January 20, 2019

Mourning the Morning Call — back in New Orleans

If you visit New Orleans, you will certainly go to the French Quarter to seek out the well-known open-air coffee stand near the Mississippi River named Café Du Monde.

You’ll partake of the rich culinary indulgences from its spare menu.

The first menu item you will find is a cup filled from two large steel kettles simultaneously pouring hot liquids — one black, the other white. The black is thick chicory-laced coffee, the white is an equal amount of hot milk. The second menu item is the beignet: The sweet, hot, fluffy square of fried dough that native New Orleanians simply call a doughnut. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, which will also cover the table and your clothes, and dipped into the coffee, you will taste one of the quintessential delights of a town that pleases all the senses, even when it also breaks your heart.

You will sit there, in a seemingly motionless moment of delight as you hear the passing hours chimed from the St. Louis Cathedral across Jackson Square, and your body will fully understand what your mind, in its yearning for the opaque and consistent, will want to deny:

Things change.

As you sip your coffee and your tongue detects its various layers of flavor, your skin and nose will also sift through the sensory impressions of the air around you, perceiving shifting smells, textures and levels of moisture in the atmosphere of this place where the city meets the river.

Meanwhile, your eyes will discern the fluctuations of the light as the sun glides in and out of the cover of clouds of varying thickness. The solid three dimensions of your moment, as you sit, drink coffee and eat doughnuts at a sidewalk cafe, slide open to transcend your concrete place in time.

And with the nearby sounds of the hoofs of horses drawing carriages, the cars passing to the east and the ships to the west, the boundaries of time dissolve and you are sitting in “days gone by” and in “the world to come.”

What you might not know, as a tourist in the French Quarter of the 21st century who is searching for an authentic experience of New Orleans, is that the coffee and doughnuts that you are enjoying are a shadow of another New Orleans. A few blocks up and four decades earlier there was another coffee stand named Morning Call.

New Orleanians drank their coffee and ate their doughnuts there beginning in 1870. Located at the edge of the French Quarter, its clientele sat on the red leather seats of high stools and stared into mahogany-framed mirrors while they drank their coffee at the marble counters to which large silver sugar bowls were chained.

Morning Call was frequented in the dawn’s breaking light by people of all ages in formal clothes ending a night of celebration, as well as by dock workers dressed to begin a day unloading crates at the port.

Its coffee was a little thicker; its doughnuts a little lighter than those served at the cleaner, more tourist-friendly cafe closer to the cathedral. And then, in 1971, when the city proposed widening the surrounding streets, limiting street access and parking, Morning Call relocated to a strip mall in suburban Metairie, a part of Jefferson Parish, which more closely resembles Anywhere, U.S.A.

Things change.

In 1971, I was outraged at the betrayal of the move. It symbolized New Orleans’ shift of identity from a multicultural city at the crossroads between the Americas, shaped by the traditions and rituals of its populations of various skin colors, languages and religion, to that of a 20th century North American city shaped by oil money, greed and the homogenization of culture. I never visited Morning Call again.

But in 2005, when I returned to New Orleans a month after Hurricane Katrina to lead Rosh Hashanah services, I suddenly found my car in front of its strip mall location. I decided that 34 years and the waters that had broken through the levees had washed away the validity of my boycott. Besides, it appeared to be the only cup of coffee in town. Things change.

Yearning for something of substance to connect me with the New Orleans that had not washed away, I parked my car and walked through broken branches and piles of debris, through the doors of a commercial establishment in an American strip mall. I crossed the threshold and while the face that looked back at me from the mahogany-framed mirrors was not the same, the marble counters, red leather-topped stools, chained silver sugar bowls and the coffee were the same. In the turmoil and transformation that followed Katrina, I was sustained by the continuity in a cup of coffee. Some things don’t change.

I am a New Orleans Jew. The values of those identities fuel me like the smooth-yet-caffeinated drink that is the trademark of my hometown. I embrace the changing communal calendars and the rituals for their observances of joy and tragedy. These have taught me what it means to be human and how to extract eternity from the changing seasons.

Through the ritual markers of the calendars of my communities, I have received tools that have instructed me as I have been challenged to embrace my personal calendar and its flow of heartbreak and delight.

It is through an appreciation of the possibility of the sacred eternal that is hidden in every changing moment — like the past and future that hide in a cup of coffee — that I have been able to find peace in the fact of change.

It is through ritual that change itself is transformed from destroyer to healer. It is through ritual that mourning, as we are told in Psalm 90, becomes dancing and that our mourning becomes our call.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.