Monday, January 4, 2016

Washington Social Diary: The Fear That is Near

The first sunset: January 1, 2016, looking to the west on M Street in Georgetown.
by Carol Joynt

Most holiday revelers in Washington put the weekend terror warnings, and fear, to the side. Security presence was high but that has become routine. What wasn’t routine was that Homeland Security and DC Police visited some of the city’s high profile restaurants pre-New Year’s Eve to check in, look around, give some advice. I hear the same agencies have called for a “restaurant terror summit” – my words – to happen the week after next. What for? More guidance on how to be prepared.
Another view of the sunset over Georgetown. (The house on the left, w/ the holiday lights, is where Joe Alsop lived and entertained JFK on various occasions, including inauguration night).
The fear that is near is real, of course. The New Year’s weekend arrest in New York, evacuations in Munich, shootings in Tel Aviv, a high rise hotel fire in Dubai, while not related, were bound together in the news cycle and that heightened anxiety overall, compounded by unspecified threats to New York City, Los Angeles and Washington. 

This is not at all scientific, of course, but based on my night out the New Year’s Eve mood was more subdued, the streets less crowded and crazy, and restaurants were not overwhelmed. When I asked “why,” to Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers, and bar and restaurant managers, they mentioned “fear of terror” among reasons that also included “a lot of people have the money to be out of town,” and “the weather has been so nice.”
New Year's was a weekend of very good weather in Washington, like much of the mid-Atlantic.
The weather does change the way Washington behaves. This is a town of mental, and physical athletes, Type-A’s run amok, who would rather lose themselves in a marathon, hiking the Billy Goat Trail, rowing the Potomac, or the challenges of a PS90X or Soul Cycle workout, or any similar extreme endeavor (even Orangetheory is here) over indulging in carbs and fats. (I write this as I begin my Bone Broth-Whole30-Cleanse-DASH-MAYO diet!)

This adoration of fitness plays a tiny role in why some locals think that when the dust settles in the GOP presidential field, a few primaries down the road, and perhaps just before the convention, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan could emerge as the Republican nominee. The political watchers in Washington say to watch him. He’s got the lean physique and fitness discipline that both George Bush and Barack Obama have made seem right for the job; he has determined focus, an agenda, the support of the elders, he knows how to make sausage (out of the deer he hunts in Wisconsin, his home state), he’s got the facial scruff and if he’d just add a man bun he’d be totally not Donald Trump-Ted Cruz-Marco Rubio-Chris Christie.
Donald Trump prepares to ring in 2016 on FoxNews. "All of America is watching you and your beautiful family," says co-anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle.
But this is the reality TV presidential campaign and so I do thank Trump and his family for some hilarious New Year’s Eve entertainment. “Live” from Palm Beach, arrayed in the splendor of Mar-A-Lago, they were the main event of the FoxNews midnight celebration, and owned it, leaving the other GOP candidates, who appeared earlier, in their dust, and with the fawning Fox anchors all but electing him on the spot. It was a page pulled out of the Kardashian playbook.
When asked, Donald Trump says his New Year's resolution is (big surprise) "to make America great again."

... but I’m happy to say we got away from Washington and politics for the Christmas holiday. We love to fly away to New Orleans for the occasion and this year was no different – eight days and nights of good life, food, wine, bourbon punch and private parties from the French Quarter to the Garden District and Bywater and Faubourg Marigny, too. It's a world apart, with music, art and food at hand always, and in equal parts French, Caribbean and American, and also equal parts laid back, elegant and completely off the chain. They have their ways – manners and voodoo – and you learn and adapt.
A foggy Christmas morning in the French Quarter — Andrew Jackson with the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis in the background.
Mist and fog does not stop the popular carriage rides, here along Canal Street.
New Orleans: equal parts French, Caribbean and American (the office tower).
The French Quarter does it up big for Christmas ...
Santa in the morning in the French Quarter.
Fairly routine Bourbon Street moment. Godfather, godson: Harry Shearer and Spencer Joynt in the French Quarter.
A high point of each holiday visit is the annual Christmas show produced and hosted by actor, satirist and musician Harry Shearer and his wife, singer and musician (and comedienne) Judith Owen. This year it was “Christmas Without Tears.” They tour the show in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and bring it to a close in New Orleans the night before Christmas Eve.

The poster for Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's annual Christmas show.
In each city the cast of performers is made up of their musician and actor friends, who come together for a 2+ hours show that welcomes audience enthusiasm, and even animated participation in the singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In New Orleans the cast was composer and pianist Tom McDermott, Debbie Davis of the Pfister Sisters, master sousaphone artist Matt Perrine, jazz vocalist John Boutte, actors Bryan Batt and John Goodman, both also marvelous stage performers and singers; composer, vocalist and saxophonist Aurora Nealand, singer Nigel Hall, Evan Christopher on clarinet, Topsy Chapman and her daughters Yolanda Windsay and Joynda Phillips of Solid Harmony, cellist Helen Gillet, singer and songwriter and guitarist Phil deGruy, with David Torkanowsky serving as musical arranger and on piano, James Singleton on bass, and Pedro Segundo handling percussion.
Judith Owen, Pedro Segundo, and Harry Shearer in the dressing room before the show.
If you are wondering whether Bryan Batt is the Bryan Batt of “Mad Men,” who played closeted art director Salvatore Romano, you are right. He is a native of New Orleans, where he lives with his husband, Tom Cianfichi, and they own a chic little shop on Magazine Street, Hazelnut. Batt continues his Broadway and acting career and wrote a book, “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother,” ( about his late mom, Gayle Batt, who was such a force in the New Orleans performing arts scene that her portrait hangs at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, where the Christmas Show was performed.
Pedro Segundo on drums, James Singleton on bass.
John Goodman, with a trove of acclaimed and memorable film and television roles, also considers New Orleans home. It is where his family lives and where he returns from shooting films all over the world, which at the moment includes a remake of King Kong, “Kong: Skull Island,” which has him on location in Hawaii, Vietnam and Istanbul, among other places. He’s a shy, sweet man who becomes a showstopper on stage.
John Goodman, Judith Owen (in green wig) and other performers lead a round of Christmas Carols.
Harry Shearer on stage.
The show is a mix of traditional and unconventional holiday music – “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner” -- performed by gifted musicians, but also with a lot of humor. In other cities on the tour the casts included Donald Fagen, Christopher Guest, Tom Hanks, Jane Lynch, Steve Martin, Stephen Merchant, Tim Minchin, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Richard Thompson, Weird Al Yankovic, Fred Willard, Mario Cantone, Alan Cumming, Olympia Dukakis, Bela Fleck, John Michael Higgins, Paul Shaffer.

This was the 10th anniversary of the Christmas Show. It's time for it to become a tradition on TV, too.  This year I put it on Periscope, but, alas, that doesn’t last.
Cast photo after the show.
Singer/pianist Judith Owen and percussionist Pedro Segundo, who have been on a world tour as a trio with bassist Leland Sklar.
At dinner at Bayona with Pedro Segundo.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were a happy whirlwind. As houseguests of Harry and Judith, my son Spencer and I were always in the company of smart and interesting friends who dropped by to talk and jam. Even though I’m not the least gifted musically I still wanted to jump in and dear Pedro Segundo taught me the proper management of a tambourine. (No, you don’t just bang on it. The trick is in the wrist).

Spencer and I met up with Garden & Gun writer Julia Reed for lunch at Bourbon House, where we talked about her new book that will be out in the spring, gossiped madly, drank Champagne and milk punch and devoured order after order of fresh and grilled Louisiana oysters, plus gumbo. That evening after dinner Harry, Spencer and I rejoined with Julia and her husband John Pearce at the home of their friend Vesta Fort, where we also saw photographer Paul Costello (he’s shooting Julia’s new book) and his wife, Sara, and Melissa Phipps, who I’d not seen in a lifetime, when we both lived near Upperville, VA. 
Julia Reed and Rose on Christmas Eve.
Julia's baked ham.
Two of the three kinds of biscuits … for the ham, and there were two kinds of mustard, too, plus creamed spinach.
At Vesta Fort's party, the children got costumed up for Christmas Eve. The Fort's cute dog, because dog photos are essential.
Our Christmas Turducken, fresh from the oven. It came from Christ' Specialty Meats … and they ship. They also sell whole alligators. Think about that.
Here’s some of how Julia touted the party in a message: “It's at Vesta's big old house on Harmony Street. We’re doing country ham, crabmeat, flaming rum cake, you name it! A few more folks will be stopping by and coming in and out…and we would love it if your gang were among them.” Who could resist? We arrived late, the party was still lively, the children tended bar, when they weren’t running around in the huge yard by the beautiful pool, or getting done up in costumes, and it was marvelous. The men were in blazers and ties, the women barefoot, and in the kitchen – as promised – was a gorgeous country ham, and three kinds of biscuits. Julia shared credit with Rose, who was standing nearby, keeping watch. Everywhere you go in New Orleans – and most of the south – food matters, and that’s my language.

Christmas day meant staying in our PJ’s until noon, a midday feast of locally-prepared Turducken plus all the usual fixins, made by all of us, delicious wine, and a multitude of desserts, followed by several rounds of aggressive “Cards Against Humanity” and then our group flopped in front of a big TV to watch an assortment of screeners.
When we weren’t eating and drinking Spencer and I were walking 8-10 miles a day, visiting art galleries, watching a muralist – Mike Shine from Marin County – do a new street piece (he also had an exhibition at the Red Truck Gallery), touring the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, visiting Euclid Records and grabbing breakfast, and praline bacon, at Elizabeth’s in Bywater, riding the streetcars, eating roasted cauliflower and pizza with our friend Travis Andrews at Domenica, hitting some of the “grand dames” – Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Arnaud's and Arnaud's divine French 75 Bar, and the enduring greats, Bayona, Butcher, NOLA, Peche (we have to return for Shaya, the talk of the town) and strolling beautiful Crescent Park and Audubon Park.

The weather was sandals and sleeveless dresses and occasional rain and thus, a dream.
Two muralists comparing notes, Spencer Joynt and Mike Shine, who had just completed this mural.
Mike Shine and Spencer Joynt. Mike was in NoLa from Marin County to do the mural and for a gallery exhibition at Red Truck Gallery.
The Red Truck Gallery on Royal Street.
Small world: Spencer realized he had been a classmate of Mike Shine's son while at the Univ. of Texas.
Some of Mike Shine's creations.
On Royal Street: one balances a board while the other strums and sings.
Inside Euclid Records in Bywater, a feast for music lovers, especially collectors of vinyl.
With Travis Andrews at the Roosevelt Hotel, where the lobby is an orgasm of Christmas trees and lights.
Spotted, a truck in Bywater.
Breakfast at Elizabeth's in Bywater, where the praline bacon is a must.
Jazz in the kitchen at Commander's Palace (that's how they roll).
A lamp at the chic French 75 Bar of Arnaud's.
Arnaud's dining room, done up for the holidays.
The garden at Cafe Amelie.
The house vodka cocktail at Cafe Amelie.
Louisiana oysters, raw.
Louisiana oysters, grilled.
You've got to try just one …
Bananas Foster at Brennan's.
Just one of the remarkable views in Audubon Park.
Mississippi River view from Crescent Park.

I had such a peaceful visit in New Orleans I did not want to rapidly re-enter the Washington orbit. So, I booked a room on the train, the famous Crescent – for a slow (24 hours) return home — and while I got a lot of sleep and read a whole 521 page book, I was once again perplexed by Amtrak and its resistance to progress; so close and yet so far. I grew up riding trains in Europe, journeys that were fantasy, pleasure and effective. Those experiences got me hooked for life, but here in the U.S. I’m often disappointed.
One of the sleeping cars of Amtrak's Crescent, while stopped in Birmingham.
Okay, the tracks ride like a donkey cart, and that’s an infrastructure project, but service, food and drink, and bed and bathroom amenities can be fixed. Amtrak should target Millennials, who like to make the old new again, and usually with a refreshing twist. Make the trip about food and cocktails and activities that create group camaraderie – Karaoke in the lounge car? A spa and fitness car? The bad tracks may roll you off the table during a massage, but part of the fun. Put some bold colors in the linens, add mood lighting at night, get WiFi! Make the tickets affordable. People want to ride the train. They want to check out for a little while (dare I say get off the fast track?), read, indulge in romance, and stare out the window. Make it fun. It’s not that difficult. Here’s the word: imagination. It. Can. Be. Done.
While walking the platform in Birmingham, there was this …
The view from the Crescent window in Mississippi, where they had been some flooding from heavy rain.
The dining car. Note: no alcohol on Sundays!

This year marks the 15th anniversary of The Q&A Café, the world’s only talk show in a bar, that I created at Nathans and continue to produce and host – now at the bar of The George Town Club. While it was weekly at Nathans it is now monthly and we just wrapped an excellent year of guests, capping 2015 with journalist Bob Woodward. The new season begins Thursday January 28 with two women who represent Washington’s newspaper and magazine history: Katharine Weymouth, former publisher of The Washington Post, granddaughter of Katharine Graham, and Cathy Merrill Williams, publisher Washingtonian magazine, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Bob Woodward at The Q&A Cafe.
Our February guest is Diane Rehm, host of The Diane Rehm Show since 1984. She just announced plans to retire after the 2016 presidential elections.  We will discuss her career and her new book, “On My Own,” when we get together on Thursday, February 11.

The hour long shows are taped at lunchtime and are open to anyone who wants to attend. The fee is $35 and includes lunch. For a reservation please call 202-333-9330. To check out the 2015 and other previous episodes of The Q&A Cafe, watch them here.
Diane Rehm.
Photographs by Carol Joynt

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt