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Thursday, May 4, 2006

Doctor Cocktail's Sabbatical

Since January, I’ve been on so-called sabbatical from Martini Republic in New Orleans. You may remember, I was last there a week and a day before Katrina swamped the city at the end of August, and January 2nd displayed a city only just coming fitfully to consciousness. Dale DeGroff, Martin Doudoroff, Phil Greene, and I trekked down to pack up The Museum of the American Cocktail exhibit on the second floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (which, fortuitously, sustained no damage) so to transport it to its new temporary home in Las Vegas, in a banquet room, in the satellite Commander’s Palace Restaurant, in the Desert Passages shopping mall of the Aladdin Casino resort. This was at the invitation of Ti Martin and the Commander’s Palace Group. Ti is still camped out at her Café Adelaide while the original New Orleans Commander’s Palace remains closed, its roof breached by Katrina. Once the Museum artifacts were carefully swaddled, Dale and I drove them to Vegas in a U-Haul truck. I had earlier stated flatly that I wouldn’t trust shipping companies (especially in the January chaos of NOLA basic services infrastructural repair) to safely transport such treasures.

Dale and I had several offers to film the journey, as though we were Thelma & Louise; as though we would pull into towns along the way in tuxes, breeze into swank cocktail venues, wittily tipple Martinis and hit the road again. We declined. As Dale would say, “why ruin a good story with the truth?”

New Orleans has always been a city symbolic to the rest of the country. To many, New Orleans seemed somehow frivolous with its year-round festivities, its embrace of hearty drinking, and its odd culture of accents, sensibilities, and cuisine. Even worse than the artificial, history-faking Sodom and Gomorrah image that has long tarred Las Vegas, New Orleans just seemed silly to a lot of people. Katrina changed that impression but not the judgmental attitude; you either “get” New Orleans or you don’t. Me? I was captivated, from my first visit in 1993, and the love compounded in my heart with every subsequent arrival.

It was emotionally difficult to move the Museum to Las Vegas. I’m less charitable with my impressions of that burg (though I adore its gin-loving Mayor.) That it was Commander’s Palace (my favorite NOLA restaurant, by the way) offering us space gave me the necessary umbilical cord to the Crescent City to curtail despair. As I’ve said in interviews, Vegas IS becoming a more substantial destination for fine dining, drinking, and the arts – for those like me who disdain gambling. There too, the stereotype of the place is both incomplete and out of date.

Having deposited the artifacts into temperature-controlled storage, I headed directly back to New Orleans to assume the position of Graphic Designer for the first movie to be filmed there post-Katrina. This gave me four months to view the city’s progress and tribulations, all while slurping Sazeracs, Vieux Carrés and Milk Punches. Every Friday evening I’d return to Las Vegas to oversee the installation of custom-designed display cases and to mount the new Museum exhibit. Every Sunday I’d return to New Orleans.

There is no need to relate oft-told vignettes of devastation, but the January views of burned out crushed minivans in parking spaces next to the humdrum vehicles of the workaday world is not one I’ll ever forget. The seeming acres of car-husks lined up beneath bridges and overpasses heading from the intact French Quarter and Garden District into the newly minted wasteland were a vacuum of life and spirit. The city rebuilds, slowly, in agonizingly small increments – and the wear was evident in the faces and words of its residents. Yet traffic lights, comatose since the storm, one by one, would go from black to blinking. The telling carcasses of cars would disappear with the debris extending inexorably the living perimeter of the city.

While there I did radio, magazine, and newspaper interviews. I held a seminar entitled “The History of the Cocktail in 7 Drinks & 7 Plates” at Café Adelaide at the behest of dear, dear friend Ti Martin and it was the best calculated pairing of cocktails and food I was ever involved in or, in fact, had ever encountered. I invented several new cocktails on that fertile ground and I’ll be back there in July for the annual weeklong Tales of the Cocktail event to try it again. Comfortable back in Los Angeles after months of hotel life, I miss that fitful, hopeful city already.

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