Go Back
Print this page

1950s Archive

Roughing It with Gramp

Part XV

Originally Published January 1954

For me, there are only two cities in America that have special grace and flavor that rise above the flat level of living in this wonderful country. They arc San Francisco and New Orleans.

New Orleans at certain seasons of the year is perfect. The food is the best in America, which may mean the world, and there are enough pleasant people who are not interested in money, power, and fooling the voters to give one something to talk about.

In April, 1920, Granip and Mana and myself, “niter a season in hell” (it's marked Texas on the map), were on the left bank of the Mississippi, waiting for the river ferry to carry us in our car across the big muddy ditch. The spirits of New Orleans gleamed behind its levees, and the smell of the river muck, of green growing things, the feel of warm air, and the pleasant skits all made us feel like relatives of Adam and Eve being let back into the Garden.

On the ferry we three stood by the rail and Granip grinned and waved across the river. “I knew I couldn't die, not without seeing New Orleans again.”

Mama, who was feeling better after seeing the last of Texas (where she had several interesting but indecent oilers from some oil millionaires), parted Cramp's arm and said: “I don'i think you'll ever die, Gramp.”

“The hell I won't. But I'm in no hurry.”

“It's a big river,” I said.

Gramp nodded and tossed his cigar into the river and watched it float away. He was getting old and we knew it, and we felt that somehow once he was gone, an age and time on earth would go with him. Mama knew it and I knew it, Gramp knew we knew it—that's why he liked us better than the rest of the family. Gramp said softly, as if talking to somebody in the past, “Sam and 1, I guess it was over forty years ago, took a trip down the river together from St. Louie. He was thinking of finishing a book and he wanted to drink it all in again.”

“The river?” I asked.

“Sam was all right, the last of the real old son of——”

“Gramp, he was a great writer,” said Mama.

“He was a hell of a good drinker. His cigars were cheap, but his mind was rich. We really saw the town that time. Of course, not like the time in Virginia City, when we wrecked a honky-tonk and were locked up in the jug overnight till we sobered up.”

“I read Tom Sawyer, but I like Huck Vinn better,” I said.

“Those were Sam's Mark Twain books. But I bet he never wrote about that night in jail.”

Mama had her don't-be-vulgar face on, and Gramp found a fresh cheroot in his case, lit it, and knew it was time to forget the past and his old hell-lifting days with Sam Clemens.

The ferry softly came into its slip and we got the motor going and the car came ashore near Jackson Square, near where you go today to The French Market to have donuts and coffee after a hard night in the jazz jump joints General Jackson on his green bronze horse, just slightly soiled by the birds, lifted his hat to us, and the park was green and the lowers of the Church of Saint Louis pointed fingers to the sky, as it still does.

Gramp pointed out the sights as we passed through the narrow streets. “Now all this section used to be called Storyville. Seems a blue-nosed old waterhead named Story voted to enclose all the fast-living people in fourteen Square blocks, and they named the place Storyville after him. But in the war. why the Army and Navy decided the soldier boys didn't know which side of a lady was respectable, so they closed Storyville. But they haven't abolished l'umour yet.”

“Gramp,” said Mama in her cold voice.

Gramp winked at me and said, “Lunch, I have a card to the Boston Club, not bad food, but we'll go to Galaloire's on Bourbon Street. Keep your eyes open, you double-jointed blue-bellied walleyed catfish.” The last was to a native who had wandered into the street with a section of watermelon in his face. The native paid us no mind, and Gramp swung the car around him, still swearing. “The damn mudsill most likely drowned in that watermelon two days ago, but they haven't noticed it yet. Watermelon is dangerous to eat if you can't swim.”

Galatoire's swallowed us up. We sat at a clean table and an old waiter danced around us and Gramp waved off the menu. “Oysters Rockefeller for four.”

“Two.” said Mama.

“Four,” said Gramp, “and a gallon of shrimp gumbo.” To Mania he said, “Always do things by fours and eights. Live wildly, live fully, let the damn swine who will come after us worry about what they can afford.”

Mama said, “You may suggest a good wine. Gramp.”

Gramp rose and kissed her finger tips. “Damn it. Sari, 1 have high hopes of making an alcoholic our of yet another beautiful woman.”

Gramp ordered a brut champagne. The gumbo was more like a bisque d'écrevisses, Gramp wrote in his journal, built up with cognac, with small crayfish from the bayous lurking in its murky, smoking-hot bottom. The collie, as usual, was nor very good. Very little good coffee was served in those days, and even now it's just fair in most places.

After this lunch Gramp drove us slowly back along Canal Street arid to a small hotel near the Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street. The nuns were playing croquet on the lawn, and I remember one motherly old nun cheated and moved her ball with her foot. The hotel was dark, old. comfortable. Gramp called Count Arnaud on the old-fashioned phone. The Count is dead now, but his daughter still runs Arnaud's. I know because I had dinner with her and Lt. Commander Montez Tjaden just last year, and it's still called Arnaud's.

Mama was sitting on the bed, fanning herself. “We don't have to eat too soon, do we?”

Gramp said, “Not till seven. The Count is ordering our dinner. I'm picking the wines, hike New Orleans, Stevie. now that we are finally here?”

“Yes, Gramp. Is that where the high yalla Creoles come from that you talk about?”

Gramp said softly, “Who me?” and then louder, “A Creole, baby boy, is a French-descent snob, and if I referred to anything as high yellow, forget it.”

Mama sniffed. “Stop filling the boy's mind with your evil ideas. I'm not going to eat till eight. I need a bath. Stevie, come we'll wash your neck. And hands. And knees. I guess we better give you the works and make if a real bath.”

So there was nothing to it, but I had to take a bath and Gramp went out to buy cigars and Mama made me take a nap. It was dark when I woke up and Gramp was talking to Mama. They had small glasses of brandy in front of them, and Gramp was twirling his cane as he talked. I, in a half-awake doze, heard the old man talk. and I can still remember it. . . .

“And not only that, Sari, they've ruined this town. Cleaned it up, made it respectable. The houses arc all there, but supposed to be hidden away, and the girls—I tell you, this idea that women shouldn't have hips is all wrong, and somehow the past is dying and the present can't be born, and 1 feel old, so old, Sari. What's to become of you and the boy in the new world of steam heat and horsepower and the idea that sin isn't something to be a little guilty about? I don't know and I don't care. I'll be pushing daisies soon, but you and the boy. He's got promise, Sari. but they'll make him a popular cartoonist, or novelist. or fiddle player, and all the juice in the family line, well. we'll see it peter out in mere popular success and respect-ability. I take my hat off to respectability, there is so much of it. It makes a fine target for a pie in the face, but . . . .”

Mama stood up and held on, and Gramp stood up and held on, and they bowed to each other and Mama said. “We better get dressed for dinner. I am ready for anything cela se laisse manger.”

Gramp bowed with unsteady dignity and said. “You're a good sport, Sari.”

So I saw they were both feeling no paill … and the Mama was keeping Gramp sober by joining him in an afternoon brandy.

Mama looked wonderful in her evening dress and Gramp had had his evening tails pressed and he had hung a tiny row of medals across the lapel of his jacket. He had been awarded high honors in his time for building railroads in countries where they said it was hard to build railroads. But he didn't like to be asked what the medals were for. He used to chase half-wits who asked by saying “The big one. madam, is for swimming, the two small ones for corn-on-the-cob eating contests.”

Once dressed, we called a taxi and rode through streets already full of excitement. Sailors and their girls were hugging on every street corner, and when Mama objected. Gramp said. “It's better there than dark lonely places, Must keep our boys clean and whole-some.”

We went up Bienville Street. Arnaud's. new that year, I think, was not overly ornate, just right. The Count himself came over to pump Gramp's arm and call him a few foul names. And he kissed Mama's hand, pinched her arm, and patted me flat on the head.

“This,” he said to Gramp, “ is almost enough to close the place.” And he led us to a table, a spot over which his picture in oils hangs today; for the Count himself has gone to his rewards (so have Gramp and Mama, I brood as I write this, and my hair is turning gray, and my daughter Joan Elizabeth is looking over the lads, thinking of making me a grandfather—so spins, as Gramp used to say, “the rotten old apple of fun and turmoil”).

We began with shrimp Arnaud. which the foolish think is a mere shrimp remoulade, then came trout menière and artichokes à la grecque mixed with sweetbreads récgaicc (if Gramp wrote it down right). The Count himself brought us a sauterne, a Château Coutet 1907. Later there was Haut-Brion, Pontet-Canet and Richebourg.

For those who could eat it after the rest of the food, there was chicken cooked in paper and the famous dessert, pineapple in burning wine sauce. After dinner, the Count pulled up a chair and showed us a dusty bottle covered with dirt and wax seals. “You have heard of Napoleon brandy?”

“It's all a big lie,” said Gramp,

“Of course,” said the Count. “A big fable. For fools and millionaires. Pardon me, General.”

“Excused,” said Gramp. “I've wasted most of my money.”

“But what people do not know,” said the Count, “is that there were about twenty old bottles from the cellars of Josephine. Napoleon, between you and me, didn't know his elbow from a sallim-bocca cutlet. But Josephine, she knew fine living when Nappy was away making battles. She put down a good cellar and I have been lucky. I bought a long time ago ten bottles, the last of the bottles of Josephine's brandy. This is the last one left. I open it for you, mon Général.”

Gramp wiped back a tear, or acted as if he did. “I am impressed, I smile, but ce n'esi pas étre bien aise que de fire.” The Count pulled out the cork. “Thank you. The cork is out. Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte, Glasses!”

A waiter, shaped like a bird dog, ran up and put down three small crystal glasses. The Count poured the thick yellow brandy into the small glasses. “No large ballons. Just three special glasses.” Mama and Gramp lifted their glasses, the Count clicked his against theirs. “What can I say to friends? Live just long enough. Love just the right people, make of this world something wonderful, and when we have to go, let us leave with our fingers to our nose, not because of smell, but because the thumb is held stiff against it—the nose—like this”

It was pretty beautiful and pretty wonderful. I had some clear water with a little wine in it and I guess I know why Gramp listed that dinner in his journal as cena domini,

The Count corked the bottle with his palm and handed it wrapped in a crisp linen napkin to Gramp. “This is yours, my friend. No one else would take as good care of it—in the proper manner, as you.”

Gramp rose and bowed. “A fool would protest, a half-wit would decline, the average American would feel inclined to fight it off. I take if and thank you.”

So with the bottle of rare brandy we went back to the hotel and to bed. Mama moaned, the food was too much. But she didn't protest too much. We slept late and saw the town and ate the Creole cuisine from Antoine's—I disagree with those who think it the best—Arnaud's is still number one—to the Commander's Palace, where the soft-shell turtle stew with sliced lemon is still to be had and where I think, the best food out of the Quarter is to be had even today.

There were still Broussard's. Kolb's (barbecued crab, pig's knee and sauer-kraut, and those old-fashioned fans in the ceiling that slaves used to turn. and the only real barrel beer in America served in white china mugs), and many others now dust and gone.

Mama gave out on the third night. And Gramp and 1 went to a jass session ( “jazz” as a spelling came later) and we sat in a ditty room and heard a “coon shouter” knock out the old blues, and knock them our fine and mellow and deep and low and solid and easy. They've spoiled jazz today, by making it smooth and sweet, but in New Orleans in those days it was still the real thing. A good boy on the horn, a set of ten fingers on the eighty-eight keys of an upright piano (when will they learn you can't play jazz on a Steinway grand), and some real tony lad on the bass dog-house.

There was this singer. She was solid and very black and her hair was Cut short. First she stood up in the smoke-tilled room and she tried out a song I have never forgotten. I found the words again the other day.

I'm Baptist bred and Baptist born

And when I die there's a Baptist gone.

Methodist preacher you arc dead

You poured water on the baby's head.

Baptist preacher you arc right

Cause you take the candidates out of sight!

I went to the river to be baptized

Stepped on a root and got capsized

Water deep, preacher weak,

I went to Heaven from the bottom of the creek!

Then she did a blues that is kind of a classic among jazz men. They've changed the words since I heard it … but it's still a real early jazz sting. She-sang it low and husky, got bucket and gully low. Sad and yet strong, with all the meaning it was meant to have.

One of these days, it Won't be long.

You call my name. I'll be gone.

Member one night a drizzlin' rain,

Round my heart I felt a pain.

I got a man, he's long and tall,

Moves his body like a cannon ball.

When I wore my apron low

Couldn't keep you from my door.

Now I wears my apron high

Sc'cely ever seeing you passin' by;

Now my aprons up to my chin,

You pass my door, you don't conn in. . . .

We got back to the hotel and Gramp said we mustn't wake Mama. In our suite he said he felt like having a night-cap. “I think I'll have a little swig of Josephine's brew to settle the night mist.”

He leached for the Untie in the suit case where he had hidden it, put it to his lips and then said. “It's empty!”

“You sure, Gramp?”

“Yes, damn sure!”

There was a light coming through from Mama's room so Cramp went in there, carrying the empty bottle. Mams was silling up in bed, a book held ill front of her. She had a smile on her face I had never seen before—sort of like the Mona Lisa.

Gramp silently held up the bottle. Mama shook her head. Da Vinci smile and all. and said in a high voice, “Not tonight. Napoleon.”