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Guns, Gangsters and a Mardi Gras Experience You Won't Soon Forget

Copyright 2014 © Steve Lautenschlager

Dining alone at expensive restaurants is becoming my new hobby. I wasn't going to write about my dining experience tonight. After all, what could top my bare-handed jumbo shrimp experience at Mister B's. But when the elderly man at the table next to me whipped out his four inch Magnum, I knew at once this was a story I would have to share with the world...if I lived to tell it.

But before I get to that, let me set the stage. It is my last night in New Orleans. The Mardi Gras parades, the bead throwing and the <cough> generous expressions of gratitude began on Friday night. Parades have been running almost non-stop along Canal street and around my hotel.

I can neither confirm nor deny whether I was on bourbon street at 2am. Not because I'm a spy, but because if I admitted to it you would think it was pervy and if I denied it you'd think I was a lame fuddy-duddy. And since I don't want you to think I'm a lame fuddy-duddy I prefer to keep an air of mystery about the whole thing. In spite of the fact it is almost certainly true that I'm a lame fuddy-duddy, I wouldn't want you to think that. If you are thinking that right now, please stop.

...

I'll wait.

...

OK, that's better.

It has been an amazing time here in New Orleans. The conference was inspiring and the cultural experiences have been entertaining. They included a genuine New Orleans Masquerade Ball and all the beads you can fit around your neck. Incidentally, beads can be acquired on many streets other than Bourbon street so--just to be clear--I may or may not have been on Bourbon street at 2am.

Tonight is overcast. It was raining earlier, but it stopped before dinner time. The streets were dark, wet and filled with Mardi Gras tourists. I got a recommendation for dinner from the concierge and he sent me to another fancy restaurant. I walked out the back way and quickly encountered the Mardi Gras parade, which changes routes periodically. I was able to walk alongside the parade where a marching band and baton twirlers all dressed in white were gettin' their groove on. One thing about these Mardi Gras parades: everyone in the parade is seriously glad to be there and not at all afraid to strut their stuff. I enjoy it because I feel, for a few minutes, as though I have permission to fully embrace my own awesomeness. And so I do.

I walked down Tchoupitoulas Street beside the parade. Tchoupitoulas, incidentally, is pronounced just like it's spelled. Seriously, if I pronounced it for you right now you'd go "Oh. It does sound like it's spelled." Weird, but true.

In just a few blocks the parade petered out and I reached Tommy's Cuisine on the left. I started thinking about the name. Tommy's. Sounds Italian. Then I thought of Tommy guns and started to imagine I was in a movie as I walked into Tommy's to tell the owner there was no way he could extort twenty grand from me and he knew what was comin' if he didn't change his tune.

I walked in the main door which was set back in an alley from the street. It was the darkest restaurant I've ever been in. On the one hand, it's a very intimate setting, on the other, it might be easier for the waiters to conceal weapons in their aprons. I started to reconsider my little chat with Tommy.

Across from the entrance was the bar and all around the top were slanted shelves filled with a variety of wine bottles. All I could think was, "How convenient." Great place for Tommy to store his Tommy guns so that he could take people out the second they walked in. I remained alert.

Tommy was no where in sight. The hostess showed me to a small table in the corner behind the door. This suited me just fine. Everyone knows you have to sit with your back to a wall so no one can sneak up from behind. It also gives you a good view of the place so you can spot trouble early.

They brought bread and butter which I proceeded to devour with little dignity. The waiter arrived quickly and asked if he could share the day's specials. "Of course," I said, as if he were an underling who required my permission to continue. He proceeded with a poetic litany of food-sounding words which blended beautifully and apparently meant something to him. I smiled politely and said, "That all sounds so wonderful, but someone told me the duck is your specialty." He agreed with me and then asked if I would care for some wine with my meal. I had seen the wine list previously and decided on water instead, but for reasons unknown to me I said, "Is there a wine you would recommend with the duck?" He knew exactly which one and I agreed. He said he would bring me a sample to taste so I could determine if it was to my liking. I felt like responding with, "Very well, fine sir." But instead said, "Sure. Awesome. That'd be great."

As I waited for the wine to arrive I began to wonder if he might think I was a food critic there to rate the dining experience--alone, forty-something, distinguished and discerning on a Sunday evening. Very likely. I wondered how I could use this to my favor.

He seemed to be treating me as if I had a freaking clue which wine was supposed to go with duck, or even cared for that matter. But then I recalled the "Sure. Awesome," and thought I might have blown my cover with that. So I told him I didn't like the first wine, that it was too dry for my taste. With that, I think I may have regained some stature. However, as I've written before I was rolling the dice, because I'm not sure I used the term "dry" correctly. I asked him if he had a Merlot instead and he informed me it would conflict with the duck. "Thank you," I said. "I appreciate your guidance. I'll go with the Pinot, then." With that, he probably thought I was testing him to see if he really knew which wine goes with duck. The other choice was a Bordeaux so, naturally, there is no contest between that and the Pinot Noir. Sure. Awesome.

Then I noticed two broad shouldered men in pin-striped suits with chisled faces and slick black hair. They wandered in and around the tables looking like they owned the joint. One of them was older with a stronger jaw line. That must be Tommy, I thought. Now's my chance. Their random wandering culminated in their meeting right next to my table where they sidled up to each other and began speaking in low voices. The older one seemed to be giving orders as he looked straight ahead across the room. The younger one leaned in to be sure he heard every word. Yeah, that's Tommy, I thought. I held my breath in anticipation, but they quickly disappeared and all was quiet.

My dinner soon arrived. The plate was filled with duck on a bed of arugula and drizzled in a dark red rosemary and berry sauce. Next to that was a moist rice pilaf with crisp sweet potato strings and two slices of green apple with four blueberries, each of the exact same size sprinkled with sugar.

This was my first time having duck and to be honest, I prefer chicken. The duck landed somewhere between chicken and turkey. A touch dry like the wine...which is no doubt why the waiter thought they went together.

But the duck was the least of my worries. As I mentioned before, the restaurant was quite dark. I was nearing the end of my meal and my wine glass was nearly drained. A few moments earlier an older couple was seated at the table next to me, between my table and the bar. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't noticed them until that moment. I had even forgotten about Tommy. I suppose that says something about the quality of the food. It was good enough to distract me from more pressing matters.

Then, suddenly. The older man at the next table whipped out his four inch Maglite and started using it to read his menu. I couldn't believe it. I was stunned that someone could be that prepared. It wasn't just a thin penlight either, it was a thick, red Maglite flashlight. I mean, where do you carry that thing? In your pocket? That would be so uncomfortable. Does this guy just walk around all the time with a four inch red Maglite in his pants waiting for intimate lighting so he can whip it out? Crazy. Impressive, but crazy. Are there men who really do this? Is it a club or something? Do they have a website and a facebook page where their creed is to carry heavy Maglites around, big ones, not just the little penlights, just in case you happen to end up in a dimly lit restaurant where you might need to whip it out? I don't get these people. In the immortal words of Elaine Benis: "I don't know how you guys walk around with those things."

I've just been informed that I may have mis-typed something at the beginning of this post. I may have accidentally written that someone whipped out a four inch Magnum when I meant to say Maglite. Of course, a Magnum is a gun and a Maglite is a flashlight. Please forgive me, I apologize for any confusion.

Needless to say, I quickly left the restaurant after the man whipped out his Maglite. I didn't need no trouble on a full stomach. As I walked the wet pavement back to the hotel, crews were picking up parade trash including bags, cans and countless broken strings of colorful beads in all shapes and sizes. I then passed some revelers drinking at a table on the sidewalk in front of a bar. I caught the conversation in the middle. One young man said defensively, "Come on, it's New Orleans. You can do whatever you want." There was a pronounced silence at the table for the next few seconds until a different young man said, "Apparently not." I was left wondering what mischief they had been caught in. Then a thirty-something couple walking toward me abruptly stopped and the man said in a pleading voice, "We'll be late if we don't go now. Come on, baby." Baby wasn't interested and the man said he was going back to the car himself. I didn't stop to help them or to ask what they would be late for.

But the pinnacle of my return walk on a warm-winded, wet New Orleans night was the six foot leafless sapling all covered in hanging strands of beads looking very much like a Mardi Gras Christmas tree. I stopped to take a picture and it reminded me momentarily of one of the major themes of Christmas--gifts. And in that moment, I realized that right there under that tree and spreading out for blocks around was a gift, one given to me by the powers that be on a warm, wet New Orleans night.