New Orleans in happier times: Decatur Street in the French Quarter

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I do—now more than ever.

Over the years both leather culture and gay culture have been among the many that have benefited from the spicy influence of New Orleans. That influence sends the despair and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina far beyond the Gulf Coast region.

For me, amid the shock and horror of the news, it was memories that came flooding. The first time I visited New Orleans was in the mid-1980s at Christmas. My partner and I stayed at a hotel on Canal St. at the edge of the French Quarter. The holiday atmosphere was charming. They even had some snow for us Northerners.

For several years New Orleans hosted Pantheon of Leather, and the New Orleans leather/fetish community showed Pantheon visitors the most gracious kind of southern hospitality. The event was always the first weekend of Mardi Gras, when things were festive but still manageable. The Barkus parade (dogs and their owners in costume) became a Pantheon and Mardi Gras tradition for me.

I remember the food—beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, country French comfort food at La Madeleine, grand dinners with other Minnesota leatherfolks at the Palace Café on Canal St., Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun specialties at K-Paul’s Restaurant, burgers cooked under a (real) hubcap at the Clover Grill, and pralines from Aunt Sally’s to take home. My midwestern palate always appreciated the way New Orleans chefs are able to make food spicy yet flavorful (as opposed to just burning hot).

I remember the fascinating architecture—the iron lace balconies in the French Quarter; the floor-to-ceiling shutters on the houses in the Faubourg-Marigny district; the old-South quaintness of the Garden District; the new-South suburban tract homes on the drive into town from the airport. Those homes, I was told, were built on slabs—the water table was too high for basements.

I have taken Amtrak—yes, the train is still called “The City of New Orleans,” made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song—to New Orleans several times. The ride on the train across Lake Ponchartrain was breathtaking. Those tracks are gone now, and it could be months before they’re restored.

On one trip I remember the porter serving freshly-made lemonade, “like we make it in N’awlins.” If that wasn’t the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted, it was mighty close.

Another New Orleans train trip, that was supposed to continue to Florida, was interrupted because our connecting train was eight hours late. We wound up overnighting in the lounge at the New Orleans Union Station, which is now the site of a makeshift temporary New Orleans jail.

When the delayed train (the Sunset Limited) arrived the next morning, our trip continued eastward from New Orleans through Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula—places that bore the direct impact of Katrina and, for all intents and purposes, are no longer there.

I have stayed in big hotels, small hotels and many B&Bs. One room I stayed in was the former slave quarters for the house (there was only room for one twin bed and no bathtub). Probably the strangest was a B&B in the Garden District run by, I swear, Blanche Dubois come tremblingly, neurotically to life. I wonder if that particular B&B is still standing.

The last time I was in New Orleans was for Leather Leadership Conference 8 in April, 2004. After the conference I had the great pleasure of acting as New Orleans tour guide for then-International Mr. Leather (and London, UK resident) John Pendal. As I was showing John around I was surprised at how much New Orleans lore I had absorbed over the years.

My partner and I were visiting Canada (Toronto) when the news, and the levee, broke. In shock, we followed the daily developments in both the Canadian and American newspapers. I kept remembering people I knew in New Orleans, and hoping they were okay.

When we arrived home I was touched to find a phone message from John Pendal, and his partner Dave, calling from London to express their concern for me because they knew how fond I was of New Orleans.

Checking e-mail, I heard from several New Orleans leathermen who had evacuated. I saw lists various New Orleans-area leather/BDSM clubs, businesses and organizations had put together to account for their members, employees, and friends. Even though people were listed only by first name and last initial, I was surprised how many last names I could fill in and how many faces I could put to names.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just before Labor Day weekend, which is normally the time for Southern Decadence, an annual New Orleans gathering unofficially billed as “gay Mardi Gras” (as if the regular Mardi Gras wasn’t gay enough).

Southern Decadence was canceled for the most part (and I know several friends from the Twin Cities area who had planned to attend). There probably won’t be much Halloween celebrating on Bourbon Street, and even next year’s Mardi Gras is tentative.

The shout traditionally heard throughout New Orleans, especially around Mardi Gras, is “Laissez les bon temps roulez!”, which is the Cajun way of saying “Let the good times roll!” It will probably take a long time, but I hope and pray that les bon temps will eventually roulez again.

When you’re again ready to receive visitors, New Orleans, I’ll be there.

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