This week our dear friend Sarah Doerries was in Strasbourg, visiting friends there. She was in Europe for a work trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair, representing the Historic New Orleans Collection: she’s Senior Editor in their Books Division. On Facebook, she posted about discovering that her family’s ancestors – the Bertel side of the family – came from the Lorraine part of Alsace-Lorraine.
Some time this week – maybe Wednesday, I think – she collapsed with a brain aneurysm, and on Friday she died. We got a call from her good friend Henry Griffin late on Thursday night, and I’ll always be grateful to him for this, so we didn’t have to find out on Facebook.
This morning we spoke to her husband, Jay. Jay is in Strasbourg, trying to deal with everything – emotional and practical. He was calling to tell us that Sarah loved us.
We loved Sarah. When we moved to New Orleans in 2004, she was our first local friend (outside our adopted family there, the Manikin clan). For that first year I was just an adjunct instructor at Tulane, a temp who only met most colleagues at the photocopy machine. Then I met Sarah at a poetry reading she’d helped Peter Cooley to organize at Cudd Hall. She was carrying in cold drinks and plastic trays of sandwiches, chastising anyone who reached for a bag of chips before the reading began. She was blonde and attractive, wearing a pencil skirt and nice shoes. Peter introduced us, and I got the feeling that Sarah sized me up immediately and decided I was OK.
Through Sarah, we were initiated into New Orleans – Krewe de Vieux, Langenstein’s, Delachaise – and met lots of people. We lived around the corner from each other, us on Cucullu and Sarah on Joseph. She came over a lot to watch THE AMAZING RACE, our favorite TV show. Often she’d bring her own drink in a go-cup, because we were drinking wine and she wanted something else. We talked a lot about entering as a team, and discussed how we’d be labeled. Gal Pals, we decided, and – after the storm – Gal Pals/Katrina Survivors. Tom told us we’d be a hopeless team, and that we’d need to spend at least two years building up our upper-body strength before applying. Also, I told Sarah that she would almost certainly make me do all the hard challenges, while she stood around smoking. Even after she gave up smoking, Sarah conceded that she would still make me do all the hard challenges.
Some Sundays we went out on her boat on Lake Pontchartrain, drinking beer and eating cheese and crackers, watching the sun set and the brown pelicans swoop, listening to the waves and the wind. When my parents visited early in 2005, my father came out with us one early evening: he loves sailing, and sat there giving Tom precise instructions on steering. That was the thing that upset my father most, I think, after the storm, when I told him that Sarah’s boat had smashed up and sunk.
Once I asked her how far we could sail in her boat. It wasn’t big, but it was big enough to sail to Mexico, she said. We’d pack in supplies, and then make our way from the brackish lake to the sludgy waves of the Gulf coast, sailing until we reached clear water. Sarah had spent a lot of time in Mexico; she had a blue string hammock from the Yucatan hanging among the plants of her front porch. We should all buy houses with courtyards in Merida, she said.
We did lots of drinking and eating – celebration dinners after I got the permanent job at Tulane, gave a reading, published a book. Drinks at the Columns, or at Cure on Freret Street. Happy hour in the Quarter, in the bar at Antoine’s, with Russell Desmond. Dinners paid for by Tulane with visiting speakers like Lawrence Wright. Dinners at our house with whatever was in the fridge. Practically everywhere I can think of in New Orleans, every bar and restaurant where we went, we went with Sarah.
Sarah’s house of treasures: old pictures, vintage glasses, decanters, silver. The most ancient TV (which is why we made her come around to our house). Pieces of Mardi Gras costumes. The “Better Cheddar” from Langenstein’s. Books. She would only work on her poems if she was completely alone in the house; otherwise, she said, she felt too self-conscious. I told her that was ridiculous, but she just shrugged. I really liked the poem she wrote about not wearing a bra.
On the day before Katrina hit, when the mandatory evacuation was declared, we spent the morning packing the car and carrying things up the stairs. Sarah was crazed that morning, in and out of our house to hurry us along. She said she was lighting candles to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. We were car-pooling with her, because she insisted: she was going to Alexandria and we were going to Marksville. When I told her that Margaret Orr, the meteorologist on WDSU, was crying on TV, Sarah said: “That bitch!” (Afterwards, we said that every time we saw Margaret Orr on the evening news.)
How long did we drive that day? Maybe fourteen hours, for a trip that normally takes about three, plus time to get lost in Alexandria in the middle of the night. Sarah made us go through Mississippi – for no good reason – and that was where her car broke down. So she and her friend, Joe, ended up in our car. We ate fast food and told a lot of stories. Later, she had trouble getting her car back from the mechanic in Mississippi. He wanted her to agree to go out with him.
Christmas Eve that year, back in New Orleans at last, our gas went out, so we had no hot water and couldn’t cook. On Christmas Day a Salvation Army truck drove by and asked us if we wanted a free Christmas dinner. We walked around the corner to Sarah’s to take a shower, wearing our bathrobes and flip-flops.
Not long before the storm, Sarah had found – in the drawer of a sewing table on sale at an antiques auction – a stack of old engraved cards. Each card read: YOUR STORY HAS TOUCHED MY HEART. NEVER BEFORE HAVE I MET ANYONE WITH MORE TROUBLES THAN YOU. PLEASE ACCEPT THIS TOKEN OF MY SINCEREST SYMPATHY. After Katrina, when everyone wanted to tell their story about evacuation and the flood and their messed-up lives, Sarah said she never realized these cards would be so useful.
After the storm, Sarah hired Tom to work with her and Trina Beck at Tulane, in the Office of Co-curricular Programs. Together they organized talks and prize-givings and readings, and she teased him about his mandals. They organized pig roasts, and Friday donuts. Sarah drove us home from work in her car, even though we could all have really walked. (She told us that every Mardi Gras she walked at least thirty miles with Julu, and nothing logical that Tom could say would persuade her otherwise.) Sometimes she and I would hang out on the swing-seat on the Cudd Hall porch so she could smoke and we could gossip. Once, when Julie Orringer was visiting as the Zale writer, the three of us came upon a bouncy castle set up by some student group, and we took off our shoes and bounced until we were breathless.
Even when she left Tulane and went to work downtown, all that meant was that we went out for drinks together more often. She came to all our monthly salons (first Friday of the month), complained if I invited people she didn’t like, and ate dinner with us afterwards at Taqueria Corona. I made her come early to all our Christmas parties, and stay late. Many of our friends – Becky Lewis, Doug Rowe, Joy and Paul Cronvich, Meghan Freeman and Dwight Codr, Rodney and Paige Rabalais – met her and grew to love her as well. Dwight sent me an email today, remembering lots of times “talking and laughing” with Sarah; he described her as “a gift to us during our time in New Orleans.” That’s how I think of our friendship as well: a gift.
This is a picture taken in July 2011, on a trip back to New Orleans – Sarah, me and Rodney Rabalais eating Mexican food in the Quarter.
She and Jay moved to a house of their own on Peniston Street, which meant when we visited them we could walk to the Columns. (For a while they were thinking of moving to the North Shore, but Joy Cronvich talked Sarah out of it at one of our Christmas parties: she said when people moved to the North Shore, no one ever saw them again because it took too long to drive across the lake.)
When we left New Orleans in August of 2010, Sarah and Jay threw our leaving party at their new house. We missed their wedding because we were away somewhere – we were always away – and never got them a wedding present, because we were always looking for the perfect thing. In Rome we saw some china with a coral motif, and were nearly persuaded, but recently we thought of something better: an AMAZING RACE sign painted by Simon on Napoleon Street. It would read: “Sarah and Jay, you are Team Number One."
After Tom and I moved to the UK, Sarah and I would email a lot – short, brisk emails with quick comments or demands. Sarah would email to say: Jay just asked me to tell you to please get a job working on THE HOBBIT. I’d email with research questions for my books – If there was a fictional boutique in the Quarter selling vintage clothes, where would it be? She’d need someone’s phone number – Can I ha' dat? When I was up against a book deadline, she would send me encouragement: TYPE FASTER. When someone published a self-serving piece about New Orleans in the New Yorker, the subject line in Sarah’s email read: a-hole.
I last saw Sarah in March 2012, when we stayed with her and Jay in the shuttered house on Peniston Street. We met up in Antoine’s bar to drink with Russell. We ate Vietnamese food. She photocopied a whole slew of New York Times Sunday crosswords for me to take home, and made me lie on the ground with my feet up the wall to help my flight-achy legs. Sarah was always making me do things. She always knew the places to go. People I met always seemed to know her already.
She said they couldn’t come to Spain this November because of Jay’s exams, but she promised they’d visit us next year. She asked me to come over to Frankfurt to meet her there last weekend, but I was busy with work and other stupid things. Couldn’t I have gone? Just two hours on a plane: that’s how close we were last weekend. After Jay rang this morning, I sat up in bed and said, aloud: “I want Sarah back.” But it’s too late, too late to light any candles to St Jude.
In the last email I got from Sarah, she told me she was recording the new series of THE AMAZING RACE to send to us in the UK, where it is (inexplicably) not broadcast. If Sarah and I had ever gone on the show, billed as Gal Pals/ Katrina Survivors – or maybe Gal Pals/Authors – Sarah would have charmed and bossed and talked her way around the world. She would have made me do all the hard challenges. We would definitely have won.