My best friends and I refer to last summer as The Great Separation. My "departure" started in June, and by the time October came, I was completely gone. I missed a lot. I am mysteriously absent from photos of festivals and concerts, Halloween and other events that adorn the walls of my friends' apartment. I didn't see them for nearly three months, even though I was still in town. Where did I go? I went a little crazy (not in a medical sense, but with a post-Katrina ennui
) and took a break from nearly everyone I knew. It wasn't until Thanksgiving -- the one-year anniversary of my return to New Orleans after Katrina -- that we were reunited. Through a Thanksgiving day journey that began with an invasion of alien cats and ended with dinner served beneath a skeleton rock band performing upside down from a ceiling, my friends and I were brought together by a desire to repair our broken friendship and take solace in this city that had been our home away from home for the last five years but at a time when we didn't quite have as much faith in it as we once did. Nothing tests your concept of "home" like an encroaching holiday and how you plan to spend it in your city. As college students my friends and I had always gone home for the holidays; this was the first Thanksgiving we'd spend here together. We failed to make any real plans for the day, deciding instead to let things evolve as they would -- a potential recipe for disaster. But one of the best things about New Orleans is its magical ability to meet your needs in the weirdest, wackiest ways right when you think it's just not going to happen. It's that special something that soothes the heart, that palliative that keeps pulling you back in just when you think you've had enough. On our first Thanksgiving in New Orleans, my friends and I were most thankful for World Leader Pretend, the Fair Grounds racetrack, six Bloody Marys, The Columns Hotel, three bottles of champagne, Mimi's in the Marigny, a bottle of Vino Verde, three anonymous strangers, two Miller Hi-Lifes and the R Bar -- in that order. Thanksgiving really began the night before with the invasion of alien cats and the thwarted attempts of one evil Dr. Otto von Finkelstein to steal a gravy recipe from Pocahontas and John Smith as they attempted to establish a gravy stand on Mars -- in World Leader Pretend's Thanksgiving Musical at Tipitina's. With a cast including Theresa Andersson, Bryan Spitzfaden, Steve Gleason, Lee Zurik, Chris Rose and James Hall, the band put on the best Thanksgiving musical ever
. The wit, humor and musical authority that makes this band a uniquely New Orleans phenomenon was evident in this poignantly pastiche ode to pop culture, as it performed covers of songs like Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" and crafted its own musical soundtrack with lively twists on the year's top pop, turning Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" into Finkelstein's maniacal entreaty for "Gravy," among others. My friends and I parted ways that evening giddy with excitement for the following day. The next morning we found ourselves at the Fair Grounds. Not knowing how to bet on a horse race, we sat off to the side and admired the festive costuming of the crowd, Bloody Marys in hand. We wondered where everyone planned to eat Thanksgiving dinner and began to consider our options. We drove around looking for food for an hour and were turned away by several establishments sporting "Closed" signs. We arrived at the Columns Hotel and, having missed brunch, took a table in the lower courtyard and ordered Champagne. As the fizz hit our brains and our empty stomachs, we worked things out. It took about five minutes to realize how much I'd missed these friends and that there was no place I would rather be at that moment. But we were still hungry. So we headed downtown. We went to Mimi's in the Marigny, sincerely believing its kitchen would be open. It was only
Thanksgiving after all. No luck. Around 6 p.m. we bought a bottle of wine and took a seat, informing the bartender that on this day of all days we hadn't yet had a bite to eat. He told us he'd heard a rumor about the R Bar catering a Thanksgiving dinner. We corked our bottle and headed out, hoping against hope that he was right. As we continued our journey on foot down Royal Street, we saw three figures standing in the shadows of their front stoop. In our uncertainty as to what we'd find at the end of the road, we asked them for advice as a backup plan. It was fairly late in the evening, our energy was low and we were feeling like we really botched Thanksgiving after all. But to our surprise, these anonymous strangers generously invited us in to eat their leftovers. They brought out a small package of tinfoil and unfolded it to reveal scallops wrapped in bacon and covered in barbecue sauce. How this assembly qualifies as Thanksgiving food I'm not sure, but it was delicious and enough to rally our spirits. We thanked them profusely and continued on our way. As we approached the R Bar, a faint light radiated from its doors like a tiny beacon of hope shining forth from an ancient catacomb, offering refuge and sanctuary on this holiday evening. What we came upon thereafter can only be described as a feast -- mainly because it was too dark inside the bar and we were too drunk to see what we were eating. We had made no plans for the day and had no expectations, but somehow the kind proprietor of this establishment had anticipated our needs. For the price of two Miller Hi-Lifes, we received what I believe was turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, some kind of dip and lots of pie. With our plates piled high, we sank down into the airplane seats across the room to watch others like us help themselves to the spread laid out on the bar, as the infamous skeleton band above played on.
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