Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Belle of New Orleans

Katrina…wind, rain, and water…so much water.  Oh, God, please tell me they got out before it hit.  Please tell me they are all OK.

My first encounter with May was on the telephone.  At the time I was working at a large organization as a director in marketing and communications.  One of my roles was to run interference on behalf of the executives I served.  We often would get what we called “red crayon” letters.  They were rambling, incoherent screeds from people who thought we were either some sinister cabal or a group from another planet conspiring to take over and destroy mankind.  These always seemed to end up on my desk. 

One day the executive assistant of our CEO called me on my office phone.  I had met our CEO briefly and shook his hand once or twice. I did not interact with him on any regular basis, so I was surprised to hear from her.  She said, “Tom, we have a bit of a situation you might be able to help us with.”  She explained that there was an artist down in New Orleans, named May Lesser, who had done an illustration for one of our products.  Our CEO had complimented her and somehow she took it to mean they had a personal relationship.  “She has been calling incessantly wanting James to write the foreword for an art book she is working on. James has talked to her and politely declined but she won’t give up.”  I asked, “What can I do?”  She kind of chuckled, “We’re going to send her to you to manage the situation. She is a nice woman, but you have to get her to leave James alone.” 

May called me the next day.  She introduced herself.  I could tell by her voice that she was an older woman.  “Mr. Sharpe, this is May Lesser.  How are you today, sir?  James’s office told me that I should talk to you about him helping me with my book.”  I basically explained to her that while James appreciated the invitation, he was a very busy man, and that he received many of these requests. “If something should happen that he is available, we’ll let you know.”  I hoped she would get the message and look for other opportunities.  She didn’t get the point.  For the next several weeks she would call me every day, sometimes twice a day, to see if there was any progress.  She also continued calling James, and his office would bounce her back to me.  Whenever we talked we always had a nice conversation but the outcome was always the same. “We’ll let you know.”

On a morning that I was working on a tight deadline I got another call from James’s office.  This time it was a summons.  When I was ushered into James’s office, the most opulent I’ve ever seen, James said to me, “You’re going to the conference in New Orleans next week, aren’t you?”  I told him that I was. “I’ll be there too. I’m giving a keynote.  I’m just afraid I’m going to be ambushed by May.  What I want you to do is find a way to distract her while I’m in town.  After I have gone you can go back to doing what you need to do.  Can you do that?”  I nodded my head.  I said, “I’m sure I can figure out a way.” 

The next time I talked to May, which was that afternoon, right on schedule,  I told her I was going to be in New Orleans and that we should meet. She exclaimed, “Oh, how wonderful! When are you coming?”  I told her. “Then you must come join us.  Some of my pictures are going to be in an exhibit.”  I said, “That sounds great, May.  I’ll be there.”  She told where and when it was going to be.  I said, “I’ll see you then, May.”
I got into New Orleans in the morning and spent some time visiting some of my favorite places.  I had a small dinner and then headed to where the art gallery was.  It was in the Warehouse District.  After awhile I found the place. The outside did not look promising.  I went in and was greatly surprised. The inside was much bigger than it appeared on the outside.  It had a loft and a winding staircase.  It was decorated beautifully.  A woman greeted me and said, “May I help you?  I’m afraid this opening is an invitation-only event.”  I said “Ms. Lesser asked me to come. My name is Tom Sharpe.”  Suddenly I heard a cry.  “Tom Sharpe!”  This small woman in a floral dress, a glass of wine in her hand, flew down the staircase and unexpectedly hugged me.  “I am so glad you could make it.”  She turned to the people in the gallery and shouted, “This is Mr. Sharpe from Chicago!  Make him welcome!” 

After that she got me a glass of wine and showed me all of her paintings.  They were striking impressionistic pieces that depicted places in New Orleans and colorful flowers. She then introduced me to her husband, Len, who was a pediatrician turned psychiatrist, and her son, Robert, a young cardiologist.  She also introduced me to all the guests: other artists, musicians, bankers, lawyers and business executives. I had the most brilliant time.  After the show was over May and Len drove me back to my hotel.  As I thanked them and started to suggest that we do something during the day tomorrow to repay them, May leaned out the window and said, “Len and I are taking you to brunch tomorrow.  We’ll pick you up at 11:30. Good night!”  Before I could say anything more they drove off.

May and Len took me to Commander’s Palace, which happens to be one of my favorite restaurants.  The food and conversation were outstanding.  After we were done they drove me around the Garden District and showed me parts of New Orleans I had never seen before.  We walked through one of the old cemeteries filled with ghosts.  They then drove me back to their house.  It was a huge gabled affair on street lined with trees that formed an amazing canopy. That afternoon we sat on their porch and sipped bourbon and talked.  May showed me her studio where she painted and made prints of her pieces.  At one point May went to make us something to eat.  Len sat in his rocking chair, swirled the ice in his drink, and in a low voice said, “I know that May can be quirky and let’s say persistent, but she is a kind, generous woman.  She sees all people as the same and treats them all alike.  I think that is why she is such a popular social butterfly around here.”  I finally told May and Len that I needed to get some rest before work the next day.  Len drove me and I fell into bed feeling like I had had the most extraordinary day. 

I didn’t have to work until ten o’clock, so I thought I might sleep in a little.  At eight o’clock I was awakened by the phone in my room ringing.  I picked it up, groggily.  It was May. “Tom,” she said, in that wonderful Southern lilt of hers, “We are all going to Pontchartrain for picnic.  Come with us.”  I sat up and yawned.  “I would, May, but I have to work.  That’s why I’m here.”  She tsked, “Overrated.”  I laughed.  “Yeah, but it’s how I feed my family.” She said, “Well, maybe later this week we can see you.”  I told her I would be busy all of the rest of the week and then fly out right after I was done. “Then next time you visit,” she said. “Yes, May, I promise.”  I kept in touch with May after I got back home and I kept my promise.  I spent time with May and Len whenever I was in New Orleans.  After a few years I didn’t go there or hear from them as much as I used to, which made me quite sad and somewhat concerned.

Before we exactly knew where Katrina hit hardest I panicked. I did all I could to see if they were alright.  I finally located Robert. He told me that May and Len had both passed away right around the same time as each other, long before the storm hit.  I feel bad that I was relieved that they didn’t have to go through that.  When I went home that night I looked at the prints from May hanging in our family room. I thought about how sometimes close, good friends emerge out of the most unusual circumstances.  I think with these things it’s always good to keep open because you never know what valuable things you will find.