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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Drinking the Wine Before It Spoils by John Biguenet

Oct. 9, 2005
Drinking the Wine Before It Spoils

Hospitality still thrives here, along with the mold. We’ve been back in New Orleans for only three nights, but we’ve already been invited to dinner twice. Yesterday after trying to salvage some clothing from our ruined house, we returned to the empty daycare center where we’re staying, took startlingly invigorating cold showers (because the building currently has no hot water), and drove to Uptown New Orleans for a dinner party that began at five o’clock. Thanks to its oppressive heat so much of the year, the city has always taken advantage of the cooler hours after dark for its social life; in fact, it’s a very late-night town. But the 8:00 p.m. curfew, strictly enforced by police and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, demanded that we eat dinner by daylight. Happily, our hosts informed us after we had arrived, they had just heard an announcement that the curfew had been postponed until midnight for the weekend and beyond, so we all relaxed for a leisurely evening together.

The drive over to their house had alternated familiar scenes we remembered from before the storm with nearly incomprehensible visions of devastation and transformation. Across from Notre Dame Seminary on Carrollton Avenue, for example, an entire block of stately homes had gone up in flames; a few steel staircases and charred brick chimneys rose out of what had become simply a field of ashes. Then, at the entrance to the street where we were to have dinner, an Israeli security team in black flak vests with Uzis slung over their shoulders, politely asked us for our identification; one of the young men told us how much he had fallen in love with New Orleans, then lifted the barricade and waved us on.

Our friends, two doctors, greeted us just beyond the heap of appliances and household items destroyed in the storm and stacked along their curb. Their twin three-year-old girls waved to us from the porch, then demonstrated that they could still play horse on the swaying branch of the ancient oak in their yard that swooped so low it had rubbed the ground raw beneath it from years of children’s games. That was their first question after the hurricane, their mother explained. Had the branch broken?

We had been warned that with the refrigerator wrapped in duct tape out front, the dinner would have to be very simple, just pasta and some roasted peppers. But gathering in the kitchen while waiting for the other two guests to arrive, we were handed glasses of a vintage Pomerol. When I remarked that they’d served us an extraordinary wine for such a simple meal, one of our hosts told us that, with the power off in the house for a month and the temperature outside in the nineties every day, their whole collection of wines had overheated. It would all be vinegar in a few weeks. So they were working their way through the bottles that hadn’t been submerged, drinking the oldest vintages first. After what we’d been through since the storm, we were happy to help them with their project.

The other guests arrived, and our hosts opened another old Bordeaux and served a tray of hors d’oeuvres. The new couple explained that they couldn’t stay for dinner; they had to deal with their house. Flooded? I asked. No, I was told, it had exploded three days ago when the electricity was restored and a power surge had sparked a gas explosion from a ruptured line. In fact, we could see what was left of it, if we liked. It was only three houses farther down the block, and the façade was still standing. Our hosts added that it had been the oldest house in the neighborhood, having been built over 150 years ago.

Like everyone else we’ve met who has returned to New Orleans, they were very calm as they recounted the disaster they had experienced. I suppose we’re all getting used to it, losing houses.

After the couple had left with our sympathy, the four of us and the twins ate the simple but absolutely delicious meal with another bottle of the Pomerol. Our friends confessed that they have had the same reaction to what’s happened as Marsha and I: they feel as if a whole new set of possibilities has opened up for them. They have no intention of slipping back into their old lives without making conscious decisions about what they want their future to be. Their two older sons joined us for dessert, and we opened a bottle of port, toasting that future, whatever it may be, while the twins went around the table, making wishes and blowing out the candles in front of each of us.


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