Last May I went to New Orleans for work with a couple of colleagues. One of them, Aaron, asked whether I would like to go with him to his friend's house for dinner on Monday evening. I said sure.
From the convention center, we took a taxi, which went through the Garden District and stopped at a corner of the main street (whose name I have forgotten). Aaron walked into a supermarket to grab a case of beer. I strolled around a bit, taking photos of renovated old houses and shop fronts painted in various pastel colors.
The sun was setting. The sky was stained with streaks of violet and magenta clouds.
When Aaron came out with a shopping bag in hand, we turned off the main street into a densely shaded residential neighborhood. The sidewalks were full of bricks being uprooted by roots of old trees. I had to watch where I put down my feet. In this humid southern air, I quickly began to sweat.
We took a couple of turns and arrived at an old house with pale blue sidings. It was long and narrow, like a matchbox perched on its long side. All the houses on this block were of the same shape and well preserved.
Aaron knocked on the door. A man in a white Tee and white shorts opened the door.
"My friend John," Aaron introduced us. "Jun, my colleague." We shook hands.
Although Aaron is tall and John is short, they seemed remarkably alike. Both are middle-aged white men with unevenly graying hair cut short and gray stubble. Both wore nerdy, black-rimmed glasses that hid a twinkle in their eyes.
I walked in the door and heard the creaking of wood floor under my feet. Typical of old houses, the ceiling was high, from which soft yellow light diffused in the room.
A plump, gray-haired woman in a white Tee and a faded floral skirt walked out from the back room and shook hands with me. John's wife Cindy. She smiled. We spent a few minutes on small talk.
I glanced around curiously. The house, John proudly proclaimed, is over a century old. They had spent several years to restore and renovate it while trying to preserve as much of the old structure and materials as possible. Cindy took me from one room to the next, and the next, deeper and deeper into the belly of the long, slender strip of a house, until we reach the kitchen in its tail.
I peeked out of the window and saw the neighbor's wall a few feet from my nose. "Yes, at that time the houses were all built very close to each other in order to better resist hurricanes." She explained that the huddled houses on the entire block essentially formed a collective mass, making each building far less likely to be uprooted by the forces of nature. I suppose it was akin to the difficulty of breaking a bundle of sticks compared with breaking them one by one.
In the kitchen I helped myself with some kidney bean salad, dirty rice, and chicken pasta, and, plate in hand, retraced my steps through the entire length of the house back to the front living room. The doors between rooms were all lined up. It suddenly dawned on me that, on hot days, one could open the front and back doors and left the breeze flow right through the house.
Cindy showed Aaron and me an antique map, copied from the city's records office, showing the streets and houses of the neighborhood in the late nineteenth century. Keeping its distance from the rowdy, bustling French Quarter, the Garden District has traditionally been a suburb where upper-middle class whites set up homes. Both John and Cindy are locals.
After dinner and more conversations at a beautiful antique dining table, I noticed a couple of walls covered with framed photographs and walked up for a closer look: Exotic places, foreign faces of children and women, lyrical composition, distinct moods.
"John is a professional photographer," said Aaron behind me.
"I can tell," I smiled.
From the faces in the photos, I could tell some were taken in South American and Southeast Asian countries. Other photos were of New Orleans. The tenderness in the eyes behind the camera was unmistakable. I wondered but did not ask Aaron whether he met John through photography, for once upon a time Aaron worked as a freelance photographer for archeologists.
We had dessert --- a piece of pecan pie with whip cream --- and chatted some more about traveling, New Orleans, and Katrina. Then all four of us stretched out on the couch and a pull-out bed to watch "Treme" on HBO. John kept pointing out for us famous local landmarks ("So-and-so club!" "So-and-so candy shop!" and, altogether, "Cafe Du Monde!") and personalities (mostly musicians) making cameos on the screen.
When John drove Aaron and me back to the hotel, the night was grinning and the air was drunk with a southern sweetness.
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