The Digital Journalist
A Letter From New Orleans:

Lessons in the Classics
October 2007

by Jim Gabour

During my simultaneous house restoration and television series production, I had been too busy to deal with the stove, what with alternating surprise bouts of plumbing and sound re-edits, and also the fits of depression that punctuated both processes. It was hard to cook, or at least cook interestingly, while living in a continuing, seemingly endless nighttime purgatory of brutal, unending manual labor on the house, with only the prospect of waking to spend the daylight hours being artificially nice to people, acting the studio cheerleader as a producer must, coddling culinary divas – this was a cooking show. The work and stress loomed ahead day after day, a grueling production schedule that stretched well into the next year.

Even on the weekends, the work was relentless. One particular Saturday my contractor had assigned me the job of knocking out 10 feet of hundred-year-old cast iron drainage pipe which had gone solidly blocked decades earlier and had now been bypassed by a new drain. The problem was the pipe had shifted so far with the new construction that the workmen couldn't put a wall back in place unless the thick 6-inch-diameter pipe was removed.

The contractor had handed me a large sledgehammer and said the definitive words: "It's either you or a plumber and his assistant, them working at a total of $125 an hour. I'd say we're looking at four hours minimum here, rolling on weekend overtime."

I took the hammer.

It was not long before I realized that a 20-pound sledge is not an instrument about which anyone will ever write poetry, even though I did remember myself as a child tapping my foot to the lyric "John Henry was a steel-driving man," and admired Mr. Henry's finesse. I found that I was unable to even make a dent in the pipe, and now knew what a hero John Henry must have truly been. I was getting nowhere. My shoulders were aching and the sound of my blows upon the pipe were becoming progressively quieter. I knew I was losing effective strength, but I was determined to keep swinging.

At some point in my litany of curses -- quickly reduced to four letters of verbalization followed by an ever so mild ping! of contact between hammer and pipe -- I heard someone downstairs knocking at my front door. I paused for a moment to make sure I had heard correctly. Yes, someone was knocking. I set the hammer head-down on the floor. As soon as I let go the handle, I knew I would not be able to pick it up again. My shoulders, arms, and upper body were already twitching with pain, after barely 45 minutes' labor. I stumbled down the stairs to open the door.

"Whatever are you doing, child?" queried a lavishly arranged countenance set some 6-feet-4 inches off the ground. "Have I arrived at an indiscreet moment? I do hope so."

The demure Ms. Andromeda Summerville entered my home with a strut evocative enough to drive any number of gaunt fashion models from the runways of Paris to a lifetime of hawking foundation garments at WalMart. Ms. Summerville, ever the star, was clad in designer sweats, tank top and shorts, with a spotless set of $200 running shoes on her dainty size-11 feet. She had obviously been out for a jog, but sweat had not yet been added to the outfit.

"I'm hitting a pipe upstairs with a sledgehammer," I said.

"How terribly exciting for you. Shall we go see?" Andy swept up to the second floor to inspect the site of my demolition. "Where exactly have you been hitting this pipe?" she said, a small upturn at the corners of her mouth.

"I know. It's not working. I haven't made a mark on it, and the thing has got to go. I'll probably have to hire those same damned plumbers to come back and do more damage."

"Oh, sweet boy, let's not be hasty. Is this the device?" she said, lifting the 20-pounder as easily as if it were a carpenter's hand tool.

"That's the one."

"Now I'll be glad to give you a bit of assistance, but you mustn't let on to anyone. It would ruin the image that I work so hard to maintain."

"You're not going to hurt yourself, are you? That hammer can be dangerous."

"Darling, I've dealt with both the metaphor and the reality many times. Just stand back and let a girl do what she can."

Andy tapped the pipe lightly at intervals of a foot from the floor joint to the ceiling, listening after each contact to the pitch of the noise. She came to a conclusion, stepped back a foot, and placed the hammer against the iron at a spot about three feet up. She took a deep breath. I could see the veins in the muscles of her biceps begin to swell. Then suddenly she drew back the sledge and loosed a swinging blow that ended with a deep crack, a rumble, and the collapse of the entire pipe above. I hadn't prepared for the circumstance of success, and the iron fragments hit my wood floor with force, gouging small holes in its waxed surface. But the pipe was down, and I would be re-sanding surfaces soon anyway. The damage was a small price to pay.

"Wonderful. Wonderful!" I yelled, patting the steel-driving Summerville solidly on the shoulder. "Andromeda, I adore you. And I am in your debt. You've saved me the horror of having to invite those monster plumbers back into my house, not to mention the expense. How can I ever thank you?"

"Dinner would be nice. I'm tired of eating alone, and I'm just not ready for the restaurant scene yet. A girl has to prepare for such things."

"Fine, I love to cook, and haven't had an opportunity or reason to really fire up the stove since I've moved in. Dinner, tomorrow night, seven?"

"I'll dress."

"I knew you would."

A hot bath in what is your own home will do wonders for culinary morale.

I didn't want to stretch too far the first time out, not until I got the hang of the eccentricities of this particular stove. And there lay another in this series of firsts: this was the first stove I had ever owned rather than rented. I decided to make something that I knew well enough to knock together on autopilot. I would make crawfish bisque, a dish any hungry person in south Louisiana is trained to make as soon as he or she can stand upright over flames. Crawfish, around my parents' house, were the plentiful free food that appeared in all the bayous and ponds every March. We caught them for the fun of it, and brought home bushel baskets full of squirming crawdads with their claws poised to grab the thoughtless human. Might as well know how to cook the things. I did.

Ever the thoughtful guest, Andy called to confirm in mid-afternoon, and when she found out that I was already cooking, asked to come over early and watch the process, so she could witness the Way of the Kitchen.

"I'm going to settle down one day, and I want to be able to raise passion in every room of the house, including the kitchen," said my Texas-sized guest. She arrived in a provocative scarlet two-piece ensemble topped with some rather modernist accessories which she had arranged over a small lacy apron.

Did I fail to mention that Andromeda Summerville is a drag queen?

"I've got the outfit already, you see, to make hubby happy when he comes home. Now, if I could just concoct something edible that I didn't have to sneak in from an Oriental delivery service. Tell me everything, dear boy."

"We are going to make crawfish bisque, stuffing the heads."

"Oh, do, baby, yes. Make me obey your will."

"To the background lecture, then. You can help me chop ingredients while I talk." I handed her a knife and cleaned another place on the counter. The two of us began reducing vegetables into small sauté-able cubes as I gave my spiel.

"It is important to know the tradition of these dishes. The story makes the food even better for those who will eat it.

"Since we are in the springtime height of the crawfish season, and since the wild crawfish are coming in so plentifully out of the Atchafalaya Basin, we are going to take the time to make a traditional dish from the swamplands.

"It does fill an hour or two, if you're able to get fresh crawfish, because you must boil them and peel the tails, rather than simply buying them pre-cooked, peeled, and frozen into tidy blocks. But the cooking period is one of the reasons why the men like it so much -- it takes them at least a six-pack of waiting around to eat."

"I have seen those same beverage-measured culinary methods used in my own native Texas. But solely in the incineration of large hooved mammals," said the delightfully-accoutered sous chef. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm taking notes," said Andy, and she was. There was a large pink poodle on the notebook she had removed from her handbag. The dog looked somewhat disgruntled, I am sure due to the fact that he had been forced to pose in the arms of a teenaged girl who signed her name "Love, Annette." A substantial rocket-nosed brassiere and rounded mouse-ear chapeau made all further identification unnecessary: Miss Annette Funicello had been the start of many a baby boomer's sexual fantasies from 1955-58 on Disney's TV hit "The Mickey Mouse Club."

Andy was scribbling madly. "If this doesn't get me the right man, I don't know what will," she muttered to Annette.

"There are at least 48 heads in a standard bisque," I started. "But you must remember that it is meant to feed six hungry people. Or just you and me, especially after we've talked about nothing but food for the better part of an hour preparing it, and have at least another hour beyond that to wait until it's done. But of course, we'll have to share with my three demanding cats, who have somehow developed a predilection for seafood with tangy sauces."

"Forty-eight? Heads? Two hours?" Andy's pen had stopped in its heavily looped tracks. "This cooking business takes longer than childbirth. At least my own, which was rapid. Seems Mater was anxious to get shed of me from the very start."

"It doesn't have to take that long," I said, ignoring the natal digression, "but some dishes are meant as much for the camaraderie that is enjoyed during the cooking as they are for the final goal, eating a meal together."

"Maybe I'll just do the easy thing and hire a chef. Someone colorful. A saucier. I've always loved the term saucier, haven't you?" said Ms. Summerville, turning another page on Annette and her attendant canine. "But until then, I have you to give me lessons. I can pay my way if you've more pipes that need mending."

"My pleasure, even without the plumber's wrench. You can do this, Andy."

"Yes. If Tammy Wynette can cook, so can I."

And so she could. After we ate later that night, the gravy-spattered demoiselle happily took three containers of bisque back to her rented double shotgun home to feed the other tenants with the first products of her efforts as chef. She received raves, and was so excited at the prospect of more domestic stove-front action that the very next day she bought herself a 14-inch chef's toque. The tall white cylindrical hat brought her total height, counting the 5-inch Manolo Blahnik spike heels, to 7-feet-11-inches.

In the kitchen, like everywhere else, Andromeda Summerville would be noticed.

In one of our last conversations, she called from the hospice where she had moved a month earlier, to inform me of her decision to be cremated in a daringly low-cut Anne Klein sheath, fashioned of polished black silk, and complemented by two strands of her grandmother's pearls.

"Who knows who'll be waiting there," she'd said. "Dear boy, wardrobe for the afterlife is such a difficult decision, but you can't go wrong with the classics."

Indeed, Andy. You truly can't.

* * *

EPILOGUE. I understand that descriptions of alternative lifestyles may frequently not seem reality-based. And so, I offer a 2006 news article, proving, I do believe, that warm-hearted Andromeda may actually be seen as quite normal, at least in New Orleans:

New Orleans CityBusiness June 26, 2006 09:24 MDT
Transvestite Gang Pesters Magazine Street

NEW ORLEANS — Robyn Lewis, owner of Dark Charm fashion and accessories for women, represents the first line of defense for the Magazine Street shop owners. She is the first to see them come strutting in their pumps down St. Andrew Street, the bewigged pack of thieves who have plagued the Lower Garden District since May.

Like an SOS flare, Lewis grabs her emergency phone list and starts calling.

"They're coming," she warns Eric Ogle, a salesman at Vegas, a block down Magazine Street. Ogle, who was terrorized by the brazen crew two months earlier, alerts neighboring Winky's where manager Kendra Bonga braces for the onslaught.

Soon every shop owner in the 2000 block of Magazine Street has been alerted.

Sarah Celino at Trashy Diva eyes the door, ready to flip the lock at the first sight of the ringleader's pink jumpsuit and fluorescent red wig.

Down at Turncoats, where the fashion-happy gang once made off with more than $2,000 in merchandise, store manager Wes Davis stands ready.

Davis said it wasn't supposed to be like this. They survived Hurricane Katrina's Category 3 winds and the ensuing looters. They reopened despite the long odds of doing business in a devastated city. The last thing the Magazine Street shop owners expected to threaten their survival was a crime ring of transvestites.

"They're fearless," said Ogle. "Once they see something they like they won't stop until they have it. They don't care; they'll go to jail. It's really gotten bad. You know it's ridiculous when everyone on the block knows who they are."

Expensive tastes

The transvestites first appeared in March when they raided Magazine Street like a marauding army of kleptomaniacal showgirls, said Davis, using clockwork precision and brute force to satisfy high-end boutique needs.

They first hit Vegas March 31 while Ogle was working.

"They come in groups of three or four. One tries to distract you while the others get the stuff and run out the door. It's very simple," Ogle said.

Next door at Winky's, Bonga heard people screaming inside Vegas, then saw a blur of cheap wigs and masculine legs in designer shoes streak past her door.

"All of a sudden our UPS guy dove out of the store and tried to tackle them and there's little Eric from next door on the sidewalk with a bunch of stuff he managed to grab from one of the guys," Bonga said. "The other two guys took off down the street and jumped into a car driven by a real girl."

Ogle gave police a description of the perpetrators — African-American males ranging in height from 6 feet to 6 feet 5 inches tall. They all wore the same midriff shirts and wigs with twisted, dreadnaught hair.

"They're all very skinny and very flamboyant," Ogle said.

Two hours after the police left, the transvestites returned to Magazine Street to storm Turncoats just a block away from Vegas, and made off with more than $2,000 in merchandise.

"They move like clockwork," Davis said. "Two thousand dollars is a lot for our store to lose, especially being in the slow summer season. It makes it so I can't even mark my stuff down as much as I want to because I'm trying to make up for what I lost."

In the ensuing weeks, the gang of transvestites continued their reign of terror. Sometimes they come dressed as men, though Bonga said it is obvious who they are based on their delicately plucked eyebrows. Sometimes they bring 2-year-old children to add to the level of distraction. They once returned to Vegas holding an "infant" that really was a Cabbage Patch doll wrapped in a blanket.

"They'll make themselves scarce for a few weeks and then one day you'll be busy with a customer and all of a sudden there's a whole slew of them in your store and there's nothing you can do because you're there by yourself," Lewis said.

Scarce evidence

The New Orleans Police Department investigated the Turncoats robbery but unless police catch a shoplifter in the act or in possession of stolen property there is little they can do besides take a report, said NOPD spokeswoman Bambi Hall.

"If store security states that someone took something, and then by the time we apprehend them they don't have the property, then there's really nothing we can do because it's their word against the (suspect)," Hall said.

Lewis said she understands the understaffed NOPD has bigger priorities than to "catch a drag queen running down the street with an armful of clothing." So the store owners created their own watchdog system unofficially known as the "Drag Queen Alert List," a comprehensive phone roster of every business on the block with stars next to those who carry guns.

When one shop owner spots a gang member, they immediately warn everyone on the block and raise their defenses in unison.

When they enter Turncoats, Davis said he locks them inside the store, which "freaks them out," and they leave.

Celino said she doesn't even wait for them to enter the store.

"A couple weeks ago, a group of them was outside and one looked like the guy who came in here and ripped us off so I locked the door on them," Celino said. "I know maybe that's rude, if they really were innocent people, but there's nothing else we can do. You look like the queens who ripped us off so I'm sorry but I have to lock the door."

Ogle and Bonga say they regret being forced to resort to such profiling but they feel they have no other choice. The transvestites, Ogle said, appear to be drug-addicted and fearless in their lust for designer shoes, jackets and jewelry.

"The city's not functioning the way it was and I'm sure a lot of them were getting some kind of government aid, which they probably aren't getting any more so they're incredibly desperate," Ogle said.

And sometimes violent.

When Lewis co-owned Trashy Diva, they attacked one of her partners in the French Quarter location, throwing her to the ground and tossing a heavy mannequin on top of her.

"They're kind of confused because they think they're women so they don't mind hitting women, but they're dudes. If you get hit by one it's like getting hit by a dude. ... Because the police are so poorly staffed, we're kind of on our own but the system we have seems to be working. I haven't seen them in at least a week but they'll be back. They're never gone for long."

© Jim Gabour

Jim Gabour is an award-winning producer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures, such as directing a four-hour worldwide BBC broadcast live via satellites from the carnivals in Rio, Trinidad and New Orleans. Twice named the featured director of the year at the International Broadcasters' Conference in Amsterdam, Gabour produced and directed Norah Jones' multi-platinum DVD concert, and counts subjects as varied as Jamaican hip hop duo Floetry, famed Memphis soul singer Al Green, and recently a concert celebrating the post-Katrina return of traditional Creole jazz families to New Orleans. Gabour received a 2007 Grammy nomination for his film on composer Terence Blanchard, and is currently scripting a feature documentary film on the history of New Orleans music. He serves as Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music Technology at Loyola University.