Made in New Orleans

old-mint-2

I received a small envelope from an old friend in June of this year. It contained a silver dollar in a plastic collector’s case. I collected coins a long time ago and am still surprised at how much I remember, including where mint marks are located (or, in the case of the Philadelphia mint, absent) on each coin. The silver dollar in question, minted in 1885, bore the cryptic inscription ‘O’ on its reverse, or “tails” side, under the, um, tail of the eagle. The ‘O,’ I knew, stood for “New Orleans.” I called my friend, an antique dealer of some local renown, and thanked him for the unexpected gift. He advised that he had come across the item and, after making sure that it wasn’t one of of only two hundred minted, sent it to me with the thought that I could take it with me to New Orleans next time I went. I did that when I returned to New Orleans for business and Bouchercon last week and raised him one. I took that silver dollar back to its birthing room, if you will.

The place where I was born in no longer in existence — that covered wagon, alas, was attacked and set afire by Indians, but I digress — but the United States Mint in New Orleans still is. It is imaginatively and accurately known as “The Old Mint,” and does not refer to that unwrapped peppermint that James Scott Bell found in the pocket of a winter coat he hadn’t worn for a few years. No, The Old Mint is at the very edge of the French Quarter, tucked into a corner by the Mississippi River east of the French Market. It’s not a place that is close to tourist interests, so it is quiet, dim, and cool, the entrance way overseen by a somewhat sleepy-looking guard who seemed secure in the knowledge that there was nothing in the building that no one would be interested in stealing, unless steel coin presses weighing around twenty tons were to suddenly become valuable. There were, interestingly enough, a number of people there, and they weren’t drawn by the cost of admission (free!) or the promise of air conditioning on a New Orleans late summer day where the temperature was flirting with 95 degrees by 11:00 AM. No, they were coin collectors, past and present, and by dipping into conversations here and there I learned that they were serious about their hobby. They ranged in age from pre-adolescent (looking like I probably did back then, only skinny) to geriatric (um, looking like I do now, though not as vigorous and virile) and, one and all ,they were as excited to be there as the members of a bachelor party would be at Temptations on Bourbon Street, only quieter. I waited until the herd passed through and then quietly brought my silver dollar over to a press, reached across the barrier, and laid it down on the surface.

And…something connected. It was almost electric. I had set off to do the errand as a lark, and was still inwardly laughing over my good fortune of having literally run into British publishing giants Ali Karim and Michael Stotter, both of whom were in town for Bouchercon, on Chartres Street, and then being the subject of one of Ali’s recorded street interviews. The trip to The Old Mint at that point was almost an afterthought…that is, until the mission was accomplished. It felt as if a circle had been completed, and I suppose it had.

I put the silver dollar back into my pocket and left the Mint museum, though not The Old Mint building. The building is the location not only for exhibits pertaining to the Mint — which was used by both the United States and the Confederate States (at different times, of course) — but also The New Orleans Jazz Museum, which contains a great deal of memorabilia of musical greats who have come and gone but whose influence is still felt, though unfortunately generally forgotten. When I finally left, everything seemed just a tad different. I am at the age where I am deleting material goods rather than acquiring them, but I will hang on to that silver dollar. And it will come back with me to New Orleans when I return, again and again.

It was my favorite trip to New Orleans — and I had just been there three weeks previously — and my favorite Bouchercon to date. I really want to go again so I’m planning another trip near Christmas. My friend recently stayed at the InterContinental Hotel New Orleans so I will have to ask her what it was like. There were many high points…from seeing Laura Benedict at a publisher’s party and meeting Elaine Viets as she tried to sneak past me at a book signing, to meeting and having dinner with a couple of anonymous TKZ fans who have become my new best friends; from taking author Kelli Stanley and Tana Hall to Meyer the Hatter, to getting detained by security at the host hotel (don’t look like Tony Soprano and carry a shotgun bag into a crowded hotel lobby. It has the potential to ruin your day); and of course, running into Ali and Michael just about everywhere…but that silver dollar still carries a faint bit of electricity as it rests in my pocket.

That’s me. What did you do last week?

4+

23 thoughts on “Made in New Orleans

  1. Sounds like a great trip. Reminds me of the one time I visited New Orleans. It was December, 1968. I was 19, stationed at my job training school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS. Three of us airmen found a German pilot trainee who was also there for training, and who spoke very little English. He had a car – a VW of course. So we all piled in one Saturday and took off for New Orleans. We visited the French Quarter, got lost and crossed Lake Pontchartrain twice before finding our way back to Bourbon Street. I had my first and last mixed drink – Robitussin and Coke, I think. I took one sip and left it on the table. The German pilot got stone drunk on beer. ( I still have yet to taste beer – can’t get past the smell.) We somehow managed to figure out his foreign car and get us back to the base, very early Sunday morning. A fun time was had by all – except the German pilot. Apparently he was never authorized to leave the base.

    I’ve often thought about returning to New Orleans with my wife and my 67 year old self to see the place with more mature eyes and enjoy the cultural things I didn’t appreciate back then. But I will never forget that Saturday in 1968.

    By the way, we have a jazz museum and district in Kansas City as well.

    • First! Dave, thanks for your kind words and for your story. Bourbon Street (and Decatur Street, for that matter) are far, far different from what they were in 1968. Some of the old school restaurants remain in place — as do the strip clubs — but it’s given way to tee-shirt shops and the like, I’m afraid. Most of the jazz has moved over to Frenchmen Street. That’s a great story you told. I too got lost one time and found myself going across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway by accident. Not something you want to do when the gas gauge is kissing the ‘E’ on the dash.

      Thank you as always for stopping by, Dave. You always have a great story!

  2. Sounds like Bouchercon was fun. All those names brought fond memories & reminded me when you and I met at a con in Cleveland. I think of me hiding in potted plants in the lobby, you playing a cool customer packing heat as we went through security at a casino, our impromptu dinner with friends we herded up in the lobby, you being a dear friend to escort the lovely Linda Castillo to her hotel navigating downtown Cleveland at night, ever the gentleman -.and a bevy of sparsely clad young ladies dressed in mini-kilts. Writers’ conferences are definitely fun.

    I love New Orleans. Have an excellent weekend, my fine friend.

    • Jordan, you always bring a smile and a laugh! Remember WHY you were hiding in the potted plants? And how security waved me right through while you, so sweet and harmless looking, were subjected to the third degree search of your purse, etc.? I did get my comeuppance in New Orleans when I walked through the Marriott lobby carrying a shotgun bag and was detained by security, but that’s a story for another time.

      I really missed you at Bouchercon, Jordan. Hopefully we’ll both be present at the next one. All best!

      • Sounds like another great story, Joe. I’m so glad you had a blast in New Orleans and at Boucheron. I wanted to go so badly, but after WPA and the hell Delta put me through, cancelling all my flights numerous times, I’d had just about enough of traveling for a while. I’m content to live vicariously through you, though. Hope to see you next year!

        • Sue, as much fun as New Orleans was, something was missing and it was you! Your reason for not going is my reason for driving everywhere. I have control surrender issues and was just about outside of my comfort zone taking the streetcar…anyway, it was a great time but it would have been better with you there. I’ll see you next year in Toronto unless I’m told “HALT! In the name of the Queen!” at the border.

          Actually, I hereby propose that New Orleans become the fixed site of Bouchercon, the way that NYC is for Thrillerfest. People actually seemed to be having a great time there, unlike some of the places it’s been…

  3. I haven’t been to the Big Easy in (gasp) twenty years, and then it was just before Mardi Gras (how cliché). I was the smallest member of the four of us there, and felt my feet come off the pavement as we tried to cross the street (and wound up on the diagonally opposite corner).

    You “electric” momment reminded me of a time (somewhere else), when a handmade brick from an 1840’s mill, showing the thumb print on one side, and three fingers on the other, was passed around. I placed my digits appropriately, and the hair on my arms stood on up (as would the hair on my head, had I had enough)

    • George, the dilemma you described crossing the street is one which those of us of normal height frequently encounter when accompanying those of taller stature! I’m glad you survived unscathed. Thanks for sharing that story as well as that of the handmade brick.

      Based on your description of yourself, I have the feeling that if we met we both might feel as if we were staring into a mirror. Luck fellows, us. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Great story! A real connection with plenty off amps. In 1972 I went to Mardi Gras with a college classmate from Metairie, LA. His grandfather ran a shoe shop on Royal Street right off Canal. The day before the big parade we based our foray down Bourbon Street out of the shop. Had my first red beans and rice, and more significantly, my first Hurricane from Pat O’Briens.

    Thank you for sharing that story.

    • I like that particular block of Royal that you described, Lance, it’s technically not in the Quarter (according to the French Quarter Commission, anyway) so you get all sorts of interesting little places in there now and again. Thanks for sharing the story of your first visit, which sounds like a fine one.

  5. Joe, haven’t been back to New Orleans in years, but I do recall that the dealer from whom I purchased coins was in New Orleans, in the heart of the Quarter. Why did I not spend my money closer to home, using one of the fine coin dealers here in Dallas? Can’t recall, but I think it was because the first coin in my collection came from there, and for some reason I didn’t want to break the string.

    Good to hear about your experiences in the Big Easy, although I doubt that we’ll ever know the complete story behind the story of some of those exploits. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Richard, I think I know the place you’re describing, it’s on Royal and in addition to coins they sell antique firearms, cutlasses, and all sorts of other goodies. My sons, who didn’t even collect coins, couldn’t resist the allure of the place. It’s as if you’re compelled to spend money when you walk in there.

    Thanks for sharing. I may tell another story on my next turn in the barrel here at TKZ…the one about the security guard. We’ll see!

    • Jim, it’s that clothing item you call a “windbreaker,” the one you keep in the back of your closet and only take out to wear in February. On the 29th.

  7. Joe, good afternoon.

    Great story. Alas, I have no New Orleans stories to tell. But you asked what we did last week.

    My wife and I are in the process of moving from one house to another (8 miles apart). The problem: I’ve been collecting tools for 28 years. So the gems I’ve uncovered in the last month or so are old tools I had forgotten, buried under many other tools. Fortunately, we are about done with the move. And the real problem has been parting with some of the junk I’ve collected – all treasures to me.

    Thanks for your post, and I would love to hear “the rest of the story” on some of those New Orleans escapades.

  8. Steve good afternoon to you. And thank you so much for 1) stopping by, 2) sharing and 3) not asking me to help you move! Prepping for a move would be for me like an archaeological dog, where one would move backward in time through the strata of report cards, receipts (any reason why I’m hanging onto the records of a desktop I bought at Circuit City in 1997?) and the like. I feel your pain.

    As for at least one of the additional stories…please come back in two weeks. And good luck with the moving. Hope you enjoy your new home.

  9. You’re a great spinner of yarns, Joe.

    My best New Orleans story (only been there once, alas) involved first taking a trip on the famous St. Charles streetcar and then walking ten long blocks toward the river through a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. We were in search of the original Tibitina’s down on Napoleon Street. My sister Kelly, when she saw the place, said she didn’t think we should go in. (It does look dicey). But it was Sunday afternoon. How much trouble could we get into?

    The one-time gambling joint and brothel featured a great zydeco band that day and the drinks were cheap. Lots of families with kids in tow. I was waltzed expertly around the dance floor by an ancient one-armed tug boat captain named Pete who had moves like Gene Kelly.

    One of my best ever memories. Someday Pete will make it into a book.

  10. For years Southern Bell refused to change the pay phone from ten cents to a quarter. Remember? And the tourists were the only folks who carried quarters! The responses today make me smile. Thanks.
    Richard

    • Thank you, Richard! I remember that, now that you mention it…that’s going back some to when 1) pay phone calls were a dime and 2) there were pay phones everywhere. Banks of them. I’m waiting for the day when someone asks, “What’s a pay phone?” or “What’s a phone booth?”

  11. I was 21 in 1973, working out of West Memphis on a Rock Island RR tie gang upgrading the Arkansas line from forty miles east of Little Rock to the Mississippi River Bridge. One weekend during Mardis Gras, me and three other tie gang crew drove to NO in my sky blue ’67 GMC van with its white lace handkerchief accent paint on the top half of each side. Cops who stopped me always referred to it as a “hippie van.”

    We stayed in a motel on the edge of NO Friday night, drove into town the next morning, and stumbled upon a legal, no-meter parking spot under a bridge a few blocks walk from Bourbon Street. We didn’t move the van until we left sometime in the wee hours after midnight Sunday, with just enough driving hours to get to work on time Monday morning.

    I returned to the van a couple of times to get some shut-eye. When I opened the rear door, I had to push my way between the strangers asleep in the back. My buddies and I had a pre-arranged meeting at a bar Sunday afternoon to check in and make sure our exit plan was still in place. Three of us made it.

    The only other time I saw anybody I knew was an occasional glimpse when passing in pedestrian traffic going opposite directions (the streets were so jam packed it took a lot of time and effort to work my way over to a Hurricane Stand on the sidewalk every time my cup went empty, let alone try to cross to the opposite side); one unexpected encounter with one guy who was in a card game in a Bourbon Street bar; and early Saturday evening, as I neared a street where an official parade was underway, I saw my skinny railroad pal Bird Legs from Iowa (I’ve long forgotten his actual name).

    Bird Legs had his arms and legs hooked around the top light fixture supports of one of those ornate dual-lamp streetlights, multiple strings of beads on his arms and wrapped around his neck, yelling for more from passing floats, and getting major props from amused paraders and crowd alike.

    When we got back to my van to leave, we had to evict a few sleepers. One dude, learning we had to get going back to W Memphis to get to work, asked for a lift to the north end of the city to hitch a ride west to Texas. It was on our way, so we were happy to oblige. We traded off driving every hour or so, and made it back just before starting time.


  12. I’m speechless. Momentarily. What a great, great, GREAT story Richard, and so well told! You could make a novel out of that. You and your friends return to the van and find a dead body inside. You roll it out and drive off, each of you vowing to never say anything. You are all secure in your lives, with families, jobs etc., then suddenly, forty years later, you each get anonymous emails that say…

    I’m willing to lay odds that the parking spot you mentioned in on Calliope Street beneath the Pontchartrain I-90 overpass. It’s a homeless encampment now. Anyway, what a trip and what a story. Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.