Serendipity in New Orleans

This tale starts at the Trashy Diva dress shop, back a couple years ago when it was on Chartres Street and the American Libraries Association Conference was in New Orleans. I wasn’t certain I would like New Orleans. All I knew of it was drunkenness and flashing and beads—none of which I’m interested in. Sure, I also knew it had delicious food and amazing music, but I worried I wouldn’t be able to find all those things, what with all the drunks blocking my path. I was giving a presentation with Sarah Wendell on Romancelandia and libraries. She had promised I would love New Orleans. My neighbor had promised I would love New Orleans. My dimples hid a deep skepticism, but I was game to give the city a try. After all, NOLA and I share an interest in food.

For the first day, I shared long, meandering walks in the French Quarter with thirty thousand other librarians and assorted tourists. But all those people might as well not have been there. As far as we were concerned, the French Quarter and I were like the perfect first date, the one where the noise of the restaurant falls away as you begin the process of falling in love. Instead of bringing me flowers, New Orleans put the Trashy Diva in my path. Beckoning from the window was a pink shirtwaist dress. I went in, tried on some beautiful dresses, questioned whether I could afford them, and walked out. But the city is a determined suitor. On my way back to the hotel, I passed a woman on the street. I complimented her on her dress.

“I got it at the Trashy Diva,” she said.

The sartorial gods were speaking to me and I was in a mood to listen. That afternoon, I went back to the Trashy Diva and bought one of the two dresses I had previously admired—a shirtwaist dress with a crane pattern and red frog fasteners up the front. After Sarah’s flight got in and we met for coffee, her response to my story was, “Serendipity’s just the sort of thing that happens in New Orleans.”

She wanted to see the dress shop and so back to the Trashy Diva we went. Again I put my fate back in the hands of the sartorial gods; I would only buy the other dress if they still had that last one in my size, which of course they did. That second dress is made from navy cotton, constructed like the famous Marilyn Monroe dress, and always makes me thankful I don’t walk over subway grates on a regular basis. Sarah asked the manager where we should eat. Sylvain, the woman said. It’s delicious and they have great cocktails. The woman was right. Sarah and I ate lunch there. Twice. For my last dinner in New Orleans, I went back and sat at the bar.

Sylvain is dark, with small tables, lots of wood, and a large, heavy bar backed by mirrors. Outside are small tables in a courtyard. It exists somewhere between a bar and a restaurant, occupying the best of both worlds, including the friendly and energetic bartenders fixing drinks and offering suggestions. My two lunches there and the dinner at the bar are some of my best memories from New Orleans.

But conferences end and planes fly back to Durham as easily as they fly away. The time clock in our story speeds on. I go from zero published books to three published books and two more on the way. The blue dress I bought is the one I’m wearing in my author photo. I’ve rewarded myself with two other Trashy Diva dresses (and shoes) for selling books.

Our story starts again in May, 2014. I’m an author. And I’m back in New Orleans for a conference. Of course I go to the Trashy Diva. Of course I buy myself a dress. It’s a halter-top this time, in a blue and cream Hawaiian print with a skirt that flirts about the backs of my thighs as I walk down the street.  I don’t have an appropriate bra for it, but no matter. With a cardigan, I pretend no one can tell. Sylvain’s always seems to be booked and we are never able to get a table.

Until Saturday night. My roommate has gone home a day early. My other regular dining companions are gone. My plan is to head to Sylvain’s and get a seat at the bar. I am not the only single woman with this plan. While waiting I meet Kay (not her real name, but she hasn’t agreed to live her life online in the same way I have). We conspire to slip into bar seats together as soon as the couple we have our eye on pays their check. Two men also have their eyes on those seats, but Kay informs them that we were first and down we sit.

Sylvain, like New Orleans, provides that magic mix of bustle and intimacy. The bartenders are always moving. Conversation is all around us. But dark wood absorbs the din and over dinner and drinks, Kay and I become friends. She has just arrived for a conference. I am to leave the next day. We share our histories, talk about our jobs  and our loves, both old and new.

Kay has a map of places to eat and music to hear, given to her by an acquaintance. One spot on the map says, “Sylvain’s—eat at the bar. Good wine.” There’s also a list of jazz clubs with descriptions, “posh, best jazz dummer, no cover, one drink minimum” and “singer has created her own style, no cover, one drink minimum.”

Irvin Mayfields JazzPlayhouse

Together, we head to the first jazz club, Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. Posh, and there was dancing. Not much dancing, just Kay and I and three other women. One of the other women leads us in a backup singer set of coordinated moves and the band plays along, selecting the song set to help us. We became part of the show.

Next up is the Bombay Club, which mixes the feel of a gentleman’s club and a speakeasy with martinis and jazz. We sink into leather club chairs, order ourselves up some drinks and talk more, stopping to listen to the band’s set. We both agree that playing the upright bass (especially the intense look on the face of the musician) is pretty hot.

We finish our drinks and leave the Bombay Club. At Bourbon Street, we hug and split off in our respective directions. I have to catch the airport shuttle at 6:55 am.  The drunks I had been dreading on my first trip to NOLA stumble around and boys on the balconies yell, “Tits! Tits! Tits!” to the street below. But making a new friend at Sylvain’s and going from jazz club to jazz club leaves me glowing and happy inside, so they don’t bother me.

Was the magic in the Trashy Diva dresses? At the bar at Sylvain’s? Or does magic infuse the city of New Orleans itself? And does it hit all of the thousands of people wearing a Trashy Diva dress or eating at the bar at Sylvain’s?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Knowing that there are a thousand such stories floating around in the NOLA air doesn’t diminish mine; it makes it better.

Because serendipity’s just the sort of thing that happens in New Orleans.

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You can also find me over at the SuperRomance Authors Blog.