After Sept. 11, the new red badge of courage became, of course, how soon you would get on an airplane again. I had some friends who were fearless, raring to get on the next Delta jet and saying not only were they not afraid but any adult who was was some panicky hysteric-a bad soldier, as it were.
I don't know about you but for me the criticism really hurt-because it was so true. I actually drove to New York and back rather than get on a plane. But it was during that experience that I realized the time had come to fly again. Four days by yourself in a car was a torture you'd risk anything not to encounter again.
So I did it. I got on a plane and flew to New Orleans. It was a short, midweek getaway, a test of nerves and pleasure trip all in one, and when the plane landed safely, I congratulated myself on successfully mastering my fear.
Why New Orleans? Because it's the perfect getaway town, having been founded on a combination of prostitution and good cooking. It's a city that really ought to be ashamed of itself. If cities could be alcoholic, New Orleans is.
Of course, who wants to live with an alcoholic? New Orleans has terrible weather, a tourist-trap atmosphere, moldy old buildings, all sorts of crime and problems with the law. But it's fun to get together with your uncle the lush every once in a while. Doing the bars, talking to strangers in restaurants, then going with them to other bars. It's good for you. It reminds you of your youth.
Anyway, in keeping with the prostitution theme, I had decided to stay at the Columns, a hotel on St. Charles Street. I don't think it was ever actually a brothel, but it did play one in a movie. It was where they shot the movie Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields. It's a huge old mansion (my room had 20-foot ceilings), and the ground floor is one big bar, with all sorts of people wandering around and a jazz band. The music permeates your room, along with the murmur of conversation and an occasional full-throated feminine laugh- why, you could be in Storyville back in 1910.
I was only going to be in New Orleans for one full day and was desperate to get material for a column. Saying the hotel looked like a whorehouse wasn't going to be quite enough. My traveling companion John said, "What about a cemetery tour?" and I said "Yuck." But it turns out that there is so little to do in New Orleans that the big attraction is cemetery tours. So we went.
Actually it was pretty interesting. We met our guide by pre-arrangement at a café in the French Quarter. He led us through a circuitous route past various points of interest, mostly other buildings they had shot movies in and houses owned by celebrities. We were, in fact, admiring the boyhood home of Richard Simmons when we turned our heads and there was the St. Louis Cemetery, the city's oldest. It was on a busy street and was surrounded by a high white wall.
Coming from Florida as I was, I didn't find the burial practices in New Orleans all that unusual. Of course in such a low-lying area you have to bury people above ground; otherwise they'd pop up like an empty fiberglass pool. What shocked me was the neglect of the graves. The place just hadn't been kept up. Some graves you could peek in and see bones. I blame this on the French. That's just the way they are when it comes to graves.
The high point of the cemetery is the grave of Marie Laveux, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. She died around 1915 at age 85, still looking like a young girl due to her voodoo spells (or possibly her habit of sending her daughters out in public, pretending they were her). Marie's tomb was quite different from the rest. It was covered with gifts and supplications. I noticed a popsicle stick, several potted plants, half a bottle of Absolut, and a little red gris-gris bag, which the guide explained contained ground-up bones.
But what fascinated me the most were the pennies. They were everywhere, in stacks of three, stuck in the crevices and sitting atop the various moldings in her tomb. Each represented, the guide said, a request for a spell of one sort or another. As he set out for the next tomb, I looked at the pennies again. One had fallen to the ground. I picked it up for a souvenir, which I thought would be real cool.
But as interesting as the cemeteries are, the real attraction in the Big Easy is the food. The trick is to find a restaurant owned by the Brennan family. Commander's Palace is the flagship and generally considered the town's finest restaurant. John and I chose their Bocco for our first evening and I ordered shrimp ravioli covered in a cream sauce with chunks of lobster and garnished with caviar. It was so good that I shuddered with delight at each new forkful.
For our second and last night, we selected a little place in the French Quarter which I wish I could remember the name of, as it was equally superb. I ordered a big plate of shrimp cooked in a rich, dark Creole sauce. This I ate with my fingers, splattering big gobs of sauce over the tablecloth, John and the couple at the next table. By this time I was totally into New Orleans and ready to look at real estate. We chatted with the waiter, whose name was Jason. He was a real local and told us the very restaurant we were eating in was haunted.
"Well, look at this," I said, not wanting to be outdone.
"A penny?" he said, puzzled.
"I took it from Marie Levaux's tomb."
"You did what?" He shrunk back in horror and had to go out in the garden and have a cigarette.
As I peeled my next shrimp it slowly dawned on me what I had done. I had interfered with a spell. I had insulted the voodoo queen of New Orleans. I had no idea what the penalty for such a thing was. Then it hit me-the plane trip back!
"John," I said. "We have to return that penny!"
My, New Orleans is spooky at night. There was a full moon out but its light was diffused by the fog into a sort of radioactive glow. As we headed north the streets became deserted. John begged me to reconsider. He kept pointing out how dangerous it was to be in this neighborhood at night and how silly and superstitious I was being.
"That's easy for you to say," I told him. "You're returning on a different flight."
The cemetery was much farther away then I remembered, and when we reached it it was locked. "Oh, no," I moaned, but in a way I was glad. Now that I was actually here, death in an airplane hijacking was starting to look better and better.
"Oh, my God," said John. "Teenagers."
I squinted into the distance, where what looked like a gang of juvenile delinquents was heading our way.
There was a moment of agony. Then I stood back on the sidewalk, and with all my might, tossed the penny over the wall, in the general direction of Marie Levaux's tomb. John and I took off, running towards Richard Simmons' house, where we got a cab and headed, shaking, back to the brothel. I mean the Columns.
I must say it was all worth it. The flight home was a breeze. I had a whole row of seats to myself and there were no worrisome- looking passengers. I even made it home early, and when I got there, I found a big check had arrived in the mail during my absence. I'll tell you. Voodoo-it's really the answer to this fear of flying problem.