Mozart & Margaritas, Napoleon & Wind-Up Birds
The first day after the last day of high school. The day I was sure would mark the rapid decline in naïveté that surely came with entering the Real School. I was scheduled to celebrate, though at the time the reason for the festivities was nebulous to me. My mother and father had generously arranged the affair. All these years later, I’ve come closer to understanding what they were offering me.
My parents had ushered me onto the southbound Kansas City Southern earlier that morning, their eldest son headed to a week at the plush St Charles Hotel as a graduation gift. The train had clacked across the two hundred miles of swamp between our house on the gumbo-mud-encrusted unpaved Central Louisiana street generously called Boeuf Trace (“Cow Path”) and the relatively posh confines of Union Station in the Crescent City. I arrived in quick time. Which was just as well, since I didn’t remember much of the journey. My head was still aching from the commencement parties of the previous day, and the aftermath of the first beers I had ever consumed in their entirety. I was a late learner, but soon to catch up.
Other than the quick stolen sip of one of my father’s brews at a crawfish boil, and the thimbleful of dreadful Mogen David “toast” wine at Christmas and New Year’s, I had never had an alcoholic beverage. The four Schlitz from the night’s parties had taught me the reward of immoderation quickly, but I was not daunted.
I had lined up two very cool — a metaphoric temperature also describable by a seventeen-year-old Louisiana boy as “hot” — dates to go along with my first venture into adulthood. They were both acquaintances and long-time correspondents, first met on the competitive high school speech and debate circuit. I had been modestly successful at winning contests of dramatic interpretation, and had used that same blarney skill to enter the ever-so-shallow affections of similarly post-pubescent females. The depth of my experience with the opposite sex, though, was much in line with my experience in alcohol.
I hoped both were subject to change in New Orleans.
The truth of the matter was that I walked in the Vieux Carré looking to get into trouble. Trouble. I courted some, truly. But I anticipated trouble in only the moderate proportions imaginable by a small-town “good boy” on his first long-distance solo — ie, non-family — excursion. Adventure was due ahead. I did, however, hold steadfast to a determination to avoid massive pain or injury, at least anything corporeal.
The ancient swinging doors of the Napoleon House flew apart with what I considered a minimal shove, banging first the wall, and then my knuckles on the doors’ return. When religious literature speaks of “signs that bespeak the future,” this small accident is a perfect example of what they are attempting to describe.
In mid-May, the town was already carrying the hot baggage of August. Thermometers were pushing close to triple digits with every noon’s sun, and would offer no dip below 75 degrees Fahrenheit for at least another three months.
The Nap House was still two decades away from any thought of air conditioning, so to keep the high-ceilinged rooms livable, cast iron ceiling fans were sent a steady diet of DC electricity, and coaxed to turn. On each, a quartet of dust-coated blades spun unenthusiastically, pushing pollen and water-saturated air into circulation. The half-dozen exterior French doors were open to the street, and copper-sheeted tables placed in the sidewalk’s stagnant breeze, sweating clientele shaded by a pressed tin awning that curved on wooden spindle columns around the corner of rue St Louis and rue Chartres.
The two-hundred-year-old building has been promoted in tourist literature for decades to have been fashioned as a hide-away for the fugitive Napoleon. The bar’s namesake, however, died at age 65 in less comforting circumstances within the eastern waters of the Atlantic, fated to never enjoy an umbrella cocktail next to a brightly-clad tourist from Wisconsin. The final Bonaparte would never know what he missed.
I myself was two months shy of eighteen as I broke new ground, sitting down in a public bar, unescorted by my father or mother. My date was to arrive momentarily and I needed to look appropriately worldly. I ordered my first cocktail, ever.
A Margarita, an overly large cocktail, was served by a gentleman of such years that I had to wonder if he’d been on the original wait-staff. Bill was his name, even then well into his seventh decade waiting tables at the House. The double tequila portion was due to the fact that I was sitting at one of Bill’s tables. Age had given an unmistakable trembling to the kindly waiter’s fingers. A regular stemmed Margarita glass in those hands meant that half the beverage would be shaken to the floor before it reached the customer’s table. Thus the bartender always served Bill’s stemmed drinks in larger, more stable Old-Fashioned glasses, and to make up for that inconvenience, the patron was given a double drink for the price of a single. Bill’s tables were always full of the M&M crowd, the Margarita and martini drinkers, and I was lucky to accidentally get one.
While licking the salt from the edge of the glass and waiting for my first companion’s arrival, I was to witness another of the Napoleon House’s resident quirks. For over a century it had been the favorite gathering place for the classical musicians of the city, and the stereo in the inner room was surrounded by cabinets full of vinyl containing the works of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Puccini. This day the air was filled with the sounds of the Bach Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, and the flapping of plastic bird wings.
As was later revealed to me, at the completion of an unusually long rehearsal by the Philharmonic, the entire string section had retired for refreshments to Chartres Street. One young cellist, on his walk from the rehearsal hall to the Nap House, had spied a window full of yellow wind-up canaries from France. On a sudden inspiration, he bought out the shop’s entire stock of two dozen birds, and distributed these to his comrades immediately upon his arrival. Powered only by a rubber band, a tiny flock of the ingenious birds now fluttered about the room in lifelike random flight.
Twenty-four inanimate bits of plastic drew energy from the same hands that only an hour before had also given life to a long-dead Beethoven. One Gallic canary, its engine temporarily losing power, fluttered straight down into my Margarita and flapped there for a few moments before being retrieved, dried, rewound and relaunched by a lovely Oriental woman. She also ordered me another of the large drinks, courtesy of the second violas. Bill brought it quickly, the old man smiling and ducking as yellow wings and Isaac Stern’s fiddle continued to fill the room.
There was salt on my shirtfront, and two lime slices fell from my lap when I stood up to greet my date. She’d been state champion at oratory. Her gaze traveled slowly from saline deposits down to citrus remnants, evaluating me as I had often seen her take stock of the character of an opponent. She raised her eyes to meet mine, then offered a hand by way of formal greeting. I was over-anxious. I clasped it much too readily, and instantly got the message, the long ivory fingers so cold and lifeless as to prohibit any carnal speculation whatsoever on my part. I found myself undisappointed, happy the pressure was off.
Immediately following this revelation, a hard plastic canary beak rammed me fircefully in the right temple. I saw a quick flash of avian-related stars and fell off-balance to the floor, dragging my orator friend with me.
“So,” I thought, as a dozen hands pulled the two of us to our feet and removed flattened lime slices from the front of her once-pristine silk dress, “this is what it’s like to be a high school graduate.”
Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour