The Holiday Weekend, December 24 and 25: The Save-a-Center checkout lines snake at the front of the market. It’s Christmas Eve, and Uptown New Orleans is doing its last-minute shopping. Rimas and I are looking for the stuffing Kristen wants. It’s a local brand. “That’s hard to find,” the clerk tells me. “They were flooded.” It’s a phrase that’s starting to sound like a given. Along Annunciation Street, blue tarps cover housetops. Two guys fix a roof. A family is unpacking a U-Haul, or they’re packing it. Contractors clog the side streets with their wide-bed trucks. At Domilise’s, the folks behind the counter are making po’boys. We order catfish with shredded lettuce, pickles and hot sauce. We order thick-cut roast beef oozing spicy mustard. It’s pouring outside.
When the rain stops, it’s evening. We drive up the Mississippi. In the towns of St. James Parish, ten-foot bonfires burn for miles along the river, elaborate pyramids that light the route for Papa Nöel. Everyone is slightly drunk on booze and the charisma of open flames. In Gramercy, a woman wanders up to us. Her family’s fire is topped with 200 pounds of popcorn snapping in the heat. A bonfire’s “boxing” and “guts” are built around a center pole that’s driven into the levee. “When the Dutch engineers saw what we were doing, they were appalled,” she says. “But the bonfires – that’s our life.”
Back Uptown, I’m hungry. “Eat this.” Rimas hands me a souvenir. It’s one of their last Meals Ready-to-Eat. I’m not ready to eat it. I go to GW Fins. Despite the computers going down in the middle of a night when the reservation book is maxxed, there are no signs of the “blood bath” that Tenney has promised me. The kitchen is calm. Mike is almost Buddha-like. He says to me the first thing that chefs tend to say to folks: “Are you hungry?” They feed me: sesame-crusted seared tuna, mushroom risotto, salad. Then I take a long, slow drive up Rampart Street. The streetlamps are lit all the way through the Marigny and the Bywater and the Upper Ninth Ward. I cross the bridge to the Lower Ninth where the houses hunker, broken, in pitch black. It’s terrifying. I venture a block or two and turn around.
Christmas morning is warm enough for dining outside. La Côte Brasserie is doing a booming brunch. The chef is in the kitchen instead of home with his wife. He shrugs, “We’re used to it.” I order a crawfish omelette out of season. These are local bugs, frozen since last year. Chuck Subra wouldn’t buy imports. He’s a Cajun boy, born and raised near Lafayette. He’s the kind of guy who says, “You can have the busiest night in the kitchen, but then you make the gumbo. And making the gumbo is relaxing.” Trevor Wisdom hops out of a car, bouyant, silk scarf flapping, and greets me on her way indoors. My WiFi works, for once. I drink champagne and eat Yule log in the sun. Rebecca Dunn, the manager, drops the check. “This is the best place to be today,” she says, referring not only to the sunny sidewalk, but to all of New Orleans.
I take a drive up Elysian Fields past Humanity Street and Pleasure Street into Gentilly. I am looking for my hitchhiker, Salvatore Sicarelli. I climb rickety exterior stairs to second-floor apartments in a neighborhood where the stuff of lives lays heaped on the sidewalk and the houses and cars are a now-familiar dried-mud beige. Everything looks exhausted. I knock on doors that have obviously been locked from the outside. I peer through windows into apartments that are uninhabited. I’m descending a stairs figuring I’ll drive away when damned if Sal Sicarelli isn’t standing in the street. He’s got a window that he looks through onto the mess. He was curious as to who would drive around here in a Cadillac.
“I’ve got two blankets and another blanket that plugs into the wall – what do you call that?” he’s asking me. “Yeah, an electric blanket, but I have no electricity.” I hand him some cash. I hand him a shopping bag. Inside there are two sweet, fruity breads with ribbons on. I ask him if he’s hungry, if he’d like to go with me for Christmas dinner. “I’m not the kind of guy who eats a lot,” says Sal Sicarelli, his hands patting his belly through his dirty beige trenchcoat. “I eat to eat; that’s it.”