[Letters From New Orleans]

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[Garrett County Press]

Letters From New Orleans:
by Rob Walker
ISBN: 1-1891053-01-9
$10.23 (21% off the cover price of $12.95) + postage
46 black & white photos

Excerpt from
Letters From New Orleans
by Rob Walker


In most places, taking a long, boozy lunch on a weekday is a rare indulgence, or just flat-out irresponsible behavior. Here in New Orleans it's tradition. This makes sense: New Orleans is big on both tradition and on goofing off while the rest of the world gets things done, so why not combine the two ideas whenever possible?

Consider this passage praising "the Friday Lunch," from a recent restaurant review in a local weekly: "Dedicated locals award this ritual the respect of a sacrament. ... The customary etiquette of restaurant dining slackens on Friday afternoons; it's fashionable to wear hats (while eating), it's acceptable to linger (for hours) and it's expected that you'll drink (quite a lot)." The point is having "a good time, which is the real reason so many New Orleanians play hooky in restaurants on Friday afternoons while the rest of the country golfs."

Actually, the rest of the country doesn't golf, it works. And in some cases it even wonders why it can't get in touch with anyone in New Orleans. But whatever.

The ultimate setting for a "traditional" Friday lunch is Galatoire's. We have known this for some time -- they practically tell you about Galatoire's at the airport -- but somehow E and I never had a chance to experience this firsthand until fairly recently.

* * *

Galatoire's is a big deal in New Orleans. How big a deal? This summer our local daily, The Times-Picayune, ran a story about how the restaurant had fired a popular waiter, and how some regular customers were upset about it. The story was more than 3,600 words long. It attracted more mail to the paper than any subject since September 11. And it inspired a local theatrical production that sold out several weeks at $16 a ticket.

At the center of the controversy is a man with the astonishing name of Gilberto Eyzaguirre. Gilberto (everyone calls him by his first name) is a waiter. At Galatoire's over a period of twenty-some years he built a following. Then he was fired, after two female employees of the restaurant filed sexual harassment complaints against him.

Various patrons of the restaurant, apparently unconcerned about the allegations, thought this was a mistake, and some 123 of them wrote letters of protest. These were presented, in a bound volume, to Galatoire's management. They were also posted on a web site, www.welovegilberto.com. The protesters included local figures like former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg; historian David Culbert; singer John Boutte; journalist Curtis Wilkie; and novelist Richard Ford. A man named Brobson Lutz recounted his unsuccessful attempt at returning to the restaurant, post-Gilberto: "As the evening approached, I just couldn't go. I was afraid I would start crying." His colleagues went without him, and he "ended up eating alone" at another restaurant, "crying into a couple of Martinis."

Well! Obviously the firing touched a nerve. The underlying story, as The Times-Picayune described it, was that the Gilberto Incident was the last straw for patrons who thought the restaurant has changed for the worse over the past five years. That's when the Galatoire family, which has run the place since 1905, brought in its first manager who is not a blood relation. One sample complaint: Galatoire's has switched from hand-chopped ice to the kind that's made by a machine. Also the dress code has gotten lax, less-fancy napkins have come into use, and an upstairs dining room was renovated.

Mickey Easterling, in a three-page, all-cap letter, groused that she'd been in with some friends and spent "the better part of $1000" on a lunch marking her daughter's birthday, and the wait staff placed the white wine, red wine, and champagne classes "helter/skelter ... with no rhyme or reason." She added that the "female bartender" upstairs is often "more drunk than your customers." (Which is saying something.) Another three-page letter, from "scholar of Southern literature" W. Kenneth Holditch, read in part: "People who seem to be arrayed to go to the beach or Disneyland, wearing blue jeans and sweatshirts or worse, are ushered in to be seated next to a table where some well dressed elderly couple, long-time patrons, sit, mourning the passing of a more gracious era. ... Not only is tradition difficult to establish, but once lost or destroyed, it can never be regained. Do you really want the traditions of your historic establishment to be swept out by a new wave of clueless youth? ... Do we want to drive away the customers, many of them descendants of men and women known to our ancestors, to be replaced by tourists from Iowa and Indiana in jeans, halter tops, and sandals?"

A few weeks after The Times-Picayune story, there was an incident during Friday lunch at Galatoire's. This incident also made the paper: "Two slender and well-dressed men, unsmiling and wearing dark sunglasses, burst into the door of the restaurant and released a hundred helium-filled white balloons emblazoned with WELOVEGILBERTO.COM."

* * *

A lot of people who do not happen to be part of the New Orleans blue-blood crowd thought that all of this was pretty silly. And possibly embarrassing. And certainly funny. The 123 letters mentioned above became the basis of a little show called "The Galatoire Monologues," overseen by local newspaper columnist and sometime performer Chris Rose. We attended one of the shows, in which local actors and personalities read from the letters, for laughs. Highlights included a drunk-sounding Davis Rogan (known here as a DJ and musician) singing Richard Ford's letter to his own bluesy, and bleary, piano accompaniment. Oddly, Brobson Lutz, the guy who cried into his martini, also turned up as one of the reader/performers.

I assumed everyone at the performance at the downtown club would be a hipster ironist out to guffaw at the expense of the stuffed-shirt Galatoire crowd. But at least half of the audience was the Galatoire crowd, sitting primly in their proper ensembles and having a perfectly delightful evening. The We Love Gilberto site even touted the show. I checked around and found that Gilberto himself had come to several performances, and was treated (or at least behaved) like a celebrity. (Dept. of New Orleans Is A Small Place, Part One: Gilberto has since found employ at a restaurant that happens to be operated by our next-door neighbors.) One person loosely connected with the performance told me that the wayward waiter also hit on all the cocktail waitresses at the club. I checked that with someone else in a position to know, who confirmed it and said that he hit on customers, too. Meanwhile, I am told, the brouhaha has actually boosted business for both Galatoire's and for Gilberto's new employer.

* * *

Seizing what may be my last opportunity to be considered a part of "a wave of clueless youth," I agreed with E that the time had come to eat at Galatoire's. It would be Friday lunch, downstairs where the traditionalists sit, or it would be nothing. Of course you can't make a reservation for this, so we planned to arrive at 11 a.m. Unfortunately, because we'd chosen a Friday in the busy season, by 11 a.m. all the downstairs tables had been spoken for by people who'd come as early as 8. (Sometimes regulars actually hire placeholders to stand in line for them, or so I've read.) So we got on the list and prepared for an estimated two-hour wait. We walked around the French Quarter for a while, E bought a book, and I gradually got tense about the various editors I was ducking. We went back to Galatoire's to wait at the bar. Another tradition at the restaurant is the mixing of very strong drinks, and my gin seemed to have been only lightly splashed with tonic. Okay.

We waited. There were, in fact, an incredible number of silly hats on the heads of silly women. The bar was very crowded, and everyone was drinking. (Dept. of New Orleans Is A Small Place, Part Two: A bartender from Pal's* was there and wearing an extremely silly hat.) We waited a long time. I got tense again. We kept checking the list downstairs. We decided that the schlumpy kid with the cell phone was one of those hired place-holders. E began reading The Wind Done Gone to pass the time.

It was 2:30 or so when we were finally seated. The dining room was cacophonous. Our waiter, "Reynard," could sense that we weren't in a great mood at this point, and labored to cheer us up. What cheered us up was the crowd. I was facing a table of about six or eight people who seemed to have finished their main courses but had no plans to move. They were carrying on. One woman with a lot of makeup and a form-fitting, off-the-shoulder, red dress; its trim was a wide band of fur, with at least three little mink heads peering out of it. Actual heads.

Lots of people were table-hopping. At one point a male friend of the mink-head lady came over to greet her, and as they stood with their backs to us, their arms around each other, we watched her hand get more and more adventurous in which part of his body she squeezed. He squeezed back. (Dept. of New Orleans Is A Small Place, Part Three: This man was E's dermatologist. His face was very smooth.)

Eventually we started to notice that a lot of the tables around us were filled with people who had apparently finished eating. None of them made the slightest effort to move. (Except for that schlumpy cell-phone kid Ñ he left after the people who had apparently hired him got seated.) People ordered more champagne, or even another round of food, and carried on. E and I soldiered through our courses as if in a parallel universe. (Obligatory food comment: everything was fine, but the only true standout was the oysters en brochette appetizer ordered by E.) It was getting close to 4 o'clock, which meant there was at least one editor who was likely to be extremely concerned as to where I might have been for the past five hours. Obviously the idea at Galatoire's really is to just stay indefinitely -- but, really, how can so many people be in a position to simply check out for the better part of a weekday?

That's the thing about tradition: It obliterates such pesky questions. It obliterates all questions. Tradition is not the opposite of progress, it is the opposite of reflection: When you have it, when you embrace it, you don't have to worry about consequences or anything else, because tradition fiercely preserved is truly an end in itself.

Through the gauzy curtains we could just make out Bourbon Street and confirm the existence of sunshine and an outside world. But nobody around us was looking out the window. They were walking about in hats and ordering more champagne. Just then Reynard stopped by our table with his humongous smile, and I asked him to bring the check.

January 2003


*Pal's is explained in another story in Letters From New Orleans.

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