Before Katrina devastated New Orleans, the State of Alabama sent me and two other newly appointed law clerks to attend a conference there. We were given a pre-paid twin room at the Hotel Monteleone (for the three of us to share) but no food allowance, “‘Cause ya gotta eat anyhow.”
The conference ended on a Friday, and after we had dined on mufaletas and Barq’s root beer we wound up at Pat O’Brien’s bar for “one last drink.” It really was the last drink for one of the guys because he was driving us back early the next morning. The other clerk left a little later because he wanted to stake out our room's last bed and leave me on the floor, again.
It was just midnight and Pat’s had just dropped the price of Dixie beer to two for a dollar. I still had four bucks in my pocket and no bed in my near future. Standing at that bar alone was about as good as life was going to get that night, so I handed the bartender a dollar and collected two Dixies.
Right then, a chestnut-haired girl in a Tulane t-shirt stepped into the vacancy left at the bar by my bed-hound colleague. She ordered something expensive and foreign. With some rebuke about Louisiana loyalty, I offered her my other Dixie. She took my beer and cancelled her order, and that’s how I met Stephanie.
She said she was a nurse or a doctor’s assistant or something. I said I was a lawyer or a judge’s assistant or something. We told each other the people we’d come with had gone home, but we didn’t know them that well anyway. And then we said whatever you say to someone you’ve just met when you’re afraid they’ll leave if the conversation dies.
Eventually the beer prices went back up, or my four bucks ran out, or we just decided we needed air and we went outside. On Chartres Street, we bumped into three seamen from the French navy. Inexplicably, these sailors imagined their mother tongue might be a useful aid to conversation in the French Quarter. A couple of Oklahoma tourists were proving them seriously wrong when Stephanie turned up.
Stephanie was either born speaking French or she had breathed the language in whole in her childhood. She spoke in such a comfortable and colloquial way that as soon as I heard her, I knew those sailors would follow us wherever we went. We wandered all over the Quarter with Stephanie explaining the sights and me vainly trying to construct French sentences that didn’t contain the word “merde.”
Inevitably, we came into Café du Monde for caffeine and chicory at three in the morning. And there and then, in one of those transcendental intersections of space and time that reaffirms the existence of God, three French girls appeared at our table, sat down with the sailors and dismissed Stephanie and me from further tour guide duties.
“Let’s go dancing,” she said in the first English words I had heard in hours. She led me down a dark alley to an unmarked door. Without so much as a knock or a “Joe sent me,” she opened the door and admitted me to a pre-dawn club where a zydeco band was playing, liquor was free, and dance floor mobility was severely restricted.
For years after that, whenever I went to New Orleans, I desperately tried and failed to find that door again. I might as well have been seeking the Grail. It was like I had just imagined it.
Whether that party ever ended, or we left early, or I had really only imagined it, I am no longer certain. But I will always be certain of the shrill whistle of a locomotive engine chugging up the levee tracks toward the old Jax Brewery, and the train’s crew cheering Stephanie and me as we stood on the river bank holding each other and watching the sun rise. The moment was shattered, but it was nice to be appreciated by so many strangers.
There was nothing to do but acknowledge the cheers, find the Tulane t-shirt and walk back through the scattered refuse and colliding odors of a French Quarter Saturday dawn. At the door of the Monteleone, we just said goodbye and she walked off toward the St. Charles Avenue streetcar.
On the drive back to Alabama, I tried to call her from a gas station pay phone near Slidell. Somebody had stolen the phonebook. I got back in the car and went home.
I hadn’t thought much about that night or about Stephanie until quite recently, when I was watching reports of a new hurricane crashing toward the Crescent City. And I remembered aerial images of the Katrina floods accompanied by that old Randy Newman song about Evangeline getting washed away. And I remembered a distant evening and the French-speaking Louisiana girl who knew where the door was.
And, for the second time, I wondered if she got lost in the flood. Or if she got away all right.