"The important thing to me about New Orleans is not all the gingerbread on the houses and how everybody has that accent that makes them sound as if they live in Brooklyn," Ford continues in his own slightly nasal, no-nonsense voice. "What's important to me is how New Orleans is like any other big city, except nicer. It's a more graceful city, a more slowly paced one." He pauses. "When I used to hang out down here in the seventies, they were into the life that I think people expect New Orleanians to be into: slightly decadent perhaps, slightly grubby. It felt like 'live and let live,' as Kristina would describe it," he says, mentioning his wife of 32 years, who was until recently the executive director of the city's planning commission. "It all felt . . . boozy. But I think the big drinking in a societal way has finally gone out of vogue. Eating is much more of a vice in this town," he insists, noting that his current project is the introduction to a history of Galatoire's.
"Walker Percy warned writers to be careful about living in the Quarter," Ford is reminded. "He said that 'the occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which also may be called Vieux Carré syndrome. One is apt to turn fey, potter about a patio. . . .' "
"When I came here in the seventies, I'd stay at the Olivier House on Toulouse—a place I still love—and I'd call up Walker. I was looking for a place to buy or rent. And Walker would always say: 'Richard, don't buy in the French Quarter. You'll be preoccupied with taking a stroll every morning, and going off to get coffee, and chattin' with your friends at the Napoleon House.' It was specifically because of Walker Percy that I have not let that happen," he says, twisting about atop his red silk taffeta.
Bohemian on the bayou
George Dureau is in a tizzy. There are two minutes left before the year 2000 commences, his guests have gathered on the balcony of his 6,000-square-foot loft to view an imminent display of fireworks, and he still hasn't decided which music should accompany the close of the century. At the stroke of midnight, the fireworks burst above the city. Suddenly from his little boom box blare the opening chords of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "This is the sound of the twentieth century! This!" Dureau happily proclaims as he joins his guests on his rickety terrace and leads them all in song, the Beatles' British voices blending with the baritones that even the women seem to employ down here.
Hovering inside, another display of New Orleans characters bears silent witness to the watershed revel. Dureau's giant charcoal renderings of naked men grouped in rather innocent romps are hung haphazardly all about the loft's walls, as is a portrait of Kristina Ford posed as Diana the huntress. His photographs of more starkly rendered male nudes—godlike African-Americans, amiable dwarfs, and precisely posed amputees—are scattered on all available surfaces. Dureau served as early inspiration to both Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel Peter Witkin, who eventually developed an appreciation for the beauty to be found in the macabre. For Dureau, born 69 years ago over in New Orleans's Bayou St. John neighborhood, such an appreciation is as indigenous as his craving a bit of chicory in his morning cup of coffee.
"Who is that handsome woman over there in the corner?" he is asked when the fireworks have subsided.
"The Honorable Ginger Berrigan," says Dureau. "All Southern women are honorable, of course, but that one's more honorable than most. She's a federal judge, honey. Before that, she was the head of the local chapter of the ACLU. I've had a soft spot for the ACLU ever since they saved me from jail back in '63 for havin' Negroes on my porch. The word got out that I was gonna have an integrated soirée, and the paddy wagons were lined up all the way down Esplanade. They arrested seventy-two people that night. I was thrown down the stairs three times." Dureau indignantly smooths his chignon and fiddles with the braid he has somehow devised at the bottom of his beard so that it tightly frames his jawline in a kind of follicular face-lift. "It was so scary," he insists, recalling the legendary night that people still talk about down here. Nothing explains New Orleans better—a turning point in its local civil rights struggle was a rowdy party.
A few days later, Dureau leads a lone guest on a tour of his loft. A tattered old World War I American flag has been slung atop the bed. The surface of his Saarinen dining table is as pocked with paint as a discarded Pollock. A giant wooden Pegasus has landed at the far end of the room; it wears a leather Mardi Gras mask and evidence of its original gold paint. "B.J. the Legless took off all the gold for me," says Dureau, rubbing a flank, then a wing, his mind obviously wandering toward thoughts of B.J., who has posed for many of the photographs still scattered about the loft.
"Why such a fascination with amputees, George?"
"Sugar, New Orleans has always had amputees galore," he says, a bit perturbed by such a question. "Two reasons. We had one billion miles of streetcar tracks runnin' through the city when I was a child. We had streetcars like you've never seen! And also the regular train tracks were everywhere 'cause property was hard for the railroad to buy, so they bought bits of property all over the city just to find a way outta here. People lost their legs like crazy around here from, you know, passin' out on all those tracks. . . ."
Dureau's voice trails off on a track all its own. Taking his hand from the Pegasus, he runs his fingers along the one table in the whole place free of any debris. "You notice anything different about this table?" he asks. "When I cleaned off all the food and wine from the other night, it just looked too white to my eyes. So I took some day-old chicory coffee and brushed it on there. Gives it a nice patina, huh?Smell it," he commands. He is, of course, obeyed, and it appears that Dureau has captured New Orleans with just a few of his deft and effortless strokes: even the furniture is aromatic in this damn town.
T&L Web Exclusive:
Walter Isaacson's hometown favorites
Best po'boy: The oyster loaf at Casamento's (4300 Magazine St.; 504/895-9761; lunch for two $20; closed June 1 through September 15 every yearãwhen oysters are out of season).
Seafood: Uglesich's Restaurant (1238 Baronne St.; 504/523-8571; lunch for two $25).
Place to talk politics: The Napoleon House bar (500 Chartres St.; 504/524-9752). "We all hung out here when we were young reporters."
Most memorable meal: "Eating oysters Mosca at Mosca's [4137 Hwy. 90, Waggaman; 504/436-9942; dinner for two $35] on my first date with my wife."
Peyton Manning's places
Jogging route: On the grass next to the streetcar tracks on St. Charles Avenue.
Sports bar: Kabby's in the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel (2 Poydras St.; 504/584-3880).
Pizza: Figaro's (7900 Maple St.; 504/837-5816) and Reginelli's (741 State St.; 504/899-1414; and 874 Harrison Ave.; 504/488-0133). "Reginelli's is an Italian restaurant/art gallery, owned by my old high school football coach's son, Darryl Reginelli."
Gin and tonic: Bruno's (7601 Maple St.; 504/861-7615).
Lolis Eric Elie's report
Amazing fried catfish and potato salad: Barrow's (2714 Mistletoe St.; 504/482-9427; lunch for two $30)
Best fried chicken: Willie Mae's (2402 St. Ann St.; 504/822-9503; dinner for two $12)
Uptown expense account meal: Upperline (1413 Upperline St.; 504/891-9919; dinner for two $100)