Ronnie Virgets centerfold

Ronnie Virgets was Gambit's first — and last — centerfold.

"Nice ride, but my stop's coming up. Time, as they used to chant in the airborne army, to stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door. To the door and then leap to the great beyond, the wild blue yonder. Reach for the electric cord that signals a stop to the driver.

My corner coming up. It's been a great trip, but it's time to get off. Have a good ride." — Ronnie Virgets, signing off in his last Gambit column, Nov. 17, 2008

Ronnie Virgets was Gambit's first — and last — centerfold when Cheryl Gerber photographed him in 1995. "You will always be my favorite centerfold, and favorite writer," she wrote when she shared this photo on social media this morning. "You made me fall in love with New Orleans."

Virgets, who died last night at 77, was a fixture in Gambit until late 2008, when he retired. His last essay, "Going to Town," was typical Virgets: a reverie about the old days, riding the streetcar "to town," which meant Canal Street and downtown, a New Orleans that was both real and a dream world.

That was, until the last three paragraphs, in which Ronnie flipped the script ever so gently, ever so elegantly:

"The place that was Town isn't a place anymore, and maybe it's being replaced by something that in its turn will be replaced by something else. That's one of life's rules and much as you might not like it, there's not much to be done. What you best remember will be forgotten."

Virgets had more than one column in The Times-Picayune and told tales on WWNO-FM, also launching a local TV career on many local stations, which spotlighted his gravelly Yat voice. He produced three books of essays — "Say, Cap!," "Lost Bread" and “Saints and Lesser Souls” — of his thoughts.

He told tales of his friends and buddies, who went by name like the Professor, Jimmy Chimichanga, Roach. As Katie Walenter, his friend and Gambit contributor, wrote, "Reoccuring Ronnie topics include horse racing, being up to no good, New Orleans history, and disturbing failures of the body." 

Clancy DuBos will have a proper memorial column about Ronnie soon, but in the meantime, here are a few of Virgets' greatest hits:

"Notes from a Soggy Notebook": Ronnie's first post-Katrina column, which began with the kind of lede he was known for: "As I was swimming naked through the living room ..."

"I Confess": This rumination on confession includes this confession: "Among my peers the greatest attribute of a good confessor was partial or complete deafness in one or both ears. That facilitated our method of confession, which was of the turducken variety, i.e. tucking a major sin within a sandwich of minor sins. An example would be: 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was two weeks ago. I forgot my night prayers four times. I used the name of the Lord in vain 22 times. I stabbed my grandma with a shank knife of high-carbon steel twice. I forgot to say grace before meals three times.'"

"Perdido": Perhaps his most memorable work, an essay on the weeks he spent in the rehab unit at the Veterans Administration hospital on Perdido Street: "Everything here is the tug-o-war between feel-good cheerleader motivation ("you're making great progress with that leg -- why, two weeks ago, you couldn't flex that foot even once") and the reality of just how humiliatingly helpless you have become. The reality of roast gravy dripping from your sleeve because you are just not aware enough of your partially dead right side. The reality of pee dripping from the plastic portable urinal at midnight and fouling the pajama bottoms and you biting hard on your lip so you won't sob your frustration and self-pity."

"Diary of a Displaced Person" (reprinted in 64 Parishes): "Now that the deluge has passed, the air is busy with the rescuers and recorders looking down on those who now want them. And those will soon begin their Victim’s Dance, waving towels, displaying entreating bed­sheets, looking skyward with pleading eyes. All trying to win approval, enough approval that you will be per­mitted to continue living. Here comes one now. Wave that towel, crane that neck, try to make eye contact. Throw something, Mr. Pilot. A rope ladder or at least a look. Throw me something, mister."

"In Praise of the Neighborhood Bar": Every word of this is a gem: "A town with a true drinking culture should be like a millefiori necklace, a thousand flowers of colorful mosaics. A place to drink Bloody Marys on a Sunday morning, a place to drink Sidecars when she's wearing the black sleeveless dress with the silver conch pendant, a place to sip a Pimms Cup to take the edge off the swelter, a place for a nightcap. But there's a little bead that's loose and fading, about to come off and when it does, we won't have a full necklace. That bead is the corner bar. Maybe more completely called the neighborhood bar."

If all this whets your appetite for more Ronnie, click here for dozens of his stories from Gambit. Or visit a locally owned bookstore and purchase one of his essay collections. He would've liked that.

Follow Kevin Allman on Twitter: @kevinallman