Meet SoBou, one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans. At SoBou, expect riffs on old favorites. Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez’s menu is playful, tongue in cheek. No boundaries — or at least not many of them.
With good food at every turn in the Big Easy, what does a restaurant have to do to make an impression?
Tough question, isn’t it?
I grew up in NOLA and regularly make it back to visit, to take photographs, and to eat — it’s one of my favorite things to do in this wonderful city. In my mind, there are three things a restaurant must do to make my list:
Be consistently outstanding
SoBou knocks the ball out of the park along all of these lines.
I first visited SoBou on a road trip through New Orleans in May 2017. It had good reviews, the menu caught my eye, AND it was one of the Brennan’s family restaurants I’d never tried.
My meal was an early supper, and I had a great table with a view out onto Chartres Street. I chose Geaux Fish, fun faux-Cajun wordplay on the children’s card game. Great name for a dish that changes based on fresh fish and the inventiveness of the chef. The night I had it, the fish was black drum served with crawfish tails, spinach, and gnocchi that had been cooked in the crawfish liquid. Very enjoyable!
When you dine at SoBou, what will the dish be like? I don’t know — Geaux Fish! 🙂
I’d say that SoBou doesn’t take itself too seriously. Except of course, they do, in terms of the quality of their food and the experience. What I mean by this, is this is no “stuck up” restaurant. It truly has a free spirit.
It’s wonderful that there are many restaurants in NOLA that adhere to the classics in a tried and true way. We need that. Otherwise, you risk losing the traditional recipes/traditional methods. But cuisine in New Orleans is also a living, breathing thing and should be allowed to grow and change — otherwise it’s as stuck as a dead body in a mausoleum.
At SoBou, expect riffs on old favorites. Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez’s menu is playful, tongue in cheek. No boundaries — or at least not many of them.
In October, on a driving trip to Florida, I stayed a couple of nights at the Monteleone, and made a point of dining with SoBou again.
Since there were two of us, I had the opportunity to try a wider variety of dishes. I love being able to taste many things without committing to a huge portion; small plates are big favorites.
I tried two of their current cocktails, one of which was the Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple, tea, angostura, lime, fino sherry, violet). Pisco is brandy from Chile or Argentina. This was a delightful, light cocktail, with the tea and sherry preventing the pineapple and lime from being too acidic. The hint of violet was very subtle.
During dessert, lead bartender Laura Bellucci brought a seasonal version of milk punch for me to try; lovely take on this cocktail — sweet, but not overly so, certainly inventive version of a traditional favorite.
Smoky Oysters en Escabeche: Cold smoked oysters on the half shell presented atop bed of seaweed, and garnished with a frozen rosé (called “F’rosé” at SoBou), with a scallions. I loved this dish. Such a different take on raw oysters – a delicate smokiness complemented by the delicate ice chips of rosé.
Red Beans & Rice Smoky red bean purée. Dirty rice wontons Truly inventive fusion between the beloved New Orleans red beans and Mexican refried. Crispy, delicious wonton filled with dirty rice — perfect with a dollop of creamy red beans.
Chicken on the Bone Four drumettes of fried chicken confit. Creole seasonal salad, guava jelly. I’m a big fan of duck confit, and this version with chicken did not disappoint!
Cherries Jubilee & White Chocolate Bread Pudding with house made vanilla bean ice cream. Anyone who has been to Commander’s Palace is familiar with their fantastic bread pudding soufflé . Since SoBou is a member of the Commander’s Palace/Brennan’s family — it has its own version of this dessert. Light, airy — a nice tartness from the cherries to offset the white chocolate. This is possibly the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. Be aware: if you want this lovely, it takes 25 minutes to make — so tell your waitperson that you want it when you order dinner.
Jazz Brunch and Bella Blue
My third meal at SoBou was a spur of the moment decision. I’d arrived in New Orleans in the late morning, and my group of friends wouldn’t make it in until 7:00 or so in the evening.
I looked at my watch. Hum . . . what to do?
No reservations, but I set off to see if I could squeeze in to the Jazz brunch at SoBou.
One seat left at the bar! So lucky! While the bar menu is much smaller than the regular brunch menu, there was plenty to like.
The Jazz Brunch at SoBou is so much fun! Burlesque entertainment was a big part of the French Quarter scene from the 1940’s until the burlesque clubs were shut down in the 1960’s. Happily, it’s enjoying a renaissance in the Big Easy. Bella Blue‘s fan dancing is beautiful; a tasteful nod to erotic burlesque entertainment that is tame enough to keep most people comfortable 🙂 .
I chose the Legs and Eggs: poached eggs, apple cider braised pork osso bucco, with bourbon & bacon braised collard greens. The meaty, smoky pork combine well with perfectly poached eggs. There is a little heat from the Tabasco in the hollandaise, but it’s not overdone. I particularly liked their take on collard greens.
There is only one thing wrong with this dish — it’s SO filling! I loved it, but it’s impossible to eat anything following it. My recommendation: share it!
I leave you with a taste of a little jazz and fan dancing . . . signing off from a lovely Sunday afternoon in NOLA.
This is the first in my new series of Photo Gallery posts. I love taking pictures, and inevitably, I have far more photographs than I can really use in a single blog article, so it was time to make a home for them. Please enjoy, but respect that I retain full rights on my images. Do not use them without written permission from me — thanks!
I grew up in New Orleans, and any chance I get, I go back for a visit — so here is a series shot in the spring.
Getting down with a little Coltrane as the sun sets in the French Quarter. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Street musicians are one of my favorite parts of strolling in the Quarter.
A look down St. Ann’s street from the intersection at Chartres Street. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Yep! Love the beignets. And while plenty of places sell them in the Quarter, it’s worth waiting in line at Cafe Du Monde.
I grew up along the banks of the Mississippi. Every time I visit New Orleans, I have to get to the river.
Always a pretty picture!
This man was amazing!
Love listening to Charmain Neville.
Sadly, there isn’t as much jazz on Bourbon Street proper as there used to be.
Spring in New Orleans! Those are George Tabor azaleas, a variety that grows very well here.
Camellia Grill. Where generations of New Orleanians in the Uptown area have gone to satisfy their burger cravings.
Iconic, and happily there are more streetcars in New Orleans than when I was growing up.
Swaying along the tracks down St. Charles Avenue.
Shot from the streetcar.
City of the dead.
Grace. Love the many sculptures in the cemeteries here — always beautiful and melancholy.
Young man playing classical music on Sunday afternoon in Jackson Square.
If you want cheap, mass produced Mardi Gras masks or just another t-shirt, walk one block down Bourbon Street in either direction, and you’ll be set. On the other hand, if you are looking for the best souvenirs in New Orleans – you want something truly special to remember your visit, here are some things that will make you think about the Crescent City every time you see them.[…]
If you want cheap, mass produced Mardi Gras masks or just another t-shirt, walk one block down Bourbon Street in either direction, and you’ll be set.
New Orleans is a unique city, so it just follows that you’ll want something special to remember your visit. Here are souvenirs that will make you think about the Crescent City every time you see them.
Faulkner House Books
This is one of my favorite small bookstores in the whole country. It’s tucked next to the St. Louis Cathedral on Pirate’s Alley, in the house where William Faulkner lived during his time in New Orleans.
The thing that makes this bookstore special is a curated selection of books, often in particularly nice editions.
What do I mean when I say this? Any of the classics — works by Faulkner, Austen, Hemingway, Cather, Dickens — pick your author — are available in multiple editions. Too often these great novels are available in the cheapest editions: nasty paper, poorly printed, with almost no white space — you know what I’m talking about. Inexpensive books — so that at least a student can afford to read them for a class. But these are NOT the editions I want in my personal library.
Faulkner House does a great job of finding and stocking classics in editions that are such a pleasure to hold, to read. They have both new books and collectible used books. I also always find they have a wonderful selection of new fiction, as well as poetry, and essays. Of course the store keeps a full selection of Faulkner’s work, in both new editions and valuable first editions.
Excerpt from Sketches of New Orleans by William Faulkner:
The Tourist -NEW ORLEANS.
A courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who shuns the sunlight that the illusion of her former glory be preserved. The mirrors in her house are dim and the frames are tarnished; all her house is dim and beautiful with age. She reclines gracefully upon a dull brocaded chaise-longue, there is the scent of incense about her, and her draperies are arranged in formal folds. She lives in an atmosphere of a bygone and more gracious age.
And those whom she receives are few in number, and they come to her through an eternal twilight. She does not talk much herself, yet she seems to dominate the conversation, which is low-toned but never dull, artificial but not brilliant. And those who are not of the elect must stand forever without her portals.
New Orleans . . . a courtesan whose hold is strong upon the mature, to whose charm the young must respond. And all who leave her, seeking the virgin’s un-brown, ungold hair and her blanched and icy breast where no lover has died, return to her when she smiles across her languid fan . . . New Orleans.
Jose Balli Jewelry
I love this jewelry collection!
Jeweler Jose Balli uses the lost wax method to create his intricate pieces – inventive designs inspired by themes unique to New Orleans and southern Louisiana. This is lovely work in sterling silver at fair prices.
You’ll find little crabs in a variety of forms, alligators that loop themselves over sterling silver chains, and pendants of stylized Spanish moss. It was difficult to pick just one piece. I finally chose the Oyster Heart pearl necklace — the thing that first caught my eye when I was walking along Chartres Street.
Initially, Balli “worked in a metal fabrication shop just out of high school, shaping and welding custom equipment for the oil industry. One day, while waiting for a machine to cut through an enormous pipe, he passed time by carving a tiny alligator from a scrap of soapstone. Coworkers encouraged him to take up art seriously and, thus, began Jose’s 27-year career creating Bayou State designs with a naturalistic appeal.”
When we were in New Orleans the last time with good friends from Houston — all of us came away with jewelry from Balli.
I’ll definitely return to his shop at 621 Chartres Street the next time I’m in NOLA.
I’ve shopped at Hové for years. Readers who have followed my blog may remember my story of Clint Bolton, the old journalist who lived in the Quarter (To Miss New Orleans). Clint took me into the Hové shop in 1979 — to buy his wife’s favorite perfume — Tea Olive. I can still see Pat Bolton anytime I smell the fragrance.
Mrs. Alvin Hovey-King started Hové in 1931. She learned the craft of making perfume from her French Creole mother, and as the wife of a Navy Commander, she traveled the world. Her travels afforded her the opportunity to study perfumes in different countries, and her knowledge of making perfume grew.
What started as a hobby grew into a small business, and when the Crash of 1929 ruined the retired Commander’s business, Mrs. Hovey-King opened Hové at 529 Royal Street. The family lived in the apartment over the shop. While Hové has moved several times, it is still owned by the family. It is now located at 434 Chartres.
Hové continues to make all of their classic fragrances, including Tea Olive and Vetivert, but they’ve added many new fragrances in the last twenty years that have greater appeal to modern sensibilities.
Jan Fenner and Thomas Laird have created a collection of jewelry inspired by things unique to New Orleans, such as church murals, the cast iron fence surrounding Jackson Square, and architectural details of buildings in both the Quarter and business district.
The silver pendant to the left is a great example of Fenner’s work. I brought home a pair of earrings of the same design, and have loved wearing them. I also purchased fleur de lis earrings for my sister and my daughter, each different. I think there are more variations of the fleur de lis in this jewelry collection than I’ve seen anywhere.
Fenner and Laird lived in Nepal for a long time, and Jan worked with women there to use their native textiles to create products for sale. Jan talked at length about how much difference it makes when women are able to take control of their finances because they are generating income.
In addition to the jewelry, you will find textiles from Nepal and hand-printed cards on beautifully textured paper. It’s a treat to visit Fleur d’Orleans just to visit with Jan Fenner, so much so that I went back to the shop twice.
They have two locations, one at 3701A Magazine Street, New Orleans, and then the French Quarter store, which is on the corner of Chartres and Madison Street — half a block from Jackson Square.
Ronda Rose has been weaving rugs in the French Quarter since 1997.
Her narrow store on Chartres Street holds three looms, six cats, and the loveliest rag rugs I’ve seen.
Traditionally, rag rugs were made from worn clothes and sheets, and were a way to get additional use out of fabric. Ronda uses only new material – cotton and cotton blend fabrics, and all of her rugs are made on the premises in her French Quarter shop.
She has many colors and sizes of rug available for immediate purchase, but most of her business is making custom rugs. Send Ronda paint chips, photographs, or fabric swatches and she will work with you to create a rug uniquely suited to your room and decor.
It takes approximately ten to twelve weeks for a custom rug order. Louisiana Loom Works is located at 616 Chartres Street. Hours of operation: 11am- 6pm (Closed Wednesday), Phone: (504) 566-7788
Stating the obvious here: if you are allergic to cats, you should avoid this shop since the kitties rule the roost :-).
Freret Street Market
If you are lucky enough to be in NOLA on the first Saturday of the month, consider checking out the truly local Freret Street Market. It’s a combination of great music, food booths, booths selling local art and crafts, and flea market offerings. Definitely a place to find the some of the coolest New Orleans souvenirs. Depending on the day, there may also be a local restaurant sharing their food.
Okay, you French speakers out there . . . leave your high-class accent at home. Locals pronounce the word Freret like this: FUR-ette.
Don’t you be sayin’ it like Frere-ay. Ain’t no one gonna know WHAT you talkin’ ’bout.
The Freret Street Market does NOT happen during the steamy summer months of June, July, and August. Any New Orleanian called tell you why. ‘Cause it’s too darn hot! What, are you crazy, baby? Get inside in dat air-conditionin.’
Freret Street Finds: The Cat Nap Company — Purses made from an old albums — front side is the album cover, and the back side is the vinyl LP. No worries — no viable vinyl was killed in the making of this product. Only scratched albums are used.
So, it’s not the first Saturday of the month and you want to find the Cat Nap Company? Go to the Cat Nap Company Facebook page or email email@example.com to place an order.
My favorite find at the market was artist Nurhan Gokturk — I fell in love with his watercolor, pen and ink work of the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel. It is a special New Orleans landmark, and his delicate rendition has great movement. You can find Gokturk’s work at Pop City at 3118 Magazine street anytime, or visit the Gokturk web site.
So, there you have it. Some ideas for must-have souvenirs from New Orleans that you can also feel good about — created by local people, and not mass-marketed junk from Bourbon Street. And dat’s a good thing :-).
This article was originally published in April 2016 – this newest version has been updated with three more shops and ideas for folks traveling to New Orleans in 2017.
Thank you for visiting!
I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.
Last year, right as the entire Carnival season was swingin’ into action, I was “relaxing” at the the Touro following the surgical amputation of my right leg.
Article by Clint Bolton for a Vieux Carre paper, from Mardi Gras, 1979.
Through the windows I could hear the music, the sounds of a couple of uptown Carnival parades. Herself was sitting bedside and I grinned at her and said, “Well, darlin’, I guess we can kinda ace ourselves on the whole Carnival bit from here on. After all, the days do dwindle down to a precious few and even if I didn’t have my right gam sawed off, I think we could do the Joan and Darby bit, stay at home snug and comfy and catch the Carnival action on the tube.”
That ole Carnival caper fever hits us all . . . regardless of age. Physically I may not get much personal action this Mardi Gras season. But I don’t have to. Y’see, I can reach into my memory bank Movieola and run all that fine stuff through and frame freeze this or that shot. Then I’m back in the Sixties, the Fifties again. Don’t remember the exact year.
Embed from Getty Images
I’m at Pat O’Brien’s. Time: about 9 p.m., the Sunday night before Mardi Gras. The block of St. Peter between Royal and Bourbon is solid with people. Some of the local constabulary are mounted and doin’ a fair job of crowd control. Everything is goin’ fine . . . when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. To this day you’ll get a debate among us survivors of that era. Did the brawl break out on the street? The entrance of the carriageway? Take yer cherce. Any version will do.
Whatever may have triggered the donneybrook, it soon spread. The Mounties gallop into the mob; plain-clothes fuzz and blue coats on foot take a vigorous piece of the action.
Clubs swing, fists fly, there’s some nifty footwork as one and all, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief (and a fair majority of the latter two were on hand) get scufflin’. Things were tight, hairy dicey, you call it. Things were gettin’ a might out of control when . . . BLAM! Some lawman lets loose with the tear gas. Not a bad idea. Couple more tear gas rounds. Quite a bit on the street. Most in the carriageway of O’Brien’s and adjacent bars. Crowd cools down in a hurry. Some arrests were made. Enough air motion on the block to dissipate most of the street tear gas. Lots of it lingered on within the excellent pub. Enough to make for some swimmy eyes and very sniffy noses. But the commotion was over and the beat went on.
Just about this point, a now deceased but then very well-know Quarter tosspot, who shall remain nameless because of his wife and kids, awoke. He’d gotten himself a fair load and had been somewhere on the nod in the corner of the main bar. The whole rowdy-dow had breezed right by him. But now he comes to blearily, sniffily awake, with that somewhat annoyed, almost paranoid mood of the lush who has nodded off only to come to knowing something has happened . . . but not exactly what. He gazes about the all but deserted bar, sees the bartenders comin’ up for air and business as usual, takes one big sniff, and says . . . “Goddam! That’s the biggest fart I ever smelled in my life!”
Certainly more genteel is the joyous memory of parade nights spent on Bob Greenwood’s gallery over the A&P at St. Pete and Royal. Back then Bob used to invite a bunch of friends to each of the parades that came down Royal. It was one of the best vantage points in the whole Quarter . . . and you sure as hell got your share of beads, trinkets, and doubloons tossed from the floats. But there always hadda be the usual street bumpkins who’d try to shinny up the iron supports and crash the happy scene. For a couple of years, Bob and various other stalwarts in the entourage had a fair amount of fun leanin’ over and boppin’ tatterdemalion hobbledehoys on the noggin as they pulled level with the gallery.
Then, one year, ole Bob ended all that. He greased all those shinny-poles from halfway up to the gallery level. When one of us yelled, “prepare to repel boarders” he grinned and said, “Not to worry. Watch.” When the would-be gate-crashers hit the grease line, it was whoosh, and mucho fun. We would man the rails, beam down like cruise passengers tossin’ coins and, chant, “Slide, Slide, Slide!” It saved us a fair amount of hooch, too, I reckon, for as Jack Cooley so sagely remarked, “Why’n hell should we pour perfectly good booze on a bunch of greaseballs?”
Yes, we all go some kind of wacky on Mardi Gras, it truly is “anything goes” time. But mostly I’ve been ready to find some hole to sack out in just about the time the bells of old St. Louis toll out midnight . . . . And almost always I’ve recited to myself a
few lines from Kipling’s Recessional: “The tumult and the shouting dies, The Captains and the Kings depart. Still stands thine ancient sacrifice . . . An humble and a contrite heart.”
This is the third of three posts concerning Clint Bolton. He was a journalist who lived in New Orleans from the early 1950’s until his death in April of 1980. He was born James Clinton Bolton in New Jersey in 1908. He lived a full and interesting life: acting in summerstock plays with Humphrey Bogart, running away from Princeton to work on a tramp steamer to India, cutting his journalism chops in India to become an writer for the Associated Press, interviewing Gandhi during one of his early hunger strikes, working in New York as a journalist, serving in the Coast Guard in World War II. And finally, taking me under his wing in his last year.
I have kept this article of Clint’s, along with two letters, for 37 years now. As I fight cancer, and wonder sometimes that it may not be that long before I see him again, I feel honor bound to write about him. Since his writing is not on the internet, and there are precious few links to it in print . . . it is important to me that he not disappear.
In such a time, and in such a place, there was this man. He was witness to significant events in the 20th century. His name was Clint Bolton. He lived hard. He wrote on a manual typewriter with two fingers at a speed that awed. Black musicians loved him. Mafia capos treated him with deference. And I was fortunate to meet and spend long hours with him listening to jazz and to his stories.
Clint Bolton’s letter to Ann Fisher, August, 1979.
(Clint Bolton’s author’s note: This may or may not be fiction. There are those who live in the City Beside the Big River who will say of this or that character . . . “That is Soando.” And there are men . . . and women . . . with long memories who may say, “Yes, there is such a man and in a certain time and place he did thus and so. And there was that time down on the Malabar Coast . . .”
And another may say, “we were in Manila and that was possibly forty years ago and he said, very casually, over a drink, ‘In the end it will be the Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon in the real death fight. Japan may start a war. They will not finish it because they can’t. There is that vast land mass, gents, the huge area of Europe and Asia. Alexander could not do it. Genghis Khan could not do it and Napoleon failed, utterly. A nightcap, old man? Good . . . and with that it’s goodbye. My gear’s on a freighter, mixed cargo to Singapore. Just care of Raffles Hotel for the next few months.'” There are men and women who will recall things like that should they read this.
The very fine actress who is now like the man we will read about. There are no more parts for her to play . . . “My dear, they keep sending me scripts. I read very few of them. Yes, he is right. I knew him when we and the world were a lot younger. Lovers? . . . . How odd you should think that important for either of us now. We could meet and perhaps we would play the scene with some small grace . . . a slight touch of love among the ruins. There was that . . . we played the scene with grace notes . . . and if he built me a sand castle in Spain on the beach at Malibu, what difference that the next tide took it away? . . . Was that important, really?”
“No, if we were to meet again we would greet each other with outstretched hands and silly people would say, ‘Were they?’ . . . ‘Did they?’ and make all sorts of guesses and speculations. And what would he say to them? My dears, I think he would smile. We’d touch the rims of our glasses just one more time and he would say, ‘That was once-upon-a-time . . . and once-upon-a-time never comes again . . .'”
So, in what is most certainly an autumnal summer for a certain story teller, it is time for him to remember some times that were Once-Upon-A-Time for someone who is very lovely, very young and whose own once-upon-a-times are still ahead of her. Promissory notes on a bright and happy future.
It is not immodesty of the writer on an ego trip, but the modesty of a man who, on occasions, writes something sheerly as a small gift for a friend. The writer of this bit of midsummer fancy needs no more “glory times.” The bylines on the big stories, the moments of the awards . . . They are, in the end, as Kipling once wrote . . . “as one with Nineveh and Tyre” . . . . He has sailed Homer’s wine dark sea and he has written of the offshore, dawn breezes from Columbo heavy laden with the scent of cinnamon. So, at this time and place he writes what may or may not be fact or fable. But it will be a remembrance thing and like all rememberances it begins . . . . “Once Upon a Time” . . . cb).
After they had gone, Brandon’s wife said, “I’m so glad her mother joined us. And she really is a darling!”
“Let’s make it the plural they. But you are very right. I regretted after the phone call I did not make sure young Jan’s mother would do more than drop her off. I could have called the club for their phone number. I wanted to but . . . another good intention down the tube . . . Well, it worked out fine. Yet, ever since we made the date for Jan to wheel me around the Quarter, I had one of those half feelings it would be good to tell her mother or her father not to worry too much. Until they gave us their address, which, incidentally, I am delighted to have, I didn’t know where they lived. Except I knew it was not the Quarter. Any parents have the right to need some reassurance that their daughter is not gonna get into some messy situation here in the Quarter.
“Yes, dear, I know, the Quarter is much maligned and very few non-Quarterites and, for that matter, a ton or two of actual Quarterites don’t know the clout I carry down here. It is not something to tell about. To boast about. I told Jan when we were out a little bit. Not a lot because there is no need for that and she is young and could, possibly, make it something larger than life . . . a little bit over dramatic. That young lady is perceptive as hell. I’ve known women three times her age who are four times as foolish.”
“But I really didn’t think you needed to reassure her parents. After all, her father and you belong to the same club . . . ”
“And that is like getting commisioned in the armed forces. We are automatically gentlemen. My very dear, I have known a helluva lot of non-gentlemen by the classic definition who I could tell, “This is Jan. She is under my protection” . . . and she’d be a damn sight safer in their care or custody than if surrounded by a squad of National Guardsmen. In all truth, I’ll take my riffs and raffs over the young Guardsmen. My guys would know what to do and do it. A young Guardsman might think, “Well, next week I’m home in Alex. Who’s to know?” . . . and I remind you that until they began taking that house apart up in Illinois, a guy named Gayce was a so-called good citizen.
Despite the fact I never sired any children and ours is a late marriage, I am almost feudalistic in terms of my relationship toward my own kin and those souls who come under my own umbrella. I am a clansman, and I don’t spell that with a “K.” The heritage is Scottish, Irish, Norman and French. Yeah, some so-called “English” down the line but the roots, to use a word lately made popular, are Celtic and the Celts know the feud, the vendetta as thoroughly as they know it in Sicily or the Balkans. You have in me a one-legged cardiac cripple who is still, in the ancient way, “The Head of the House of Brandon.”
The major point is Jan’s parents have every right to know what kind of people we are. U-S, darling . . . W-E, darling. You and me, dear, with a nod to Cole Porter, are the ones with whom that delightful young female will spend some time. Fine. We are all dressed up and very good with the manners department at Pendennis. But at home, and in the suspect French Quarter . . . well, how are things in the Glocca Mora this fine day? So it is all to the good. In the near future, Jan and BOTH parents ought to spend a little time with us. Nothing elaborate. Some decent cold cuts, your own very good potato salad, a little wine and some good talk . . .
“Boy . . . I can’t wait until Jan starts back to school.”
“Well, she has a mild high on Shakespeare. Saw Olivier in Hamlet on the tube and liked it. I can make the whole Elizabethan period come alive for her . . . and given the chance . . . her classmates.”
“Darling, I can’t help laughing. I know you can. I’ve seen much older people than Jan enthralled by you and Shakespeare. You could teach a course in it.”
“Yeah, and I can hear the ivy rustling, very scandalized, in the Groves of Academe when I point out that Lady Macbeth was too smart to hire a hit man. I can hear myself sayin’ . . . ‘In the end, you’re better off doin’ the job yourself.’ Shakespeare knew that. You hire a hit man and then maybe you have to knock off the hit man to prevent blackmail. Then you have to get the man who hit the hit man bounced. Lady Macbeth would have had to have all hands at court knocking off each other.”
“The same holds true of the murder of Julius Caesar. This update is strictly high class Mafia. The capos, the dons all agree Julie has gotta go. But the smart way to do that is to have all of them, the top hands, knock off the head honcho. And they do it right out loud. They cop a beautiful plea. They tell all the people, “We done it for yer own good. Julie was a helluva general, yessir. But he really took the Big Job like he thought he was an ackshul god.”
You can see me making Shakespeare as hot as any script in Hollywood. His plays are classics, and deservedly so. But take away Elizabethan speech and costumes and you’d have all the PTAs in the whole country screaming, “Foul.” Take Hamlet and that darling 14 year old Jan. Of course that’s only chronological age. Some people are 64 and remain not much over 14. Jan IS 14, but she is, thanks to any and all Deities, a little older . . . and a little wiser. But take this very Hamlet she saw and liked. It is a tale of fratricide, incest, murder, poor Ophelia has gone daft and there isn’t a shrink around. Not even Shakespeare was smart enough to invent Freud, Adler, and Jung. But do I tell Jan and her classmates, “this stuff is not for you?” I do not. Earlier this week a brother-sister are in a jam according to the Times-Picayune. They live up in Pennsylvania. They want to get married. That, Sweetie, is incest. Two brothers in Tulsa quarrel. One is jealous. His sibling gets more parental attention, he thinks. So he shoots and kills his brother and both parents. Patricide, fratricide. Shakespeare deals with these subjects.”
“It’s strange. You talk about Shakespeare as if you were contemporaries. You know him, his London and the people, the street people, the aristocracy. I’ve heard you on the subject with people who teach Shakespeare and they never contradict you, but you seem to go at Shakespeare in different ways.”
“They will be better able to quote this line or that. And they would be able to prattle to a classroom about some goop like the structural implication of Good Will’s use of iambic pentameter or whatever the hell it is. But what they don’t seem to understand is that this was not an engineering exercise in English. Shakespeare wrote with a certain rhythm. It was the rhythm, the sound of his times. Who writes waltzes these days? Can you waltz to the take-off scream of a jet? Times, man’s inventions change cadences. We live faster. A kid growing up in the Newark ghetto and spending a night on our couch might wake up and hear the clop-clop of the surrey horse going by. That’s cadence, a beat he doesn’t know. He knows the disco beat. The slowest is about 120 to the minute . . . which will probably produce a lot of very youthful cardiac cases in the next few years.”
‘Well, I won’t bother to Jan about disco. Maybe some afternoon we’ll play some Ellington and she will feel good about it. Or I may put on that record of Viennese waltzes. Before the gods and goddesses of disco take it all away from her.”
“I think her parents will feel good about you.”
“I hope so . . . .” Brandon started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“You know, I always like to browse around the Mariner’s shop. So that was one of our stops. Frank Sellers, the owner, was there. He went to the Coast Guard Academy but I don’t think he graduated. Anyway, he’s not local — but from coastal New England. We get along fine. That’s why I got that bit of scrimshaw for Jan. He doesn’t deal in phonies, like a couple of trick plastics that are almost bone, but ain’t. In Hawaii and up in whale hunting Eskimo country there are still some people who know old scrimshaw art. Jan’s piece is modern, but it’s legit.
“That’s another part of you. Your passion, almost obsession . . . that anything BE REAL.”
“I guess so. Well, anyone Jan’s age may still believe in Camelot or that lovely misty place called Avalon. Nothing wrong with that. But also nothing wrong with the realization that the road to Camelot is very long.”
“We rest here the night, here and there, and in the cold reality of the moonlight, that is just one more silly coyote howlin’ my darling, and this is not Transylvania, and if Count Dracula comes messing around, I take this tent peg and wave it at him. The wooden stake through the heart? No. An old Yiddish adage says it is better to run away than get poked in the eye with a sharp stick. So both Count Dracula and the coyote have one thing in common. They are cowards. The moonlight is very real, Jan, my darling. And for now we have some champagne, the good glasses, and some pleasant music.”
“That is very real, dear . . . but once upon a time on a tropic beach there was moonlight and very damn little romance . . . ”
“Two Japanese snipers. I moved in and out of the shadows and, Sweetheart, my rhythm was not waltz time. I made it an uneven pattern. I held these two Japanese on me, m’dear. No romance in that. Moonlight and shadows, but it was very damn real, the grey fear in me. Just stay still a fraction too long. Just let those dummies figure your pattern, and the tune is Death March from Saul, if anyone should ask you. But with some luck those two will be hooked on me. The bleating of the sheep attracts the tiger. And our guys will nail them. Quietly, efficiently with knives. No noise. And our guys will come back, not only with enemy IDs and other useful stuff, but with two heads in a gunny sack. Before dawn the heads will be on long poles on the fringe of the beach.”
“It is their fate this should happen this way and my fate I should be part of this. I do not like it, but their Emperor has surrendered. They will not. So we must teach them and the other hold-outs on this crumby little island that it is over. The killing time is over. And the only way we can do that is to kill a few more of them. And put their heads on bamboo poles. Seabirds will pluck at them . . . the heads . . . their naked, unburied, headless bodies . . . spiders, insects, rodents. And that is a great shame. Tell me not about the Geneva Convention. Did they observe the Geneva Convention? And now, as I said, the time for killing is over.”
“But it is not over and we will kill these two snipers and degrade them. I don’t like it. But it is something I decree and we will not tell our officers about it because mostly they would tell us not to do this thing. But it is something that must be done and two days after those heads are up on the long, bending poles, the other hold-outs will come in. This they will understand. It is a very primitive thing but ancient. To defile the enemy’s body. To dishonor it. That is terrible and the great curse.”
“For when it is done, it is as if I say, ‘I killed you. But I did not kill you in honor. Because you have no honor. Therefore the seabirds . . . and the wasting headless body in the jungle. No burial at home. You are nothing. Not a warrior. Lost . . . forever.'”
“So I may tell you such things because there was this lovely tropic isle, moonlight, shadows, and the scent of exotic flowers in the air . . . and no coyote howled. Nor did Count Dracula prowl. Yes, real and unreal . . . I did the Shadow Waltz . . . an airy arabesque with a smiling partner who was Death. But I will also say to that darling girl . . . it was a very long time ago . . . . Once upon a time. And once upon a time never comes again.”
Clint Bolton, New Orleans, August, 1979
Ann’s thoughts: Clint Bolton was larger than life. He was my Hemingway. I’ve kept this letter for thirty-seven years, and I don’t keep many things.
I carry Clint close. Had he been younger, and I older, we would have been lovers. He was elemental. He was REAL, and not afraid of much. My first husband was jealous of the place this one-legged-72-year-old-cardiac-cripple had in my life, and at one point he told me that he never wanted me to mention Bolton again. I thought about that for two years. And when I moved out into my own apartment, I had a scotch and toasted Clint and thought of my soon to be ex, “To hell with you and the horse you rode in on — I will live my life my way.”
Another thing I would say is this. Asking me to forget Clint would be much the same as saying I could never talk of my grandmother or grandfather. And what I mean is this. Without Clint, I would not be Ann.
When I finally met the love of my life, my Drew, he got Clint. We enjoyed each other’s stories. We amused one another with tales of former lovers and our lives — it was what made me, me and him, him. Never any jealousy. One trip to New Orleans we went to 1231 Decatur and then over to the Richelieu Hotel bar. It was one of Clint’s favorite watering holes. We sat under Clint’s poem at the bar and drank to him and to having story-worthy lives. The Richelieu Hotel has taken down Clint’s poem. That’s what happens when there are no longer people who understand and know . . .
The city winds in and out of my consciousness, a strong part of who I am.
I know the map of the French Quarter like the palm of my hand. I should. A master taught me.
Clint Bolton seduced me when I was fourteen. No, not in that way. But I did fall in love with him, and along with him, his New Orleans.
I met Clint Bolton at the Pendennis Club in New Orleans in August of 1979. My father belonged to Pendennis, and my parents had dragged me to a cocktail party there.
Yes, I said cocktail party. I was fourteen, it was New Orleans, and yes, I was drinking. Not a whole lot, mind you, but yes. Bored out of my mind, I expressed my desire to leave to my mother, and I said, “There is only one interesting man in the whole place — and he’s sitting over there.” I pointed to an old man sitting in a wheelchair having a dramatic conversation with the people gathered around him.
She said, “Fine. Since we are so dull, please, — GO talk to him.”
My eyes narrowed. At this point in my life, I was exceedingly shy around people I didn’t know. Going up to a group of strange people, well, I’d rather die. But I knew a dare when I heard one.
I was shaking like a leaf when I approached the group of men. Clint saw me, held up his hand to stop the conversation. I think I stammered something about not wanting to interrupt.
“My dear, there is nothing more important than listening to a beautiful young woman.”
I got myself together, and simply said what I had to my mother — that I thought he was the most interesting man in the room. And then I introduced myself.
Clint took my hand, drew me to the seat next to him — shooing away the other old gentleman who had been there.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
When my parents were ready to leave, I was with Clint and his group deep in conversation. His wife Pat had joined us, and we had concocted plans. Pat and Clint lived on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, and they invited me to their home the next day. Clint and I were going to go for a walk in the Quarter. Pat had miserably bad arthritis, and since Clint had lost his leg a couple of years earlier, he couldn’t make the rounds very easily.
The following day, my mother took me down to 1231 Decatur Street. Pat invited her to come up for a drink some hours later, when she was due to come back for me.
I followed Pat up the stairs, got the “tour,” and met several of the half-dozen cats. The Bolton’s apartment consisted of three large, high ceilinged rooms.
The pocket doors between the rooms were never closed, so it was this wonderful, airy space. The living room had two floor-to-ceiling windows that one could walk through out onto the balcony over Decatur. Clint and Pat’s bedroom was in the middle, and the kitchen and dining space were at the very back. The door into the kitchen led out of the apartment to the stair landing. Clint did also have an office in the servant’s quarters in the back.
After a quick consultation, Clint decided we should make a sortie down Royal Street, stopping along the way to see a photographer friend of his.
Clint rolled towards the stair landing, locked the wheels, stood on his one leg and lowered himself onto the first step.
“Some fine lady friends of Pat’s met us out for lunch not too long after my amputation. One of them inquired about how I was getting up and down the stairs, since they knew the apartment was on the second floor.”
“On my ass, ladies, on my ass.”
In a high pitched voice, he squealed, “Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!”
He gave me a wickedly happy smile.
That first day was more about me learning to maneuver that damned wheel chair about and down curbs all over. I weighed 105 pounds dripping wet. So did Clint. Add the weight of the wheelchair — I am telling you, this was challenging. Not the flat rolling, but the dang-blasted curbs and often low, uneven pavement right before them. So we got it figured out that afternoon. Every now and again, we would hit a particularly bad curb, so Clint would grab onto a light post, stand on his one leg, and I’d get the wheelchair up, and he would whump down in the seat again, and off we would go.
We made it back to 1231 Decatur just as my Mom rounded the corner, so we got the gate to the building opened and all went back to the steps.
Clint and I retold the “on my ass” bit, but this time, I did the high squeal,“Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!” And we laughed our way up the stairs, one back-ass-ward step at a time.
Pat opened the door, Clint rolled in, and said, “Pat, my darling, I do believe it is time to open that bottle of champagne.”
While Pat darling was fetching glasses and champagne, Clint took me into the living room and began digging in his album collection while I looked around. Black and white photographs of jazz musicians, a faded watercolor of what looked like Thailand, picture of Clint in New York City circa the 1930’s, African masks and statues. He handed an album to me.
“Like Ella Fitzgerald?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know Ella Fitzgerald??!!”
“What about Cole Porter?”
“Cole Porter . . . ?”
“You’ve heard of Miles Davis? NO?”
“Well, we have to fix this RIGHT NOW, I say. RIGHT NOW.”
When Mom and Pat came into the room with the champagne, glasses and little nibblies, Ella was singing. My mother and Pat both took off their shoes — both of them had arthritis — and they were discussing issues with that.
I suppose I am lucky that Clint didn’t give my mother a “what the hell are you teaching her” lecture about my abysmal knowledge of jazz, Gershwin, Porter, and all things holy in the American canon according to Clint Bolton.
She was probably only saved by the fact that she and my father had taken me to Al Hirt’s club.
Clint popped the champagne, and as he poured the glasses, some spilled into my mother’s shoe.
Clint immediately raised her shoe, drank the sip of champagne from it, and proclaimed, “it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”
And so my relationship with the Boltons was launched.
A few days later, the mail brought me a letter that Clint had written for me. And I began spending full weekends in the quarter.
My intuition that day at the Pendennis Club was dead on . . . Clint was fascinating. As a high school student in New Jersey, he’d done summer stock acting, where he got to know Humphrey Bogart fairly well. His path crossed Bogie’s several times later in New York before Bogart made the transition to film. Clint was orphaned when he was in high school, and his aunt and uncle sent him to Princeton for college. It was not to Clint’s liking, so he ran away from college, got a job on a tramp steamer and went to India.
In India, he turned to journalism, because with his prep school background, writing was something he did well. He learned fast and managed to get on with the Associated Press. While he was there, he interviewed Gandhi on one of his hunger strikes in the 1920’s. During World War II, he served with the Coast Guard in the Pacific.
Clint took me all over the quarter. He knew everyone. I met Al Hirt and his clarinetist Pee Wee Spitelera several times. And then there was the evening Clint took me to meet the mafia capo. I learned life lessons from Clint, two favorites being “how to drink any man under the table” and “how to break a glass on the edge of a bar.”
So much of my musical taste comes from long evenings on Decatur. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald. Tony Bennett. Gershwin.
And mostly, I learned . . . be sure to grab life up in your arms, hold it close. Don’t be afraid to meet new people.LIVE. See the world. Have adventures. Make love. Watch the sun creep down the wall in a piazza, while you sit in the shade and sip a cocktail. Listen to good music. Then write about all of it.
He was with me such a short time. On New Year’s Eve of 1979, Clint Bolton had a massive coronary. He lived. I saw him several times at Touro hospital. In April when he returned home, I was at 1231 Decatur as soon as I could get there. Pat unlocked the gate and I dashed up the stairs, too impatient to wait for her arthritic feet and knees.
Clint was sitting on the sofa, and when I came up to him, my heart nearly stopped. He was almost not there, he was so emaciated. I picked him up in my arms, and sat down with him on my lap. And we both wept. We said our I love yous and our goodbyes.
Three days later, he was gone. Waldren “Frog” Joseph volunteered to do a jazz funeral for Clint — doesn’t happen very often for white folks. I can remember sitting with the jazz musicians in the Bolton living room and eating after the funeral. I thought I was going to be sick. His absence in the room that was so much his was more than I could handle.
To you, Clint Bolton, my undying love. You have been one of the most important people in my life. Until we meet again as shades when I pass over.
On my last trip to New Orleans, just a few days ago now, the Mississippi River cloaked the French Quarter in fog.
Just after dawn, I wandered. Clint was with me, working, looking.
Down Decatur I could almost hear Ella’s silken voice.