A French Quarter Finale
Steaming into the lively, sweltering port of New Orleans was a mixed finale. The French Quarter sang its usual siren song, happily calling me back to my family’s most glamorous roots. But our Mississippi cruise was officially over. How sorry we all were to leave our river palace. Now we understood why the Delta Queen Company seemed to specialize in return guests, many of whom book a cruise a year.
At our insistence, Lucette joined us for dinner. She met us in the lobby of our hotel, the delightful Monteleone, a late-1800s Royal Street landmark located two blocks from Brennan’s Restaurant (the two have long been the preferred duo for the Delta Queen Company’s New Orleans Add-On Night).
Brennan’s air conditioning had failed for the first time anyone could remember. Thanks to Lucette, Delta Queen customers were soon shuttled into the one still-cool part of the restaurant: the Red Room. Instantly, I felt more than a chill.
“Ghosts?” Tom asked.
One in particular, and it was playing tricks with one of the portraits, whose expression seemed to change by the minute.
“Oh, that’s just Monsieur LeFleur,” explained our waiter. “Lots of people say his face morphs before their very eyes.”
From sweet to diabolical, I noted.
“No doubt because he hung himself from the chandelier there, after he murdered his wife and child.”
The Red Room was chilly indeed. But Brennan’s famous gumbo warmed us right up. It tasted so much like my grandma’s, I had to blink back tears.
“You got a bay leaf!” our waiter half-sang as he gathered up our empty bowls. “First one of the night—you gonna come into some money, girl!”
“I’d rather find my great-great-aunt’s parfumerie,” I replied. “Have you ever heard of Madam Aucoin?”
Our waiter grinned and nodded.
“Yes, ma’am. Her place used to be just down the block from here. I remember it from when I was a little boy.”
With that I slipped a small, very old bottle of Madam Aucoin’s parfum, a keepsake from my mother, out of my purse, and Lucette, Mary, and I dotted a precious drop on our wrists.
“This is wonderful perfume,” Lucette said. “What is it?”
I held the scratched, old, gold-foil label beneath a streetlight and was astonished to read the words: “Peau d’Espagne.”
Katrina Makes a Call
When Hurricane Katrina drove New Orleans to its knees a month later, I frantically tried to check up on our new friends. After calling Lucette for weeks, I finally got through, only to learn she had lost her home. When the Delta Queen Company was sold after its boats had been out of commission for several months, she lost her job, too. Nobody knew what had happened to Yvette or to most of the other employees.
Being based in Kentucky, Captain Schultz was okay and had managed to find work running tugboats after the Delta Queen Company ships had been turned into mobile hotels for Katrina reconstruction workers.
“But I’ll be back on the Delta Queen this summah,” he said. “Why don’ch’all join us for the Great Steamboat Race from Baton Rouge to St. Louis on the Fourth of July?”
And so we returned to the river. It feels like getting back on the horse that threw you, Hank said after we had found our staterooms. We were as thrilled to be back on the Mississippi as we were distressed for Katrina’s victims, some of whom, at least, were finally working again. The smaller scale of theDelta Queen seemed to suit our bittersweet mood.
Built in 1927, the Delta Queen is older and smaller than her sister boats and has a more settled intimacy. Tom’s and my bed fit flush between the walls of our room, and I loved lying there, watching the tricky surface of that glassy pane of water. We had boarded the Delta Queen in Memphis as before, but this time we would head north, racing the American Queen and the Mississippi Queen to St. Louis, where we’d all arrive on the Fourth of July.
“It’s the most relaxing vacation you can take,” said a passenger from Virginia. “We’ve taken 30 trips and made great friends. But the crew...” she added, shaking her head. “It’s more than takin’ a whippin’ from the storm—it’s the whole situation.”
“Some of the most wonderful crew members aren’t back on the boat,” offered someone else. “They don’t feel they can leave their families.”
“My family has posttraumatic stress syndrome from Katrina,” confirmed a dining room crew member named Robert. “My grandmother was under a bridge for three days.”
“Our house was destroyed,” reported a steady-eyed man named Bernard, who has worked on the Delta Queen for 20 years. “I’m still fighting with my insurance company that appraised our house too low, but I thank God everyone is alive.”
TheDelta Queen lost the Great Steamboat Race to the Mississippi Queen, much to Captain Schultz’s surprise. But with all due respect to the citizens of Vicksburg, no one looked more like a winner than he did, standing on deck beside the St. Louis Arch on July 4 while fireworks bloomed against the night sky above him and the Mississippi slipped quietly by down below. It had been a tough year. But he was back onboard the boat he loved, the big red paddle wheels were turning again, and the passengers and crew of the last working steamboats in America were, in their own way, finding the hard-won prize of the beloved old African American spiritual, peace like a river.