Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 16, 2005

Almost skinned in the "Big Easy"

My gal-pals and I had our annual pre-Christmas get-together recently. We exchanged small gifts, but I knew one of them wouldn't be an ordinary gift when I started reading the card.

"I've known for a long time what I wanted to give you today. You and I saw New Orleans together years ago when it was rowdy and fun and you nearly got arrested. I hope this tile will remind you of those good times - especially since the city may never be that way again. Memories, like friendships, are timeless. Thank you for being an important part of my life and my forever friend."

Trying to see through the tears, I fumbled with the gift bag. Inside was a 175-year-old roofing slate from an old building in New Orleans. Linda had purchased it several years ago and was waiting for the right time to give it to me. On the front, a sketch - titled "French Quarter Nights" - showed the renowned jazz establishment Preservation Hall in the foreground and the famous Pat O'Brien's bar a few doors down. A horse and carriage and a building wrapped with a lacy-looking balcony were also part of the scene.

Reading Linda's note and seeing the sketch brought back some special memories of the city. I can't begin to know the pain and suffering of those who lost so much and were displaced from their beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the flood waters that followed. But the scenes of devastation tore at my heart just the same.

I visited New Orleans for the first time 20 years ago. I was in charge of a college media convention and my job was to explore the various hotels in the French Quarter and recommend one of them for our group. The hotel staff members outdid themselves showing me southern hospitality and I must have gained 15 pounds trying out the different foods each one offered.

I returned to the city the following spring. Pregnant with Mariya, I couldn't resist the red beans and rice and the chocolate-praline-pecan pie. My taste buds were in heaven, but Mariya didn't much appreciate the combination of spicy and sweet foods. My friends at the convention bought a newborn T-shirt appropriately labeled "My first New Orleans T-shirt" for the baby that wouldn't be born for another three months.

In subsequent years, I visited the city several more times, always with other college media advisers and students. Every trip included strolling at night through the French Quarter with its rowdy, raucous crowds, listening to jazz musicians, and eating seafood and spicy Cajun dishes. A special treat was stopping at Café du Monde to drink coffee and eat beignets - light-as-air pastries smothered in powdered sugar.

For good or bad, New Orleans was indeed a different place from the others I had visited. Now, architects, engineers, city planners, residents and politicians are debating whether and where New Orleans should be rebuilt. Whatever their decision, I hope its spirit of fun, irreverence and excitement can be revived.

Oh, and yes, I almost did get arrested. I was with a group of students at a seafood restaurant. We had arrived in New Orleans at about 4 p.m. and we were hungry so we ordered different kinds of appetizers to hold us until we could eat a bigger meal later on. All went well except one student didn't get the fried potato skins he had ordered. He said it was OK and that he'd wait until later to eat something.

But when we got the bill, the potato skins were included. I told the waiter that the student didn't get the potato skins and I would just subtract that amount from the bill. He then talked to the manager, who apparently suggested to the waiter that we must have already eaten the potato skins. I told the waiter again that we didn't get them and asked to speak to the manager. To my surprise, she refused to come out to talk with me.

I soon discovered she had called the police! Two officers arrived and asked what was going on. I told them the story and, after much discussion, the manager finally agreed to take the potato skin amount - a whopping $3.25 - off the bill.

We left shaking our heads in wonder that two police officers would be called to "handle" a bunch of Kansas tourists over an order of potato skins while all kinds of raucous activity was going on in the streets.

But that experience just serves to illustrate the incongruities of the place that was called the Big Easy.

Caf� du Monde, left, is one of New Orleans� landmarks and their beignets are a specialty.
Right, Gloria with K-State students in a seafood restaurant in 1994 where she was almost arrested.

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