Column: He knows what it means to miss New Orleans

Scott makes an obligatory book purchase while in New Orleans, even though he already owns it. The Pulitzer-winning book is set in New Orleans.

“There is no place on Earth even remotely like New Orleans.” — Anthony Bourdain

During our evenings in New Orleans, the walking tours were as multitudinous as Fats Domino hits. The true crime fanatics in our group slavered like Creole moon werewolves while our eye-patched guide regaled us with true tales of malevolence, murder, and mayhem in a city currently ranked #3 in the U.S. for its impressive homicide rate.

As we approached a competing walking tour on a shadowy French Quarter sidewalk, we sized up the group as if preluding a rumble for the right to get closest to, say, an apartment where a cannibalistic killer cooked a former lover or a pharmacy that housed diabolical pharmaceutical experiments performed on pregnant slaves. We were led through haunted alleyways and passed beneath tree limbs and balconies abloom with errantly tossed Mardi Gras beads. 

Some guides dressed like skeletons, vampires, and Marie Laveau when leading tourists over and around sidewalk holes deep enough to be portals to hell. Our guide distinguished himself from the competition by rolling his eyes (well, one eye) when referring to the other guides’ cheesy attire. A distinguished history professor by day among a confederacy of schlocky showmen by night, he was above such wardrobe and makeup gimmickry despite he, himself, sporting a black eyepatch. At first, I assumed he was pretending to be a pirate peer of Jean Laffite, but when he lifted the patch to reveal an actual hollow right eye socket, I knew he was the real deal. A customer review on the internet glows about him: “Eye-Patch Mike Is The Best Guide.” To which, I concur.

The Thriller and Killers tour was not what prompted our first visit to NOLA in early April, a timeframe that could be described best as the eye of the storm between the madness that is Mardi Gras and the jumble with mercy that is Jazz Fest.

In the 1970s, upon first hearing Jimmy Buffett sing, “Coffee is strong at the Café Du Monde, donuts are too hot to touch,” the Crescent City became a port of call in my Margaritaville imagination. Nearly 50 years later, with a hankering for world-famous beignets (the official Louisiana doughnut), I finally made it to this lyric landmark. A ragtag band of jazz musicians playing “St. James Infirmary Blues” welcomed us just outside the green and white canopy of “the original coffee stand.” Dirges and doughnuts—only in New Orleans. 

To avoid the Café Du Monde crowds, Café Beignet, also on Decatur Street, became our official breakfast go-to. There, we washed down beignets, crawfish and grits, and crawfish omelettes with strong chicory coffee. At a corner bistro, called Curios, we noshed on Creole classics: crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, duck andouille & black-eyed pea gumbo, and red beans & rice. We sampled nearly every item on The Court of Two Sisters Live Jazz Brunch buffet. Should I find myself on Louisiana’s death row, Two Sisters would be my caterer of choice for a last meal before being fried like a flathead catfish—the eatery’s andouille sausage and candied sweet potatoes, alone, are simply to die for. But if the budget is an issue, then, as Allen Toussaint sings, “Give me a shrimp po-boy, dressed, and a cold, cold beer.”

WWOZ was another reason for my NOLA visit. Those call letters are the reason God invented radio. The local FM station near the left end of the dial (90.7) streams to about one billion listeners worldwide. I discovered WWOZ during the pandemic while Googling Toussaint, Dr. John, and other New Orleans-based musicians. WWOZ is the auditory equivalent of The Court of Two Sister’s buffet, satiating my musical appetite with a gumbo of genres tied to the city’s cultural heritage: traditional and contemporary jazz, blues, R&B, Cajun, zydeco, funk, Latin and Brazilian. I grew to love the voices of WWOZ’s motley crew of voluntary, old-school DJs, the city’s true Guardians of the Groove, who proudly share music they love during established time slots. I am an appreciator of a broader range of music thanks to WWOZ—and a better human for it. Thank you to operations manager Jorge Fuentes, who invited us for a tour and introduced us to some of the “record spinners” whose familiar voices seem familial to me by now. While there, we also met R&B / jazz pianist Lawrence Cotton, 97, the oldest working musician in the city, who performed back in the day with blues deities T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner and New Orleans music icon Dave Bartholomew. 

Kermit’s Tremé Mother In Law Lounge was a real treat. While planning our trip, I learned that hometown hero and jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (he starred on HBO’s Tremé) actually performs with Grammy winner Irvin Mayfield at the lounge on Tuesdays. We showed up early to nab one of the bar’s few chairs. For a great party album, check out the Ruffins / Mayfield collaboration, “A Beautiful World.” 

New Orleans was a magical getaway. Never mind that we were there for only 72 hours. Now, anytime I hear “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” on WWOZ, I can honestly say, “Yes, I do know what it means to miss New Orleans.” We will return to relive the magic.

Scott’s Wait . . . What? comedy benefit show will be held June 6, 7 p.m., at the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center in Jasper. It will benefit the Dubois County Humane Society. $15 per seat. Reserve seats by contacting scottsaalman@gmail.com or call and leave a message at 812-827-9911.