Ghosts of Versailles at the Cafe’ du Monde and Other Sightings

I’ll admit that my time at LSU was much like that of other college coeds in the 1970’s and early 80’s.  We were of legal drinking age, before it was raised to 21, and we were even allowed to have keggers in the parking lot of our dormitories.  Sanctioned kegger parties.

My friends and I went the rounds of the bars in Tigerland and down the road from our school, and on football game nights headed to the bright lights of the French Quarter in New Orleans.  My group consisted of mostly out of state kids or out of towners, so we went where the tourists went.  Pat O’Brien’s was the big destination, with cold Hurricanes and other gaily colored alcohol.  We thought we were so very, very cool sitting in the patio even in frosty weather drinking those hurricanes, and bullshitting for hours.

One Sunday morning, a few hours before dawn, a group of my friends and I wove our way through the French Quarter from Pat O’s after several hours of imbibing.  Our destination was Cafe’ du Monde for lots of hot cafe’ au lait and beignets before hitting the interstate back to Baton Rouge.  This was our routine, plus the reality check to see if our designated driver was sober enough to drive.

3am in the Quarter is not the time for families, and surely an iffy situation to be in under normal circumstances.  We pulled a few tables together, placed orders and settled in, chatting about the football game we’d been to earlier in Death Valley, odd people we’d been around there or in the Quarter.  We had the restaurant to ourselves.  Everyone was happy, slightly sleepy, hungry, and ready for some hot beignets.  Our coffee and food came out, and we were just starting to dig in when my attention was drawn to a group of people entering the open air restaurant.

The lighting in Cafe’ du Monde in the wee hours of the morning is not a flattering light.  Coupled with the fog coming in off the nearby Mississippi, the scenery outside the restaurant was taking on that ethereal and haunting look photographers love.  It was a Vampire Lestat atmosphere out there, and emerging from the fog was a group of men and women in 18th Century garb.  They looked to the untrained eye like courtiers from Versailles with powdered wigs, satin waistcoats and dresses with panniers, women with hair piled high and coiffed perfectly.  They were like exotic birds from a dream.

This wasn’t Mardi Gras, but if it had I would hardly have wasted a glance at them.  This was the early morning of the French Quarter when all the restaurants except a few were closed, the bars were closed due to state law, and only drunken revelers were left wandering the streets.  Like us.  I tried to not stare, and decided that the second or third Hurricane imbibed by me had been a mistake.  My share of the coffee and beignets was eaten silently, and I didn’t dare steal but a few glances at our beautiful neighbors.  No one else paid any attention to them as they sat and visited, preened and flirted in their silks and satins.

We ate and piled into our cars, and started driving back to Baton Rouge.  Somewhere many miles from home on the interstate we were forced to admit that the fog was too dangerous for driving, and joined car after car pulled far off on the road shoulder, waiting for it to lift.  The usually busy interstate was invisible just a few feet away in the heavy grey fog, and eerily deserted otherwise.  We all fell sleep.  A while later I heard footsteps outside the car, and looked slowly out the back right passenger seat window. My heart was thumping like a bass drum as my eyes turned and scanned the shoulder of the road.  I jumped as the face of a man wearing a Louisiana State Trooper’s hat peered in at me, then walked along the shoulder to inspect other parked cars.  I sat there with my heart leaping out of my chest, wondering if I should wake the rest of my friends, but decided to let them sleep.  The hair on the top of my head was standing at attention as the trooper disappeared into the fog.

When it finally lifted we got back to LSU and spread out to our dorms and apartments, thankful to have gotten home as daylight broke over the campus.  Days later some of us were eating together in one of the school cafeterias, and I mentioned the state trooper.  Everyone thought I’d dreamed it, since I did and do have an extremely vivid imagination, but I held firm.  Then I mentioned the costumed people at Cafe’ du Monde, and they all stared at me.  They assured me that there had been no one, absolutely no one, in silks and satin dresses, coats and knee britches, powdered wigs or no.  And now it was my turn to be incredulous.

How could they have missed those gorgeous creatures?  No one had, and they all assured me it had been my imagination.  Straight faced.  So had I seen more than one set of ghosts that night?  Was my imagination run wild?  Seems it had.  That was when I swore off Hurricanes and other wildly colored sweet drinks for good.

Of course a week or two later everyone told me they’d seen the men and women at Cafe’ du Monde, and were just giving me grief.  A relief, but no one ever admitted seeing or explained the state trooper’s ghostly appearance at my window. There are such things that happen in Louisiana, and there are times that what you see isn’t real, and what you think you know is false.  Ghosts or no, I’m sticking to my stories.

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