The Big Easy will be back

Somewhere, in one of those gaps between teaching high school English and opening a restaurant, I was a Kelly Girl. In New Orleans.

In a tightly knit town like the Crescent City, where getting a good job means living there a long time and meeting the right people -- neither of which I had done -- I was happy for the work.

Kelly girls -- and boys -- are temps. Temporary secretaries. Temporary

telephone operators. Temporary go-fers. Since I tested out at 95 words a minute on the typewriter, I didn’t have trouble getting office jobs, even if I never did feel like anything but a stranger in a strange land.

Most of the jobs were quite tedious. Lots of filing. But I learned a few things, like how to say otolaryngology, when I worked in that particular hospital department. It means the treatment of the eyes, ears and throat.

During lunch I would leave the neon-lit rooms and ride my bike around the neighborhood or sit in my car and listen to the radio. Good radio in New Orleans.

At my 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, I would drink weak coffee -- even in New Orleans -- and do simple arithmetic to figure out how much money I was making. It wasn’t much.

The best job -- at the Sans Souci Lingerie -- lasted four days. I sat at a desk in a makeshift office in a very large and crowded workroom where Spanish-speaking ladies carefully unfolded the merchandise manufactured on another floor and hung them up on thin white plastic hangers ready for the racks. The labels read PINK, LILAC, MINT, PEACH.

On my typewriter, I fed the paper, separated by carbon in triplicate, lined up my carriage and typed in the figures. The garments, all pastel and chiffon, were lingerie, sleepware, panties. They had names like “traces of lace,” “satin comfort,” “lace embrace” and “wispy garland.”

I was sorry when they didn’t need me any more. But glad too. The beauty of working a temp job is no one expects you to know very much at the beginning. But the longer you stay the more they give you to do -- at the same minimum wage.

Like many people now, I’m consumed with all things New Orleans, reading everything I can, remembering the names of streets that read like music -- Elysian Fields, Dauphine, Bienville, Tchoupitoulas, Annunciation -- recalling how they say “making groceries” when they mean they’re doing some shopping.

I lived on General Pershing Avenue, swam at the YMCA, near the statue of Robert E. Lee, saw a very bawdy Etta James at Tipitina’s, ate beignets at Cafe Du Monde.

Stupid things are floating through my brain. The Please U restaurant on St. Charles Avenue; the jingle -- “It’s a party in the mouth” - about a certain local brand of potato chips. I’m thinking about the time I was going for a shrimp po’ boy at Parasols’ in the Irish Channel. Totally unaware it was St. Patrick’s Day, I saw blocked streets, the parade and the people on the floats tossing heads of cabbage and carrots. Dangerous!

I’m remembering the walk I took one Sunday not three blocks from the fancy Garden District when a man across the street, addressing me in a very polite way, asked, “Excuse me, miss, but do you think I could play with your jugs for a few minutes?”

I’m remembering a certain crime spree when it felt necessary to put a lock on the hood of my Camaro so no one would steal my car battery. This too was in the Garden District.

For a while I waited tables at The Pontchartrain Hotel, a snooty Uptown establishment at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Josephine Street. Its signature dessert was the Mile High Pie. Like the other servers, I had to use a separate door from the patrons. I wasn’t allowed to drink at the bar, even on my day off.

Eventually the crime did me in. So did the disgusting amount of litter, the conspicuous have/have-not situation, the lackadaisical attitude toward illiteracy and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude of city officials. Sound familiar?

One other thing that parallels Savannah is the people. Despite its flaws, despite its proximity to danger, natives adore the place and couldn’t possibly consider living anywhere else.

They may wander for a few years. They may drift. They may take temporary jobs, happy for the work. But it won’t be right in their soul. It won’t sit right.

And the minute they see an opening, they’ll be heading back and starting over. Some may even be singing the Fats Domino song, “I’m walking to New Orleans.”

They’ll be back on the river, back on the streets, back in the perilous but provocative bowl known as the Crescent City. Mark my words.

E-mail Jane at

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