NOLA 2012: Magic Monday

St. Joseph altar in a private home
Monday, March 19, 2012, the feast of St. Joseph, was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. And Sweetie and I had no idea that it was going to happen. I'm going to leave out some names, only because this is a really personal story. The person I'm writing about is kind of a public figure, but this story is ours alone. It's one of those stories that make some people believe in gods or fate or, at the very least, serendipity.

The story really started in 1985. I was an assistant editor for a computer trade magazine, and the spring trade show was in New Orleans. I had never been before. The show didn't start until Tuesday, but I was there the day before. I knew where the French Quarter was, but I knew little else. I went searching for lunch, and I came upon the Old Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street, half a block off Bourbon toward the river. I saw that they had a red beans and rice special, so I went in. I had a great lunch at a very reasonable price. It was my introduction to Cajun and Creole food.

Altar with symbolic food
So on this trip, I told Sweetie that we had to go to the Old Coffee Pot for lunch on Monday (even though you can get red beans and rice any day of the week). We spent the morning not far away, mostly in or around Jackson Square. We toured the St. Louis Cathedral. We listened to a brass band on Chartres Street. We were going to tour a house several blocks east on Chartres, but the tour didn't start for 25 minutes. We circled back via a cool shop that sold hand-made wooden toys, most of which moved in clever ways. They also sold great carved pieces. I wish I could have brought back one of their beautiful jewellery boxes!

One more bit of setup. Before we left, we asked friends for restaurant recommendations. Two friends highly recommended this one place, and both said to say hi to the chef, whom they knew. We weren't sure about sending greetings to someone we didn't know, but we planned on having dinner at that restaurant.

After our stroll along Chartres, the church bells were ringing noon as we arrived at the Coffee Pot. There was a bit of a lineup to get in. The place wasn't full, but it was being run by only a couple of older women, and they were seating people slowly so as not to get overwhelmed. A guy by himself in the lineup right behind us noticed Sweetie's octopus tattoo and said that he liked it. We started chatting, and he introduced himself, saying that he was chef and owner of a restaurant in the Quarter. I asked which one, and I was floored to learn that it was the one that had been recommended to us. Here was the guy to whom we were supposed to send greetings, and he just happened to be behind us in a lineup at the Coffee Pot!

More than one goddess was at work here. And maybe a saint too.

Nice that Ignatius is taller than I am!
He asked if we might want to turn our party of two into a party of three, and we were quite amenable. So we had lunch together, getting to know one another just a bit. It was his day off, so he decided that he wanted to show us the city, and we decided we were ready for an adventure. On St. Joseph's Day, people in the Sicilian community of New Orleans set up altars in their homes and give food to those who come by (you can make a donation, which we did). We had never heard of this tradition! But it was something our chef friend did every year. He had only recently broken up with his partner, so since he had no one to go altar-hopping with, he had thought he would not be doing it this year. With us in tow, he was happy to visit several altars—two private and one at a large church in the Garden District.

We also drove along Bayou St. John and through City Park. The chef, being as big a fan of the book A Confederacy of Dunces as Sweetie is (I've read it, but not as often as Sweetie has), found Constantinople Street. He and Sweetie checked out the houses, deciding which one would be Ignatius Reilly's house. He also took us to the statue of Ignatius that's in front of a hotel on Canal Street. I wasn't always sure where we were on this adventure, but I know we drove through a fair amount of the city.

Sadly, we didn't have the good camera with us
We spent some time with a bottle of wine until it got dark. Then we went in search of another St. Joseph's Day tradition. The Mardi Gras Indians, "tribes" of various African-American men (and sometimes women), go "masking" on St. Joseph's. They put on their elaborate, colourful costumes, hand-sewn with feathers and beads, and parade through the streets of their neighbourhood. Our host knew just where to go—a neighbourhood in which he used to live. Sure enough, just after we parked, we spotted a Spy Boy from one of the tribes. The Spy Boy is kind of the advanced guard of the tribe. We thought we would have to drive elsewhere to see more, but before we knew it, three tribes converged on a nearby intersection. The colours were fantastic! And they all engaged in their ritual (genuinely violent at one time) to determine which tribe would pass and which would have to back down. It was just unbelievably cool to watch this going on, and I doubt we would have seen anything like it without our host.

We finished the evening by catching a late supper (after all the St. Joseph food in the afternoon) at a place on Frenchmen Street. We reluctantly parted with our new friend. Since his night goes much later than ours, he went off to a club, while we walked home.

It's hard to convey just what this day meant to me. It was about the St. Joseph altars and the food and the Mardi Gras Indians, of course. But much more than that, it was about a chance meeting that it seems could not possibly have been by chance. We were befriended by one of the top chefs in the city, who gave us his day to show us the city he loves. But it wasn't about meeting a celebrity. It was about meeting a really special human being. We didn't run into just any local to show us around. We ran into exactly the right person.


Ellena said...

Oh, once in a lifetime.

Anji said...

What a lovely coincedence!

I knew it was St Joseph's day as we keep the Saint's days in France, but no celebrations like that here.

Kristin said...

Really enjoyed this, Véronique! Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story about a wonderfully serendipitous event. Everything happens just the way it's supposed to, I'm convinced. This was a fine example of that. I'm really looking forward to our next visit to NOLA so we can try his restaurant. xo