Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Quickie

With the Yarn Harlot

New Orleans is certainly the only city in the United States where two women can stroll into the front door of a tourist shop, thrust a sock-in-progress into the gaping jaws of a full-grown stuffed alligator, and take photos without the shopkeeper so much as asking a question, thinking it the slightest bit strange, or getting up off his stool.

And not just any sock, either.
The Sock.
The first thing you need to know about Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is that she is just exactly like she is on her blog and in her books, only live and in person. Devastatingly funny, wicked smart, and deeply compassionate.
But you knew that already.
The second thing you need to know is that she is also the most regular sort of person you can possibly imagine, the sort of person you might run into at the farmer's market of a coffee shop, a person completely devoid of that little bubble of me-ness which usually envelops people who find themselves in possession of a certain amount of fame.
My first reaction, when I learned that Stephanie was making a book stop in New Orleans and that she wanted me to give her a quick tour and be the hat collection person for her event, was to squee.
I did not squee in public. Nor did I squee in front of my husband, or even in the presence of most of our cats. I squeed privately, at my computer, with the door closed. Only one cat heard me squee, and she is nineteen, so she probably did not hear it very clearly.
"Stephanie just asked me to be her driver and her hat lady. Squee!"
If you have read my blog for any amount of time, you have probably ascertained that I am a person who does not squee. I never squee. I am pretty much a Vulcan in that respect. You would not expect Mr. Spock or T'pol to squee, would you?
The last time I squeed, I was five years old and I got to pet Lassie. Squee!
I did not even squee when I ran into Jimmy Page at the Old Absinthe Bar, many, many years ago. I stammered, but I did not squee.But, considering that Stephanie accepted my offer to be her Nawlins tour guide ... well, you will understand that a squee was in order.
My delight was mixed with a smidge of anxiety, because the Borders book store hosting the event was not in New Orleans proper, but in the adjacent suburban city of Metairie. Metairie is a proper city, and a fairly large one, and full of lovely people, but it is a city in precisely the same way that Fort Worth is a city -- an enormous number of suburban developments connected by shopping malls, Wal-Marts and car dealerships, a city whose real purpose is to provide a bedroom community for the other city right next door.
I figured that Steph's agent -- as agents are wont to do -- would ensconce her in a hotel as close as possible to Borders, which is located on Veteran's Boulevard, within range of The Gap, Target, Chili's, TGIFriday's and various other generic American retailers that nobody from anywhere would get on a plane to bother to have a look at. And I was worried that I would have to get her across the vast sprawl of Metairie, into New Orleans, see some important sights, and get her back across town through rush-hour traffic to be at the book signing on time.
And? She expected to have about three hours altogether in which to do this.
So it was a great relief when I got a call from her Monday morning and learned that she was parked like a rock star at the Crown Astor on the corner of Bourbon and Canal. This would cut our commuting time in half. Steph needed enough time to wash off the grunge of the DFW airport, change her clothes and work on her blog entry a bit, which coincided precisely with the amount of time I needed to commute to her hotel.
First thing on the agenda: food. Steph had enjoyed exactly one small packet of airline almonds since midnight and by the time I arrived, lunch was the first thing on the agenda and the best place in New Orleans to find a vegetarian po-boy sandwich is Frank's Italian restaurant across from the French Market.
Frank's is one of those venerable Italian restaurants which is so authentically Italian, you fully expect to see Michael Corleone sitting at a corner table, having a serious conversation with somebody named "Louie the Finger."
Some of you may wonder why I took her to an Italian eatery. I can hear you: "Hey, you're in New Orleans! Why didn't you take her someplace French?"
I took her there, partly because Frank's was open at a belated lunch hour ... and partly as a way of demonstrating that New Orleans is not entirely a French city, as so many people believe, but rather a deeply multicultural one ... and partly to show that nearly every menu cross-pollinates: local icons like Gumbo, Jambalaya and Po-Boy sandwiches appear on restaurants of every ethnic heritage. Even Vietnamese restaurants offer Po-Boys.
And besides, Frank's makes a killer veggie Po-Boy, with grilled bell peppers, zucchini and onion, Italian olive salad and two kinds of cheese, dressed with lettuce, tomato and mayo and served up on crunchy French bread.
The Po-Boy is an inherently messy sandwich genre, and I feel compelled to report on the full efficacy of good Canadian table manners. New Orleans natives take note: Steph is the only person I have ever witnessed consuming a Po-Boy without making a mess or using up her napkin allotment.
From Frank's, it was a quick stroll to the Cafe Du Monde. No visit to New Orleans, however brief, is complete without a cup of French Market coffee and a plate of Beignets.
One of the things I love deeply, profoundly and enduringly about the Cafe Du Monde is the fact that there are no options for a "skinny half-caf hazelnut mocha cappucino latte ... and a low-fat, sugar-free granola-cranberry bran muffin." At the Cafe' Du Monde, you can have coffee, or you can have Beignets, or you can have both. I do think they also offer decaf if you have a legitimate medical condition.
And then you can sit in the shade, beneath the ancient ceiling fans, and watch your Canadian friend and her Sock enjoy them both.

Stephanie was deeply impressed with our local coffee. In fact, she was so impressed that she took a picture of her cup. If anyone else did this, I would have needed Depends, but with Stephanie, it made perfect sense.

We lingered over our coffee for a few minutes and moved on to our next stop:

The Quarter Stitch. Here is Stephanie standing on a centuries-old banquette (sidewalk) approaching the shop. She hovered for a moment in front of the adjacent tavern, but decided her schedule was regretably too tight for a nice cold Dixie beer.

Stephanie took pictures, made lots of appropriate noises regarding the yarn, the ancient building itself, the Koigu corner, and the shop's famous Yarntinis:

Amazingly, she restrained herself, having both a new stove to pay for and luggage to haul. So, as any good, loyal and true friend would do, I had a little falling down in the Koigu department, just so she could have a photo-op for the store's world-famous packaging of all purchases ....

Stephanie's keen insight into yarnly matters enabled me mightily. She pointed out to the shop staff that some of the hand-dyed yarns out there are true investments. Koigu, for example. Each and every batch of it is one of a kind, produced by one human being who has no apprentice, and when she is gone, there will be no more.

Ergo, I reasoned, Koigu is no longer a mere self-indulgent splurge.

I am buying yarn futures.

After a proper and dignified moment of silence upon learning of the recent demise of the Quarter Stitch's elderly shop dog, and then some further admiration of the shop's garment samples, and a hearty round of goodbye hugs and photos, I whipped out my official Dukes of Hazzard Southern School of Driving certificate, and we were off for the car tour. I need to point out that by the time we'd had lunch, coffee, one yarn stop, and a much-too-quick walk through the French Quarter, we had used of half of the time Stephanie had available before she had to report for duty at Borders at 7:00.

And this is where it gets difficult.

I did not want Stephanie's visit to be All About Katrina, in exactly the same way that you do not want a visit to your favorite, hospitalized aunt to be All About Cancer. Yes, the cancer must be discussed, and faced bravely and compassionately, but you also want to talk about what's going on at home, what the family is up to, and things of that nature.

So I'd wanted to show Steph the pleasantries first. A far-too-brief walk through the heart of the French Quarter, some good food and coffee, a quick peek at the Mississippi River -- "Wow that thing is wide!!!" -- and then a stroll around Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral, past the antique shops and art galleries of Royal Street, a quick and mandatory two-block jog past the strip clubs and cheezy T-Shirts joints of Bourbon Street, a promise to wine and dine her at Galatoire's if she ever returns, and then I tugged her into a public parking garage to retrieve my car.

Consider: two women, one car, two and a half hours, one very complicated city.

Here, in a speeding Volkswagen, I gained a major insight into the essence of who Stephanie is.

Stephanie wanted to know it all: why can't people come home? Have whole families been living in those tiny little drafty white trailers for two whole years? What do the spray paint markings on the houses mean? Exactly how did the water come into the city? How does the city's water pumping system work? Which way is the river, the lake and the sea, and how did their effects combine? How are the schools and hospitals coming back if half the people haven't come home?

She homed right in on all of the major Catch-22's of Katrina. At one point she pointed to a vacant corner grocery and said: "Dez, the neighborhood stores can't re-open without the people who live there to support them, and people can't move home without the infrastructure of neighborhood groceries, shops and pharmacies." She instinctively understood that without the people who can't move home, the restaurants and hotels won't have cooked food, fresh sheets, clean dishes, or tended bars ... so the restaurants and hotels have no choice but to hire the second wave of immigrant workers who followed the construction crews. So even if displaced New Orleanians could find a way home and find the means to repair their homes, they won't have a job to return to. She realized that all the real work was being done not by the government, but by real people, by New Orleanians and by volunteers from all over the world, one nail and board at a time. And she voiced the irony that America is spending billions of dollars to blow up another country, instead of fixing two of its own states blown away by two storms.

Stephanie is the very first visitor I have not had to explain this all to.

It occurs to me that most decision-makers in Washington who deign to visit our suffering region spend perhaps the same amount of time in New Orleans as Stephanie did, and perhaps a few hours on the Gulf Coast, and maybe, just maybe, a drive-by or flyover of the almost-forgotten southwestern part of our state, which was so utterly devastated by Hurricane Rita.

I often imagine Members of Congress trying to appear concerned as they peer out of their airplane windows down into the wreckage of Southwest Louisiana, on their way to a barbeque at W's place in Texas.

If any of these public officials had one-tenth of Stephanie's capacity to absorb, process and comprehend the complexity of New Orleans' dilemma in the same day trip ... and maybe if they possessed one one-hundredth of her compassion ... maybe, just maybe, we would have some real progress around here. The fact that a Canadian knitter, author and doula can drive through this tangled mess of hope and sorrow and cut right to the heart of our problems both gives me hope that real, living, breathing, ordinary people in the rest of the world still can empathize with Gulf Coast residents ... and simultaneously deepens my despair in the knowledge that these very attributes of observation, absorption, comprehension, and compassion are completely lacking in 99.3% of our elected officials.

Even In the hardest-hit parts of New Orleans -- the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Pontchartrain Boulevard -- the streets have been basically "tidied up." Even in the saddest, most abandoned, most tragic parts of the city, the fallen trees have been hauled away, and many collapsed homes have been hauled off. Boats and dead animals have mostly been removed from trees and rooftops. The debris has been bulldozed off the streets, and the mountains of ruined human possessions and house guts which once lined every street have mostly been hauled away. Half a million ruined refrigerators have been removed from the curbsides. Most of the remaining mess is now more-or-less contained in junk heaps on private property and in the thousands of boxcar-sized dumpsters parked on every street.

But Stephanie was able to look at each and every gaping house, imagine a family living inside it, and mentally reconstruct the disaster. As we drove through the Ninth Ward she was aware that the roof on that now-roofless house over there must have landed somewhere else, and that the streets were recently impassable. She was able to clearly imagine people drowning in their attics and clinging to their rooftops.

Stephanie spoke so eloquently of our tour on her own blog that I won't post pictures of devastation. Instead, I will tell you more about Stephanie.

She stopped several times on our walk through the French Quarter to ogle the now-recovered ferns, vines and flowering foliage dripping from the wrought iron balconies. I was informed on several occasions that various large and lasciviously blossoming plants were considered a houseplant in Toronto, and a wee one at that, carefully nursed through winters in a sunny window, and deployed outdoors for the brief summer to soak up some rays. I explained that the bouganvilleas die back every winter and explode again every spring. Yes, they grow that much every year.

She was gobsmacked by our native live oak trees, which pleased me to no end, because even thought I am a lifelong resident of the South, those trees never cease to humble me with their grace, strength, beauty and survivability.

Stephanie asked why so many of the live oaks were still standing after Katrina, so I explained to her how they have evolved to shed their smaller branches when the wind kicks up around gale force, leaving the important structural branches for the wind to pass through, so the the entire tree doesn't act like a sail, for the wind to catch and throw it to the ground. Bald cypress trees have evolved the same mechanism. Small branches are not firmly attached to these trees, and thus our oaks and cypress can drop their smaller branches in the teeth of a hurricane in the same manner in which a gecko drops its tail as a snack for a predator, so that the rest of the gecko can survive.

Because they evolved down here, in the land of wind and rain, live oaks don't grow straight and tall like most other oaks. Instead, they spread their arms wide for balance, and crouch relatively low to the ground to stay out of the wind. Their branches also grow in a slightly corkscrewed manner. "You're a spinner," I said. What happens when you twist the fibers in a bit of roving?"

"They get stronger," she answered.

"Same principle," I replied. "The twist also gives the trees some elasticity, just like spun wool, so the large branches can usually withstand some brutal thrashing around."

She lit up. A tree that behaves like wool. Oh, to this we can relate!

Onward, to a tour of St. Charles Avenue, and a quick zip past some grand homes in the Garden District, and even grander ones further down St. Charles. Steph is quite talented at taking pictures from a moving car. With me driving, she needs a short shutter speed.

We got to Borders at exactly 6:54

Stephanie, I totally swear that I timed it that way on purpose, really. Honest. So you would not have time for the jitters. I am not making this up. I knew that if we cut through Lakeview and avoided the Interstate, you could see as much of New Orleans as possible -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- and that I could still Daisy-Duke you into the Borders parking lot on time, so you could talk to the knitters...

... and so the knitters could see you. I counted about 45 people.

There were knitters ready with hats at hand for Covenant House for the winter months, and yarn shop owners (dear Garden Disrict Needlework and Bette Borneside, Steph promises a second visit to Our Fair City), and a knitter with a baby, and knitters with works in progress ....

... and of course there were many knitters who wanted their books signed ....

Stephanie, I wish we had had more time, even a few more hours. I would have showed you the venerable McDonough Oak in City park. I would have taken you to the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas to show you how they are recovering from Katrina. I would have driven you out of the city to see what a real swamp looks and feels like. We would have sat on the seawall at Lake Pontchartrain with Dixie Beer and yarn, and we would have knitted socks. I would have taken you to hear some real jazz at a proper jazz club, and to Tipitina's to hear some funky music and have a few Abita beers. We would have had another po-boy at Domilese's or Guy's in the neighborhood where I grew up.

I also would have taken you down into the parts of Katrinaland which have fallen off the national radar even more so than New Orleans has: to St. Bernard, to the devastated community of Violet, and deep into Plaquemines Parish. I would have taken you to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to see how truly devastated Biloxi is and how just plain gone Waveland is. Gone, as in, not there any more.

The charming Vanessa gave Stephanie a ride back to her hotel, and along the way they passed a bottle tree. Y'all, happening across a bottle tree was much more than Kismet or serendipity. It was a gift. If you haven't already read Stepanie's account of the bottle tree, go to her blog right now.

This was so much more than merely a delightful chance to have lunch and a cuppa with a knitting author I admire. Thank you for coming here, Stephanie. Thank you for your amazing ability to see New Orleans both with an appreciation for the good, growing, living, persistent parts and with such genuine compassion for the parts still broken and bleeding, and to recognize the unsinkable spirit of our people.

And thank you again for honoring the knitters of New Orleans with a visit, with the gift of your time and humor. Your visit was a tremendous morale boost. Some of the knitters who came to your book signing are still living in tiny little FEMA trailers. Some of us fared better than others with the storm, but we are all working together to rebuild. We really are trying to put our region back together, one stich at a time.


I got to hold The Sock.

Merci, Stephanie.



At 5:46 AM, Blogger Barbara-Kay said...

Thanks for filling in "the rest of the story".

I had hoped to be there for the Harlot, but DH ended up in Lane RMC. He is forgiven for making me miss the Harlot; future yarn crawls may expand as a result! VBG!

You did good, friend. Louisiana could not find a better ambassador!

At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Em said...

What a great post, Dez. Thank you for sharing your end of the story.

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Martha said...

Wow, Dez. Thank you so much.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous elizabeth said...

What a fabulous recount (but then, I knew it would be)! I think you were very wise to take Stephanie to an Italian restaurant - speaking from experience, it's somewhat difficult to find a vegetarian meal in NOLA! I'd planned to go to Atlanta and my ride bailed on me; now I wish I'd driven to New Orleans.

At 2:51 PM, Anonymous kate said...

I found your website through a link on Stephanie's. It was so interesting to read your account of her visit and other post about your hometown. I have never been to New Orleans, but my Gran was born and raised in Bogalusa and all my life I was surrounded by people who spoke in low, soft lousiana accents. My gran used to tell stories about going to New Orleans on the train for shopping and to see the city cousins and how the train would carry them near lake Ponchatrain and how it was as big as the eye could see. Reading about your tour made me wish I could be there right now, makes me homesick for a place that i've never been.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger DebbieB said...

Thanks for this post, Dez. Wonderful whirlwind tour. I was glad to 'meet' you - I'm the knitter in denim on the front row.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dez, I'm a new reader of your blog and I'm so glad I found it! Your account of Stephanie's visit to New Orleans is... just amazing writing. I read it and felt that I was there with you as you zoomed around.

Thank you so much for telling us about NOLA and The Visit ;-)

Joyce (without a blog!)

At 4:15 AM, Blogger ellen said...

Thanks for sharing your side of the visit. I'm only an occasional visitor to New Orleans, but it has a special place in my heart.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Redheadskydiver said...

Wow! Great job! I had so much fun that night and it was great getting to meet you as well as Stephanie. Hope our paths cross again soon.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a really good post. I enjoyed to greatly. I'm so glad you got to spend time with Stephanie. I think she is truely amazing. I've only been to New Orleans once and my heart breaks everytime I see pictures of it now but like a phonix it will rise from the ashes to be a great city again.
Thanks for the post.

At 8:07 PM, Blogger Twitchy Knitter said...

Steph's post was great, and yours was awesome as well. It was an honor to meet her, and it was really great to meet you, too! Did you finish the voodoo doll in time?

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Kate said...

Thank you for relating Nawlin's recovery to date. I visited your beautiful city a few times while living in the USA and was devastated over the damage and the ongoing struggle New Orleans folks have had trying to get their lives and city up again. That people have continued to try 2 years later speaks much for their courage and determination. All reasons why I was proud that the shawl my daughter wore for her christening came from a Nawlins store on the waterfront. I hope that she'll be able to face adversity in her life with such resolve.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous oneken said...

"the people who are least equipped to cope in this disaster are the ones with the most to cope with"

she totally nailed it

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Jo at Celtic Memory Yarns said...

So proud that you were the one who got to show N'Awlins to Steph. Nobody could have done it better. Will you do the same for me, will you, will you? (A trip to Louisiana is long overdue, I feel...)

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Longhorn Diva said...

Dear Dez,
I have avidly read your blog for a while, being a NOLA ex-pat myself, and a long-time lover of that town. We were visiting friends the weekend of Katrina, and spent the three days evacuating tryign to reach our friends and loved ones. So for a taste of my old home, I love your blog, your writing, and your voice.

However, and I am sorry this is the first occasion to comment, but I have a slight issue with your Fort Worth comments. It sounds like you had an experience of FtW that would be like someone visiting Metairie, and thinking they had seen enough that they knew what New Orleans itself was like. I respectfully beleive you need to see what an amazing lovely town Ft. Worth is, with some of the finest museums in the world (Kimbell, Tadao Ando's Modern, Amon Carter), a gorgeous downtown including Sundance Square in which people live and work in beautifully restored 19th century building, the Stockyards, Bass Performance Hall, the thriving hispanic culture, and miles of beautiful bike and walking trails by the river. We are not all Chili's and Walmarts, and we most certainly do not aspire to be Dallas. They are rather frequently in envy of us, I am afraid.

So I respectfully invite you to Fort Worth, to see my town through my eyes. I don't think you would be disappointed. In the meantime, thanks always for a heartfelt, and beautifully written blog.

All my best,
Longhorn Diva


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