The Book of Chance

 First in March, 2011

 April 11, 2010

 Faulkner House Books is the kind of store that bibliophiles seek out.  Hidden in Pirates Alley, tucked off to the side of the St. Louis Cathedral, it is intimate and inviting. Carefully attended stacks are thoughtfully selected, containing volumes used and new, rare and common.  Some of these tomes are by or about the store’s namesake, William Faulkner, who briefly lived and worked at the house in 1925, renting the ground floor that currently houses the bookstore.  It was here Faulkner shifted his focus from poetry to prose, forever altering his trajectory and that of American literature.  And it was here that I discovered a book by a local author that changed the trajectory of my own life.

I had probably walked by Faulkner House books at least three times before I noticed it; the throngs of French Quarter Fest 2010, along with the novelty of the “go-cup” conspiring to hide it in plain sight.  It was on the last day of my first time in New Orleans that it finally revealed itself to me, the prow of an old galleon cutting through the fog of Pirate’s Alley. Stepping into the cool quiet of the store, I was immediately greeted by that bookstore smell — somewhere between old leather and mothballs — a smell that relaxes the nerves and slows the pulse.   The woman who worked there greeted me warmly, and asked if I needed any assistance.

“Do you have anything by a local author?”  I inquired. “I need something good for the flight home to New York.”

She suggested a novel called City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza, a fictional but strikingly vivid account of Hurricane Katrina, the flooding of New Orleans, and the aftermath.  I was fascinated with Katrina and somewhat ashamed to admit I didn’t really know much about it other than the images I had seen on TV.  I bought the novel not really knowing what to expect.  I began reading it that night, and was immediately captivated.  Three days later and 1,200 miles away I finished it — a lump in my throat, my heart different, and my eyes wet — and I felt like I understood a place — New Orleans — in a way I never really could have before.  The characters were so perfectly drawn, the sense of place so pitch perfect, and the prose so intense and purposeful, that I almost felt like I lived it.  I was haunted by it.  Looking out my window at the New York skyline, I was haunted by New Orleans, the city I had just returned from and the city I had never known.

I was so moved that I wrote the author, whose website was included at the back of the book.  I admit I felt a little bit like a kook.  I had never before written an author; I had never felt the need.  Yet I felt a sense of urgency in this case.  To talk about these characters, this world, this strange connection I felt to a city I had just visited for the first time; a city that was now deep in my blood. Maybe it was because Katrina happened in my lifetime and in my country; maybe because my fiancée is a New Orleans girl that lost everything in the flood; or maybe because the arc of my own life was changing — I’m not really sure why, but I wrote the author.  And I was more than a little surprised when he wrote me back.

 Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011

 Cooter Brown’s sits along the Mississippi River levee like a run-down oasis at the turn of St. Charles and South Carrolton, where the clattering streetcar gets redirected at a hard right angle along the river bend.  The Abita Jockimo IPA, my last hope for shaking an intractable post-first-Mardi Gras hangover, was shimmering amber covered in sweat.  I had just devoured a burger and some onion rings, and looked languidly at my fiancée, Rylan.  I had no inclination to do anything other than the thing I was currently doing, sitting in the warm New Orleans sun, and waiting on an unlikely friend.

Bedecked in a nondenominational baseball cap, glasses and a button down blue shirt, Tom Piazza rounded the corner and waved.  He was taller than I expected.    We recognized each other from book-jacket and Facebook photos; our meeting the culmination of a year’s worth of email correspondence starting with a simple “fan” note on my part and a missive to “Keep in touch” on his.  The whole thing was somewhat surreal.  I have the respect for authors that most guys have for quarterbacks.  I am a lit geek.  And here was the author of City of Refuge, Why New Orleans Matters, and My Cold War, not to mention a staff writer for HBO’s Treme, meeting us for a beer at Cooter Brown’s.

Tom approached and without missing a beat he asked what we were drinking when he noticed our almost empty beers, returning promptly with a round, and seating himself across the table from us.  Whether this generosity was in the authors’ code or it was the New Orleanian in him, I am unsure, but it was greatly appreciated. Tom confessed he was a little burnt this day, and we expressed the same.  In addition to the culmination of a long Carnival season, Tom was finishing a compilation of his non-fiction work to be released this August as The Devil Sent the Rain.  In fact, his deadline was the following day, which made it all the more amazing that he was sitting here having a beer with us.

So what do you talk about with an award winning author and TV writer? Mardi Gras, gumbo, music and food, of course, just like you would any other New Orleanian.

“We caught some cool stuff.  Zulu was the best.  Caught some beads from the Buffalo Soldiers, but the wind was blowing too hard to get a coconut.  We saw Rex up by the Delachaise.  We got the bracelets, beer koozies and a ton of Rex beads.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with them all.”

The words poured out of me like an excited kid on Christmas Eve.  It was my first Mardi Gras, at 39 years old, and my excitement was hard to contain.

Tom wisely advised to keep only the best ones, maybe hang them on the wall, but I have to admit I’ve kept all of them thus far.  I don’t know why either, except that there was a rush of excitement when that first strand of beads hit my hand that was entirely disproportionate to their actual value.

“Then we Krewed with Julu through the Quarter. We second lined with them all the way into the Marigny until they hit the stage at d.b.a. and we spent the night on Frenchman Street.”

Tom asked me about the brass band, and I had to admit that I couldn’t remember if it was Hot Eight or Pinstripe, but he assured me I couldn’t lose either way.  He then drummed a little bit on the table and hummed a melody.  Did they play that one?  I nodded my head.  They did play that, the bass drummer keeping time on a small cymbal with a Phillips head screwdriver.

The conversation soon moved from Mardi Gras and music on to food and restaurants, as Tom recounted a particularly bad bowl of restaurant gumbo he recently had, which we all lamented.  The general consensus was that a bad gumbo was the most egregious culinary affront.  Fortunately, for all parties, neither Tom remembered nor could I suggest where he had consumed said gumbo.  We were on to po’ boys by then anyway.

Of course, I couldn’t resist asking a few Treme questions, but we didn’t linger too long on the subject.  In fact, what was probably most surprising was how normal the conversation was.  As if we had met at the bar without back-story, just a couple of newfound friends sharing a post-Mardi Gras beer.

Eventually, Tom and my fiancée Rylan got on the subject of “the storm.”  Tom’s house uptown was unscathed.  His partner Mary lost almost everything in her Mid-City home, as did Rylan in her Uncle’s house in Gentilly.  They didn’t talk about it long, but they didn’t have to.  And I sat quietly as they spoke, because I could only relate obliquely. The fury that produced City of Refuge, that destroyed homes, took lives, scattered families, and forever changed the psyche of a city also brought us together this afternoon, and this irony was not lost on me.

Irony is a whole other topic, however, and Tom had dinner plans that evening, as did we.  Thus, we had to cut it shorter than I would have liked.  As our beers went dry, I thanked Tom for coming out to meet us, but he insisted it was his pleasure.  The guy was down to earth, humble and supremely talented.  Not a bad guy to know in New Orleans.

Immediately after Katrina, Tom Piazza wrote and published Why New Orleans Matters, a passionate defense of and love note to his city.  In it he extolled the unique culture of New Orleans, the food, the music, but especially the people.  If Why New Orleans Matters has a recurring theme, it is the generosity of the people, and the spirit and the ties that bind.  Sitting together on that Ash Wednesday, and witnessing that generosity first-hand, I couldn’t help but think Tom Piazza was as good an ambassador as any city has ever had.

And to me, that is New Orleans.  You don’t choose New Orleans as much as New Orleans chooses you. It brings people together in the celebration of the moment.  It encourages you to take a chance.  Join in the parade.  Celebrate life.  Reach out to someone even if it seems crazy.  Moments happen in this place that just don’t happen elsewhere, and I couldn’t help but think, that somehow it chose me.  How else do you explain the unlikely beer in the shadow of the Mississippi?  I never expected a reply, but I received one anyway.  And isn’t that just New Orleans, it always finds a way to answer your prayers, even the ones you never knew you had…

— J.S. Cullen





One thought on “The Book of Chance

  1. Love your introduction to NOLA. It’s always fun to read a newcomers take on this crazy city. As a native, I often don’t see what y’all see. So thanks for keeping my eyes open.

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