Jan 11, 201012:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: New Orleans When It Freezes
OK, so we have been experiencing freezing weather, but anyone who has been around New Orleans long enough has other stories to tell.
It froze so hard in New Orleans once that in order to shave I had to warm the washrag in the microwave. It was the Christmas freeze of 1989, a chill that blasted in from Texas pulling a white sheet across Louisiana. Old houses, such as the one I was living in, don’t take kindly to frigid winds that funnel beneath the raised floor while cracking pipes along the way. Having stopped the flow of heated water, the polar air allowed only an icy trickle from the spigot. It took the microwave several minutes to make heat from the dampened rag.
Freezes, really deep ones, are so rare locally that when they do happen, their impact is more keenly felt by a citizenry not used to them. During that same ‘89 freeze, city officials announced midmorning that all workers should go home at once. Their declarations were misguided, though, because they created the spectacle of a city full of sliding cars driven by people all going home at once and not used to steering on ice. Only the inevitable gridlock prevented more accidents.
Where there’s ice, there are some good moments, too. By definition, the Schoen Funeral Home on Canal Street is not a happy place, but when the temperature slips below freezing, the fountain in front becomes a winter splendor, as it did again this past weekend. Draped with icy splashes, its stream stands petrified as though suspended in time.
Once as a kid some friends and I rejoiced in the first frozen tundra we had ever experienced. A January cold blast had frozen City Park’s various ponds and puddles. Using old golf clubs as sticks and a block of wood as a puck, we glided on our shoes over an iced ditch playing makeshift hockey. Better yet was the layer of snow that we used to build a snowman atop a friend’s car. He drove while another friend and I sat in a window opening on each side of the old Plymouth holding the snowman and waving to those along the way.
“There was an unusual cold wave across the South today,” the NBC news anchor reported that evening as a prelude to scenes of Dixie under ice. Then suddenly was the shot of two boys holding a snowman atop a car. My first and only snowman experience went national that night.
A freeze in New Orleans defies the city’s semitropical character. For a moment it’s as though the town wears a new dress. Kids are thrilled at the changing weather; adults anticipate the plumbing bills. Dark coffee and chicory, warm and rich and never really out of season, melts the chilled air with its aroma.
Old houses still blessed with floor furnaces are in their glory as people elbow for the sensation of the heat climbing up their legs. Other old houses, cursed with space heaters, are endangered by flammable objects dangling too close to the flame and by the unventilated heater sucking oxygen from rooms made airtight because of the cold. Firefighters stand on alert. These are the nights they train for.
At some places the homeless are gathered as part of the city’s “freeze plan”; at other places people happily gaze at the dancing, crackling flames in their home fireplaces. The tropical nature of the city is blanketed for a few evenings but is never too far from bursting out: the banana trees and "elephant ears" deadened by the weather will make their resurrection by late spring.
Meanwhile there are the sounds –– the roar of the chilled wind, the percolating of the coffee pot, the flutter from the fireplace and the beeping from the microwave. The experience can be magical but painful, too.
In New Orleans, after all, a snowball is something that is best experienced with flavored syrup on top.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival - Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e- mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 895-2266.
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