Saturday, December 31, 2005

One down, eleven to go (Pug 12 Step)

"I don't believe it," Rex said on his first morning of his extended visit to New Orleans.

We had just watched the little black pug vacuum down his 1/3 cup of dry dog food for breakfast.

Nero doesn't eat like other dogs.

He attacks every meal as though he hasn't had one in weeks and doesn't expect to get another anytime soon. He buries his entire face in the bottom of his bowl. It's a fully physical effort that apparently requires heavy breathing, guttural grunting and full use of his compact muscles.

I had warned Rex about Nero before the trip. I had told him about the constant begging when anything is being prepared in the kitchen. About the incessant floor licking, an eternal search for the tiniest morsel of nutrition that might have dropped from a plate. And about the rummaging through garbage of any kind.

But like Thomas in the Upper Room, Rex had trouble believing.

He concocted an experiment that, on the surface, seemed simple and harmless. We would keep giving Nero food until he stopped eating, at which point his "addiction" would be proven to have a limit. In the process, the experience might actually cure Nero of some of his obsession.

I told him it wouldn't work. Nero would just eat until the point of sickness, or organ failure.

Which brings us to Friday night. Rex decided it was time for the experiment. He filled a medium sized mixing bowl with dog food and put it beside Nero's feeding tray. The pug went wild.

We watched. Nero ate. We watched some more. Nero kept eating. Sometimes he would pull his head out of the bowl to chew. At one point he moved about a foot and a half away from the bowl, sat down and stared at the food in apparent confusion.

An amazing 15 minutes after the experiment began, Nero had finally had his fill, consuming 10 times his normal meal quantity. His chest and upper stomach were bloated. His eyes were slightly glassy. His movements were deliberate.

"It worked!" Rex exclaimed in triumph.

I still wasn't sure we had accomplished anything other than adding a couple of inches to Nero's waistline.

We all went to bed wondering what would happen next.

Nero's sleep was restless. I woke several times to find him pacing the floor for a minute or two then returning to his bed. His breathing also seemed accelerated but, otherwise, he showed no signs of stress.

We woke in the morning to discover that Rex's experiment wasn't over. There was one more thing to do, he explained. We had to give Nero his normal bowl of food to see if the spell really had been broken.

I protested. Only hours earlier, Nero had eaten enough for the next week. Couldn't this end? Apparently not.

Rex scooped a regular serving of food into the pug's bowl and Nero raced for the meal. Then something amazing happened. Instead of shoving his face into the pellets, Nero pulled his head back and stepped away from the bowl.

He seemed as surprised as we were. The standoff lasted about half a minute. Then Nero slowly approached the bowl again and took a bite. He chewed slowly for a moment, then took another bite. Two minutes later the bowl was empty.

Was his momentary pause a sign of some mental reprogramming? Has his obsession abated, even a small amount?

I'm not sure at this point. But Nero does seem more sedate today. And he hasn't licked the floor once.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Art, Used Cars and Trailer Trash

There's a set of railroad tracks flanked by empty lots about two blocks from where I live. One of the lots is Nero's favorite poo spot. Before Kartina, the tree line along that lot was a well used illegal dumping ground for locals.

It wasn't unusual during a morning walk with the little black pug to discover a newly discarded item or two flung into the brush, maybe even a bulging black trash bag.

After Katrina, the area became one of many "official" unofficial trash heaps. I even dumped a pile of garden debris and flooded stuff from the garage onto one of the piles. We really had no choice. For more than a month, there was no streetside trash pickup. Hauling waste to the tracks was the only way to keep the stuff from stinking up the fronts of our houses.

The big piles have disappeared, but every few days new items show up again. I discovered the above pile while driving to work this week. I imagine it could be the creation of one of the eccentric artists who populate the Bywater neighborhood where I live. It spoke to me.

No art here. This is the scene below the Broad Street overpass next to my office. This space used to be overflow parking for newspaper employees. It's become a graveyard for flooded wrecks (note the water lines on the windows). Sometimes, some of the cars disappear. But within a few days, the lot is full again. Who knows when it will end.

I drove a few blocks through the Fontainebleau neighborhood near the center of the city the other day and counted more than 20 FEMA trailers, such as this one, in front of houses.

Not so long ago, I would have hurled at the sight of a trailer in a historic neighborhood. But the spread of mobile homes is heartening. They're a sign of change after months of stagnation, a signal that people finally are coming back to flooded sections of the city. Welcome to New Orleans - the nation's biggest trailer park!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Deep Fried Christmas

My family Christmas meal began last week with a hellish trip by Rex and me into the deepest bowels of New Orleans suburbia to purchase a Cajun Flip-N-Fry for $14. We bought the south Louisiana cooking novelty from a woman in her Kenner garage. "You're lucky. This is my last one," she said.

Brother-in-law and Mom use the latest Cajun technology to coat catfish fingers for our not-so-traditional holiday meal.

My sister had called earlier in the week with instructions to buy the device, saying my brother-in-law needed it to coat catfish for our Christmas family lunch at their house.

I got back into the car and handed the Flip-N-Fry to Rex. He stared at it briefly. "This is a piece of Tupperware," he exclaimed in disbelief as he opened the lid of the translucent container and pulled out a perforated plastic divider. "This is Cajun technology?" he asked.

Yes, Rex, it is. Just like the Cajun Injector, an oversized syringe used to fill large pieces of meat with spicy juices. And the Cajun ChickCAN, a metal rack that positions a can of beer (or any other favorite canned beverage) in the "butt" of a chicken for "the most flavorful, moist" grilling experience ever, or so the manufacturer claims. Then there's Boudreaux's Butt Paste, no explanation needed.

Amazingly, the Flip-N-Fry seems to live up to its billing. My brother-in-law said he would have used five times more cornmeal for the Christmas catfish had he coated the pieces the old-fashioned way.

Catfish frying on the driveway, and the final result with fixings.

Joining the catfish on the table were baked potatoes, French fries, Asian cole slaw, corn and crawfish casserole, rolls and cheesecake for dessert.

Of course, south Louisianians are known for nontraditional holiday meals. Think of deep-fried turkeys and turduckens. My family hasn't had a typical Anglo Christmas meal in years. Usually, my brother-in-law makes a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, sided by potato salad and corn on the cob.

But this year's lunch likely stretched the limits of acceptable holiday cuisine ... even for these parts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

México en el Calle Borbón

How about a tamale or a fish taco to go with your Pat O'Brien's Hurricane or Big Ass beer?

Welcome to Fajitas y Margaritas, one of the newest tenants to move onto Bourbon Street after Hurricane K. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the sidewalk kitchen is just a couple of doors down from Big Daddy's, the strip club best known for the pair of mannequin legs swinging from the front window.

I discovered this joint Wednesday night during a two-hour stroll up and down Bourbon Street.

You can't find a Lucky Dog cart selling hot dogs on Bourbon Street to save your life, but an $8 burrito is just around the corner.

Ethnic food, outside of pseudo-Cajun cuisine stereotyped to the hilt for the most indiscriminating tourist palate, has been traditionally hard to find along New Orleans' main tourist strip. That makes Fajitas y Margaritas all the more remarkable.

At the very least, the shop boldly declares the arrival of the city's newest immigrant population.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gay life in N.O.

How many gay men does it take to keep a Bourbon Street bar open? Well, as Rex and I found out late Sunday night, not nearly as many as you might think. The crowds were fairly small everywhere we went - Cafe Lafitte's in Exile, The Pub, Good Friends and Rawhide. But that's not so unusual for December, traditionally the slowest month for convention business.

Rex did interviews with bartenders for a story that he's working on about the resurrection of gay and lesbian life in the Big Easy. If there was a universal theme in the interviews, it was this: government workers and contractors now filling the bulk of the city's hotel rooms don't spend nearly as much money on watered-down, overpriced beverages as do tourists.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Lowa Nint Wawd

The neighborhood worst-hit by Hurricane K lived up to its billing, and then some.

After more than eight weeks back at home in New Orleans, we ventured for the first time into the Lower 9th Ward Saturday afternoon. We crossed the Industrial Canal just a few blocks from my house in the Bywater neighborhood then turned north.

Before long, we were in the middle of a vast wasteland stretching more than 100 city blocks in all directions. Everywhere we looked were empty foundations where houses once stood, cars tossed around like toys, towering piles of rubble and a ubiquitous blanket of gray dried mud.

More than three months after the storm, the only signs of life there were the other catastrophe tourists cruising the area and a handful of people sifting through the wreckage of their homes.

We got an up-close look at the mammoth barge that rested on the neighborhood side of the levee after floating through the barrier during the early hours of Katrina.

I expected things to be bad, but the reality was beyond imagination. I won't be making a return trip anytime soon.

Top pic: The force of the flood water from the Industrial Canal (off camera about four blocks to the right) pushed everything in its path the other way, creating a vertigo effect along some streets.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Where's Anderson Cooper when you need him?

I spent Sunday morning second-lining down Esplanade Avenue to St. Anna's Episcopal Church with fellow parishioners and visiting priests and parishioners from about half a dozen other Episcopal churches outside of Louisiana. Leading the procession were the Storyville Stompers who reunited several weeks ago and began playing gigs again. A jazz mass followed at the church.

The visitors kept repeating throughout the weekend that the vast scope of damage in the flooded areas of the city was beyond anything they perceived through television and newspaper reports back home.

That's the same response that Rex gave a few days ago when I took him riding through the Lakeview neighborhood near the 17th Street Canal breach. He was stunned.
I've grown surprisingly accustomed to the reaction.

It's sort of like telling visitors they can carry cups of their favorite alcoholic beverage in the street without fear of police intervention. To them, it's an unbelievable privilege not enjoyed at home. To us New Orlenians, it's normal.

That's kind of how it feels now to live a few blocks from the Dead Zone. What shocks the visitor is just life in New Orleans to the rest of us.