Isn’t it time for you to visit New Orleans?

Have you ever been to the Big Easy? If not, why not? It is one of the most unique American cities you’ll ever visit.

Do you like good food? Do you enjoy live music? Do you like culture, architecture and history? Chances are you you’ll be checking all the boxes that moves this singular destination to number 1 on your bucket list.

It was November of 2004 and I got a call out of the blue from Luis who said he got my name from a Recruiter in North Carolina. He learned I had been laid off from a Raleigh based Electric Utility and that I was looking for an opportunity, he was right.

After being out of work for seven months, the idea of relocating to a city I had never been to seemed like a reasonable option. I accepted the invite to interview the week before Thanksgiving and was surprised by how quickly they moved to get me there to interview. After a full day of interviews with business leaders and senior contributor's in Staffing & HR at this New Orleans based utility, I felt like I had a good idea what I might be getting into. Luis walked me to the elevator and said ‘let’s take a ride’. We reached the lobby of this Central Business District high rise and found a quiet place to sit and talk. He said ‘let’s get straight to it, we want to make you an offer’ I’ll admit I was surprised we were having this conversation so soon. It all hit me like a load of bricks and the implications for a life change were significant at that point. I got back to NC, thought about it, prayed about it and called Luis to say ‘yes’.

I had no questions, concerns or issues about doing the job, delivering on the expectations or anything work related. The big ‘unknown’ was life in New Orleans. Like most, I had heard all the stories about Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. That’s really all I knew about the City on the Delta.

The offer included a generous relocation package which included temporary living accommodation until I could find a place to live. It was early January of 2004 and even at that time of year, I thought the temps were unseasonably cold for a city so close to the Gulf of Mexico. I knew the summer heat and humidity were coming soon enough.

My first few days of work were a preview of what was to follow. I could not understand what people were saying. It was like hearing a foreign language. Growing up in the South, you are accustomed to hearing the ‘Southern accent’. It may call for some deciphering but you would evntually get it. These Cajuns were talking so fast and what I was hearing was simply not translating and simply nowhere close to the english language. I would get a voicemail from someone and not understand it after listening to it multiple times. My co-workers laughed at me when I would ask them to translate.

At the beginning, my thoughts and energy were focused on finding a suitable place to live. I wanted to rent, I didn’t want a long commute, I had a budget in mind and an idea of the neighborhood I wanted to live in. I found a lot of postings on craigslist and found several were being represented by a guy named Michael B. After a few conversations we decided to meet up on a Sunday morning and visit a few properties. I didn’t like any of them. At the last showing, it was close to lunch and I knew the Carolina Panthers were playing the St Louis Rams in a key NFC playoff match up. As Michael and I became acquainted he told me was a musician in a local band and Real Estate was his day job. I liked him, he was a no BS guy, a straight talker and we got along great. As the morning moved to early afternoon I told him I was hoping to watch the Panthers & Rams game. He told me ‘if you want to watch the game with other Panther fans, go to the Bull Dog on Magazine’.

That’s exactly what I did. In the Central time zone, kick off is at 12n. I walked in & found this place practically empty. I sat at the bar, asked for a menu and the bartender make a comment about my Panther hat. As the game advanced, the place became lively. Just next to me, I met a couple who were wearing Panther gear. They told me they were from Breau Bridge, Lousiana a and they knew Jake Delahomme, the Panthers QB, as he was from there and had a horse ranch there where he raised race horses. If you know your NFL history, you know how this story ends. The game is tied at the end of regulation and the Panthers end up winning in overtime as the Offenisve Coordinator , Dan Henning, Jake & Steve decide to call X-Clown. Jake hits #89 Steve Smith in the flats who turns on the after burners and racesuntouched into the end zone for the game winning TD to clinch the NFC bid for the Super Bowl.

The couple were overjoyed, I was ecstatic as were the dozens of other closet Panther fans in the bar. They told me how Jake had a great college career at SW Louisiana but signed undrafted with the Saints and then optioned to play in NFL Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals. He returned to the US & was again signed by the Saints but got very little playing time behind Aaron Brooks and sat the bench. He signed with the Panthers in 2003 backing up Rodney Peete.

This is story not really about Jake or the Panthers or NFL football. It’s about this couple that I met who knew all the details about Jake and his life. As the afternoon began to drift into evening they began to ask about what brought me there and my job. The conversation turned to how I ended up at the Ugly Dog. When I told them about this guy named Mike that I met on craigslist that was in a band called the Super Group their eyes got big. They said ‘you don’t know who that is do you?’ Obviously I didn’t. They went on to explain the band was called SupaGroup, they had recently opened for AC/DC and Alice Cooper and were hitting their stride as a rising band to record and tour. All I could do was say ‘wow’. It was because of Mike, the drummer that I was there.

It had been a day to remember, the Panthers in the Super Bowl, hanging out with some locals in a New Orleans bar and having a great time. As I’m saying my goodbyes, the lady says ‘ you need to be living at the Cotton Mill’ I said, thanks, I’ll check it out and it was ‘see you later’. I never saw this couple again. I cannot even recall their names. I did check out the Cotton Mill and that’s where I ended up living. Right in the heart of the Warehouse District and a stone’s throw from Emerils flagship restaurant.

It was a great beginning to an amazing two years in the Crescent City. I would end up leaving two weeks before Hurricane Katrina but that’s another story for another time.

The Cotton Mill was built in the mid-1800s and was two blocks from the Mississippi River. It sat empty for years and was purchased by a development company and converted into a mix of condos and rental units. It had an on-site restaurant called the Sun Ray Grill which had a great local reputation and two other popular locations in the region. It’s famous for a scene filmed there in the movie ‘Failure to Launch’ with Matthew McConaughey & Sarah Jessica Parker in addition to a scene from the movie Runaway Jury with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

The Cotton Mill had a distinct reputation in the city. It was known for it’s many features and attributes. One of the biggest was its appeal to top level local athletes. It had multiple penthouse level luxury units that attracted NFL & NBA players like Jamaal Magliore who was signed by the Charlotte Hornets and moved by George Shinn to New Orleans in 2003 and became the New Orleans Hornets. At 7 feet tall he was hard to miss and coming and going we would occasionally cross paths and we would always speak. I doubt if he knew I was a charter season ticket holder to the Hornets when they started the Charlotte franchise in 1988.

I would meet many people at the Cotton Mill who would introduce me to other people many were local professionals. It became the hub of my life in this amazing non-stop city. One of the really nice features of the complex was the courtyard and pool. Imagine a one hundred year old red brick building with an oasis of tropical plants scattered about. A winding sidewalk that would meander through an open expanse lined with benches and fountains.

I brought my Weber gas grill. I’m from the South, thats what we do. I chained it to the wrought iron fence next to the 100 foot tall smoke stack that was just adjacent to the pool. On the weekends, friends and strangers would stroll by to see what was on the menu for the day.

This one especially mild summer Saturday I decided to grill some fish for an early lunch. I noticed a woman with a baby in the shallow end of the pool. She kept looking at me and I began to think she looked familiar and that maybe we had met before. I grilled up my fresh caugh fish and enjoyed the beautiful weather and my wonderful pool side meal.

She got out of the pool with her baby in arms and walked right by me. She slowed and gave me a big warm smile as if she knew exactly how much I was enjoying the moment. It wasn’t until later that evening in the buzz of the bar crowd at the Sun Ray Grill did I hear someone say ‘Mary-Louise Parker’, that was her!

I learned the child’s father was Billy Crudup and they had recerntly split so now she was single mother with a new born. She was in New Orleans filming a movie called ‘Saved’ with Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin. Neither of them ever showed up at the pool and I would never see Ms Parker again though I did come to learn she was staying in a penthouse lux unit that was on lease by the movie studios.

I came to realize it would not be unusual to see a city block shut down while films crews were shooting a movie. I saw Sean Penn at a near-by neighborhood restaurant called the Tchop House during the filming of All the Kings Men. At various times over the following two years I would see Lawernce Fishburn, Jessica Simpson and Marisa Tomei

There was always something going on this town. It was the best place to see live music. On any given day of the week, you would hear of some notable performer in town for a show. My favorite music venue was Tipitinas. I saw Doctor John perform his final show there. I saw Galactic, Cowboy Mouth, The Radiators, Marcia Ball, The Iguanas, Sonny Landreth, Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit, Theresa Anderson and I could go on but I think you get the idea.

When people ask me about restaurants, I will say if you can go to only one, I would recommend Jacque Imo’s. It’s off the beaten path in a neighborhood called Carrolton. If you don’t have a vehicle you can get there by Street Car. Check out the Yelp reviews and it will tell you all you need to know.

When people ask me when is the best time of year to visit, I say during the Jazz and Heritage Festival. It’s always the last weekend in April and the First weekend in May. The weather is mild with little humidity. The music festival is a historic gathering and a celebration of all types of music. My first time there I saw Santana who I had seen before but they put on a most memorable and inspiring performance. I saw BB King there just before he passed. Other bands I’ve seen there are Dave Matthews, James Taylor, Wilco, Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, The Subdudes, The Meters, The Funk Meters, The Neville Brothers, and Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentleman. Though I had seen some of these performers before, it seemed they had a special joy about them as they played to an appreciative group of music fans.

If you go, you will not regret it. The music is exceptional, the food is excellent, it’s well organized and the value for your dollar is amazing.

One of the unique aspects that I especially like is that all the final shows on multiple stages all wrap at 7p. This allows everyone time to get back to their hotel and get freshened up for a night in the Vieux Carre. Many of the venues will be hosting a performer who may not be playing at the Festival however during the course of the show, you would not be surprised if someone like Dave Matthews would join the North Mississippi Allstars performing a show at the Howling Wolf.

This has gone way longer than I thought and I’ve not even gotten to my favorite places to visit in the French Quarter like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Preservation Hall Jazz Band or the George Rodrigue gallery on Royal Street.

You must ride the Street Car down St Charles early in the evening just before dark and view the architecture in the Garden District. You must walk along Woldenberg Park on the River Front of the Mighty Mississippi, it’s simply awe inspiring.

For grilledOysters go to Dragos, for Gumbo go to Mothers, always order the fresh Red Fish special, for raw oysters go to ACME for a unique bar experience go to the Chart House.

Go to the D-Day Museum and honour our Vets. The Museum of the Confederacy and last but not least, Go to St Louis Square on the river front and pay respects to the Maquis de Lafayette. Without the support of this Frenchman and champion of democracy, there is no Revolutionary War victory, there is no America, no Democracy, no hope of freedom from oppression and no US.

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Jon D. Lastra

Jon D. Lastra

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