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Dr. Denis Wong

Denis Wong in New Orleans

By John Troesser

My time spent with my brother-in-law, Denis was very brief. Actually it was only a few hours of conversation during a three-day family reunion in 1995.

I met him at the New Orleans airport with my wife and other family members that had driven in from Houston. My first impression was favorable for he was carrying a book. Not a bought-at-the-airport-gift-shop type of book, but the more difficult-to-find type of nonfiction. The kind that only the author and Denis would find interesting.

If there was ever a situation that called for a driver to meet Denis at an airport - rather than hold up the customary sign - it would be better that the driver be told "He'll be the one passenger carrying a book." If, by chance, there happened to be two people carrying books - Denis would be the one reading the most esoteric title.

Denis and I immediately saw eye-to-eye, although that was probably due to his height. When the time came to tour the city, Denis showed his quiet curiosity by asking in-depth questions. He was interested in much more than dates and landmarks. He may have appeared to the locals to be just one more tourist, but to me, it was like showing the city to a diplomat - a curious diplomat (if you can imagine such an animal).

The hotel where we stayed had a morning newspaper delivered to every room. On this particular day the headline was "Tourist Shot Dead in French Quarter."

I entered the dining room where the family was to meet, thinking I was the first to arrive. There was only one other guest in the restaurant, his face concealed by a newspaper. When he lowered the paper, I saw that it was Denis and not only had he been there, but he had been there awhile - for there was an empty bowl on his table. Looking at the bowl I saw that it had contained gumbo - the popular spicy seafood dish of Louisiana (which is not generally eaten at breakfast).

Denis had, of course, read the entire newspaper and had already ascertained that the unfortunate tourist mentioned on the front page had met his end not four blocks from the door of our hotel. In fact Denis had circled the scene of the crime on the hotel's complementary map.

When I asked about the empty bowl of gumbo, Denis mentioned that he had to convince his waiter that he was serious about ordering it for breakfast. I said that it was probably leftover from the night before - and Denis smiled and said that it would be good to find out what leftover gumbo tasted like. Denis' pre-trip research on New Orleans had stated the popularity of gumbo and although his time in Louisiana was short; he was determined to sample as many variations as he could. For the next few days, Denis ate gumbo at every meal - even managing to coax it from places that didn't have it on the menu!

Later, I had the pleasure of accompanying Denis on a search for "a proper bookstore." I had never before heard this distinction. Bookstores were bookstores. But after meeting Denis I realized that I may have spent years buying books from "improper" bookstores without knowing it. We managed to find a "proper" bookstore and Denis asked to be picked up in a few hours. (If anyone in the audience is ever out with a member of the Wong family - you would be well-advised to carry your lunch with you in case a bookstore is encountered.) I returned to the store at the predetermined time and Denis emerged from the front door at precisely as scheduled - to the second.

My most memorable incident with Denis did not involve the spoken word although I was engaged in conversation with him at the time. In a New Orleans park we were approached by a well-dressed but dirty and disheveled young panhandler who said that he had enjoyed too much of New Orleans' hospitality and was trying to get back home. He said he was a medical student from somewhere up north and his bewildered, baby-face seemed to confirm his claim.

I listened to his plea and was considering "a donation" when his eyes shifted to Denis to make more or less the same request. I was watching the boy's face as he spoke to Denis and I witnessed a transformation. The hung-over youth saw something in Denis' face and/or demeanor which straightened him up and put him back in control of himself. Perhaps he was ashamed that he had spent the night drinking - when he could've been sampling gumbo. The youth straightened-up, walked away without a word - heading off in the direction of the bus station. I have no doubt that this student returned to medical school (without any monetary help from us) and became a fine, dedicated physician, although I have no idea how Denis pulled this off. Perhaps Denis' sense of decorum reminded the boy of his lost dignity.

Although I only spent a few hours with Denis, I am sure that his lifelong friends feel the same way I do - that our time together was just too short.

© John Troesser
August 19, 2016 Column

For anyone who remembers Dr. Denis (Kin) Wong and wishes to comment, please write to Kate Wong, his sister @ kate@texasescapes.com

More Columns by John Troesser

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