We were cruising around Lakeshore Drive, our morning errand briefly derailed by a closed office ("Closed today only - will re-open at 12:30") so lunch on the lake stretched into a glass or two of wine.
On the way back, we passed a row of long low modern houses, stark against their broad green lawns, the garish holiday decor contrasting against the architectural purity of their lines. We turned the car around and went back to take some photos.
At one house, a domed glass atrium rising above an entry flanked by white stone foo-dogs, a couple of cars were in the driveway, a yardman was blowing leaves, and several men milled around, one holding up his phone.
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"Oh, look," I said. "He's taking photos of us taking photos." The man began to walk toward us, and I had to make one of those split-second decisions.
I got out of the car. "Hello! I was just admiring your house," I said.
He motioned us to follow him. "You want to see the house?"
Another split-second decision. "Sure, of course."
He was an elderly Asian gentleman in a blue shirt. He brought us around to the garage entrance, and kicked the thongs off his socked feet before going inside. We shed our shoes onto the wide doormat before stepping onto the shiny parquet floor within.
All angles and diagonals, the hall led into the central atrium, lush with tropical plants. "They say this Number One House in the South," said the old man, "But I think maybe it Number Ten. Take all the pictures you want." We murmured admiration, but it was a crazy room; a jumble of archways and round windows and angled columns. A barrel-vaulted ceiling hung with fans was paved completely with tiny mirrors that glittered dazzlingly.
"This a special tea room," he gestured to an octagonal room, wall-mirrors reflecting back to us endlessly, a seating arrangement dainty on an exquisitely fine carpet. A mirrored alcove held pink porcelain dolls and delicate gold-plated teacups. The room's ceiling was illuminated glass tile in rosettes of pink and blue. "Beautiful," we exclaimed politely. "What a lovely home you have. How long have you lived in New Orleans?"
"Only forty years! Best city in Louisiana!"
"May I ask, what is your name, what may we call you?"
"Don't call me late for supper!" He laughed. "You can call me Mr. Old Man," he said. "How old you think I am?"
My friend tentatively said, "Seventy?"
Mr. Old Man laughed. "More!" He laughed again at "Eighty." Then he pulled out his driver's license and pointed at the date. "1922! Born 1922!"
"Nine grand children! Many more great-grandchildren!"
He ushered us into another room, this one sporting a huge chandelier dripping with crystal prisms, its full-length windows swagged with Austrian drapery. A clutter of framed family photos were arranged on a low table, while on the wall was a sleekly framed photo of a bare woman's ass. Liquor and champagne bottles were clustered around the low walls. A low bar was cluttered with odds and ends. He led us to a cramped space behind the bar, and handed us each a small brandy snifter. I tucked my nose briefly inside - it was unwashed, redolent of spirits.
Mr. Old Man flung open the doors to a large cabinet, revealing shelves crammed with liquor bottles. He snatched one up and brandished it. "Cognac Roi des rois! King of kings." He poured hearty slugs of cognac into our glasses.
I gazed at the jumble of furniture and knick-knacks stacked on the shelves. I could glimpse, beyond the gossamer swagged drapes, the jiggling aqua of a swimming pool. I wondered what other features this architectural oddity had. Should I ask to use the bathroom?
The old man pulled out a large mounted poster that looked like an abstract of crimson color, and bade us study it a while. Then he ushered us into a dining room where he leafed through catalog print-outs of gemstones before choosing one to show us. "Pigeon-blood rubies," he said, and pointed at me. "Which one you think is better? This one or that one?"
I walked back into the other room to look. "This one?" I ventured, pointing at the poster. "It's color is deeper."
He nodded as though I'd passed some kind of test. But then, "How much you think one carat cost?" he barked.
"Gosh, I don't know anything about gems," I said. "One carat - maybe $500?"
"You cheap!" he said, and pointed to my friend.
"One hundred thousand dollars - this one is twenty-nine carats! That over two million dollars!" He gestured at the poster. "It a good investment, very clean money."
He began to talk about the properties of pigeon-blood rubies. "Better than diamonds," he said. "Why do you think they put ruby in the center, diamonds all around? Not the other way. Pigeon-blood rubies help you fight your enemy. The best come from Burma." He ran his finger down a list that showed each ruby's origin of Myanmar.
As he talked, at various times, young men wandered in the room with vacuum cleaners or tools. They looked like they were used to Mr. Old Man entertaining strangers. The weirdness of the house, the fancy-framed faces of all the little grandchildren began to feel a little surreal. Were they really his family? I began to wonder if this was indeed Mr. Old Man's house, or if he just worked for the owners. If so, where were they? I wondered if he were trying to sell us something. I decided I didn't really need to use the bathroom, and looked for a place to set down my empty glass.
We said something about having to get to an appointment, and thanked him for his hospitality, and he straightened up. The audience with Mr. Old Man had ended. As he walked us back to the garage door, he pulled out a card and scrawled on it with a marker. "My phone number. You call me anytime." The name he wrote was "Hai."
Dazzled and a little addled from the cognac, we pulled our shoes back on before crossing the wide and sponge-like green lawn back to our car.
"Merry Christmas!" He waved us goodbye.
Only in New Orleans.
I've since learned that the house was built in 1978, designed by architect Albert C. Ledner.