I'm at Mena's, a neighborhood cafe in the French Quarter, enoying crab cakes, a dish I probably wouldn't order anywhere else in the world. But, it's New Orleans and I'm so happy to be here that I'm crying in my remoulade.
I got into my hotel about midnight last night--the Hotel Monteleone, home-away-from-home, watering hole and muse-with-walls for Hemingway, Faulkner and Williams. The Monteleone is in the French Quarter, an old school hotel with tightly furnished rooms, tiny closets, baby-sized blow dryers, shit coffee and no wifi. But, there are thick white terrycloth robes hanging in the closet and a weathered, timeless elegance you'll never get at the Marriott. I had read that the Monteleone housed its employees and others during the hurricane. I examine the walls, the floor, the bedding, for signs of....I don't know what. I note that the windows don't open and wonder what it was like without electricity, without light, without fresh air. I wonder how long the provisions in the mini bar lasted? The mini cans of Pringles, the candy bars, the nips of Tanqueray. The room is holding whatever stories it has. It's none of my business.
Cops are coming in for lunch at Mena's and I wonder if they are good cops or bad cops. Part of me wants to go over and gush and tell them thanks for sticking it out through hell, for staying on the job. But, that'd be dorky and I have enough doubt about the good cop/bad cop thing. They could be both, and that seems human enough to me.
You know why this is a great city? Why I'm getting all teary from just being here and why it's one of the few places I've been where I've not been homesick: I slept until 9:30. I did wake up for a short time at 6:30, but shut the curtains, hoping for another 30 minutes. Any other place in the world, my brain and body would have conspired to have me wake with the chickens, regardless of how tired I was. 6:30, 7 at the latest. But here, I'm able to let go and slow down. I am a sponge for the heathen, slo-mo vibe of this city.
The crab cakes are good. A little salty, but they taste like you expect crab cakes to taste. If all crab cakes tasted like this, I'd order them all the time. They came with vegetables--big hunks of sauteed onions, celery, carrots and peas, generously pepperered. A side dish I've never seen anywhere else. Good, homemade potato salad on the side. A not-so-great seeded roll with "spread" instead of butter. And iced tea. I asked for sweet tea, but got an exasperated "we don't have sweet tea but there's sugar on the table." Still, it was fresh brewed and just the thing for a day headed to 95 degrees.
Mena's is rife with librarians, busted by their identical free-with-each-registration tote bags (some science publishing vendor this year, touting their ebooks) and poorly concealed conference badges. I haven't been to registration yet, so feel smug and undercover. My serial checking for messages on my pocket PC and too-new messenger bag probably shout "librarian" every bit as much as the ubiquitous badge and clone bag.
But it's okay. This city is hungry for librarians. I shared a cab with another late arriver last night--a young adult librarian from Indiana. The driver, after we got in, asked "Are you the librarians?" The Librarians. The highly-anticipated librarians who are the first ones to schedule a major conference post-Katrina. He made us feel like visiting dignitaries, especially after we said "Yep. We're librarians," and he murmured reverently, "20,000." Word on the street is that 20K of us will be converging. It's not likely we'll get to 20,000--18k if we're lucky, but we assured him that the librarians who came would tip well and not throw up in his cab. He was cheerful and chatty, wanting to know where we were from and if we'd been to the city before. Despite the late hour, nearly midnight, he asked hopefully, "Do you like music?" After my 15-hour travel day, I would have welcomed a quiet ride, but the man was so happy to have fares and more on the way that we said sure. He cranked the radio to some generic upbeat pop station, and we sped off in the dark, unable to witness the scars and still-raw wounds left by Katrina. I was squinting, trying to see something...how bad it was, how good it was. All I noticed was how quiet it was, which told me enough. As he dropped me at the front door of the Monteleone, saving me from getting sideswiped by a passing car, I started his party with the promised generous tip, wanting to help save the city one gratuity at a time. I know it's not enough, and probably even a bit paternalistic, but it's all I've got.