Oysters on the half shell at Felix's were plump, sweet and salty. Felix's, a Restaurant and Oyster Bar,on Iberia St. in New Orleans was packed on a recent Saturday night, and the shuckers were busy, the line to get in stretched down a French Quarter half block.
"Sit down, relax a while," said the man behind the bar as he split up the shell of a big one without even looking down.
I sat in the middle on the only empty stool, and watched him shuck on one side and on the other end a very busy woman made drinks. My half dozen arrived with a vodka martini and for a few moments I was in heaven.
In town from New York City covering a convention, I'd been craving oysters since the week before I got there. I'm a native of Alabama, I'm biased. I truly do believe oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are superior and getting them in New York hasn't been so easy.
"Hon, put some horseradish in ketchup, stir it up, add a little Worcester sauce" said the bartender, who I'll call Jane, when I asked for cocktail sauce.
New Orleans is an enchanted place. It's old. Streetcars ring bells and sort of grind down shiny steel tracks in the middle of palm tree framed streets. On almost any corner in the French Quarter, you'll find rich architectural details, wrought iron, vintage red neon signage that decorates old ornate buildings. On sidewalks, embedded encaustic tiles that spell out the street you are about to cross. Those were originally laid during a period from the 1870's to 1920's. The spirit, the exquisite detail in its structures and infrastructure all contribute to the strong sense of place that help make New Orleans breathtaking. Unlike so many other indistinguishable US cities that offer up impressive but similar patterned downtown areas that get crowned by glass tower monuments to progress and commerce, New Orleans leaves some to mystery.
It's almost difficult to get at what exactly is pumping this city's lifeblood. But, that's okay, New Orleans is curious town, and it clearly moves and breathes at its own sweet pace.
Earlier that night, while walking down Bourbon Street, a barker from a strip club shouted at me, "boy, you don't need to be walking around by yourself, get your ass in here and see some t*ddy." I couldn't help but laugh, I smiled and kept exploring.
The people I actually did talk to in the evenings, those who were actually from New Orleans, were friendly but much like New Yorkers, there was a slight sense of guarded-honesty in their eyes and tone. No wonder New Orleans might still hold skepticism, maybe even be a slightly heavy in the heart, this is after all a town still recovering from unimaginable collective trauma just nine years ago when its streets were flooded and almost one thousand of its people died. Unlike New York City, where the population has grown thousands since its own collective nightmare in 2001, around 18% of New Orleans' people were displaced, and most of those never came back home.
Nonetheless, on this Saturday night, the French Quarter, at least, was very much alive, even if many of those walking its streets were tourists. And clearly, many of those visitors had heard about the seafood at Felix's.
As I sat there sucking down another oyster in this unpretentious spot, with its diner-like lighting, plain tables and chairs, I noticed the two young women sitting right next to me. Between texting breaks, the two appeared deep in conversation. They'd finished up their food, Jane had cleared the plates, they asked for a check, I watched Jane put it down, then, came a pile of cash, and a credit card for a split bill.
No problem said Jane. She gave them back some change and a credit card receipt to sign. Once signed, my solitary eyes couldn't help but notice there was maybe two dollars on that little black plastic tray. I watched Jane pick up the slip, and those two dollars. She stood there staring at the charge slip, holding the two dollars, her face sort of defeated, and I knew what had happened.
She asked the two young girls, if everything was okay. They said, yes, accents, clearly not foreign. Jane wasn't having it, she asked again, are you sure everything was okay. The two girls, who'd resumed conversation, said "it was great."
Then, the two girls left. Jane looked more shocked, her mouth agape, standing behind the bar, she saw my eyes looking at her and she cast a knowing look my way. I piped up, oh God I'm so sorry, they probably didn't know. "Ooow, I wanted to ring those two little girls neck!" she said, laughing, "do you know how much they ate and then they stiff me!"
We shared bartender stories and ended up laughing about it. As a fellow bartender, we both agreed, that everyone in America should work as a waiter or bartender for six months to a year at one point in their lives. Then we talked about New Orleans, its dense streets downtown and the exquisite attention to detail on buildings in the French Quarter and the natural sense of community walking these streets seem to offer and how New Orleans, at least on surface, projects a few of the more basic traits of New York City.
But, New Orleans is truly enchanted, mysteries at every turn, much like New York City can be to a newcomer, much like it was to me, over 20 years ago. That night after I left Felix's I got a wild and got on a streetcar and decided to ride wherever it was headed. I was one of a few passengers riding at that hour. The clink and clank of the Canal streetcar felt rugged, the vibrations on the wood seats soothing, but unlike, say the A train in NYC, the streetcar's ringing bells and its revving electric motor was almost petite. The streetcar came to the turnaround at the end of the line and everyone else had exited, so I struck up a conversation with the driver.
On the way back up Canal, the driver let me stand up front, I took some photos as we rode along like model train, I even made a short video of the passing tracks. We talked about the New York City subway and then he told me, that in warmer weather, that in New Orleans, they open the windows on the streetcars. Then, I shared details about what had happened at Felix's and the sense of camaraderie I'd felt with Jane.
He said, people sometimes just don't know better, especially the tourists, when it comes to tipping.
On my last night in New Orleans, I was worried I wasn't going to get out of town thanks to an approaching ice storm that threatened to shut the place down. I was craving the oysters again so I thought after I packed, I'd go back and visit Felix's and see Jane. I told her my flight was at 6:50 in the morning, she smiled and laughed, you're aren't getting out of here! I explained how stressed I was, I had so much work to do, and needed to get back to New York. But, for a moment I put stress on the back burner, I sat there at Jane's bar, had more oysters, another martini, a po-boy and some etoufee'. I paid my check, I said goodbye to the people at Felix's but said I'd be back if I couldn't get out.
But then, they told me, they wouldn't be open if the storm shut down the streets. In fact, they said everything would be closed, the streetcars, even grocery stores, everything would come to a halt.
As I walked back to the hotel, the wind had picked up and I swear I could smell the gulf and I kept thinking, it's far too warm for an ice storm. On Camp Street, I saw a cab parked, the driver having a cigarette. I asked him if his company would be open the next morning. He said, do you need to go to the airport. I said, yes, he gave his cell, I'll call him Jim, he was working all night. The next morning I got up at 4:00 a.m., I called Jim, he was there by 4:30. I got to the airport by 5;15, and the woman at the newsstand told me that my flight would be one of the last out of the New Orleans airport that day. She said, I want to leave now, so I get home, "lord have mercy!," she said with a big laugh.
I got on board that plane, and I was headed back home to this city I love most New York.