A Night On the Rock-Alcatraz Overnight

31 01 2013

While most people that were sent to Alcatraz wanted nothing more than to get off “The Rock” surprisingly when I was offered the chance to actually be stranded there overnight I jumped at it!  I first heard about the trip when I was working the annual Make-A-Wish® Wine and Wishes® event last year and thought it sounded amazing.  I remembered that the first time I’d heard the auction lot announced I remarked to Amy Currens how much I’d give to be able to spend a night on the ROCK.  It just goes to show what a simple intention can accomplish!

I have always loved Alcatraz from afar.  I went once as a child, but hardly remember, and ever since moving to San Francisco in 1996 I’d been meaning to visit.  It took until May of 2012 for me to do so when my brother Omar and his girlfriend Jess were in town.  We took off on a Wednesday to visit and really enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day on the rock visiting the sites and even taking what I thought was an amazing audio tour of the cell house.  I entered cell #9 in D Block, an isolation cell and said to my brother, “Oh my God, can you imagine spending the night in here?”  Clearly fueled by my addictive viewing of shows such as “Ghost Adventures” and formerly what was one of my favorites, “Fear” from MTV, all I wanted to do was head out and perform my own investigation.

Later in the year I was out and about visiting accounts trying to collect some information for Wines of Chile when I saw on Facebook that my buddy Hoss Zaré, Chef of Zaré at Fly Trap was around the corner from where I was enjoying a glass of wine (Bin 38) so I zipped on over to A16 and busted in on his dinner to enjoy some delicious wine and pasta.  At the end of dinner he said, “You wouldn’t want to be my sous chef for a dinner on Alcatraz would you?  It’s for Make a Wish®!  We get to stay the night!”

I could not believe my good fortune!

I rushed home from A16 completely elated to wake my husband tell him the great news!  His immediate reaction was, “Why?  Why would you want to do that?  Oh my God I would never do that!”  It had never even crossed my mind that someone would decline this once in a lifetime opportunity!  So although I was still extremely excited there was of course a bit of fear and nervous anticipation involved as well…

The next few weeks were spent bragging about my upcoming journey and doing some research!  I never knew how little I actually knew about the island I see so often from San Francisco’s many vantage points.  I found a great signed copy of Eyewitness on Alcatraz by Jolene Babyak all about Life on the Rock as told by the Guards, Families and Prisoners.  It gave me some great perspective on the prison and a unique vantage point.  As a fun picture book I bought Alcatraz History and Design of a Landmark by Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel.  I also read and re-read the instructions from the National Park Service.  No alcohol (WHAT!?), no Sharpies (HELLO?  Two of my favorite things?!), bring a sleeping bag, no power, bring a headlamp.  Also Hoss told me to bring my guitar so I could play a song!

So the day of the journey I was scheduled to judge wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, but I zipped out early to be sure I wasn’t going to miss the boat.  Alcatraz Cruises does not wait on anyone whether you have reserved regular tickets or are on a special event.  Best parking for Alcatraz is Pier 29 next door (but the pier suffered a fire less than a week after our event, so check to make sure it’s operational again…)  I got to the dock in time to meet a fun group of the three chefs, Hoss and co-chefs Peter McNee from Poggio and Eric Arnold Wong of E&O Asian Kitchen and their sous chefs (actually legit sous chefs unlike me…although I can set a table and pour soup and whatnot).  Also attending were a group of mostly families and their kids, kids had to be at least nine to come and the families were all really excited with all their gear and sleeping bags and such.

Soon after we gathered we were met by Ranger John Cantwell.  Google the guy and you’ll find out how important he is, he’s worked on the island since he was a teen.  He rolled up on a bicycle relatively sweaty and boasting that he’d just rolled in from Monterey.  In our nervousness we believed him for about a half hour.  He immediately straightened us out by telling us he wasn’t there to offer up ghost stories, my impression is that he knows way to well how miserable it could be dealing with scared kids and adults overnight on the island, he likes his sleep.

There was quite a bit of loading onto a private ferry out to the rock.  We headed out and the day was sunny and gorgeous with some light wind, but overall a very warm day for June in San Francisco.  The journey was a short 10-15 minutes after which there was an equal amount of off-loading.  When we arrived the last daytime guests were leaving the island, there were about 600 more guests on the way for the night tours, but we felt special as they commented on our gear and sleeping bags.  We stored all the food at the dock area under the “Indians Welcome” sign and headed indoors for a short movie about the island.  As soon as it was over we loaded our sleeping gear into the Ranger’s truck, there’s no food allowed in your gear due to rats and mice that they’re careful to keep out of the cell house.  We started the long walk up the rock’s steep paths to the area by the lighthouse.  Our gear was taken into the cell house D Block, the area known for the worst prisoners, where we were told we would spend the night but choose cells later.  I expressed that I wanted #9, an isolation chamber aloud, just sayin’!  We hid our stuff on the upper levels of the block so as not to have it visible to the night guests and the group set out on our community service project to clean up the yard (originally the overnights started as a Boy Scouts program).  We picked up little pieces of paper and tried to avoid all the gull feathers (they gave us gloves luckily) and then John gave us a tour of the gardens and viewed some of the bird sanctuaries.  After our walk the group headed out for the audio tour of the cell block while the chefs and sous chefs ran down the hill to try to get the charcoal started so we would have dinner ready for them when they returned.

You can’t tell three ambitious top chefs from San Francisco to grill hot dogs and burgers, so for the group of 35 the chefs had some pretty extensive dishes planned, thinking we had something a bit bigger than the teeny grill we were presented with.  The grill was made by the last group of prisoners on the Rock.  Luckily the team are professionals and made it work, but it wasn’t the ideal condition to make an extensive meal!  Peter McNee made “Jail Birds” (quail in little cages grilled over the charcoal) served with fresh red cherries, arugula and almonds, and he even went on to make an amazing hot chocolate with whipped cream and a zabaglione atop strawberries for dessert!  A huge challenge and a lot of effort to do over a charcoal fire.  Arnold Eric Wong had amazing pulled pork with a selection of great sauces and fresh herbs served in traditional steamed Chinese buns.  The amazing thing is that they were steamed on location, once again over the open fire.  He also made a great Kombucha that paired perfectly with all the dishes and provided a great alternative to sodas.  Chef Hoss provided a selection of amazing pickles, white strawberries, fiddleheads, etc. and then presented a cold yogurt soup with raisins, nuts, rose and herbs.  The kids in the group were eager sous chefs asking for jobs at every turn, and even tray serving soups!  Then Hoss brought out his lamb shank meatballs, aka the “Ball and Chain” and he had dressed the part in black and white stripes!

While we enjoyed dinner we noticed the last boat leaving, all the workers, every last one, except for the one security guard and John were gone…  When dinner was done I grabbed my guitar and was invited to perform my “Pork Song” and then an encore of “You Gotta Go to Sea”, which was so fun, the Ranger held up a microphone for me and said, “Live from Alcatraz, Rebecca Chapa!”  Hoss provided cheesecake and then everyone milled about until we could clean up.  The greatest part was that the entire group cleaned up together, such an amazing group, we were all in this together, rather than workers and guests.  In a way, we had become a family!

Ranger John gathered us together and we set off on our special tour of the island and it’s normally off limits areas.  We visited the tunnel, industries area, the Morgue, Officer’s Club, Theatre, I think we really saw everything.  He had us traipsing all over the entire property on what was a pretty rigorous journey.  We ended at the Hospital where we were able to go into the isolation areas, rooms with floor to ceiling tiles and not much else but an observation window and a hole in the floor.  We also saw the Birdman of Alcatraz’s cell.  It seemed quite spacious in fact.  By this time we were all totally exhausted, I realized I hadn’t sat down for more than twenty minutes all day.  We gathered up our sleeping bags and gear and each of us took possession of a thin foam mattress pad to sleep on top of…  Folks began scrambling into the cells on the second and third floors of the cell block complete with lights, metal bunks that came out from the walls and in close proximity to each other.  I still had my sights on cell number 9 but was starting to reconsider, after all the talk of rats and mice and god knows what other creepy crawlies I didn’t love the idea of setting myself down on the floor in a room that was wall to wall metal with nothing to protect me and my foam mattress placed directly on the floor.  I edged over to cell number 1, still a floor away from the others but with a bunk and a light switch and also right next to the spiral stairs that lead to my friends in case I freaked out.  I was about to place my foam mattress down on the metal bunk when I noticed a puddle of water.  It seemed weird to me considering we were the only folks on the island since about 9 and it was 2 am, and it hadn’t rained in weeks.  So I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay in cell #9.  As I was arranging my bed on the floor of my cell a few of my cohorts came by to take my photo and tell me how crazy I was to want to stay there.  Ranger John came by and was really surprised that I had taken up residence there and so I told him about the water.  He was a bit flabbergasted when he saw it and then he just said, “Well someone must have spilled water and tried to dry it with his boot and walked away.”

Despite all my intentions to go roaming the cellblock and the island (which John said we had carte blanche to do) I got a bit freaked.  I imagined running into that security guard and losing my mind.  I was also totally exhausted physically from the strenuous day, so I lay down and asked the spirits to just let me stay there without being bothered.  It was weird because it really wasn’t a slumber party type atmosphere when we hit our cells despite all the kids, no laughing or boisterous talking, and all of a sudden just a lot of LOUD snoring.  I’d heard reports of this on the accounts of others who had stayed there, it just seemed to permeate the entire place, there is a ton of echo in there, but it was hard to tell if it was just our group’s snores.  The gulls are also really loud and make really weird sounds and then there is a constant drafty rattling of the windows and weird hisses, clicks, scratches and creaks continuously.  I ran my tape recorder for a quick bit and asked the spirits to let me know they were there if they wanted.  I told them I wasn’t going to listen to the recording now and to please not visit me that night.  I listened to it the next day and found that there was a loud laugh audible just after I said that.  And then nothing else.

Falling asleep after getting used to the noises was pretty fast due to my level of exhaustion, but I did awake at about 4 in the morning with terrible agonizing stomach pain.  I willed it away as I was not about to get up and go anywhere and was pretty much laying there petrified in what was almost total darkness, the reflection from the lights in the cells above providing only limited light at the front of my isolation cell’s open door.  After about a half hour of trying to calm my body and work through the pain I was able to get back to sleep.  7 am came quickly without any more interruptions and I was surprised to see the sun already well up in the sky, I had wanted to wake early to see it rise  We quickly went  through our morning routines and got ourselves gathered at the base of the lighthouse where John had told us to meet.  He did a once over of the cells (apparently there are occasions when overnight guests are too scared to use the restrooms outside of the cell block and dirty their cells, in which case he makes them clean them…)  All was AOK and John announced our special surprise which was that we could walk to the top of the lighthouse!  We had to take turns at the very top as it is really small and John was sure to warn us that the railing was pretty much rusted through so not to touch it. He didn’t have to warn me as I had my back plastered to the wall of the lighthouse the entire time and sidestepped my way around…  I was honestly more frightened up there than I was in cell #9!  They convinced me to climb a small ladder so I could touch the red light at the pinnacle of the island on top of the lighthouse and then I gladly scrambled back down to terra firma.

After a quick breakfast we were presented with our badges that commemorated our overnight on Alcatraz!  As we prepared to get on the ferry back to the mainland we saw an elderly gentleman being guided off the boat to the dock.  It was clear that he was someone special, both from the way that people reacted to his presence but also just from a great energy that he had.  Ranger John introduced us to Frank Heaney.  Heaney was hired in 1943 and was the youngest correctional officer ever on Alcatraz.  He worked for the infamous Warden Swope and during his watch no one ever tried to escape the rock.  His watch on the island ended during a stint in the Korean conflict as well as time spent working for the Albany Fire Department but the allure of the island would not leave him and he ended up returning as a National Park Ranger in 1974.  You can meet Heaney the third Saturday of each month in the bookstore where he is present for book signings of his book “Inside the Walls of Alcatraz”.

The entire journey was incredible and I returned to the wine judging somewhat filthy and pretty tired from my night on the rock but with fun stories for everyone.  Now when I look across the bay I feel a sense of recognition for the magical island that is so close yet so distant at the same time.  Alcatraz is a fun place to visit but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

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A Grateful Harvest: Scalloping in Nantucket

14 11 2012

So here I am in San Francisco waiting for Dungeness crab season to start tomorrow, but I really wish I was out east, in Nantucket to be precise.

I would like to call myself a scalloper… HA!  I have been scalloping exactly twice on what were sure to be the two nicest and warmest days of the season, so although I do appreciate the grueling nature of the industry there is no way I really understand the extent of the cold days with freezing icy wind gusting as the loyal scallopers trudge away to get scallops on your table.

My mother loves scallops, but as a kid I was never a fan, I found them chewy and mostly flavorless.  Most of the time you see scallops in a restaurant they are breaded, overcooked and way too big.  I was not intrigued by them until I worked at Rubicon and Jardiniere with Traci Des Jardins.  Des Jardins is famous for her truffled scallop dish, a heap of creamy and buttery mashed potatoes in the center, that relies on some amazingly flavorful tubers, surrounded in a delicate yet hauntingly flavorful truffle nage and finally garnished with a ring of golden seared scallops.  A “nage” by the way means “in the swim” how amazingly appropriate right?  Anyway the dish was and is absolutely delicious.  Another thing I learned about scallops around the same time was the term day boat, meaning that the boats harvesting the scallops return each day to port to offload them.  It’s a pretty important distinction as scallops do not live as long as clams or other shellfish once caught.  They must be shucked while live and either kept on ice of flash frozen which of course changes their delicate texture.  Having quality scallops as an ingredient of course makes the dish that much better.

Fast forward to last year, December 2011, when I had the opportunity to scallop with my friend Bruce, a commercial scalloper on Nantucket!  Nantucket Bay Scallops are famous internationally due to their very delicate texture and pure sweet flavor.  I find other scallops to be more neutral in flavor and with less of that fresh salty tang of the ocean.  With wine we talk about terroir, but oyster and shellfish purveyors and writer have now coined the word (not sure who to attribute it to, but it’s clever!) “merroir” meaning that oysters, clams and of course scallops taste distinctly different depending on where they originate.  Just like wine the maritime “weather” and climate have a lot to do with how the shellfish grows, the microorganisms, sea life and micro-elements and minerals in the water also affect the flavor in ways hard to define.  Since bivalves filter water to eat they are conduits of flavor even more than grapevines.  They really are made of the fine mixture of what the sea diffuses into them more than any creature I can think of!  As a result of the unique characteristics of Nantucket, Nantucket Bay Scallops garner a higher price per pound due to the limited supply.  The price varies annually but this year’s season opened paying scallopers $10/lb with retail prices ranging from $14-$17.95.

Nantucket regulates scallop fishing in order to preserve the next year’s harvest.  Many consumers actually scallop with their families but there are strict guidelines as to days allowed, quantities and permits are needed.  Also every scallop harvested either commercially or recreationally must have a raised annual growth ring to show it is one year minimum in age or fit a size requirement.  This ensures a healthy population to spawn for the next season.  Recreational scalloping starts October 1 annually.  During the season you will see entire families in their waders working the shallows with inter tubes that suspend wire baskets, raking in up to a bushel a week.  The commercial season begins November 1 and runs until March 31.  Scallopers can harvest up to five cases per day, which can bring in about $400 for that type of haul.  That said, the scallop season is what many commercial scallopers rely on as their only source of winter income, and there are days that are easy and scallops are plentiful, but there are days that are rough both in terms of weather and the catch.

Our day began very early as I was picked up before dawn to get out on the water.  It was unseasonably warm for December 2, which was also the first day of the annual Christmas Stroll.  We headed out in a truck with a big rusted out flatbed, no stranger to seawater.  I was outfitted in Grunden’s orange pants and some waterproof boots, a heavy sweater and Carhaart jacket, orange waterproof slicker, glove liners and large orange gloves and a warm hat as we set off from Nantucket harbor just before dawn.  Scallopers have to wait until 6:30am to start scalloping, so most like to be at the area they plan to dredge by then.  The cue to start is the horn of the first Steamship ferry as it leaves Nantucket for Hyannis at 6:30am.  The whistle blew and we started working.  The process is relatively simple but time consuming and takes a good deal of strength.  The dredges are released behind the boat in groups so as not to get tangled up and the boat moves slowly along as these weighted nets scrape the bottom of the harbor.   When it seems enough time has passed they are cranked up onto a sorting table and emptied of hopefully scallops.  When the first heaping dredge full of the sea came up and was dumped on the table it included everything imaginable, sea stars, eelgrass, rocks, clams, fish, mud all writhing around and soaking wet.  And the most amazing thing, as the first haul was emptied onto the sorting area, a heap of scallops chattered away as they snapped open and shut repeatedly in the early light of dawn.  It was my job to help sort through the mess and retrieve the scallops, all at the same time while checking to be sure they had the growth ring and were old enough.  I had trouble believing that normally Bruce does all of this solo, it’s a lot of work, and quite honestly having me there was more of a hindrance than help as he had to coach me quite a bit.  “Is this one old enough?  How about this one?”, I’d say to which he’d reply, “Make a decision!”  Master of efficiency, he commented that I should never have to touch one scallop twice, it either goes in the basket or over the side.  We took a pause after we had reset the dredges and he shucked one for me.   He turned the scallop smooth side down.  The smooth side is the one normally resting on the bottom on the sand, so it’s clean of algae or muck.  Grabbing the scallop knife from in between some of the worn wooden boards on the boat, he stuck the scallop knife between the hinges of the shells, slipped the knife all the way around while pressing it up on the top of the shell to unhinge the muscle as cleanly as possible, popped up the shell and discarded the ring of eyes around the edge, scraped off the internal organs and finally removed the bottom part of the muscle.  It was amazingly fresh and delicious, almost magical.  It could not have been a more perfect bite and moment.

We scalloped until about 9:30 which was not that long considering we were able to fill our 5 permitted boxes.  We headed back to the dock, unloaded and then headed to get a coffee and deliver the scallops to Nantucket Seafoods.  They have a small market but generally the scallops we harvested would be shucked that day and sent next day air to restaurants around the country.  Part of our batch was actually going to San Francisco!  I got home exhausted, took a nap, showered and headed into town for the festivities of Christmas Stroll.  The streets were aglow with lighted trees and every store was decked out for the holidays.  Scallop shell lights were hung all over the town and strands of them were for sale for about $100-$199 a strand!  I sat down at a wonderful upscale restaurant called The Pearl to get some dinner in the midst of a boisterous crowd of adults on a Santa crawl wearing hideous holiday sweaters.  On the menu there was a local Nantucket bay scallop trio of ceviche/crudo.  Remembering my first sweet taste of scallop that morning, I was mesmerized.  These could very well be the same scallops that Bruce and I had harvested just a few hours ago!  So I had to order them although they price made me cringe with a pang of guilt.  They arrived and had been handled in the most delicate way, taking care in all three preparations not to overshadow their texture or flavor.  I savored every morsel of what at most must have been four or five good sized scallops.  As I sat there fully engaged with the meal, I was struck by my incredible day, full circle from harvesting scallops that morning to sitting here with my glass of Gruner Veltliner and enjoying these delightful morsels in elegance.  $10 a pound and a lot of exhausting work for Bruce who was just at the beginning of a long and arduous winter of scalloping with many cold days ahead.  And here I was savoring a small dish costing if I recall correctly about $22-25, but crafted with the utmost respect and care.  I could not have been more thankful to enjoy both sides of the spectrum.  After I was warm with wine and my palate sated by scallops and other delicacies, I asked for the check.  After all my concern about the money I was spending after on my first humbling day harvesting scallops, I was told that some revelers I had befriended (not in ugly sweaters) had secretly paid for my entire meal and had already left.  So this Thanksgiving I will be toasting the fisherman and farmers who work tirelessly to bring food to our tables, all of those chefs and cooks who respectfully prepare those ingredients to give us great pleasure, and all of those who understand and remind me when I least expect it, that every moment of life is a gift.

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To watch a video of scallops snapping

To watch a video how scallops are harvested

To order Nantucket Bay Scallops http://nantucketseafood.net/  

More info on scallops http://www.nantuckettodayonline.com/novdec09/scallops.html

What to drink with scallops?  With lighter preparations scallops are great with crisp whites.  I would love something like a Gruner Veltliner from Austria for a scallop crudo or ceviche, or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc if you are making something spicy or citrusy.  If the scallops are caramelized with a slightly sweet preparation try an off dry aromatic white like the Schlossgut Diel Riesling Classic from the Nahe in Germany.  The great thing is with richer preparations (think mushrooms, truffle, red wine beurre rouge, etc, you can even pair scallops with Pinot Noir.  I am hoping to find some good options this Friday at Farallon’s Pinot Fest!  The consumer tasting is Saturday for tickets and information http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/pinotfest.html





A Very Different Mardi Gras

13 05 2011

My first visit to New Orleans was in November 2006, just about a year after the 2005 hurricane season changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, forever. I am not sure if that is why, or perhaps there’s another deeper reason, but I have always held a very special place in my heart for this city. I never knew the completely carefree New Orleans of bachelorette parties, Bourbon Street and what I thought Mardi Gras was all about, drinking to excess and lots of gratuitous nudity. Instead the New Orleans I found was wounded but fiercely proud, still fragile but resilient.

On my first visit I was struck by how amazingly open people were. Many had just returned to the city and I quickly found that if you asked about the hurricane they would willingly share their story, and EVERYONE had a story. I heard from restaurateurs about the temperatures that soared without power, food liquefying and destroying the walk-in refrigerators to the point that the entire ground beneath had to be irradiated and removed. I heard about a man whose family works for a large luxury hotel as a manager. He expected that it would be fun time staying in the hotel during the hurricane with family, but when the windows began to blow in they were evacuated to the ballroom, only to be at the last minute pulled away from her colleagues and sent to the Superdome. There he witnessed things he could not talk about. I sat in awe as story after story flowed from them with sincerity and a matter of fact candor that was surprising to me. There were moments of anger, tales of unresponsiveness and unfair circumstances, FEMA trailers, poverty and incredible loss. Hair whitened by trauma, souls forever scarred by pure terror, and the worst, the sense of abandonment, that they were the forgotten by this nation. I always like to dig deeply into anyplace I visit, but I was timid when I asked the oyster shucker at Destiny if he thought I should go and see the damage, I did not want to treat this disaster as if it were an attraction to go and see, but I truly wanted to understand. I was stunned at how quickly he answered, saying emphatically that I should go. On the way to the airport before I left New Orleans that first time I arranged for the taxi to take me to see what had happened.

Lenox Chatmon picked me up at my hotel and opened the door for me, but instead I got in the front seat of his taxi. I once again checked to see if this journey of mine was an acceptable request and Lenox began his explanation of all that had happened in the days of Hurricane Katrina, the days following and the subsequent Hurricane Rita. We first descended on the 9th Ward where I was absolutely stunned to see that a year later most of the destruction was still very much visible. Stairs to nowhere, cars underneath houses, fences twisted like tin foil scraps and throughout the area spray paint that very bluntly described what had happened here. Everywhere a sense of desolation, an incredible sense of quiet laid heavy in the air, even though the heat of November is less oppressive than normal. It was hard not to cry as complete and utter disbelief grabbed a hold of me. The amazing thing was as we wrapped up our short tour of the 9th Ward I expected we were headed to the airport, but in fact there was more. Much more. Over the next hour and a half Lenox showed me more and more neighborhoods, some with worse wind damage, others with damage from water, and water lines visible on the sides of the buildings. Every now and then you would see life, a family or two on their porch in the midst of abandoned houses for what seemed (and likely was) like miles.

Upon arriving at the airport I broke down, and from then on New Orleans has been stuck firmly in my heart. Every time I return I feel a stronger connection, but who would have thought that what seems to be its most flashy, showy, touristy festival would hit me with such power and intensity that I would once again be moved to tears (actually multiple times) by the incredible connection and love that New Orleans has shown me.

Flights for Mardi Gras book up fast, so I had to fly in later than I had hoped. All my friends, and even my brother who had opted to come, had already arrived. They were busy grabbing beads at the Bacchus parade as I landed at Louis Armstrong International with way too much luggage and a bag housing a huge tail of purple feathers for my purple peacock costume. Amazing how nice people are to you when you have a crazy feathered tail as part of your carry-on luggage. Luckily the cab line was short and traffic was semi-manageable as I made my way towards the Wyndham Baronne Plaza Hotel, just outside the French Quarter. There would have been no way to get my luggage to my place with the hoards of crowds on Canal Street, even still the cab had to drop me a few blocks away. As I was on the way to meet up with my friends for pizza at Sugar Park I figured it would be imperative for me to check out the festivities just a block or so away from my hotel, maybe just peek around the corner to see the parade. I quickly found that the crowds are insane, my quick foray becoming about a half hour trip to walk one block where at times my feet were barely in contact with the ground, which was slick with alcohol, slippery beads and some other unsavory and thankfully unidentifiable substances. As I rounded the bend and began a long search for a taxi I was beginning to worry that we had made a very bad decision to come during Mardi Gras. Thousands of people gathering to grab a few plastic beads?

I was relieved when I walked into Sugar Park, a cozy little building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere that offers pizza and is BYOB. My friends Andrew, a local and Julie, my roomie for the weekend from SF, and a new friend visiting, Krista, were there in good spirits, dripping in beads. Our other SF contingent, Kimberly and Killian had opted to save their energy for the next day, brother Omar and friend Katie from SF and her cousin Marissa were impossible to contact (phone service is very difficult during Mardi Gras, texts don’t work either) so it was just four of us. Food was waiting, but they had finished most of the wine that they’d brought so I headed to the small market across the street to grab some Abita Amber, and was starting to feel human again as I ate and tried to catch up and listened to their accounts of the parade. I went to Mardi Gras with very little of an agenda, only to dress as Sagittarius for the Society of St. Anne’s parade, and also to join in on the purple party on Lundi Gras, as a purple peacock. I had heard about the purple party from both a friend of a friend and a very close friend, Jane, thinking that the two parties were one in the same, but I had very little information.

“So what’s the deal with this purple party anyway?” Andrew said just a little loudly for the tiny restaurant and its 10 diners…
“Well I know it’s some time tomorrow but I really do not have any information about it, I figure I will hear something about it soon, don’t worry we will figure it out.” I replied.

Within seconds a woman from the next table hopped up and said, “In most places there’s six degrees of separation, but here in New Orleans it’s one, my friend Stuart is the one that runs the purple party! He’s sitting right over there.” She pointed…

I think I must have blushed wondering, jeez here I am coming to a city I am not a part of and claiming I am going to this party that I wasn’t really invited to and I have invited all my friends and now look what happens. I think I stammered something of an apology and asked if it was ok if a few of my friends came to the party. She immediately demanded that we go and called over to Stuart to tell him we were coming. We chatted a bit and she asked me where I had heard about the party, I mentioned the acquaintance that had told me about it but it didn’t ring a bell with her (who knew that was a different party) and so she was about to depart back to her table when I introduced myself and asked her name. As she said Tracy… it struck me, my friend Jane, an avid fan of New Orleans, had told me about the purple party and told me I absolutely must meet Tracy. She said, if you don’t run into her you have to go to her shop Kabuki Hats.. And of course here she was standing in front of me… I was in town no more than an hour and a half and had all the information I needed provided to me. Uncanny and for one of many times this trip I heard that if you are open, in New Orleans things like this happen all the time.

We finished up and were joined by another friend of the group, Kevin, who I met for the first time and we decided on his recommendation to head over to where he was staying to meet up with Emery and Kristian. We were greeted by a grand staircase edged with Jurassic ferns leading to two rocking chairs and as we walked into the quiet house we saw a Christmas tree with presents around it all lit up. A gorgeous place, it was fun to see the little details such as well-placed coffee cans conveniently nailed to the walls where they can most easily be filled with beer caps. Back and forth we nestled in little areas where we could enjoy some guitar and banjo playing and eventually a fire at a fire pit. Their group came home to find us free-loading in their house, my friend Julie and I uninvited and making ourselves at home, doing our best to drain their keg of Abita (with iced pint glasses), a freshie with each pour, and they could not have been more hospitable, even though they both had to get up very early the next day. Emery filled the house with the home-cooked smell of red beans and rice as we played guitar out by the smoky fire. Every now and then we would see the lights dim and hear the wheeze of the circular saw as either Kevin or Kristian would chop up some more wood (claimed from a neighbors dumpster) for the fire. There are moments that just cannot be described, and this was one, a feeling of complete happiness filled every cell of my being as they humored me and let me play some of my songs for them, I felt the glow from the fire and a glow of supreme content within my heart. I could not have had a better introduction to the weekend.

At the end of the night Julie and I headed to our hotel, an interior room with a teeny window that looked out onto an atrium filled with the echoes of revelers throughout the night, but we slept pretty well.

PART TWO
Excitement filled us as we woke and prepped our costumes for the purple party. We headed to Napoleon House for a classic cocktail, the Pimm’s Cup, and some lunch and then zipped back to the hotel to prepare to meet up with the “Flash Mob” outside of Harrah’s. With a lot of struggle (cell service was still spotty) we managed to connect with my brother, Katie and Marissa, who I had yet to see. We had to of course stop by The Roosevelt for a Ramos Fizz along the way. The “Flash Mob” started out to be a couple of purple people milling around while a DJ spun tunes for some interesting dancers, not affiliated with our group… one woman moving her ass like nothing I have ever seen. It was a pretty interesting scene. Slowly the group started to meld and get to know each other, not really by name save for a few asking who the hell we were and how we knew Stuart, but not in an adversarial way, just in a curious way. As we gathered people asked to take our photos and I enjoyed being the subject in all my peacock finery. Finally our fearless leader Stuart arrived with a scepter of ribbons and we started our procession along the streetcar tracks to Chickie Wah Wah, a bar up Canal Street. Along route we chatted and one woman asked how we had ended up here. When we told her of our chance encounter at Sugar Park she said, “Lady NOLA either loves you or hates you, and if she loves you she takes care of those types of things.” She said very matter-of-factly, “She must love you.” It was a pretty long walk before we were able to get on a street car that was mostly full, but it was so fun to see the reactions of the riders as we filled the red car with purple plumes, sequins and satin. Dripping feathers and sequins, we got off the streetcar to cheers as we met up with the rest of the Purple People and entered the bar where Tribe Nunzio was playing for us. Purple punch was available and my first King’s Cake was presented, made by Stuart himself. Kimberly and Killian arrived, rejuvenated from the previous night, with purple eyelashes for us. A gender illusionist named Pickles gave Tracy, my new friend Desier and me a makeup lesson in the ladies room and we drank lots of beer.

Happily drunk we made our way to a neighborhood bar called Pal’s which has burlesque drawings on the walls and about three cases of Miller High Life cold and ready to go on the bar. Go in the back and you can play air hockey and see the swinging saloon doors that offer very little protection as they lead into the men’s room covered with nude photos of women. Upon seeing this we immediately ran into the ladies room to see if it had similar décor, only to find Burt Reynolds in a very interesting pose. At this point food became imperative and we hit Santa Fe for some food outside since there was a long wait for a table. My brother was chilly, so a waiter who was actually just finishing his shift loaned him his sweater to wear on the condition that he leave it with the host after. Food came a bit too late for me, we hit dba to see Little Freddie King, he was amazing, but I was done. After a few head nods, my feathers a bit droopy, time to go.

PART THREE
I was glad to get a bit of sleep since Mardi Gras day was full of activity which started by getting up at 5:30am to head over to Emery and Kristian’s house. As we drove there we saw the first groups setting up everything from barbecues to smokers along the parade route. We had to get up early to try to find the Skeletons and the Indians, which was all new to me. The Skeletons drag huge chains through the streets of the Bywater to wake the living, reminding them that life is precious and you should get up and live it. This was especially poignant to me considering that I lost a great friend, Tommy Bermejo, just a week before. The Mardi Gras Indians represent different tribes of local native Americans, it was said that when slaves were able to escape that they were often taken in by the local tribes as their own and to honor this safe harbor they gave tribute to their tribes at Mardi Gras, they work tirelessly to make elaborate costumes. We all piled into a huge Suburban and began our journey with a quick stop back to Pal’s for Bloody Mary’s.

Rolling through the streets we listened to WWOZ 90.7 who gave reports on Mardi Gras filled with the classic Mardi Gras tunes that I was sad I did not know yet. Round and round we went trying to avoid getting stuck in traffic and looking for Skeletons and Indians. This tradition really struck me, amazing that you could experience such pain and suffering as slavery, something so negative, but in the same instant find something so positive as the open arms of those tribes for those runaway slaves.

We hit the Bywater Cultural Center but unfortunately there were not yet any Indians there. We had to pick up another part of our group Susanne, and right where we grabbed her there they were, the Skeletons. Amazing with the enormous chains behind them, said to be a relic from a slave ship.

We aborted the mission to put on costumes and shared space in the mirror as we primped and preened (especially their group, they were birds!). We left Emery’s house a wreck of glitter and feathers and it was back into the car and it off to Marcus’ house. Apparently Marcus throws the party every year to kick off the Society of St. Anne parade. St. Anne’s is a group of highly creative people that have some of the most incredible costumes. Some mini-krewes like the birds exist but generally anything goes. My half horse/half human costume wasn’t that great compared to my peacock, which I should have worn again in restrospect, but it was really comfortable which is key. When we parked the car and arrived close to Marcus’ house we were greeted by a bull that had crazy dark techno punk music coming from it and a crazy seemingly very “touched” guy who was rolling it around a parking lot.

As we got closer to Marcus’ we saw throngs of people all gathering together, the colors and the excitement building until someone said, “We are rolling! ROLLING!” and the groups started to march. The parade weaved through the tiny streets of the Bywater for quite a while, it was amazing to see the various outfits, sometimes you would see the same groups over and over, but then you would see a totally new group as people peeled on and off the route, some stopping in bars along the way to the French Quarter. The excitement of the parade shifted as we entered the Quarter and we saw that now it was not really the mutual adoration of each others costumes but now the tourists were watching us, we became the spectacle.  As we were rolling down Royal street a very finely dressed gentleman said, “What are YOU doing here?!” It was Chris Hannah of Arnaud’s French 75 bar, one of the greatest bartenders in the world, in my opinion. With him was my dear friend Vince from San Francisco.

Luckily our group knew a gracious woman who owned a gorgeous apartment overlooking Royal Street in the heart of everything where we had a chance to take a break, throw some beads and eat some hot dogs. When we arrived she was excited to see us even though, once again we showed up without “an invite”. “Sagittarius and Leo! Let me take a picture!” She said smiling as we posed. We got a much different perspective from the balcony!  After some more hot dogs we got back on the route and headed to Constantine’s house.  Susanne and Krista had met him during a previous Mardi Gras, so there we were in one of the most gorgeous apartments (historic of course) overlooking Jackson Square. On the way we luckily ran into Chris and Vince again who had a shopping cart full of a Pago Pago cocktail, thank goodness as we were very thirsty again by then. There was red beans and rice to give us some extra energy and we enjoyed just hanging out there. I never met Constantine but I thank him for his hospitality, I was getting good at this uninvited thing…

As we left the rain came down a bit and we figured we should shoot up to Tonique for a cocktail and start heading home to the house. Walking the streets we crossed Bourbon, a much different type of mood than where we had been, I barely noticed it. We crossed through into an area of gay bars which offered some new and interesting scenery and I had a chance to check in with some gay bouncers at a club while one of our group got cigarettes there (I wanted to make sure he came out unscathed!) They were sweet and funny and it made me think how lucky I am to also live in a city that is as open as San Francisco and New Orleans are. In fact it made my think of the Mint, my favorite karaoke Bar in SF.

Tonique makes delicious cocktails! Two Aviations and a couple chicken dances and we were feeling well-oiled and it was off to hit the Backstreet Cultural Center once again in search of Indians. When we arrived there was a ceremony going on, a green tribe member was in a gorgeous beaded and feathered costume. We stayed for quite a while watching as the blue tribe children danced played and then saw a peach colored tribe member approach but then retreat. The whole scene was surreal, and very beautiful, and I found myself crying as I now knew a bit more about the incredible significance of some of the Mardi Gras traditions, to know the backstory was huge.

We decided our best option was to keep on walking so we continued on foot, a LONG walk but filled with amazing opportunities to talk to folks in the area. We soon hit the Treme neighborhood and entered the Candlelight Lounge. This place was a definite neighborhood bar/hangout. Here things get a bit hazy, not because of alcohol, but more because as I started to enjoy a sense of amazing peace… The scene seemed to be full of locals, I think there was a band, I think I remember some food being grilled. It was a scene no less, and we enjoyed being a part of it. Katie and my brother were still not with us, communications become really difficult due to lack of cell service and the overall craziness of Mardi Gras day, but she was calling so I ran over to a little area where there was an opening to outside to talk to her. I heard some of the worst news. For those that do not know, I have been a regular at The Mint Karaoke Lounge for many years, ok, perhaps you may laugh, but it’s a great spot, and as anyone who has a regular hangout knows you get to know your fellow bar flys intimately. It seemed to me that Katie was telling me that one of our closest friends from the Mint, B, had passed away. In disbelief I ran from the bar. I cannot begin to tell you the surreal nature of this statement, given to me by a mutual friend of his who also happened to be there with me in New Orleans at the same time but not exactly with me, just insanity. I cried, I screamed. I kicked boxes outside the Candle Light but I was helpless. What could I possibly do, save make the rest of my old and newfound friends absolutely miserable. B would never have wanted that, he was a partier… He would not have wanted things to be any different… So I went back inside, told my friends why my face was tear-stained and told them that we must continue on. Another reminder that life should be lived, no remorse, no waiting, no stopping. Wake up and live before you die. Moments of intense joy are right there next to deep sadness. That is living. It became more clear to me than ever.

We continued on after the Candle Light on to where we saw the Zulu parade was ending and happened upon the celebration at the end… We were right in front of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. As we stood there deciding what to do, our friends decided to grab a beer and walked in, so we followed. We were received in a polite yet indifferent attitude. I was so honored to have been allowed entry into this special place. We continued on our journey, and I offered my little bow and arrow to a child along the way.  We found that many wanted to have their photos taken with us as we passed their door steps. We also heard a young girl say, “Where are your beads!?!?” in horror, and I realized that after all this time I had not yet received one strand.  As I grabbed the one she tossed me I enjoyed a pulse of exhilaration upon catching it. We finally made it to the wonderful and comforting Emery/Kristian compound where Emery had crafted the MOST AMAZING GUMBO I have ever had. They let me invite Katie and my brother over to enjoy it with us, and we simmered down to a low boil in terms of inebriation, ending the day with a little more music on the guitar but trying not to overdo it. I even got the baby in the King’s Cake which I think means I have to make the next cake or host the next event.  We watched the creepy Rex celebration on TV where the young girl and really old Rex hang out at this gala thing, totally surreal. I really wanted to see the French Quarter shut down at midnight on the dot, but once Julie and I got back to our room-cave of darkness it was lights out literally and figuratively.

PART FOUR
Amazingly we went to sleep so early that we were up early ready to enjoy one last day of relaxation (or so we thought) in New Orleans. Julie and I played tourists eating beignets and iced coffee, and of course I got my favorite the Verti Marte shrimp po-boy undressed with pickles and butter. We actually toured the Katrina exhibit at the museum which was very moving, and then viewed the Mardi Gras exhibit. Having experienced it the day before the museum seemed weird as of course it could not possibly do it justice. Before we knew it we had to head out to meet the group for one last time (although half had already headed home that morning) for dinner at a really cool Lebanese restaurant, then off to Arnaud’s for a Ramos Fizz from the esteemed Chris Hannah. While there my buddy Vince happened to be there (not really surprising actually by this point) and told us that very soon the Treme Brass Band would be playing at a bar not too far away. He said, “It’s this place called the Candlelight” to which I replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there…” (He was a bit surprised!)

Texts back and forth that they were playing and to get there soon helped us peel ourselves away from the delicious cocktails.  There was a cover, and a more diverse crowd than the day before, so we paid our $5 and found a spot up front around a table and started to ease into the amazing vibe that the band created. Vince told me that his heart was wounded hearing about Katrina until the first time he returned and saw Uncle Lionel, band leader. “When I saw that Uncle Lionel was okay I knew that New Orleans was going to be okay.” he told me while wiping a tear from his eye. He too was missing our friend Tommy Bermejo dearly, so I told him about B from the Mint and we cried a few tears, just a very emotional time, all the while the band played on. Funny that the Candle Light had become such a special place to me all in the matter of a day.

Uncle Lionel likes the ladies so was available for a few photo opportunities and the entire group at the Candlelight was in great spirits. I watched as a man walked in, a lady on one hand and a cigarette in the other. He accidentally touched it to the arm of the woman working there as they hugged, she hollered at him jokingly and he walked to the bar smiling. I smiled at her good nature and offered my icy MGD bottle to soothe her arm where he’d burned her. She said to me, “You know who that is? That’s Kermit Ruffins! He’s my ex-husband! I told him he can add some money to the alimony check!” For those not in the know Kermit is one of the most amazing jazz trumpeters and musicians. After a bit more sitting the Woman Whose Ex was Kermit demanded that we get our asses out of the chairs and get up and dance, so we did, and I saw a woman give the most amazing tambourine performance ever. I am not sure who she was but she joined the band for just one song and was hitting the tambourine on every possible surface of her body, each time getting a different sound, all the while with the most exhilarating beat. The whole scene just brought pure joy, vibrancy and an electric feeling of being alive. It was really amazing. As the night wound down I headed to the restroom while my friends began to chat with the owner of the Candlelight. I had heard rumors of the importance of the Zulu Coconuts and had secretly thought how amazing it would be to get one, but tried not to be so needy, so wanting, and since Mardi Gras was over I thought I would have to wait for next year. Much to my dismay as I exited the restroom I watched in awe as the proprietor of the Candlelight handed coconuts to Vince and Julie. I headed out front to meet my other friends, trying not to be jealous and finally just coming to terms with it. I have learned recently that wanting is not a way to get something, but to be grateful and happy with what you have is much more productive. So although it was hard for a second, I decided that this was not my time to get my coconut and to be happy for my friends who did. The minute my mind was set on this path the door of the Candlelight opened, and one of the staff came up to me.  She said, “They want you in there.” and turned around.  I followed her back into the bar and she led me to Leona Grandison, the proprietor. Leona asked me a few questions, I guess to gauge my sincerity and worthiness.  I can’t remember exactly what she said I was in a very intense state.  I think it was something like, “Do you like it here in New Orleans? Where you from?”  I explained to her how special her bar had become to me, I told her that I was at the same time filled with joy and remembrance of my friends lost, just basically feeling alive, I think I tried to explain how I felt in the City of New Orleans. She motioned to a woman, who I think was her daughter, and pointed to a shelf behind the bar.  She brought a coconut over to Leona and placed it in her hands. It was a surreal moment as she transferred it to mine, almost as if for safe keeping. I was almost on a different plane, but I think that as she gave it to me she said something like, “You come back now, I expect to see you back here.” And that was it. The most amazing end to my Mardi Gras.

A usual celebration continued that evening, we stayed up all night to prevent missing our 6am flight, drinking at various places, hanging with each other, enjoying the company, basically just being. I headed home and straight to my dear friend Tommy’s wake.

White/Black, Light/Dark, Rich/Poor, Young/Old, Gay/Straight, Happy/Sad, Living/Dead, they are all one. New Orleans reminds me of this. She is so special to me.  I am so grateful to her for reassuring me that I am on the right path, that each step of this journey is meaningful even when I don’t know exactly where I am going.  I never really understood the concept of a parade.  I always thought, “What’s the point?  Where are these people going?”  Now I think I get it.





Holiday Planning and more with Bento

23 12 2010

As a consultant it’s feast or famine.  While there’s feasting you work all hours, when there’s famine you can go out and sow the crops, for me that means harvesting sand dollars, beach walks, writing music, just thinking and being. Usually the holidays is a slower time for me, so in order to take advantage and be sure I am duly stressed I like to throw a party for 80 plus and take the opportunity to explore my “Martha Stewart” side. I put my multitasking to the test and challenge myself to what seems like a marathon of planning for the party which of course runs for more than 12 hours, starting at 5pm and this year ending at 6:30am with some guitar playing. This was the 12th annual party, and over the years I have created a series of lists to keep myself organized, but this year I was given a copy of Bento, a fantastic program made by the folks that made Filemaker, that has been very helpful to me both in party planning as well as in my work life.

I don’t often review software, but I was already very excited to try it as I am VERY familiar with Filemaker.  I have used Filemaker since 1993 when I started working at Windows on the World as Wine School Coordinator.  It was a great program used by the former administrators, including Andrea Immer Robinson to keep track of wine school attendees.  I remember being fascinated by its versatility, remember computers were somewhat new at the time, at least I still didn’t even have my own computer! I still use Filemaker today for invoicing, mail merges and for my database of addresses so when I saw Bento I wasn’t as sure what the difference was. It has taken me a while to get used to it but now that I have I find it is extremely useful.


Products
I love to do crafts and a few years ago was supplied with a gift from the sea of sand dollars. Previously I would find partial or broken sand dollars but I kept finding perfect sand dollars on the beach. As I collected I figured I would have to find something creative to do with them. So I started painting them with the Day of the Dead themes as well as the Virgen de Guadalupe. Now that I have many of these in stock that I sell and I needed a way to deal with these. Of course I love lists so it only made sense to inventory them. Bento offers a great resource to do this including photos of all of your items. Additionally you can sync Bento with Bento for iPhone so that this inventory can be on hand at all times.

Collections
I also decided it was time to get my act together in terms of my “collections” as part of the anti-hoarding campaign (Hoarders has scared me straight) so I have been able to make lists of the wines in my cellar, the collection of wine glasses I have for classes, and even my collection of wine books and magazines (anyone want a few hundred old Wine Spectator issues? Now what do I do with those?).

Lists
Sometimes when shopping I need resources, so I have lists that are easily accessible from my iPhone of everything from sizes for my husband’s clothes, lists of which crochet needles I already have, lists of supplies, lists of songs or albums I want to buy or songs to sing at karaoke, lists of songs to learn for open mic. Lists upon lists upon lists!

Holiday Party Planning
I make quite a few things for both my holiday party as well as Christmas Eve and so to keep things straight is a challenge. I am still reworking the way I have the lists set up in Bento but Bento is definitely helping me organize! I list the dishes I am going to be making and am working on and list where I need to pick up the ingredients since of course I have favorite places to buy certain things.

There are multiple templates you can download for free, for example one for recipes that helps you organize and even take photos of those recipes, here I have a cheesy recipe from my mom… They also have a template exchange, so folks that create a cool template can share them online.

Bento also offers fun templates like Beer Hunter where you can review beers and remember your favorites, although I don’t think you will see me whipping out my iPhone to do that at the Toronado, but maybe I would at City Beer Store. Of course they also have wine review templates and I have found that it has made it easier for me to track samples that I receive to review. Bento really does much of what Excel can do but with a snazzier more visual look since you can add photos. Of course it syncs to your iPhone so all these lists are always handy.

Sales
For those in sales Bento has a great template that allows you to monitor your communications with potential clients and manage them.

So although I really like the old school lists that I have lying around I found myself pulling up my recipes on my iPhone while cooking this year, the only drawback? A really greasy iPhone. Happy Holidays!