I don’t even know where to start in describing Vera, except to say that she is the quintessential New Orleanian and that our friendship is quintessentially New Orleanian: We went to preschool together, met up again in high school and then truly became friends when I moved back home.
From the start it was an absolutely effortless friendship.
I moved home in the midst of Carnival season, and I’d only been back for about two days when Vera invited me over for brunch on Endymion Saturday. I offered to come early and help cook, and at around 9:30 that morning, I walked into her kitchen with two coffees from PJ’s and handed one to her. We hadn’t seen each other in a decade, but we hugged and drank coffee and rolled up our sleeves and started cooking while discussing how much we hated Christopher Kimball.
And that was it. We were friends. When she had a breakup, I was there with champagne and orange juice and Kleenex. When my daughter was in the hospital, she was there every morning with breakfast for us and games for Ruby.
But as lovely as she is year-round, she really shines during Jazz Fest. She never intended to live so close to the Fair Grounds, but when she bought a house in prime Jazz Fest territory, her mission was clear.
Every year, on every day of Jazz Fest, she opens her home up after the fest and invites everyone she knows to stop by. The e-mail I got earlier this week read: “My darling friends and loved ones: It’s that time again, and I’m doing the same ol’ thing! Please consider yourself welcome and invited any time at my house after Jazz Fest. I head back to the house about 6:30 to set out the cheese to warm to room temp, the wine to chill and chairs for the best people-watching the city can offer. As always, you are welcome to shower, enjoy the AC, take a potty break, or just grab a libation and a snack while the traffic slows down. You’re welcome to bring your favorite beverages or make snack requests. Can’t wait to see you! We’ll be in the driveway, chillin’. xoxo, Vera.”
So why does she do it?
“How could I not do it?” she says. “Isn’t that funny? When I was looking for houses, I always thought I would live Uptown. I grew up Uptown. But when I lived in Chicago, I always came home for Jazz Fest, never for Mardi Gras. I love New Orleans, I love Jazz Fest, and I love hosting people. It gives me an opportunity to combine all of those.”
And in the true generous spirit of New Orleans, she doesn’t open her door –– or, rather, her driveway –– to just friends.
“As people walk past,” she says, “my guests and I comment to ourselves about how forlorn they look that they can’t come in. And some do; I’ve made friends this way. Donald Harrison stopped in one day with his horn for some water and a chat. My friends who aren’t from here don’t understand why I invite strangers inside to pee or have a drink. They always say, ‘People will steal stuff.’ But there’s not really anything to steal in my house, and that’s what makes New Orleans special. It would never happen in any other city, and people who are visiting get that –– you can see it in their eyes when you invite them in. They are amazed.”
Her gatherings are low-key, and the prep work basically just involves wandering the aisles of Whole Foods and buying a case of wine from Cork & Bottle, though in 2008, when it rained almost every day of the fest, she threw in some lagniappe.
“The day it rained during Billy Joel, as much as I love him, I came home and sat on the neighbor’s porch instead of getting soaked through, and we could hear Acura from the porch," she says. "Then I went home and threw about a dozen towels in the dryer, and by 7:15 I had about six naked people in warm towels eating barbecue shrimp and grits left over from brunch straight from the pan. That’s probably my favorite memory.”
Today looks like it might be another rainy day at the fest, and tomorrow doesn’t look much better, so she may have a chance to re-create that experience.
I, for one, wouldn’t miss it for the world. If you happen to pass by on your way home from the fest, don’t be shy about inviting yourself in. We’ll have a glass of wine and drink to the knowledge that this is the very best time to be in the very best city in the world.