Thursday, August 31, 2017

Dancing with Mr. Demerol

The Fentanyl had vanquished everything bad except the itch at the end of my nose. Fortunately, the Chinese man with the upside-down smile had stepped over to help. He was standing directly above and behind me. “That always happens about now,” he said, scratching enthusiastically with an antiseptic-scented index finger. It was a good thing he was willing, because my arms were restrained with black Velcro straps and my ticklish snout was driving me crazy. Not that it mattered much. I was on the way out just as the surgeon, Dr. Low, was coming in. Still, even though the room was starting to breathe with me and I felt as if I were floating on my back in a pool of hot cotton, there was time left for conversation. “Do you know what John Huston said when he was asked how he’d lived so long?”

“No,” the anesthesiologist said, cranking up the sodium pentothal. “What did he say?”


Dr. Low laughed and the room filled with black light.

At the time I was living in San Francisco, on Taylor Street near Jackson, a few doors down from the Golden Lion restaurant, around the corner from the cable car barn, and the Chinese Hospital was the only health facility I could get to without driving. I may have had a volcano in my viscera but I wasn’t about to give up my parking space. The two-and-a-half-block walk down the steep hill was excruciating, but for some reason heart attack and cancer (which usually pop into my mind at the first sign of odd pain) didn’t occur to me. Apart from the intense discomfort, it was an exquisite ache, centered perfectly in my chest, alternately burning like a fist of lava and throbbing in counterpoint to my heart. If it hadn’t hurt so much, its singular symmetry and rhythm would have been a pleasure. Anyway, it was being taken care of now. Dr. Low was cutting out the devil appendix while I did the backstroke in the underworld.

Moments later (so it seemed), I was eased into a bed next to a window that looked out on a wall. “Who’s he?” I asked the nurse, nodding toward the old man in the other bed. “He’s your roommate. He had an operation just before yours. He’s a Filipino. He’s not awake now.” I could see that, but he was groaning. Then again, so was I. He looked to be about sixty-five, a small, muscular man with big hands and most of his hair still black. We were in and out, the two of us. He’d mumble and I’d grunt, I’d sigh and he’d say something in Tagalog. It went like that into the evening until the sandman, a Mr. Demerol, sent us off to sleep in our stainless-steel canoes.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in an all-blue world. I was seeing the lights from the nurses’ station glowing through the curtains that enclosed the old man’s bed. A cape buffalo had one foot where my right hip pocket should have been. I pushed the button and a few minutes later a young nurse came in, gently rolled me over, and gave me another shot of Demerol, then rolled me back. She seemed embarrassed. “Thank you,” I said, and she patted my ankle as she left. She was a young soul with an old heart.

“Tell me the funniest thing,” the old man said slowly.

“What?” He seemed to be wide awake.

“Tell the funniest thing that ever happened to you,” he said, batting back the blue curtain so that he could see me.

It was a reasonable request. I thought for awhile. “I don’t know if this was the funniest,” I said, “but it’s a contender.” As the Demerol lifted the buffalo’s foot, I told him about my flight to Paris a few years before.

“My friend and I figured that we’d be up all night and that it’d be much cheaper to buy a bottle of liquor instead of buying single drinks.”

“True,” he said.

“So as soon as the plane left Dulles, I bought a big bottle of Remy Martin cognac at the onboard duty-free shop. Then, being that I’d made the purchase, I sent my friend to retrieve a couple of paper cups from the restroom. We had to be cagey pouring the stuff because you’re not supposed to open the duty-free liquor on the plane. But we got it poured and managed a quick toast before the cognac began dissolving the glue that held the cups together. I was wearing a baggy cotton sweater and about $6 worth of Remy Martin dribbled from the cup to my wrist and down my forearm, and collected into a big cognac reservoir in the sweater’s elbow. I spent the rest of the flight sucking a mouthful of soggy, intoxicating yarn and ignoring the quizzical looks from the stewardesses. I got pretty looped.”

After an awkward pause he said, “That’s almost funny.” I had a tough customer on my hands.

I don’t know what his habits were in the real world, but I’d later find that in the Chinese Hospital the man rarely slept unless he had visitors. At night he came alive. He favored conversation between the hours of two and five in the morning, though sometimes he’d perk up as early as midnight. We’ll call him Leon. I had little to do over the few days I was in the Chinese Hospital but chat with Leon when he was awake, write down our conversations when he wasn’t, and dance with Mr. Demerol as the spirit moved me.

Right after the cognac story he said this: “Okay, what’s the saddest thing?”

“The saddest thing that ever happened to me?”


“I’ll pass on that one,” I said.

“That’s right,” Leon said with a slight smile as if I’d solved a riddle. “You keep it always here,” he tapped his head, “and here,” he pointed to his heart, “but you never say it. The saddest thing you can’t say.” I nodded and there was a long silence.

I came to like him very much. I liked his mastery of the non sequitur (unpredictable changes in direction can be invigorating), his peculiar curiosity, and his screwy, invented expressions. (Once, when I made a claim he doubted, he declared it “about as likely as a luau in Lapland.”) Leon was part imp, part gangster, and something of a mystery. He seemed to be able to pass from consciousness to sleep almost instantly. He’d be lying as still as a statue and then suddenly say something like, “I grew up in Los Angeles.”

“Really,” I’d reply, “I thought maybe you’d grown up in the Philippines.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re Filipino.”

“I’m not Filipino,” Leon answered. “I’m half Mexican and half Scottish.”

“I thought I heard you speaking Filipino.”

“No, that was Latin.” It was definitely not Latin, but I didn’t quibble.

“How old do you think I am?” This was obviously a point of pride (and, after all, the man had just weathered surgery) so I trimmed a few years from my estimate.

“Sixty-two?” He smiled.

“I’m seventy-nine,” he informed me with the justifiable glee of a man who’d just had seventeen years added to his life. “I grew up on the east side of Los Angeles where they used to call it Edendale. I lived there until I was twelve and then we moved here. The Mack Sennett movie studio was in Edendale. You know who Mack Sennett was?” I did. Famous for the Keystone Kops movies, Sennett has given Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton their first film jobs. “Constance Talmadge, the actress, would come to our house,” Leon continued. “My mother owned a coat with a leopard collar that Constance Talmadge wanted – real leopard, very luxurious. I think my mother finally gave it to her.” Leon was getting drowsy. “They’d give me fifty cents a day,” he said slowly, “and Mr. Keaton would chase me around for the movie. I was just a child, but I liked being in the movie.” And he was asleep.

In the morning an elegantly dressed Chinese woman entered the room, walked over to Leon and kissed him. “This is Grace,” Leon said to me. Grace smiled. She appeared to be in her sixties. I assumed that she was Leon’s wife. “I just go by Hang Ah,” she said holding up a large bag and pulling out several pieces of dim sum. “You have some.” And she placed a pork bun, two potstickers and a piece of shui mai on a napkin next to my water pitcher. “Don’t believe anything Leon say!” she whispered, making sure Leon could hear, and they both laughed. Grace took off her coat – it had a leopardskin collar that looked like the real thing – and pulled a chair close to Leon’s bed.

I nibbled at the pork bun. The morning nurse had encouraged me to walk as soon as I thought I could. I was so sore I wasn’t sure I could even stand, but I wanted to give Grace and Leon some time alone so I drew my curtain and very, very slowly got to my feet. By the time I returned to the room ten minutes later, Grace was packing up the translucent bits of paper that had wrapped the dim sum and Leon was fast asleep, making a sound like a motor boat with water hyacinths tangled in its propeller going through muddy water. I thanked Grace for the food, we made small talk for a minute or two, and she left.

Late that night, about eleven-thirty, a noise in the hall woke me. The room was blue again; the nurses were laughing quietly outside. At Leon’s bedside were two well-dressed men in their late twenties, talking to him in whispers. He seemed to be angry with them about something. They left abruptly. Leon pushed back his curtain and looked over at me. “My sons,” he said without me asking.

“They like to visit late, huh?”

“They’re night owls.”

Leon told me dozens of stories about his early life while we shared that room. He reminded me of my own father at about the same age. In his last decade my father’s memory for the recent past was nonexistent, but he could recall the most minute details of his youth. Leon’s memory worked like that. We spent many late, blue-lit hours in the early decades of the century, the time Leon remembered best.

Being in the Chinese Hospital amplified the feeling of being healed in the past. Built in 1924, it has a time-out-of-time atmosphere that carries over to the doctors and staff. The hospital facilities are entirely modern. The only thing out of date is the attitude of the people who work there, which harks back to a less accelerated era when brusqueness was rarely encountered in such an environment. The hospital nutritionist stopped by to see if I wanted American or Chinese food (I chose Chinese), then visited me again to find out if the fare was to my liking. The amiable anesthesiologist came in one day – smiling right side up – to see how I was feeling, and stayed for nearly a half hour, discussing the weather, joking about my itchy nose, and telling me more about my appendix than I cared to hear – “It was all black and full of pus,” he said cheerfully. (Later, when I married a medical professional, I learned that that kind of talk is considered pleasant chit-chat in the health biz.) Dr. Low, too, paid me several leisurely visits. The nurses were kind and funny, and enjoyed telling me about their children. The Chinese Hospital was the perfect context in which to hear Leon’s tales of his life.

“This isn’t a funny thing and it’s not sad either,” he said to me one night. “It’s more of a secret thing, but it happened so long ago I guess it doesn’t matter. It was the late 1930s – ’38 or ’39 I think. I’ve never told anybody this except maybe Grace. Nobody knows this,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I’d moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco. I was in my late twenties. A fellow I met one night told me about a job down in La Jolla. I didn’t have much money so I hitched down and called the number he’d given me from a diner. And the man hired me over the phone – never even met me. Guess who that was,” Leon asked me.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“He was the writer. The detective writer, you know? Mr. Chandler.”

“Raymond Chandler?”

“Yes, that’s who.”

“Amazing. What did you do for him?”

“Well, I would do all sorts of things. Odd jobs, whatever needed being done. And I would drive him some nights when he went visiting.”

“I’ve heard he was sort of a solitary character.”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “You know his wife was older than he was and she was ill, she was an invalid and he took care of her. And he wrote his books and articles.”

As he spoke I imagined the Chandlers whiling away the warm La Jolla evenings together. I’d been to the town at night just once. I remembered the sea smell of the mist mixed with the scent of the night-blooming cactus, and how sensuous the curved trunks of the palm trees looked when illuminated by the warm yellow headlights of slow-moving Bentleys. “But they would go visiting?” I asked Leon.

“No, no. Mrs. Chandler was bedridden, but she wanted Mr. Chandler always around. So in the evenings he’d work or read to her. Then, when she went to sleep, he’d go visit his friend. But by then he’d be a little drunk. He never showed it, but he was a big drinker, you know.”

“I’ve heard that,” I said.

“So he’d call me to come drive him because it was quite a few miles north, up the coast to Encinitas.”

“Who did Chandler visit? Was he having an affair?”

“No, not at all. Mr. Chandler was very much in love with his wife. No, see, this is the part you’ll find surprising I think. He’d go on these late-night visits up to Encinitas to see the famous Indian. Those two had become acquainted, become friends some way. I don’t know how.”

“Who are you talking about” I asked Leon. I thought he was being overly mysterious considering that we were discussing events that took place a half century earlier.

“The yogi!” Leon said impatiently, as if I was fool not to have known. “Yogananda. Paramahansa Yogananda, the great yogi from India. I would drive Chandler up there to the house on the cliffs above the ocean. He told me they often talked about his stories.”

“No! You’re kidding. I can’t imagine they’d have had anything in common.”

“They were as different as butter and bone meal,” Leon said in a low, comical voice. “But I drove him up there dozens of times. I met Mr. Yogananda twice. Very nice man, though he could have used a haircut. Mr. Chandler would stay for a couple hours. I’d go for a walk and have a cigarette or two, or sit in the car and read the Daily Racing Form.”

The conversation put me in mind of my world-traveling raconteur uncle who once told me about a fellow he met in London who – every time my uncle finished a story – replied, “Interesting if true.” It’s a line I never would have used on Leon, but his Chandler and Yogananda revelation briefly tempted me. The Demerol was trying to drag me out of the dance floor of sleep and I was trying to stay awake long enough to ask Leon a few more questions about the unlikely alliance between Mr. Chandler and Mr. Yogananda. But suddenly he was snoring away, so I gave in and let Mr. Demerol lead.

When I woke up the next morning the nurse was pushing a wheelchair into the room. “I’m going home,” Leon explained. “Enjoyed talking to you.”

“Why don’t you write down your phone number,” I said, my writer’s brain sensing story potential.

“I don’t have a phone,” Leon said (I knew he was lying, everybody has a phone). “But I’m at Red’s Place – just down Jackson here at Beckett on the corner – every Thursday night from seven ‘til eleven or so. That’s my night out. Come by. I’ll tell you some more. It gets better. You can buy me a drink.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Thursday?”

“Every Thursday.” He nodded and the nurse helped him into the wheelchair and put a large paper bag on his lap.

The next day I checked myself out of the Chinese Hospital. They’d been so good to me, I actually wrote a fan letter to the nurses and Dr. Low.

The following Thursday at about seven-thirty I caught a cab at the corner of Pacific and Taylor and had it deliver me to Red’s Place. I stayed for nearly two hours, drinking J&B with water back and inhaling the other customer’s Camels. Leon never showed up. I did the same thing on the next Thursday, but I came later and stayed longer, until about midnight. I also described Leon as best I could to the bartender, but he couldn’t recall seeing anybody like that.

On the third Thursday after I came home from the Chinese Hospital I walked down to Red’s Place around 9:30 in the evening. It must have been late September, but it was still a warm night and there were a lot of children playing on the sidewalks in Chinatown. A fair number of young, backpacking tourists were wandering around with the same dazzled, fey demeanor they exude wherever in the world you come across them. As I walked, the aromas of seafood, car exhaust and stirfry wafted about, blending together into the singular, unmistakable Chinatown smell that I’ve had in my olfactory memory bank since I was a child. As I said, there were children all around, a few old men, a few backpackers and, as I arrived at the doorway to Red’s Place, Leon’s two well-dressed sons. They entered just ahead of me. I ordered a beer and stood there sucking up Camel smoke and trying to make eye contact with Leon’s sons. After ten minutes of watching them in deep conversation I walked over to where they were sitting. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Leon your father?”

“Who are you?” the heavier one asked.

“I was in the hospital with your father. I saw you there one night visiting.”

“Leon’s not my father,” he said. “I just do some work for him sometimes.” And he smiled and checked his watch, and the two politely excused themselves and walked out.

After that, if I was in the neighborhood on a Thursday, I’d sometimes go by Red’s Place, but I never saw Leon and I never saw his “sons” again either. Over the next few months I pretty much forgot about all of them, including Chandler and Yogananda.

Generally, I don’t pray. I’ve never found it very effective. It could be my technique, or it could be my lack of faith. It’s foolish of me no doubt, because writers of all people need as much help as they can get – who wouldn’t find comfort in an alliance with a supreme being? In any case, though I didn’t pray for it – indeed, I’d stopped thinking about it – my prayers were answered. By sheer coincidence I came across the ending to Leon’s story in a basement restaurant on Pagoda Place.

I have a friend, Liz, who loves dim sum and I’m fond of it myself. About five months after my appendectomy we had a date on a Tuesday morning to meet at Hang Ah Tea Room. I like Hang Ah because the dim sum is quite good and the place is a charming dump, which means you don’t have to compete with a herd of people to get a table and you come away with that stomach satori that is the only thing any of us really wants (or perhaps one of two things). It’s the oldest dim sum dive in Chinatown and its cellar location gives it a tawdry appeal that the owners could probably cash in on if they wanted to, but thankfully have not.

On our way in Liz and I stopped in Hang Ah’s entryway to look at the Miss Chinatown photos. As we were standing there, out walked Grace, Leon’s wife. I might not have recognized her except for the leopardskin collar of her coat. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen like that. It made me think of Constance Talmadge and Edendale and Leon-the-child being chased by an as-yet-unknown Buster Keaton for fifty cents a day. It’s funny how everything can get all mixed together in a moment – it’s often like that in dreams, but you don’t expect it to happen in reality.

“Grace!” I said. I startled her. She didn’t recognize me. “I’m Doug,” I explained. “I was in the hospital with Leon.” She squinted and smiled.

“Oh yeah,” she said, taking my hand. “I remember. How are you doing now?”

“All better.” I patted the spot now occupied only by a phantom appendix and a faint hoofprint. “How’s Leon?”

Her smile wilted. “Leon’s gone,” she said sadly. “He passed on…one months. Just one month ago.” He’d been such a vital character. Even in the hospital he looked so healthy and fit that I’d figured he’d live another decade or two or three. I didn’t ask her what he’d died of. What’s it matter?

“Well, he was a great guy,” I said. Liz had drifted into the restaurant as I talked with Grace.

“Great guy!” Grace agreed. “We take him back to Manila for the burial. That’s what he want.”


“Oh yeah, he come from there, you know. Grow up there.”

“Really? For some reason I thought he grew up in Los Angeles. I must have got it wrong. Did he spend a lot of time in L.A.?”

“No, I have a sister there. We visit her a couple times, but usually she come up here – better Chinatown,” Grace laughed.

Now Grace had me going. “I guess he was a big reader, huh?”

“Oh yeah, he drive me crazy reading and re-reading those detective books and all about the movies and the crazy religions, but he always make a good living,” and her eyes started to tear up as she thought about him and I wanted to stop talking to her because I never know what to do at such times.

“Grace, I’m so sorry, but I know you’re going to do fine.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured me in a motherly tone. “Nice to see you.” She smiled and squeezed my hand. As she walked down the alley toward the street, I noticed her black-and-gray hair made an oddly dramatic lacework over the leopardskin collar – there was something bittersweet about it, but I don’t think I can explain it. I then walked inside the restaurant where Liz had already ordered pork buns, potstickers, shui mai and shrimp dumplings, and I told her the whole story, starting with the anesthesiologist itching my nose and ending with Grace’s leopardskin collar partly covered by her black-and-gray hair.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lost in the French Quarter

New Orleans is a city of layers – a parfait metropolis – and even on Bourbon Street, where the glitz is thickest, the authentic can still be uncovered. There is some eccentric, elemental power permeating the place (a filigree of John the Conqueror roots, perhaps, snaking through the subterranean piping), and especially its French Quarter or Vieux Carre (not an American neighborhood so much as a Caribbean one), that no amount of cheesy T-shirt shops, crummy souvenir stands, or corporate co-option can ever subdue.

Among its many fine and bizarre qualities, New Orleans is a great people preserve – a museum of Homo sapiens and unnatural history; a national zoo park of persons. While Paris offers a peerless collection of strangely shaped dogs, New Orleans has the corner on curiously forged personalities; an undiluted jambalaya of jazz geniuses, junkies, over-voluptuous blues mamas and video-poker-playing antique hustlers, Lucky Dog hawkers ranting Shakespeare, beautiful and not so beautiful losers, piquant tap dancers in Nikes, rats, bats and alley cats.

“New Orleans,” a former resident recently told me, “is a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.” It’s a town with a complicated soul: where the darkness ends and the light begins is not always easy to discern. A place where shadows are still abundant, still honored. The Vieux Carre’s sultry roux of ghosts – Marie Lavenaux to Tennessee Williams, Jean Lafitte to John Kennedy Toole, William Faulkner to Lulu White – probably has something to do with it. In any case it’s seductive.

Consider our waiter the last time we dined at Antoine’s. My best guess is that he was a specimen of late middle age who crept from his glass case to serve supper. His waxy complexion was as pale and translucent as one of Ms. Rice’s vampires. And his wispy hair a color of red-brown that doesn’t occur naturally, nor can it be achieved through a simple dye job. Foremost was his demeanor. We seemed to be either amusing or appalling to him, and he appeared only barely able to suppress whichever it was. Imagine Bela Lugosi mingled with Willem Dafoe gone to seed and balding, while still trying to achieve a pompadour, and straining not to chortle in your face, and you’ve got our man.

He was bent sideways at the shoulder, the cant of his head making every utterance a question, whether it was a question or not. He sweated, breathed heavily, took time to consider with bemusement everything we had to say – looked like he might drop dead if we didn’t get on with it. Still, he was friendly, even warm, in his own off-center fashion. And, unlike Lestat’s brethren, he didn’t walk on the ceiling.

We started with the Huitres en coquille à la Rockefeller (Oysters Rockefeller), because we had to: Antoine’s invented the dish in 1899, selecting the name to honor the rich sauce. It was the right thing to do (inventing it and ordering it). As we were finishing, our waiter crept over. “For your main course, Le filet de pompano Pontchartrain is quite good? And Les pommes de terre souffles to go along is always popular?” He was not only Gothic but clairvoyant. It was what I’d intended to order. He possessed a peculiar brand of charm, or he was the damnedest of freaks – take your pick.

Visiting museums in the French Quarter might seem redundant, but there are several worthwhile ones, and some others, equally meritorious, that don’t even know they’re museums. If you’ve come for the music (and if you haven’t, you’ve got the axiomatic hole in your soul) then there are two important relic centers at which your attendance is required. One is the permanent jazz exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, the other is Preservation Hall.

Hidden away – as if it were something to be ashamed of – on an upper floor of the Louisiana State Museum in the Old Mint, at the far southeast corner of the Quarter, the jazz collection is a sweet exhibit of jazz (and some blues) photos, famous musicians’ instruments, and other artifacts. On one wall a frame holds old business cards for Eubie Blake, the Noon Bazooka Trio, Punch and his Bunch, Kid Sheik and his Storyville Ramblers, Paul Barbarin “Former drummer with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Martin (sic), Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong.” On the same floor, across the entryway, is a collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia – costumes, photographs of the parades and balls and various krewes in their regalia, and other fanciful pieces dating back to the early part of this century, when we all lived on a different planet.

A half-dozen blocks across the Vieux Carre, Preservation Hall is a dilapidated, transcendent garage filled with music performed by veteran musicians who have been making jazz longer than many of us have been up and walking. You will stand in line; if it’s raining you will stand in line and get soaked. Finally, you pay your $3 for the privilege of peering in a doorway (all the seats will be filled by the time you gain entry). The room itself is little more than crumbling pegboard, peeling paint, thick dust and bare light bulbs. The audience sits on the floor, in the few seats, or huddles in the entryway corridor. They don’t seem to mind the surroundings, nor do the musicians, nor does the music.

When it rains in the Quarter, it comes down and down like a towel being wrung. Water streams over the roofs in rippling windows, floats discarded plastic hurricane cups down the gutters, makes the wrought iron glisten (the only time it does), slows the cars, accelerates the pedestrians, overflows the fountains. And the Gulf wind curls off Canal Street into the Quarter, flaps the courtyard banana leaves like slick green elephant ears, rattles wisteria pods against the brick, takes the flatness out of the river, pushes street musicians into doorways, under archways.

As Willie Sutton remarked about being in a bank at midnight, finding yourself in a French Quarter courtyard during a cloud burst is not an altogether unpleasant experience. You will get drenched, and maybe get a chill, which is why you’ll need to warm yourself with a drink or two (or three or five) just as soon as the rain lets up. Fortunately, one of the Quarter’s best courtyards happens to be behind the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum on Chartres Street only a few steps from Napoleon House, one of the city’s favorite historical saloons.

The Pharmacy Museum was once a real pharmacy, established in the same building in 1823. The original proprietor was Louis Joseph Dufilho Jr., the first licensed pharmacist in the United States. The museum courtyard has a fountain and benches, banana trees, a wisteria vine creeping high up a brick wall, stealthily heading for a neighboring balcony, and plantings of medicinal herbs. With luck it will rain during your visits. To get to the courtyard, you walk through the museum, which is well worth the meager $2 admission, and also worth a half-hour or so of lingering.

Inside, in hand-carved European rosewood cabinets, are antique medicines and doctoring implements of every description – apothecary jars of home cures and those prescribed by doctors, as well as patent medicines, leech jars, blood-letting tools, and bottles of gris-gris potions used by Voodoo practitioners. (Handwritten herbal formulas from a circa 1900 New Orleans pharmacist’s notebook are titled “Fast Luck,” “Wa Wa Water” and “Hoodo Mixture” – an effective-sounding recipe calling for “cayenne pepper, steel dust, Grains of Paradise, and lodestone.”) There’s a magnificent old soda fountain and a grim array of Civil War-era surgical instruments including an exquisitely frightening trepanning device. The revelation of the visit is not learning that Coca-Cola once contained coca, from which cocaine is derived, which everyone must know by now, but that its sparkling clear and clean competitor, 7-Up, once listed the mood-stabilizing lithium among its ingredients.

But the Pharmacy Museum is strictly a museum, so if you’re intent on acquiring supplies to do some freelance messing around, or charms to keep others from messing with you, you may want to stop into the Voodoo Museum over on Dumaine Street. In addition to selling gris-gris and potions, this small archive mixes a little tourist-targeted hokum with an honest effort to enlighten visitors about the world’s most misunderstood religion. The last time I was there, I was on my way out of town, leaving for a circuitous trip through the Mississippi Delta, driving to Memphis. To ensure that good luck would be my traveling companion, I dropped by to pick up a black cat bone from Prince Mougobber. He took me down a dark hallway to a back room altar, growled a few words to Voodoo’s mischievous child spirit-god and keeper of the crossroads (“Let us pass, let us pass …”), took a mouthful of white rum, sprayed it between his teeth across a Bible, pressed the bone into my palm, and sent me on my way. (“Keep it in your right pocket,” the Prince told me as I walked out, “not in your left, for God’s sake!”) And it was good luck, indeed, all the way to Graceland.

In the Quarter, one can even stay in a museum of sorts. Many think the Hotel Maison de Ville, one of New Orleans’ oldest buildings, is also its finest small inn. It was good enough for Tennessee Williams – the hotel’s Room 9 is where he lived while completing “A Streetcar Named Desire.” They say the playwright would often relax in the lush courtyard with a Sazerac. Maybe the spray of the water coming off the old cast-iron fountain cooled his hot brain as he ended another day of trying to help Stanley, Stella and Blanche resolve their overheated lives so they could become an iconic part of ours.

Williams’ affection for sipping Sazerac in the courtyard couldn’t have been more appropriate. The Maison de Ville was once the home of Antoine Amedee Peychaud, the pharmacist who invented the drink – a combination of bitters and brandy – and first served it to his grateful clients in an egg cup, or coquetier. Some say that’s the source of the word “cocktail.”

The Maison de Ville actually has two locations, the main one on Toulouse Street, adjacent to its equally splendid restaurant (the Bistro at Maison de Ville), and the Audubon Cottages two blocks away. The Audubon Cottages were home to naturalist John James Audubon and his family in the 1780s. While in residence he made many of the watercolors – hand-painted color photographs might be a more apt description – for his “Birds of America.” You enter the cottages’ compound by passing through a black door in a white wall on Dauphin Street, which opens onto a brick pathway lined with impatiens. The pathway leads to a swimming pool surrounded by low, vine-covered walls that enclose the small courtyards outside the rooms. Each courtyard has a fountain or fish pond. “The room you’re staying in,” the bellman told me as he opened the door, “is where Sissy Spacek lived while they were filming Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK.’”

His comment reminded me that the most cinematic vision I’d seen in recent years came walking at me down Bourbon Street one Halloween. Halloween in the French Quarter is considerably easier to take than Mardi Gras, and the costumes are often just as exotic, if not as abundant. I recall alligators with light-up eyes, faces painted gold and silver (remember the costume party cavorting in ‘JFK’?), and several burly ballerinas. But the outfit that left the greatest impression was that of a simple cowpoke. He wore boots, trousers, a shirt, a cowboy hat and a mask that covered his face. To every inch of his apparel he’d carefully attached a small square mirror. The effect was dazzling, a disco ball morphed into a man. As he languidly made his way through the crowd, every light along Bourbon Street bounced off his mirrored suit, sending thousands of luminous dots through the lurid New Orleans air to swim over the buildings, across startled faces, dappling police horses, sprinkling the black lace balconies, the strip clubs and T-shirt shops. People went silent, hypnotized, as they noticed him – the cowboy messiah come to the Vieux Carre.

But then something like that always seems to be happening in the Quarter. Or about to.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

48 Hours on Safari in Uganda

By Nattabi Ruth Lugose Basoma, director, Engo Tours

Let's say you're crazy as a hog on ice and let's say you want to do a 48 hour safari in the wilds of Uganda, but I repeat myself. Who am I to try and stop your craziness? Instead let me enable it. Here's a plan that will take you up-country in East Africa's most dramatically beautiful nation, get you up close and personal with its amazing animals and extraordinary landscape, and get you back to the 1.6 million city of Kampala in 48 hours. Yes, For reals. But it will cost you bigtime. Still, what better way to spend your hard-earned semolians?

Ready? Here we go. You land at Entebbe at mid-day. You have already booked a whirlybird flight on FlyKea, Kampala's premier helicopter company (they also fly small planes). In about 40 minutes you're in Fort Portal nestled in the Rwenzori Mountains, the famed Mountains of the Moon, first written about by Diogenes who visited them. A private hire car zips you out to Kibale Forest where you do an hour or two of chimpanzee tracking. You then go back to Fort Portal and grab a quick lunch at The Dutchess -- great pizza and libations. You return to the nearby copter and off you go to Queen Elizabeth Park, about 30 minutes south. 

To get there, you fly over some of the most beautiful landscape in Africa. Below you great gangs of elephants, cape buffalo, kob and waterbucks (two types of antelope), lions and hyenas range over the savannah. You cruise low over the Great Rift Valley, the place it all began for humanity, the Source Perrier of humankind. 30 minutes later, FlyKea drops you near Mweya Lodge at QENP. Wave goodbye; they'll be back to get you tomorrow. Check in, leave your bags in your room and walk down to the boat landing at Kazinga Channel. You've got just enough time for the glorious sunset cruise. Follow the cruise with a late night dinner, a soak and a massage. Then get to bed, cause you need to be up way much early in the morning.

It's still dark as you crawl out from under your mosquito net at Mweya Lodge, grab your packed breakfast from the front desk, and make your way to the helicopter. Up you go, heading southwest for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one of the oldest virgin forests on earth and home to some of the planet's last mountain gorillas (about 800 remain, most are in Uganda with the rest in the DRC and Rwanda). You've got an early morning meet and greet with the gorilla family, 18 of the most laid back, charming primates you've ever encountered. Hope you got a good night's rest, because after the two hour drive you've got a 5 hour round trip jungle hike to meet your distant relatives. The good news is it's totally worth it (It will cost you $600 per for your permit, which allows you a one hour audience with the lovely beasts.) It's one of life's great experiences, and that's no hyperbole.

Ninety minutes later, you touch down in Buhoma, the gateway to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. After a brief orientation talk and some pointers on gorilla etiquette (don't get closer than 3 meters, easy on the direct eye contact, don't mess with the babies or you'll be going home in a ziploc baggie) you clamber into a Land Cruiser for the two hour drive to the 7500 foot elevation where the hike begins. You will meet up with porters at the trailhead and each member of your party will hire one, cause you're not that crazy; for $15, they will not only carry your expensive crap from Nikon and Northface, they will push you, pull you and otherwise save your ass from falling all over the place. You'll also be accompanied by armed guards -- to protect you from the other kind of guerillas.

And now in you go, warily slipping, sliding and stumbling (and being caught by your porter) toward the best meeting you will ever have. It is a monochrome world you move through: green, green and green. Then, when the walks seems like it will never end, there in the distance are several black furry blobs, the Deadheads of the rainforest, just chillin', munching leaves, patiently awaiting your arrival and the clicking of your cameras (there are two thousand three hundred photos of mountain gorillas on Flickr. Why not just have the experience without hiding behind your camera?)

You slowly approach, the gorillas could not be less interested in you. Except the babies. They're very interested and on several occasions over the next hour the guides will have you back up because the friendly, clownish youngsters are just too interested in their strange, hairless visitors. The hour goes too quickly, of course, but what an hour it is. The babies keep things entertaining while the interactions between the adult males and females bring an air of dramatic tension to the proceedings, and the occasional grunts and soft growls of the silverback leave no question as to who's really at the top of the food chain here.

On your way back to the SUV, as you huff and puff your way toward civilization, notice the profusion of amazing butterflies, the other primates and the fantastic birds -- more species in Uganda than in all of North America. Once back in Buhoma, find your guide who will take you on a village walk and introduce you to the Batwa pigmy group that used to live in the forest but now must reside at its edge as "conservation refugees." The Batwa are one of the oldest societies on earth. Hunter/gatherers by tradition, they've been booted from their forest home and now struggle to survive as farmers.

After meeting the Batwa, and buying A LOT of their crafts, return to your helicopter. In a couple hours you are on the ground in Entebbe. You catch a meal at Goretti's great pizza restaurant on the beach at Lake Victoria, then head to the airport. By about 4pm you are ensconced in your Emirates 747, on your way to Dubai and then home.

No Sun King

Wrote this in 2010 about the day of an eclipse in Kasese, Western Uganda...

It starts with the animals acting slightly strange. The local dog choir does a rare post-dawn performance, the blue-headed agamas freeze in place on the rooftops and branches. The birds, just wiping the sleep from little ebony eyes, hunker down in the trees, confused, thinking that their body clock is on the fritz because it's telling them they need to go back to dreamland, even though that's where they just came from. Then you begin feeling a little strange because the crackling white light of morning is turning to deep orange and getting dimmer by the moment. What up? 

Annular solar eclipse, that's what. And not just any old eclipse. Yesterday's magnificent celestial stunt was a brief, but dazzling bit of sun-moon acrobatics, the likes of which we won't see again any time soon and most on the planet never saw at all, except on computer screens and newspaper pages. Around here, people used window reflections or a plastic basin filled with water, or peered through thin napkins to avoid gazing directly at the sun. The best shield, however, was the roiling cloud curtain that would completely obliterate the twinned orbs for a few seconds, then teasingly reveal them through a veil of vapor, which once or twice provided a glare-free projection screen, and cut the light enough to enable photos, such as the one above, which I took at about 8:15 a.m. in Kasese, Uganda.

“That's a good omen,” I said to a Ugandan friend after the show was over and we were heading to breakfast. I just made that up. I didn't know whether it was or not, and besides, I'm not really into omens. Turns out I was right. 

About six hours later, the heat of the afternoon having put me in a semi-dream state, the same friend came to my door. “Would you like to go see the king?” she asked. She'd read my mind. Not five minutes before I'd been thinking that I wished I knew a king so I could go visit him. Wish granted! And we didn't even have to go far. His palace is less than a mile from where I'm staying. On occasion you do get what you want. Sometimes this old universe ain't so bad after all.

He is Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere Irema-Ngoma of Rwenzururu, the king of the Rwenzori Kingdom. He was reinstated to the throne just last October after an absence of many years, during which he worked as a nurses' aide in the United States. On the spur of the moment, a small group of college students he was scheduled to meet with asked if we'd like to accompany them. My friend said she thought we would and came and got me. And that's the true story of how my wish was granted and we stumbled into an audience with his highness, the Omusinga of Rwenzururu.

We arrived at the palace in the hills behind this town to find several Ugandan army guards at the gate, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. An officer walked over and greeted us, then we were frisked, asked to turn off our cellphones and to turn on our cameras. The officer inspected the cameras and handed them back to us and said we could use them only “on request.” He motioned for us to follow him. We walked past a royal guard who was holding a spear. Both his white shirt and his gray cap were embroidered with the phrase “Royal Guard.” 

The throne room was in a large, low, cylindrical building with a gently sloping, conical roof. The entire structure was made of logs and reeds. It was cool and dark inside; a timid breeze moved through the open hexagonal windows. Unadorned fluorescent tubes attached to the walls in three or four places provided the only artificial light. The dirt floor had been swept clean. There were a few thick ribbons -- yellow and blue -- tied on supporting eaves, some palm fronds lashed to pillars, but the room was largely free of decoration. There were several rows of wooden benches. We sat down. At the front was a raised platform with a desk-size table and a large cushioned chair. The table covering was oddly incongruous. It appeared to be a sheet for a child's bed. Its border featured brightly colored cartoon figures of animals and a wooden ship with a barn on its deck: Noah's Ark.

We waited for 30 or 40 butt-anesthetizing minutes, then a small procession entered led by the king. Two ministers, several officers and three ladies of the court followed him. In his right hand he was carrying a short fly-whisk with a black and white diamond design on the handle. He was dressed in gray slacks and a short-sleeve white shirt. His glasses had thin gold rims. He looked to be in his mid-50s. He took his place at the table on the platform. The army officer who'd inspected our cameras sat behind the king in a white plastic chair.

We prayed and sang the anthem of the Rwenzori kingdom and the Uganda national anthem. We then introduced ourselves individually, after which the president of the student association read a long document. The king listened intently, making notes and nodding. After the reading was complete, the king addressed each issue that had been raised. The minister of education said he'd been a founder of the student association more than 20 years ago. We sang again. We prayed again. The king rose and exited, followed by his ministers, several officers and the three ladies of the court, one of whom carried his empty water glass in a small black suitcase.