09/02/2010 2:04PM

Virgets finds peace, quiet after Katrina


The ink-stained wretches who pound out the daily product find themselves – ourselves – clinging for moral support to a few rocky crags that never let us down.

One of those comes wrapped in the person of Ronnie Virgets, a former writer for Daily Racing Form , the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Gambit Weekly, and a two-time Eclipse Award winner, for what that’s worth.

One of those awards went to Virgets for his work in local television, which is to say WWL-TV in New Orleans. This puts Virgets in a slim category as a double-threat – he could also take dictation if pressed – but he explained his daliance with the media’s dark side in terms so honest, almost jabbering, that they should be inscribed in journalism school brochures:

“He” – said Ronnie, referring to station manager Bill Elder – “mentioned a number which, you know, for a print journalist, this sounded like, you know, sounded like the jackpot. I mean this was like – wow, that’s a lot of money to make an ass out of yourself − when you do that most Friday and Saturday nights, anyway. So I started doing it.”

That was 21 years ago, just as Virgets was hitting his stride as the go-to chronicler of all things New Orleans, and for the following decades he became a familiar face on the local brand.

His writing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans was as close as anyone should ever want to get to the visceral consequences of such a disaster. Virgets was among the rescued, his house and belongings destroyed, in the Navarre neighborhood flooded after the break of the 17th Street levee. His Nov. 1, 2005, column in Gambit Weekly, headlined “Notes from a Soggy Notebook,” began:

“As I was swimming naked through the living room . . .”

And went on from there:

“As dawn seeps into the world,” Virgets wrote of the morning after the worst of the storm, “everywhere is evidence to back the devoutest gambler’s faith in fate. Here the gasping taproots of the overturned shade tree, once the neighborhood’s pride and joy, and there its upright tiny neighbor. Here a peeled-back roof and wall showing the furniture inside like a dollhouse, and next door a bungalow serene in its intactness. Such unpredictability is why people bother to pray.”

This summer’s fifth anniversary of the floods drew media to New Orleans from the far corners of the earth. The one thing they did not find there, however, to chew over the ravaged ground, was Ronnie Virgets. Last year, he moved with his girlfriend, Lynn Jensen, to the town of New Roads, near Baton Rouge.

This would be akin to Gretzky leaving Canada, which he did, or, say, Joan of Arc turning her back on France. It was fair to ask Virgets, who is 68, why.

“I was afraid you’d ask something like that, because I don’t have a ready answer,” Ronnie said. “Part of it had to do with a wish in the late innings here to kind of change pitchers. The hustle and bustle here is not as hustley or bustley. And if it gets too quiet, it’s about a two-hour drive back to New Orleans to look up old friends. So I can play city mouse or country mouse.”

Virgets wrote about his new surroundings in New Orleans Magazine, in a piece entitled “Whatever Happened to Ronnie Virgets?” It saved on phone calls.

“New Roads has been here a long time,” Virgets said the other day, from his new old house, vintage 1890s, with a steep tin roof and broad, accommodating front porch. “It’s close by the Mississippi River, so it had its scattering of sugar cane plantations, and all that went with them.

“Every Friday there’s an all-you-can eat breakfast at Lucky Pierre’s,” Virgets continued, “a small-scale gambling casino – kind of an old man’s club. I actually feel like I can beat most of the people in there in a foot race.

“I’m the classic outsider, and they do make fun of my accent,” he added. “But it’s a very small town. I can’t even buy a Racing Form . That would be described as a culturally deprived situation.”

As far as writing, Virgets has stood down for a while, at least until his latest round of health troubles is under some kind of control. But he did make the trip to his beloved Fair Grounds in New Orleans last March, when Rachel Alexandra drew crowds for her first appearance as reigning Horse of the Year. And he would love to get back some summer to Del Mar, where for years he made the annual pilgrimage and came away writing things like, after his visit in 2008:

“A girl comes to the paddock, her long, blonde hair hung flat on her back, thin and unexciting. Black skirt, flip-flops, open-shouldered polka-dot blouse. Knees back, belly forward, she reads a program. Naturally, a guy gets interested. In California, there are lots of men in shorts: mid-thigh, mid-leg, mid-calf. Here comes a guy with spiked hair and a knee brace. He talks to the blonde. She holds out her program to him. ‘Is there a page in here that tells you which jockeys are going to do good here?’ she asks without a dollop of irony. California girls.”

If ever horse racing served a purpose, there it is, an activity that should be fraught with nothing but joy and harmless diversion. For a writer like Virgets, there are plenty of times and places for all the rest, as he was forced to confront in his beloved New Orleans five years ago.

“We like to think,” he wrote in Gambit, “even those of us who have received or given great harm, that there is a sliver of innocence that remains, a hidden part of us that believes that although we are aware of even greater evil in the world, we won’t be called to witness or promote it. After this − this wide circle where minute by minute planes and boats and trucks vomit up the ragged and the ruined − after this, it will be much, much harder to believe in all that.”