Please let the good times

roll again

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

If you are raised as a middle-class, church-going Mississippian, you have to have a place to cut loose. For those of us growing up in Jackson, New Orleans was that place.

    Two hundred miles south freedom waited, in a town with no curfew and few rules, a town that might be geographically more Southern, but which spoke in an exotic accent, sounding nothing like our mush- mouthed, syllable-dropping speech.

   We'd head out Friday after work, eat and drink our way through the French Quarter, and come back penniless

Sunday night. My husband and I knew we'd had a good time if we headed home with one dollar left to pay the toll across Lake Pontchartrain.

    A group of us went once on an all-girl trip. We treated ourselves to a fabulous meal, then went to a hall down by the docks and danced all night with the foreign sailors. Sounds dangerous now, but it was as innocent as a night of heated salsa can be, and we had each other's backs.

    I was in college when my cousin, Sam Junior, showed me the town for the first time. He bought me a gigantic Hurricane (How can a drink so pink and innocently sweet be so lethal?), then persuaded me to clamber onto the bar at Pat O'Brien's and cheered as I wiggled and sang I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.

    Years later, we met friends from Mobile, Ala., there. In a French Quarter hotel room, we tossed a bushel of raw oysters and a couple of sacks of ice into the bathtub, and drank, shucked and ate until dawn. When we bagged the shells and drained the tub, silt in the bottom formed an image of Jesus. We were just pleased enough with ourselves to consider this a blessing.

    I honeymooned at the Hotel Monteleone in a room with red-flocked wallpaper and black furniture, convinced that the place was riddled with peepholes, behind which the staff watched and tittered at my 19- year-old efforts at sex.

    I want it back. However many billions of dollars it takes, whatever turnaround or tossout of the government, this country needs New Orleans to keep us real. I want to eat downstairs at Galatoire's again, trout amandine and puffed potatoes. When my friend Winifred starts to pay, I want the waiter to say she can use her grandmother's account number.

    I want to sit in the Napoleon House Bar with the big doors open to the night, sipping brandy, hearing Dixieland in the distance.

    This time, let's do it right. Everybody, black and white, will have a decent place to live and earn a living wage. And the next time New Orleans expects a hurricane, everybody gets a ride out of town.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.