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Big Time in New Orleans

by Brian Clarey

I’ll start in the bar at Tujague’s, as good a place as any in a weekend loaded with lede-worthy scenes.

The bar has anchored this corner in the French Quarter of New Orleans for more than 150 years, and very little has changed — no neon, no Jagermeister machine, not a naked-lady-shaped novelty cup or set of plastic beads in sight. Though it’s still morning, time was when I would belly up to this old, cypress bar — there has never been a barstool in Tujague’s, ever — set my foot on the bowed brass rail and begun the day’s chase.

Not today. I’ve been up for hours, took the Magazine Street bus from Big Rob’s Garden District cottage to the corner of Canal Street, traipsed past a triptych of old Decatur Street haunts on my way to the French Market. Now I’m tucking into the brisket po-boy at Tujague’s — fresh romaine lettuce and tomato, with red horseradish sauce and what looks to be approximately three pounds of slow-cooked beef, perhaps a foot long.

It is way too much for one person to bear, but such is life in New Orleans, and despite its tendencies toward overindulgence, it will always be home to me. I do the best I can with the sandwich, taking in way more than I thought I could, then move back up Decatur to do some business. It goes well.

I suppose this is something of a business trip to my favorite place in the world — old business, new business, longstanding matters that are now coming due. My traveling com panion,

Big Al, has never been here before.

He got the picture on Friday night, just a few hours in town, as Ivan Neville and Galactic’s Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio laid down a soundtrack well into the early morning, the bust of Professor Longhair standing sentry at the door, watching the action on the street, as in his day Fess was wont to do.

Coco Robicheaux made this bust back in the day, cast it from thousands of melteddown pennies that were probably the most cash Coco ever had on him.

Coco passed last week, dropped while holding court in the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street in the Fauborg Marigny, joining the long list of dead friends that sometimes is the only thing holding this society together. On Saturday night we gathered in the Marigny for one of the many celebrations of his life.

I’m not the one to eulogize Coco — we weren’t close, but he is the author of several of my finest moments in the city, written during the years when I lived alone in the French Quarter and tended bar Uptown, indelible despite my best efforts to wipe my memory clean.

I’d often catch him during his noontime sets on Decatur Street, sometimes benefiting from his wisdom and grace when the music stopped. On my 28th birthday he sang a Grateful Dead song to me, “Ripple,” the most beautiful rendition I have ever seen. I know the world, and the city, are poorer for his passing.

At Marie’s, deep in the Marigny, in tapered black pants, pointy shoes and a preacher’s hat with his wild hair flowing under the wide brim, the Rev. Goat plugged in Coco’s electric while LSU fulfilled their destiny on

the television set over the bar.

“I’m gonna do this the way Coco said,” he growled into the mic. “‘The blues,’ Coco said, ‘sometimes is one man, one guitar.’” He laid down tones of sorrow and loss, and when I had taken all I could stand, me and Big Tiny and Rebecca marched back through the Marigny to Frenchmen. I ducked my head into the Apple Barrel for a moment of repose and then dance a celebration on the floor of dba as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band reminded me of the capacity to feel joy.

The front man called all the ladies in the room to the stage for the band’s rendition of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” laced with heavy horns and crisp percussion. He sang the same verse over and over again, because sometimes it’s not about the words.

I remember Coco. I finish my sandwich — what I can of it anyway — shoulder my bag and head Uptown, taking in the glorious façades of the Garden District as they file past the window of the Magazine Street bus.

Tonight we’ll watch the Saints destroy the Detroit Lions from a high perch behind an end zone. I haven’t set foot into the Superdome since 1999, just before I left New Orleans — or, at least, I thought I did.

Turns out a lot of me is down here still. The flight comes early tomorrow morning, and I won’t be able to see the vast expanse of Lake Pontchartrain from my plane window for the thin veil of fog hanging low over the city like a quilt.

But now I depart from the Magazine Street bus near 6th Street, just a few blocks from a couple apartments I used to live in, a few bars where I used to tend. Got a few more pieces of business to attend; I’ll save the goodbyes for later.

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