Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murder City

As of yesterday, the unofficial tally of 2009 murders in New Orleans stood at 171, according to the Times-Picayune. Meanwhile, New York City had 461 murders as of Monday, according to the New York Times.

It bears mentioning that New Orleans is a city of no more than 350,000 people, by even the most wildly optimistic measures, while New York City's population is 8.3 million people. So while New York City's population is almost 24 times as big as New Orleans, its total number of murders is only two and a half times greater.

To put this in per capita terms, New York City has 5.5 murders per 100,000 residents and New Orleans has 48.8 murders per 100,000 residents. So yes, fellow New Orleanians, your chances of being murdered are roughly nine times greater than your friends in the Big Apple.

Having grown up in New York in the bad old days of crime and violence, those days when the streets were so rough that only Rudy Giuliani's campaign of civil liberties violations could make the streets safe for women and children, I think it is significant to point out that, even in those awful times of low rents and vital, diverse culture, New York's per capita murder rate was still only 26 murders per 100,000 residents, based on the high point of 2245 murders in 1990.

I hope that 2010 brings better news on the crime and violence front here in New Orleans but I am not optimistic.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rose Silhouette

My wife, Nikki Page, is a multi-talented artist and photographer with whom I have collaborated on nearly everything that I have done that was worth doing.

Our most recent collaboration has been our little baby Rose and it should come as no surprise that Nikki would not have been content merely to grow, deliver, feed and raise this baby but felt the need to memorialize her infancy in her art, a pursuit that she has little time for at the moment given her other aforementioned duties.

For Christmas, Nikki made me this eighteenth century style silhouette, made contemporary with her signature cut paper technique on both the silhouette and the border that frames the silhouette. Nikki told me that I would need to give it to Rose some day. I said that I would will it to her so that she can have it when I die but that she will not lay her hands on it before then.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Three Irish Poets

I am only really familiar with the work of three Irish poets, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and . . . Shane MacGowan.

I was thinking of the last of these this eve of Christmas Eve, thinking of all the drunks, losers, and people full of regret this Christmas. Happy Christmas to them.

Fairytale Of New York
Shayne MacGowan

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in at ten to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So Happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas Day

Monday, December 21, 2009

Merry Christmas

In the cesspool of money, bling, and consumerism that is, for the most part, the New York Times Style Section, Stephen Elliott's Christmas essay was a little diamond this past Sunday.

His sad, wonderful essay is about being a runaway, homeless kid having Christmas at his foster home and feeling a little less loved than the other kids. The essay is not just about Christmas but also memory and how our idea of ourselves shapes it, especially among those of us that chronically indulge in feeling a little less loved.

Merry Christmas Stephen Elliott, and everybody else.

No Home I’d Call My Own

Published: December 18, 2009

CHRISTMAS has always been my existential holiday.

I left home when I was 13, after my mother died. I lived on the streets of Chicago for a year, sleeping on rooftops and in broom closets and breaking into boiler rooms when it became too cold.

I was 14 when I was arrested sleeping in a hallway. By then my father had moved, and I didn’t know where he lived, so the state took custody. I spent the next four years in a series of group homes and state-financed institutions.

In the group homes, holidays weren’t so bad because we teenagers were all in the same parentless boat. Depending on the home, we would be given presents and there would be a nice meal. Volunteers would take us ice skating or bowling or something like that.

It was when I became a nominal adult, a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, that I began to understand my predicament.

Winter break would come; the students scattered; the dorms closed. And I had to figure out where to go.

One year I hitchhiked west, hoping to make it to Los Angeles but only getting as far as Tucson before running out of time and catching a Greyhound bus back to the university.

Another year I went to Mexico, traveling by bus with a student pass, staying in boarding homes and sneaking into the fancy hotels and lying next to the pool. On the road I didn’t have to explain myself, or why I thought I didn’t have anywhere to go. It’s lonely traveling on Christmas, but nobody sees it.

There were also times when I returned to Chicago to spend Christmas with the Bell family, whom I lived with before starting college. The Bells were poor. They owned a house — a two-story frame house built in the 1930s, bought with a $5,000 inheritance used as a down payment and a G.I. loan. But that was it.

The mom, Maria, whom everybody called Ma Bell, raised three children in that house virtually by herself while working as an administrative assistant at the Catholic Charities. Her youngest son, Jason, and I were friends, and she didn’t seem to mind when, just after turning 18, I left the group home and showed up with a bag of possessions and moved into the basement. I stayed eight months, pitching in sometimes with money from a part-time job and helping a little around the house, but not much. It was a generous family, and I took more than I gave.

My first Christmas with the Bells was during my first or second year of college. I told Ma I was coming, and she said, “You’re always welcome.” That year I saw the pattern. All the children would get presents: a bakeware set for Chrissy, the oldest daughter; a drill for Benny, the oldest son; a toolbox for Jason. I would get a T-shirt or socks. It was simple commerce; my presents didn’t cost as much. The difference in price was the clearest reminder that I was an outsider who had been taken in.

Now I’m 38 and Christmas is about the babies, and I don’t notice the price tags on my presents. The Bells’ house has been sold and Ma lives in the far north suburbs, still struggling financially. I tell her that I’m writing about our old Christmases, that I have mixed feelings about them. I tell her it made me a little sad that my presents didn’t cost as much. She tells me it was complicated for her as well.

“I never knew if you were coming,” she says. “You would never commit to anything. The day before you might tell me you were coming home. But I was so happy when you were there.”

She made me a stocking, which she did for all her children, and hung it over the mantelpiece. It was there whether I arrived or not. And it was true, what she said. I had a foot out the door. I got used to running away at an early age. I don’t know how to commit.

This was my Christmas lie. I preferred to think I didn’t have a home, that I wasn’t part of a family. But it wasn’t true. At least not completely.

“Did I ever bring you presents?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.”

To help me remember, she brings me pictures from 18, 20 years ago. There’s Jason in long underwear, shirtless, an eagle and a skull with wings tattooed on his shoulder, holding his freshly unwrapped fishing rod. There’s Benny holding what looks like a handheld video game device. There’s Ma in her moccasin boots with all the food spread out on the table. Chrissy, the only child to have already left home, her face poking above a new purple sweater.

And there I am in the chair by the front window. Why didn’t somebody tell me to get a haircut and wear clothes that fit? There’s a picture of Jason and me leaning over the couch, Chrissy and Michelle, Benny’s girlfriend, sitting next to Benny, all of us looking at the photo album open on Benny’s lap. In the next picture I’m face down on the couch. Chrissy and I are both asleep, the cat impassively between us, the coffee table covered in candy wrappers.

There are so many pictures. Here, we’re passing a pie. There, we’re slicing a ham. Everybody seems to be smiling.

“One year we had a Goodwill Christmas,” Ma says. “Everybody’s presents were from Goodwill. There was never any money. I worked so hard and I was exhausted but I didn’t want anybody to go. I would sit on the couch and you would all tell stories, one after another. And you would all laugh and laugh, and that was my reward. I would sit on the couch and close my eyes and listen to you all laughing. It made me so happy because life was hard. Nobody helped. My first husband didn’t help. My second husband was a junkie.”

I tell her I remember. I remember the laughing. The laughs seemed endless, even though Jason and Chrissy were in recovery and Ma’s boyfriend was stuck in a series of difficult low-paying jobs. Maybe it was Benny doing voices: the Indian storeowner, the used-car salesman.

Here is a picture. Just a Christmas tree in front of the staircase, covered in tinsel, an angel on top. Beneath the tree are presents, carefully wrapped in blue, green and red. To the right, on the wall, is a picture of an Indian and a buffalo. On the floor, against the TV stand, an Elvis record. It’s almost a cliché, all the symbols meaning exactly what you think they mean.

“What was the joke?” I ask. “What were the stories we were telling?”

“I don’t know,” Ma says. “I remember the laughing, but I can’t remember what was so funny.”

Stephen Elliott is the author of “The Adderall Diaries,” a memoir.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Classic Cocktails in the White House c/o Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow discovers what they are serving at the White House cocktail parties. Classic cocktails: the Emerson, the Stone Fence, the Robert Frost Cocktail. It looks like they have maraschino liquor and Plymouth Gin on the table in the photo that Rachel snuck. My confidence in the Union is restored by the presence of a man in the White House who drinks, drinks responsibly, and drinks tastefully. (That would likely keep me out of the White House but that is likely a good thing.)


Can't find a recipe for the Robert Frost Cocktail but here are the other two, as well as the ingredients Rachel listed for each:

- 2 oz Gin
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
- 1/2 oz Lemon Juice
- 1/2 oz Maraschino Liqueur
- Glassware: Cocktail Glass

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass.

At the White House according to Rachel:

Old tom gin


Lime juice

Sweet vermouth

Stone Fence
- 2 ounces brandy (or applejack, or Scotch, or bourbon, or rye, or rum)
- hard cider

Pour the spirits into a pint glass; add two lumps of ice and fill with cider.

At the White House, according to Rachel:

Apple Jack
Apple cider
Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters

Finally the Robert Frost Cocktail, developed by Derek Brown, according to Rachel:

White Port
Orange Bitters

Using some basic principle of drink making, I have tried to sort out the proportions of The Robert Frost Cocktail.

I am not quite sure what it is supposed to taste like and I am pretty fond of the taste of all of the ingredients so who knows if this is what Washington luminaries (and Susan Mikula) drank at the white house but it's what we are drinking at my house tonight. Suffice to say, I could drink a couple few of them quite happily.

1 1/2 oz. bourbon
3/4 oz. white port
3/4 oz. sherry
Orange bitters
Sugar cube

Muddle a sugar cube with two or three dashes of orange bitters and a little water in an old fashioned glass. (This is how my two favorite drinks, the old fashioned and the sazerac commence, so I figure it's a good way to start just about anything.) Add the other ingredients with a lot of ice and stir with a chop stick or mixing spoon. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Make pretend you are Susan Mikula, or David Axelrod, or someone else likely to attend a White House cocktail party.

Comments or real recipes for this drink (as well as an explanation of the Robert Frost connection) are welcome.


I finally found the real recipe for the Robert Frost on The Atlantic website.

Here it is:

The Robert Frost Cocktail

• ¾ oz. Bourbon
• ¾ oz. Amontillado Sherry (dry)
• ¾ oz. White Port
• ½ oz. Simple Syrup
• Dash of Orange Bitters

Combine ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and add thinly sliced orange and lemon wheels.

I wouldn't have thought equal parts. But it works.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Nikki and I were wondering about the origin of the word mayonnaise last week. I came up with the idea that naise must mean sauce in French. (See, i.e., bearnaisse.) So that mayonnaise was the sauce of mayon, whatever that is.

After consulting someone fluent in French last night, it turns out that aise means something like "of," not sauce, so he and I speculated that mayonnaise was simply "of mayon," maybe a town?

We consulted the The World Authority Larousse Gastronomique, the dusty old first American edition (1961) that has sat unopened on my shelf for many years.

The answer it provided was brilliant, complex, and satisfying uncertain.

From the Gastronomique:

Mayonnaise - A cold sauce of which the basic ingredients are egg yolks and oil blended into an emulsion. For recipes, see SAUCE, Cold sauces.

'Culinary purists," writes Careme in his Cuisinier parisien: Traite des entrees froides, 'are not in agreement regarding the name. Some say mayonnaise, others mahonnaise and others bayonnaise.

'I will admit that these words may be current among common cooks, but for my part, I protest that never in our great kitchens (and that is where the purists are to be found) are these three words ever pronounced. We always refer to this sauce by the name magnonaise.'

'But how is it that M. Grimod-de-la-Reyniere, a man of logic and wit, could not see at first glance that magnonaise, derived from the word manier (to stir), was the most appropriate name for this sauce, which owes its very being to the unremitting stirring which it undergoes in the course of preparation? I am more that ever convinced of this when I consider that it is only by working the liquid ingredients together (as may easily be seen from the detailed recipe for this sauce) that a very smooth, creamy sauce is finally produced; a sauce which is very appetising and unique in its kind, since it is totally unlike all other sauces, which are produced by reduction over heat.'

However logical Careme's justification for the exclusive use of the term magnonaise may seem, we are not by any means convinced that it should take the place of the usual form, mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise, in our view, is a popular corruption of moyeunaise, derived from the very old French word moyeu, which means yolk of egg. For, when all is said, this sauce is nothing but an emulsion of egg yolks and oil.

If all sauces stirred for a longer or shorter period, on or off the stove, required a name deriving from the word, manier, then a great many would come under this heading, for instance, Bearnaise and Hollandaise.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Orleans Police Department

Nikki, our friend Kristen, and I were robbed at gun point in the Marigny almost exactly a year ago. The teenage boys who robbed us made off with Nikki's cell phone and then, stupidly, used it for the next couple of days. Though reluctant to see the boys end up in our state's awful criminal justice system, I immediately brought the evidence to the police station, including the numbers called. No one was there to talk to me so I left a message with an officer at the desk. No one called me back so I called them. And I called. And I called. But no one called me back . . . until I wrote about it in the Times Picayune at which point I received tons of attention from the police, wondering why I had needed to make them look bad. "Why didn't you just contact me in the first place?"

Based on my experience, and the tons of feedback that I received from other New Orleanians who had similar bad experiences with the New Orleans Police Department, I was unsurprised to see that the police department has rock bottom approval ratings from the people they are supposed to serve. According to a recent poll by the New Orleans Crime Coalition, only 33% of city residents are satisfied with the performance of the NOPD. This is compared with an 84-percent satisfaction rating in Nashville and a 75 percent rating in St. Louis.

I am actually surprised that it's as high as it is.