Saturday, April 11, 2009

Vieux Carre in the Rare Old Times

Yeah, I have a Danny Boy story.

For this, we must journey back to Mardi Gras week, 2004, New Orleans Louisiana. It's an 'on the cheap' trip with us staying at the house of our close friends Steve and Maureen Pisani. My husband Jef and I have been told that, along with good friends Dorene and Steve, we're practically guardians of Brian, their son. In the event of...which hasn’t happened I might add! And won't either!! But on that day Steve and Maureen were downstairs asking my husband to be a part of their son's future, I was upstairs teaching Brian how to sing Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta and we watched skateboard videos on the Internet. So you can tell I'm the right choice for the task.

I mention this background business only to show how these people and I are practically family. Also with us are Dorene Giacopini, second generation Sicilian-American, who works for California State Gov’t and, rounding out the party, everyone’s friend Owen, the role play gaming/computer geek who was worth many millions before the crash. (Now only worth *just* a few million. Guess that Oracle stock was a safe bet.)

Other members of the cast include Maureen's extended family of friends and relatives of the greater Metairie suburban area. And the dregs of every frat house in Mississippi in town for the week. And also asst'd prostitutes; freaked-out evangelicals; overweight tourists; and vampire goths. And Uncle Bobby! (We'd spent an earlier vacation with the Pisanis in Key West, where -- rather ironically -- Uncle Bobby had the last of his heterosexual relationships with a couple of waitresses and a snowbird or two. This was the year his son made it to Jesuit college, and Uncle Bobby had just divorced the wife of many years. Less than six months after that, he re-emerged as a 'confirmed bachelor' in classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil style. This year was his debut at one of the more exclusive same-sex balls.)

It was all madness. And things get noticeably more intense as the big day looms. On Monday, we'd spent the day with a morning history walk through the Quarter for propriety's sake, but were drinking pretty steadily by 11:00 a.m. on. I remember people throwing free airline-size bottles of tequila from a balcony and I had pocketed a tidy supply. The goal was to find and maintain a responsibly mellow buzz without toppling into full oblivion.

The main event of the evening was the Orpheus parade, introduced only recently by Harry Connick, Jr. Absolutely beautiful floats and stunning presentations. (I was now a jaded connoisseur of the things after my fourth parade or so). And by then, we'd all managed the art of getting the people on the float to chuck their beads, cups, medallions or whatever they had at us.

Not with the tacky method most assume is expected. It was really more about persistence and some other weird alchemy between you and the masked person on the float. It is marketing at its rawest.

I did also discover that a small child with a winning smile works well too. Get out there in the street and hustle it, Brian!

All of this is to say that by 9:00 p.m., we are quite drunk and dripping with beads from our necks, our arms, our belts, and hauling overloaded, sagging bags of more. Owen, in particular, looked like some kind of hybrid between the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII and a network publicity still of Mr. T.

And that’s about the time Maureen's friend says "Do you want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar now?"

Did I want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar? Of COURSE, I want to go to Danny O'Flaherty's Irish Channel Bar! Not only did it fulfill the requirements of my yearlong strategy of avoiding amateur nights by displacing the holiday theme (as in: spending St Patrick's Day at a Chinese restaurant, Cinco De Mayo at Moylan's, Chinese New Year at Las Guitarras), but also because I'd been hearing about Danny O'Flaherty ever since I'd arrived.

(Now these are all real people in this story. There are probably connections and degrees of separation that I can't begin to fathom. My full and complete apologies for anything inappropriate in what follows. But does that stop me? Not. One. Bit.)

From what I'd been told, Danny O'Flaherty was pretty special. I gathered that he and Maureen's friend had had 'a thing' some time before. I also gathered that, as a local woman, she wasn't alone in this distinction. She offered to be our guide and introduction to the evening.

Also, Maureen's house was about three blocks from the old Channel that made the City possible. It was dug by Irish immigrant labor in the 1830s (because the African-American labor was considered a more expensive commodity) and then filled and paved over in 1950. Sometime along in 1990, I was told, Mr. O'Flaherty paid the big bucks for a very cool memorial to those workers of the previous century. We’d see it out in the middle of the green space of the old channel every day on our morning walks. It took a few days to actually get out to it to read the plaque, because whenever you left the sidewalk, your feet would sink into a soft mass of grass, mud, and rapidly rising lake-fed water.

So yes! By all means. Let's go to O'Flaherty's!

A long, hallway entrance dividing a bar space from a larger room. "Dinner?" said the man taking our door-fee. "It's buffet service only. And you'd be in the Ballad Room. If you are here to 'party' you can just go straight into the bar.* Dining Only in the Ballad Room. Danny's performing tonight."

(*The bar was called the Informer. Danny is very proud of his Literary Connections.)

We looked at our local Virgil for the night. She nodded toward the Ballad Room. "Remember," she whispered, "You are here to listen. Danny doesn't like rowdy behavior in the Ballad Room."

Yeah, okay. I'll remind you: it's Mardi Gras week. All over the City people were pushing themselves into the last 24 hours of riotous, carnal abandon. Whereas we were sheepishly flattening our hair into respectability and looking for the font of Holy Water to bless ourselves with before entering the Ballad Room.

Where there were approximately nine other patrons. And on stage: the one and only Daniel O'Flaherty. Accompanied by a youngish man on keyboards that I -- please remember I'd been drinking tequila for at least eight hours! -- that I cruelly nicknamed Bono Baggins within the first five minutes.

But we settled down with our very excellent plates of jambalaya. Which goes quite nicely with Jameson. (Whether Jameson goes with Tequila is another question...but there’s Ash Wednesday to find that one out, isn’t there?) And Danny graced us all with his musical presence. Maureen's friend casting submissive, doe-eyed glances at the stage whenever his gaze raked past our table.

So it was maybe four songs and most of the first shot of Jameson, into the set that he then gave us "In the Rare Old Times," a song by Pete St. John that I knew, yes, but only through the ramped-up punk and unintelligible version from LA band Flogging Molly. (2002)

But here it was slowed down and the keywords I recognized "Dublin... cooper... house... Peggy... child of Mary... black as coal... in the rare old times..." were now unfolding themselves into a fully developed narrative. One that was cutting through my tequila buzz like an extremely bright sunrise on a severe hangover.

"My God," I remember saying to my husband. "When you slow it down and can hear the lyrics, this song is really f*ck*ng depressing!"

And God forgive me but for some reason the only thing I could do with that epiphany was to start giggling. Which immediately brought our table to the attention of Mr O'Flaherty, who broke off mid-verse:

"This is the LAST year I'm going to work this town during Mardi Gras," he snapped. "All these out-of-towners. They don't know how to listen to good music. They have no respect for our City."

Everyone at the table (and the two or three other people in the room) gave me a look of pure disdain. The uncouth Yank in their midst. I was sobering up fast and ducked my head in some semblance of apology.

The set resumes and we order another round. By now, the place is starting to fill up a little bit with other patrons -- all of them clearly making the last stop of the night from some other event. An hour after his initial chastisement of me, Danny is back in a mellow mood. A couple across the room in formal dress (he in a tux; she in a full ballroom dancer chiffon evening gown) are now digging the vibe. They're clearly establishing a cozy rapport with Danny by the time the lady orders another round.

By now, Danny is the genial, expansive host. (Only slightly making a point of ignoring my table as the pit of unshaved Yahoos it clearly is...) "Any requests from the audience?" he asks, spreading arms to encompass all sixteen of us. Chiffon Evening Gown takes the floor with a whiskey and cigarette accent that tells me she's been by that free-air Tequila balcony too.

"You know what I want to hear?" she slurs. "There's a song you can sing for me. There's a song. A special song. Back in Chicago, this was the song..."

Now I'm not normally psychic by nature, but something warned me in those last moments. That mention of Chicago, maybe. I should have started some distraction right then and there. Evening Gown gestures to her husband for confirmation:

"You know the song I want, don't you, honey? C'me-on, you know the song. I know everyone asks for it, but I just want to hear it tonight."

And that's when she requests "Danny Boy."

At that point, the title of 'Worst. Patron. Ever.' passed from me to her. You could feel the electric charge as it flew across the room. And O'Flaherty went ballistic. A full ten-minute lecture on anything and everything followed. A complete history of all of it. At one point Dorene (second-generation SICILIAN, I remind you!) leaned over and said "You people really hold on to stuff, don't you?"

Meanwhile I was beginning to match the dress of this hapless couple with the dignitaries I'd seen on the main float of the evening's parade. "Jesus, Dorene!" I whispered. "They were on the main Orpheus float! They're total New Orleans aristocracy. O'Flaherty better not need a building permit from City Hall anytime soon!"

The flustered lady, by now fully humiliated, exits to the restroom. I go into group conciliation mode. "Nancy Spain!" I start yelling, trying to get to my feet and attract O'Flaherty's attention. "Let's hear Nancy Spain!"

Bono Baggins (whom I've kinda bonded with by this point by realizing he's a decent musician trying to hold on to a difficult gig) smiles over at that. "That's good. He likes Christy Moore," says Bono. "Imagine my surprise at this news," I want to tell him back. Instead: a brainstorm "Lakes of Pontchartrain! PLEASE play Lakes of Pontchartrain."

Danny, probably coming to his senses on when and where it's appropriate to lecture patrons [hint: maybe not during Mardi Gras week], inquires somewhat kindly of the missing lady. When she returns to collect her accessories, he hastily goes into the "Land of Joy" variant of the song she requested. The couple stays for that one and then make their dignified exit. After that we get Lakes of Pontchartrain.

Maureen's friend never speaks directly to me for the rest of the visit.

But we all went back the next two nights and had a great time with Beth Patterson, who did a viciously humorous imitation of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a song about the Titanic, in the cozier and more informal nook of the Informer. Bought some of her CDs and eventually flew home.

It was a great trip. Give it up, y'all. For New Orleans.

The Irish Channel Bar did not survive Katrina.

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