It is Twelfth Night. Beneath a balcony in the French Quarter, we listen as dignitaries high above welcome Joan of Arc and the start of Carnival season.
The piecemeal proclamation comes first in English, then in French, the latter more beautiful, rhythmic and appropriate. “It gave me chill bumps,” the niece Chelsey says later.
I am reminded of my high-school French teacher, who said the same sentence twice — “Here is your identification card, sir” — first in her flattest English, then in fluid French, before staring at her classroom of reluctant linguists. “Now do you want to learn French?” she asked.
It has been a dozen years since Chelsey, age 16, three years younger than Joan was when she was burned at the stake, first visited New Orleans. After one day in this intoxicating city she was too excited to sleep. Bolting upright in bed, she said, “I am so going to honeymoon here!”
Now she is 28, with no interest at the moment in honeymooning, but still loving New Orleans, a city in love with itself. We have the same guide as before, my good friend John, whose renovation of a Marigny shotgun alone makes a visit worth the price of admission.
After the bouquet of official welcomes, Joan of Arc, on her snow-white horse, heads one way, and we take the other. There is still the business of finding good music.
John knows the place. Music is his passion. At a cozy dive named Buffa’s Lounge, we hear Doctor Sick, whom the trades call a “musical Jack of All Trades.” It proves true.
The doctor sports a neat beard and plaid pants you haven’t seen since the 1970s. He might be a tax accountant who is wardrobe-challenged.
Then he opens his mouth.
Doctor Sick’s act is political, comic and slightly deranged. He fiddles, sings, at times almost operatic, struts and holds a note longer than the Pontchartrain bridge.
And as if that weren’t enough entertainment for a balmy Wednesday night in January, a slight commotion at the door signals the arrival of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, true Mardi Gras royalty since his hit gave him the nickname.
Wearing a crown and stroking the keys in a loose, Fats Domino style, the world-weary musician sings the Mardi Gras music that puts the most uptight and sober patron in the mood. You may have bills, pain, heartaches or sorrow, but, by golly, it’s Carnival Time. Push your woes to the back-burner.
By the time we go home, everyone’s ready for the first king cake of the season, one bought earlier in the day from Loretta’s, who the rest of the year makes pralines. The pralines that didn’t pan out are in this cake, along with the baby.
The combination of good food, a parade and happy music make a young lady happy, which makes me happy. By having a savvy guide, we’ve edited out crime, long waits, mediocre music and parking challenges. Chelsey has seen and heard this city at its best, in Carnival mood, with French flourish.
She sleeps tight in a tiny annex to the shotgun that John calls “Versailles,” dreaming, no doubt, of returning. For this, if you ever feel its pulse, is a city you will miss. Crooked politicians, floods, hurricanes and poverty are all part of the gumbo, but in these United States there’s no other place quite like it.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.