All posts by jmiranda

Make sure that there’s a Dixie moon

Autumn is an improper drink, disappointing at best but mostly just insufferable. My poor attempt at a Sazerac festers on the patio table to my right. Though the weather is just warm enough to drink outside, the sun no longer reaches my face. It hovers shy of my toes now and wavers.

I should make a fresh drink. Too much bitters gives my cocktail the attitude of burnt espresso and each reluctant sip makes me shudder. Yet this foul drink coincides with my disposition too appropriately to move, so between the dropping leaves and sneaking wind I stubbornly force it down.

It does not taste of New Orleans.

The bar in the back of Muriel’s in Jackson Square is narrow, found by winding through shabby New Orleans-chic halls of antiqued paintings, picture frames and a brilliant white-walled indoor courtyard. We sit on high stools in this nook and order from leather-bound menus: straight bourbon for my guy and Sazerac for me. Graceful female hands fashion my Sazerac with a subtle swoosh of absinthe, measured-by-site rye and bitters and syrup, and the twisted oil of lemon peel. I try to memorize her movements.

Tasting my first Sazerac was a bit like reading Hemingway for the first time, conflicting yet impossibly engrossing. It is not an easy drink. Spice may dominate the first sip, but by the second and third a complex sweetness will rise and the flavors become more ingrained, more natural.

We carry our drinks to the balcony. Candles on the fortune teller tables in the square below flicker against approaching darkness. In less than an hour, the Quarter will be illuminated by the yellow glow of restaurant and shop windows reflecting against glossy, rain-wet sidewalks. Musicians will hold court on street corners and tourists will follow cape-clad hustlers into haunted alleys. Every evening in New Orleans is endless, punctuated by my slow sipping of a Sazerac as we find our footing on a decadent path.

Concrete is no substitute for wrought iron.

What’s left of the sunlight skirts the edges of our driveway now. It’s filtered through wiry branches and the eventual glare of headlights to leave me in an unsatisfying shadow. Autumn holds no reservation about the false promise of its burnt hues and crisp air.

A reasonless funk attempts to replace my patch of warmth. Giving in to its sleepy creep appears luxurious until I see everything in my vantage being removed, the potential, the possible, and the likely all sinking into a black horizon.

I rise from my familiar chair against all pressure otherwise and fold it into reluctant storage. Winter will eventually claim my spot on the driveway, but nothing more. Inside waits, a peculiar and contained interlude before we return to where we belong.

Until then, there is time to master the Sazerac.

 

Rainy Royal Street

NOLA

Jackson Square

 

 

My kind of crazy

That we were walking along a two-lane highway with a five-foot wooden skeleton and a water bottle full of bourbon really should have been our first indication that we had, perhaps, over indulged. The five of us – six, if you count the skeleton – had reached a decadent apex of sorts, the net result of marathon drinking in the Michigan woods and the inevitable hunger that follows.

The destination, a roadhouse, couldn’t have been more than three blocks ahead. But what should have taken in sober steps a few minutes to reach took us an hour. Our lot arrived rowdy, ravenous, trailing mud from the shoulder, and clearly not at its most desirable.

The five or six of us crowded around a table intended for four. Anything, really, could have caught the attention of the night manager then: our insistent voices, spilled booze, the occasional embrace of a wooden skeleton. Mostly though, it was just us.

Where at home the affectionate cacophony of our Michigan gang’s friendship is normal, in public it becomes at best a nuisance, or worse, a hazard. And so we found ourselves, skeleton and all, unceremoniously escorted back to the dirt, on the road, exactly where we left off.

Such is summer for my guy and I, part sweaty lark and part madcap inspiration. We are at once decadent and motivated by the potential of brilliant sunshine, restless and seeking something more than what the everyday brings.

The languid posture of New Orleans calls to us early in the season. This is, to me, when the Quarter is at its most perfect. Sunshine and humidity keep doors open most hours of the day while the city gently hums in a radiant current.

Tradition dictates that our first cocktail come from Napoleon House, where the bartender assumes we’re locals who just happen to spend most of the year in other places. I’m happy to oblige the illusion. He hands me a Pimm’s Cup and my guy a bourbon, and we toast to being home.

Many, many years of visits to the Quarter have revealed only enough to know that there is more I need to see. We weave between uneven streets to find Backspace Bar. If there ever were a place built specifically for my vices, this would be it, all rich and textured and ready to breathe with me as needed to expel my ghosts on page.

My guy eases onto the waiting stool next to mine knowing we may be here a while. A raven sits over the bar, flanked by classic typewriters on antique shelves. Worn hardcover books press against a brick wall. The atmosphere is deliberate, of course, suited to the more refined barfly and offering better booze to keep us satisfied, with just enough dirt in the fireplace to remind us where we’re headed.

We stay long enough for several bourbons and a plate of red beans to materialize and vanish with familiar comfort. Breeze from the open door catches us eventually and prompts us back to our curious path, holding hands and smiling into the steamy sunshine. There are friends to meet soon.

We’re three bars ahead of them when a random storm forces us to slow our wandering. It’s just as well. Even as locals, our friends find it hard to track our Quarter footsteps. So my guy and I pause under a balcony as long streams of water pool into the street. This fleeting burst doesn’t change the color of the Quarter; it only enhances the vibrant foliage above us and surreal light from windows. Sidewalk saints, sinners and us all linger in the moment, connecting briefly under doorways and balconies to observe the fluid energy. As shared cigarettes burn out, so does the rain, and life, or otherwise, continues.

Our friends eventually catch us dancing in a doorway to the irresistible and incomprehensible rhythm of a Cajun jazz band. Heddy takes charge to lead us to the river, where a large festival is in perpetual progress. She chases the entire length of the Quarter in what seems to be a single step without ever once missing an in between moment. Her always-moving hands slide oysters and drinks into our willing ones, her spirited pace encourages us deeper into colorful corners we may have otherwise overlooked. She is a vivid encapsulation of New Orleans, entirely in love with her world and more willing than I could ever be to share it.

At the height of summer we visit the horse track. Arlington Race Park has an unapologetic bloom from more than 80 years of historic grandeur. Here, women wear hats, men wear bow ties, and hours are marked by post time since the noon sun lasts all day.

The cotton white Grandstand rises in electric contrast against the lush landscaped gardens, paddock, and track. Brilliant curved staircases lead to the main level, where the classic splendor collides with anxious perspiration and pencil shavings.

Real betters hunch over the Daily Racing Form and tip sheets in confined corners to construct elaborate trifecta boxes and exacta wheels. Our betting style, though conducted though my own superstitious rituals, is random and unremarkably simple. Whatever magical blend of name and color strikes our fancy becomes our bet, always placed with the gristled teller Roger, who will, on occasion, offer inside tips to win us a little extra cocktail cash.

It won’t be long before the formal bugle call to post, when taught horses and their jockeys will parade onto the track and to the gate. I smile at my guy. We link arms and walk past the tellers to a small side bar where Jacques is waiting.

Jacques isn’t the only reason we visit the track, but he is the best; a decorous bartender keen to good bourbon and always ready to compliment a couple in love. He immediately reaches for a bottle of bitters, the hallmark of a cocktail he created for me and has perfected over the last seven years: fizzy lemon-lime soda, rich bourbon poured with a generous hand, and spicy bitters, with a spear of orange and cherries to swizzle. It is not the fanciest drink ever created, but it tastes of summer and is made all the more sweet by the friendly kiss to my hand Jacques delivers with it.

Crowds gather at the finish line. It’s impossible to see the entire dynamics of a race from that vantage, but we cheer wildly at the starting bell and eye the large video screen to find our favorites. The appropriately named Read to Me runs well. He pulls ahead of the pack. I clutch my ticket and feel the pressure of my guy’s shoulder next to mine. The crowd swells in anticipation as the horses round the corner; we yell encouragement as Read to Me’s nose dips behind another horse. And then, he pulls forward again to thunder past us and emerge as winner, and our victory.

Like the races, our summer passes in a heated flash. I can always tell we’re nearing its end when I no longer see the Big Dipper through the sunroof of our car. I track it, you see, every night we visit the drive-in.

At the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the sky is clear and well suited to both star gazing and movie watching. We arrive long before the gates open only so we do not have to battle anyone for what has become our spot. The silver speaker pole looks like all the others, of course, but as the location of our very first date represents something more akin to home.

With our lawn chairs in tow and flask in pocket, we are at our most casual on that gravel oasis. We bask in the remaining sunshine, lick popcorn salt and nacho cheese from our fingers, and lean into each other to watch stories unfold.

Summer always resonates with uncommon pleasures. Some we find through our lasting friendships and unexpected acquaintances; others are found indulging our wanderlust. But while reveling in the lavish sunshine and especially when sitting under the sky at the drive-in, we find our best moments intertwined in each other. Such is our summer.

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Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Bob raps his knuckles twice on the bar after serving a round of drinks. The sound echoes briefly through the Coq d’Or, a subterranean cocktail lounge in the Drake Hotel. Its grand distinction, aside from Bob, who is, perhaps, as essential to the bar as its dark wood and cherry leather, is the claim of being the first bar in Chicago to open after the repeal of Prohibition. This may or may not be true. What is of most consequence, to me, is the Coq d’Or continues to exist timelessly. Days neither rise nor set. They only maintain a sepia tinged haze of comfortable proximity to where it is you want to be.

“Here comes trouble,” Bob says as my guy and I take seats in front of him.

He already has the basics for my Manhattan in hand, and accepts a nod to confirm my choice of Templeton rye. Bob mixes the aromatic concoction with authority, deftly pouring it over ice and adding three bourbon-soaked cherries to the glass. Like Bob, my drink does not change.

For my guy he pours Booker’s, a small batch bourbon of such deep caramel color it matches the grains of wood on the bar. Bob knocks twice, we tap glasses, and toast to our last stop on the way to summer. I lean into my guy, letting my knees touch his. There is no greater pleasure to me than him in this moment of easy familiarity and forever.

Slowly we sip our cocktails and talk of us. My guy’s eyes are warm, crinkled at the edges when his smile brightens. His sideburns are tinged with the handsome gray he loathes to admit but that I adore. He is at once my equal, my opposite, and my partner, dressed in a slim suit of black on black. Occasionally I fancy us Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, or, when I’m feeling morbidly romantic, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. The ageless fashion of the Coq d’Or makes slipping in and out of yourself an uncomplicated affair.

Mostly though, I enjoy our present. We have earned the privilege of familiarity at this bar, and Bob knows to slide fresh cocktails into our conversation seamlessly. He does the same for the man two seats to my right at the far corner. We have seen him before, a regular even moreso than us, always drinking white wine just outside the realm of conversation. Soft fingers circle his glass. I may never know his name, but I know his gentle face and smooth white blond hair. And if his deliberate tilt and nod in our direction is any indication, then he knows us as well.

This is what I love most about returning to a bar such as the Coq d’Or: making limited connections in strangers the same way I do a bartender. The joy comes from being recognized; the satisfaction is in walking away. There is no need to know each other for more than what we are in these contained moments.

Soon, a jazz trio will balance the atmosphere with vintage melodic notes over the modern conversation. Perhaps they will play Cole Porter and I can tap my fingers on the glossy bar top in time as I might have in another to make the night all the more spectacular. And maybe, if the ice in his glass will resist melting long enough, I can even coax my guy into a brief dance.

Our time is all about potential as we stretch minutes into eternity. It won’t be long before we trade the midnight leather and velvety drinks of the Cod d’Or for the sunlight and fizz of our summer wanderlust. But until then, we sway to our own mystic love, enchanted by the antique charm and luxe treasure of a bar that stands still in time.

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My guy and I (and Bob, in the background) at Coq d’Or.
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Chicago’s Drake Hotel is all about the luxe treasures.
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Vintage-style view of Chicago.
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My favorite cocktail.

 

Know when to run

Having grown up with pinball machines and a clunky TRS-80 microcomputer, I never acquired much affinity for video games. They existed, of course, mostly as plain text adventures and jerky MS-DOS before stand-alone arcades became a thing, and in nostalgic hindsight seem rather quaint. Their pings and light bulbs and Courier typeface showed thoughtful – and quiet – charm.

I mention this not to get PlayStation or Wii off my lawn, but only in contemplating my adoration of a good casino. There is nothing charming about a casino. Even the best of them reek, either of the grimy desperation and sullied decisions boredom and addiction breed, or the tacky splendor of a stained freak show tent. The Rat Pack days of glamor and excess, when men sported suits, women wore mink, and cigar smoke curled around a Manhattan, have vanished. The only excess in most casinos now, gambling aside, is in white gym shoes and oxygen tanks.

By all means I should despise casinos, yet desire wraps itself around my greedy little vices and I find odd satisfaction among the epileptic frills. I like that at any hour of the day, a casino will be popping with bells, sirens, and grave-digging sighs. Booze is plentiful, as it should be, to balance and fuel the polluted elegance.

Attitude helps, of course. My guy and I enter a casino for entertainment over payout. Stepping past the largely computerized games, the ones with touch screens and 3D graphics and absurd themes like “Coyote Moon” or “Karate Pig,” we find the older dollar machines with mechanical reels and splintered levers. This throwback to my pinball days accommodates my perpetual bourbon buzz and inability to complete simple arithmetic.

This is mostly why I shied away from table games. When Yahtzee can confuse me with its formulas and number calculations, the likelihood of my ever grasping something like craps is slim. The same can be said of Blackjack, another game where my mathematical shortcomings will obliterate a table in an instant. Sitting at a slot machine, I can perform illogical luck rituals in relative private and feel confident in knowing that the number seven is never a bad thing.

But then my guy introduced me to three card poker. The game plays simple yet nuanced enough to make me feel adept, despite all it taking to win in the most basic situation is one card better than the dealer. Players at the table can cease to exist entirely or become temporary companions without ever having relation to another’s win or loss.

We sit and play for an hour’s stretch, drinking in easy comfort and holding court. My guy exudes unflappable confidence and humor, bantering lightly, while I let my deceptive constraint convince the table I’m not holding a straight flush. For that hour I am my own idea of me, at once decadent and deliberate, a full song and not only the fiddle carrying the melody.

If only my games of Oregon Trail had played out so well.

 

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Mix it with rum

Our days start with rum and end with champagne. There was bourbon for a while, too, but we drank the bar out of Maker’s on our third day and have had to make accommodations. Many things are plentiful in Aruba, just not bourbon.

A lazy rhythm carries us through our days here. We start early and catch a boat launch to a small private island off the main coast. Few people are out, leaving us with the whole of an island to ourselves. Pristine white sand and palm trees stretch from end to end, flanked by intertwining mangrove trees at one side and a curved rocky point at the other. Flamingos walk the shore and cast silly shadows on my toes as I ripen in the fresh sun.

We hop from water to bar to hammock to beach, repeating the dance over several hours until we’re ready to find a new adventure on the mainland. There isn’t so much a downtown to an island that stretches 20 miles, only strips of stores, bars and restaurants, and rows of high rise hotels along the coast. Color, however, is everywhere.

Local buildings painted in vibrant shades of green, pink, and yellow nod to the island’s Caribbean influences, while tiled roofs and ornate balconies show off Spanish leanings. A windmill can be spotted between the cacti and palm trees near Eagle Beach. Every influence from Dutch to Mediterranean converges here, with no specific one having discernible dominance.

It reminds me of New Orleans, at least in that I can wander the streets with a cocktail in hand. But Aruba rolls to its own accord, dazzling and fruity and surprisingly unassuming in its tropical splendor.

My drink radiates green, from the grenadine I hope, and tastes of sunshine. I purchased it using florins. American dollars are widely accepted but Aruba’s thin, colorful papers and small square coins feel satisfying in my hand. So many things remind me how far we are from Chicago, and the more foreign currency I collect, the further away it seems.

I love this new impermanent home we have made. Particularly for the seafood that can be had at every meal. Breakfast means a plate piled high with shrimp. Its plump texture and sweet taste make a perfect contrast to the fluffy couscous and salty olives served with it. Calamari comes for lunch, either breaded or lightly sautéed in olive oil, and we pop the tender rings by the handful, washing them down with heavy pours of rum and pineapple juice. They are meant only to sustain us until dinner.

“Which do you prefer, water or sand?”

The hostess points toward a line of small tables placed gently within the slow laps of the ocean, then indicates similar tables on the warm white sand. Iron trees sit next to each table for the shoes that are never required.

Sunset is all the more spectacular when your toes are coated with sand, and the soft rays are filtered through a large pitcher of sangria. Here, my guy and I hold hands and face the sun through salt-speckled sunglasses. The sun is low yet it still washes over us like Technicolor. It’s hard to imagine this is the same sun everyone sees every day when we are so far removed from the every day.

Giant succulent lobsters and caught-that-morning wahoo steaks are brought to our table with sides of melted butter and tarragon mayonnaise for dipping. Deceptively simple, the meal stretches into the easy dark of night before we finally move on.

Most of the travelers we meet are European. They winter here for months, a nouveaux riche circle that pulls hundred-dollar casino chips from their pockets and purses ceaselessly as we join them for rounds of three card poker after dinner. To them, with our blissful eyes and easy touching, we are honeymooners, and will remain so for next 20 years.

We play well. Several won hands eventually equal a bottle of Moet. Its dripping bucket is brought to us on the pool terrace. Candles in large hurricane glasses trace the outline of the infinity pool. Palm leaves rustle above us as we settle onto a couch and look out onto the ocean’s edges. Even under the moonlight, our glasses mist with condensation. We clink, we toast, and we continue our path into the never-ending throes of wanderlust.

 

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The midnight special

By rights, red beans and rice should only ever be eaten after midnight. Ours still has a while to go until the magic hour, but the simmering pot on the stove has filled our house with a scent that is familiar and unnatural. This holy blend of creole spices belongs distinctly in New Orleans – not here – where it wafts from unexpected corners and has a residence I envy.

I’m not even sure at this point what all I’ve stirred into my stew. The onions, bell pepper, and celery have melted into a singular entity. Andouille sausage is clear enough, I suppose, but the mixture has darkened as it cooks and taken on a thick, sludgy consistency. It is exquisite.

My local butcher eyed me suspiciously when I presented him with my shopping list earlier in the day. He didn’t have turtle meat. Not that red beans calls for it; I had originally hoped to make turtle soup, though it seems the whole of Chicago is rather offended at the thought of it. Even the butcher, with his dripping arms and juicy cleaver, apparently has limits. He couldn’t name a single place to purchase turtle meat and only begrudgingly suggested I try a gourmet supply house (“You monster,” his eyes added) when I pressed him further.

Ham hock and tasso are also apparently not Midwestern butcher staples. (Nor are sweetbreads and frog legs, I later found, which only further convinces me that despite all the culinary accolades, Chicago is hopelessly squeamish.) I settled on smoked ham shank. Not entirely authentic, and I’m still a bit unclear on what exactly it is, but as the stripped bone bobs into view it seems to be doing just fine in the deliciously dirty bubbling muck I’ve created.

My guy adds more wine to my glass. The raw edges of winter have left us itching for the home where we are not. At times like this we cook, sometimes all day and into the night, sharing bites and memories and hopes as we create the essence of places we love or will love one day.

We look beyond the kitchen and toward the window at the far end of the living room. There are only impressions to be seen in the dark outside. So we conjure a gas lamp out of the perpetual porch light flicker and ladle heaping piles of now-ready red beans over fluffy white rice.

If we shift focus enough, at this midnight hour we could be anywhere.

 

Red beans and rice

Gonna make it a double

I wouldn’t wish being a writer on anyone.

It is life and skill that is equal parts exhilarating and awful, compounded by shattering self-doubt, pressure, and violent discipline. Longing and jealousy color my darkest thoughts as well, but too, there is also vibrant joy in capturing a moment or sharing a story.

This particular archive of essays and blogs spans many years. The recent lack of updates is not due to laziness – should anyone out there actually be paying attention. Most of my writing efforts of late have been in developing my second book, another mostly true tome called Home Is Where We Are Not. It’s all about living a life of wanderlust and the adventures my husband and I experience while traveling the world.

The book is coming together, slowly, fueled by many gallons of bourbon and long stretches of highway. It is a maddening balance to strike, writing a book and managing to come up with regular content for a website to remind the world that you exist. Judging by the lack of comments and influx of watch replica ads I receive here, I have failed miserably on that balance.

Still. If I am at all going to be known as the writer I am, it’s about time I give y’all reason to care. My hard rule has been to never post content that is anything short of perfect, or that is lacking a thought-out story. But perhaps some imperfection would be welcome. Maybe, in sharing the raw ideas and thoughts that aren’t as pristine as I prefer, I can start a different kind of story.

More writing to come.

 

And, in a random aside: My head shots were ridiculously out of date. I have a few professional events and such where people for whatever reason care what their writer looks like, so rather than showing up like a blind date, I updated my portfolio. 40 pounds of makeup later, I have to admit, I rather like the end result:

Juliette-105 retouched

 

Saved by the grace of southern charm

Out of so many places in the world, seen and unseen, my heart has settled without reservation in New Orleans. It sits in a broken state of perfection, collecting stories within the faded walls and crumbling streets, fluid with all the grace of southern charm and corrupt with timeless fascination.

Each visit reveals new perspective into this place I intuitively understand but can only hope to fully know. My champagne haze takes in steeples, parapets and cupolas rising only so high above me. To my right a man sweeps water off the sidewalk. Behind me, a riverboat calliope whistles off-pitch ditties that stretch for miles.

Jackson Square bristles with the slow current of morning. Lazy light creeps over the Cathedral and its bells ring out eleven. Nothing in New Orleans really sleeps; there is only rest and waiting for the right impetus to propel you into its self-contained jazz.

Carriages pulled by donkeys donning crepe flowers and garland clip clop down the streets, their barkers calling out ages-old stories and lore with practiced melodic tempo. At any time, the most amazing things can happen. A second line in celebratory pursuit of a brass band will parade down St. Ann Street, waving napkins and twirling umbrellas even before the sun is high enough to illuminate the street. Swarms of naked bicycle riders, men in extravagant red dresses, or foot-racing bartenders may pass you in joyous abandon and the site is no more shocking or unusual than that of café au lait and beignets.

My guy and I detour down Chartres Street to Napoleon House. 200 years of alcohol soaked conversation cakes its walls. The bar is slick from the condensation of cocktails being raised and lowered in the swell of summer. My own drink clings to its napkin. As in most Quarter establishments, air conditioning serves only to rearrange the dust on picture frames.

We fall into pleasant exchange with a man and his father. They’re from Balta, travelling through New Orleans on a culinary tour of the United States. As I sip my Pimm’s Cup, I know what it is to miss New Orleans. Funny I should miss it as I sit there, encouraging its temptations, but the enigmatic spice of Pimm’s sifts over my tongue and reminds me just how localized this sensation is. There is nothing like it in the world, this mash-up of indiscernible yet distinct flavors, in my drink and in the air around me.

The man’s father takes my hand. He is kind-eyed and at home here while his son jumbles maps and books. “I should never leave a place like this,” he says.

Later in the day we’re carried toward a small café somewhere between streets. A large tub teems with live crawfish at the entrance. The season is ripe for this dirty delicacy. I nod at my guy, eyes bright with shameful decadence. It does not matter that we’ve already eaten; we will eat again because we can, because it is blissful and because we are in love.

The night rolls in sultry waves. As the moon rises we follow the Mississippi River down, out of the French Quarter and into the Bywater. In this hodgepodge neighborhood of tradition and rebirth, the streets are uneven and uncertain. Swales collect bourbon water, which isn’t water at all but remnants of what washes off the streets. It smells of turpentine and rain, and on Thursday nights, it smells of sweat, too.

Vaughan’s sits among the shotgun houses. Christmas lights filtered through cigarette smoke wash the front porch in unrefined color. We enter to find the band, or, more precisely, Treme Funktet, assembling for a singular late-night performance. There is no stage, just a creaking wood floor that holds both band and crowd. We merge into a sweaty jumble when the music starts. The trombone juts dangerously into the throng to dance with us, in and out as we all improvise a kinetic melody.

Red beans and rice are dished from a giant pot in a back room. The warm hug of Creole food fuels our night. It extends back into the Quarter, where we resume our ceaseless instinctive journey, enveloped into a city of endless dimension.

I should never leave a place like this.

 

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Straight up blame it on the whiskey

Nashville smells like pecans and bourbon. The bourbon is obvious; poured, spilled and consumed as ceaselessly as the music plays in a near 24-hour rotation. The pecans less so. Their sweet scent is like embers in the air, discernible but ghostly.

It’s a fitting match for Music City where the sounds emanating from the honky tonks are familiar and warm, sweet too, but mostly full of kick. Unsurprisingly, the shot of choice on lower Broadway, Nashville’s main drag, is cinnamon whiskey.

Our first “holler an’ a swaller’” comes just before noon, an early bird salute of sorts from the hard core who belly up in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge as soon as the doors open. The band has already been playing for an hour, which means we’ve been drinking for an hour, and that means I’m itching to dance.

My two-step is perpetually a half-beat off. This isn’t as obvious in Tootsie’s, where there’s only room enough to stand. I’ll tap and stomp and break my boots in on floor that has felt the steps of everyone from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and feel at home.

The indecency of swilling booze in the mid morning is tempered by the thumpings and twang of the band. They’re full of swagger, wearing belt buckles that outweigh the gear, and prime with the kind of talent so strong it appears effortless. Four, sometimes five musicians arrange themselves on a tiny corner stage raised maybe a foot off the ground and play for tips that are deposited in a barrel or pickle jar that’s passed between sets.

A few steps to the left and the music at Layla’s slants toward rockabilly and bluegrass. We stop there next, pausing briefly for sunshine and smoke on the sidewalk between buildings. Crowds are forming along Broadway by now. Cowboy hats, sports jerseys, and flip-flops color the area as passersby listen at doorways and take photos with life-size Elvis figures.

One waxy Elvis is missing some fingers. The King absorbs relentless sunshine and the sticky embrace of tourists on most days of the year, while at the same time being lovingly covered in the honky tonks. At Layla’s, a three-piece with an upright bass rollicks through “Don’t Be Cruel” while another door or two down a gorgeous woman in Robert’s Western World will simultaneously croon “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

As for me, I want a grilled cheese sandwich. This is my snack of choice between drinks and the only place I’ll eat it is Robert’s, where the “honky tonk grill” is coated in decades of grease and the only bread they use is Texas toast. If I was so inclined, I could also buy a pair of boots here.

The later afternoon takes us to Legend’s. There is room to two-step here, to country music that is more recent and modern. But more often we meld into the crowd to sway and stomp and clink glasses as we call out lyrics. Country music is by design conducive to camaraderie, unless, of course, the glass clinking with strangers is too familiar, or the winks too salacious. A pert blonde eyes my man and it occurs to me that there is room here to fight, also.

I do not have the wherewithal to physically take down any woman, blonde or not. And I have no reason to, not when my guy’s lips are on my cheek and we two-step in place to our favorite song. More bourbon will pass our lips and we spend the remainder of the afternoon in back by the jukebox where it is quiet and we can share secrets and eye album covers that line the walls. I see the 45 cover for “Islands In the Stream” by Dolly and Kenny and it makes me smile.

Dusk brings more crowds. We wander to Rippy’s for dinner, where the most casual service in the world pales in comparison to the luscious BBQ pork loin melt, onion rings, and ribs. A hunk of cheddar is served alongside meals, ambiguous and warm from the heat of the food. I bite into it and it gives way softly. It is bliss.

A woman in the bathroom talks on her cellphone as I rinse sauce from my fingertips. The band up front is loud and she shouts to make sure her story is heard. It would seem that her man has packed up and moved to Hawaii, taking everything but her gold earrings and dog. She didn’t much like him to start, but rails anyway that Hawaii’s too good for him. I spot her later that night back in Tootsie’s, dancing.

We head out again on Broadway. Under the darkening sky the neon lights buzz with current. Girls wearing lace dresses walk next to men in blue jeans in a steady rhythm. We fall in step toward another bar with more music, more booze to coax our fluid souls into dancing.

And there as we walk, faintly in the air is the scent of pecans, struggling to be recognized over the din of steel guitars and fiddles and laughter.

 

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