All posts by jmiranda

Heebie Jeebies

He stocked his store with earnest. So much so that it was more living room than store, sparsely but personally full of items he’d collected, found, or made. Many stores in New Orleans are like that. They’re owned by a single proprietor, occasionally a group of friends, who will take a lease on a closet in the Quarter to share something.

Not all of these places are obviously shops. Entryways can be pushed back from the street with stairs leading to a weathered door, wooden, with chipped slats that may or may not be open. Only sometimes, mostly with the establishments that have been in operation for more than a year, will there be a sign proclaiming “Gallery” or “Books” or some other earmark to understand the site’s purpose.

Wander down enough side streets after enough cups of booze and the distinction between home and store becomes fuzzy. I have vague recollections of once eating a po’ boy sandwich in what may have been someone’s kitchen. But this is, in itself, the wonder of the Quarter: You never know precisely where a door leads, but you will almost always be welcome.

This particular doorway stood close to the sidewalk, rising crookedly above two steep steps. Only curiosity drew me to it, that and a small handwritten note in the window announcing, “Vodou Reference + Tools.”

Decades of humidity had warped the door. There was no cracking it open to peer into the shop; this door required deliberate intent. My husband pulled against the suction of sagging wood. Resistance gave way to relief and we entered as the only customers.

Unlike many stores in the Quarter, this one was meticulously clean and full of light. Stark white shelves held random stacks of books, clearly short run presses from local writers I like to imagine the owner knew. A curtain, fastened with two small safety pins, cordoned off the back portion of the store in reservation for “private guests only.”

A cabinet positioned in a niche near the front had been fashioned into an altar. This is not an uncommon site in the Quarter. Shops,  galleries, even bars will have a small corner or table of reverence, each unique but possessing select, unwavering arrangements. Part of the joy in experiencing New Orleans is witnessing such gentle pride in religion, where, even if your beliefs are opposing, you’re invited to regard small signs of faith.

Faith is an odd asset. In this particular space, the owner’s faith shined from the glass of crystalline water deliberately placed on the alter, glowed in candles, and spoke from the few hand-crafted objects on display in a glass case.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t as obvious.

—–

The high, vaulted ceiling was the best part of that apartment on Moorpark. After several years, it may have actually been the best part of Los Angeles. Wood beams slated at dramatic angles there, vaguely rustic, gristled and dark, absorbing sun and making the building feel more likea cabin than the two-story dingbat it really was.

A cactus sat on the stucco balcony. Five years had passed since I moved to LA and the cactus was one of two things I managed to not kill.

Winter in Los Angeles is made for unemployment. There ismore rain than sun, a relief that prevents you from wanting more beyond the walls of your home. That wet December the sky would hemorrhage and I’d cross off my days out of work – 310, 317, 329 – on a curling calendar and wonder whether there was something more for me beyond a ceiling that could make rain sound like dancing.

The cactus thrived. It had outgrown its pot and was too unwieldy for me to replant. Flowers randomly sprouted from its arms, unscented but obvious, oblivious to my violent need to press beyond my present.

By the time there was nothing left for me in that town, the cactus towered more than four-feet high. It was the last thing I looked at before closing that apartment door to move 2,000 miles in the opposite direction. Not the cathedral-style ceiling beams or the sliding mountains in the background. Just the cactus, left alone to the balcony.

—–

He may have had Parkinson’s disease. His words shook as he greeted us, a book trembled in his lap. The reluctant sounds of the door opening and our arrival seemed to have roused him from deep concentration, and while his movements struggled, they belied an eagerness to share the contents of his store.

We wandered obligingly. A small knife caught my husband’s eye. Like everything in those self-possessed quarters, were it not for a pricetag, the piece had the look of a personal belonging. It was placed among a haphazard collection of carvings and leather cords in a glass display case that rattled as the owner’s knee jerked against it.

He wanted to know if we’d like to see the knife. His knotted hands faltered in agitation at holding a small key to open the case and we hesitated in asking him to go further, but his pride overrode our concerns.

Each movement ached in forced choreography. We silently watched as he worked through his intentions to retrieve the knife and took it from him gently when he held it out to us in his two hands.

What started as a simple household steak knife had been  transformed by an overlay of bone carved elegantly, with ardency. Tiny figureswere painted on handle and a thin leather cord wrapped the bolster.

He had made it, of course, before his body turned to rebellion. His hands may have betrayed his skill now, but his eyes were full of spark as he carefully explained to us each step he’d taken to preserve the jawbone of a wolf and why he chose to craft the ornate piece in front of us.

There were many reasons we purchased the knife. It later occurred to us that the only people who visited that store were likely the owner’s friends and family. Being so far off the usual paths and lacking the ribald trinkets found in many Quarter shops put this one at a distinct disadvantage. But that wasn’t really the purpose of the shop, and I can only hope that our genuine interest and admiration of this particular man’s faith did not go unnoticed.

—–

My bookshelf at home is a shrine to the things I love. Predominately literature, but also objects of importance: A photo of my husband, a chunk of crystal fluoride from my father, postcards from friends in other countries … And that knife from a random, but significant, store in New Orleans.

They blossom from the shelves in rain, in snow, and especially in sunshine reminding me that no matter the day, or the weather, it’s the little things we collect and share, and may occasionally leave behind, that have the most meaning in our lives.

Far too young to know that summers end

I stash things in books. It’s an odd habit that’s been with me for decades. Recently I discovered a lovely envelope tucked between the pages of I Capture the Castle, an endearing novel published in the 40s but reminiscent of the 19th century. The writing is ripe with flawlessly compulsive lyricism: Characters pine and scheme and flourish with stories that extend for pages beyond paragraphs, but what captures me in it, mostly, are the descriptions of an English countryside.

That’s likely why the envelope made its way into the book; the unusually ornate letter casing resembles a painting of snap dragons and petunias and morning glories against a vibrant background made from water colors. The art is in perfect harmony with the book and in sharp contrast to the view from my own, real window.

My landscape is blue. Not summer blue, where color is so pure it vibrates, but ice blue. It’s the kind of eternal grey-blue that comes from a half-perched sun that is only potent enough to cast light by weakly reflecting against dingy snow.  There is no escaping winter elements in my current situation: The snow is far too deep, the ice too treacherous and the temperature too perilous.

Something about this kind of drudgery lends itself to British literature. In my isolation I find myself longing to “take a turn” about the room with a lady prone to gossip. Intrigue seems a fine companion to imprisonment. There could be talk of match-making and heart-breaking and life would have more excitement than determining the meat intended for dinner.

I grab a Ruth Reichl book from my shelves. Comfort Me with Apples. She gives food its own narrative in a way that makes it nearly a stronger character than any of Austen’s. Inside, I find a folded menu from Tru, an upscale Chicago restaurant. Upon request, they will offer you a printout of your “experience,” not expecting you to remember all eleven of your courses after the accompanying wine pairings.

Dinner should often be this way. The choreography of wine being poured in unison by unobstrusive servers, the art of presenting food in ways other than the typical, the dissecting each flavor in joyful abandonment with a willing partner all make a meal spectacular.

Food tastes different in the darker seasons. That would reasonably account for the tendency toward stews and soups and fortification cravings, but somehow, deprived of other stimuli, my tastes veer toward the distinct. After a few glasses of wine I will tell you that I believe I can taste color in the winter. It’s probably just cilantro I’d be referring to, with all of its piquant, verdant diversity, and otherwise known as a “scent” on my fancy French menu. Still, the thought of it keeps me warm.

The windows of my front room crackle. Ice crystals that congregate on the screen rustle incessantly against the glass with every bellow of wind. I long for the sound of dripping. Wet, long drips that echo against my windowsill in erratic rhythm.

The change of season is slow here, marked by subtle improvements that start with the first thaw. Nature loses its crisp exterior, becomes pliable under warmth. Icicles melt with encouragement. Hemingway would call these first sounds a “false spring.” I know this because I’ve underlined the passage in A Moveable Feast, marked the page with a business card acquired from a waiter at Antoine’s in New Orleans. He was the one to tell my guy and I of the birthday tradition in the Quarter, a ritual that involves pinning a dollar bill to your shirt. My husband gave it a try. Our trip was warm and sticky – August in the Quarter tends to drip, enduring hour after hour with hazy insistence. As we walked toward and down Royal, Quarter inhabitants saw his shirt dollar, stopped us, and offered him another dollar in celebration. Those who didn’t have a dollar offered him only tidings, and for that, my guy gave them a dollar from his shirt.

I owe money for We Have Always Lived In the Castle. I’m sure Shirley Jackson isn’t concerned. But according to the slip within the book’s pages, in eighth grade I “borrowed” it from my middle school library and at seven weeks past its return date, should have paid $1.75 in fines. My literature teacher warned us that we would never graduate with an overdue library book.

I somehow hold a diploma from middle school as well as this book. Yet still, despite having advanced past the eighth grade, I look out my window and wonder if I’ll ever graduate past this winter. Like school, it feels unendurable and eternal. But I have a new book in front of me, Bellman & Black.

I wonder, when I return to it in a few years past as I do all my books, what I will have stashed in it to mark this particular passage of time.

In the tikki, tikki, tikki, tikki, tikki room

Just a few images from our recent magical escape to Disney World. A few notes:

1) I take pictures of myself with cocktails the same way others take photos of their children.

2) My hubby is excellent at smoldering.

3) Chipmunks are a bit of a problem.

4) Everything is better when you have a scepter and a balloon.

5) The International Food & Wine Fest gets better every year.

6) The beach is the only place to watch movies.

7) I’ve been home for all of a day and a half, and I miss Disney already.

 

I left my heart

Sponsored post: I use Grammarly for proofreading because I’d rather be haunted by poltergeist than poor grammar.

 

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 stands on the outskirts of the French Quarter. There is no discernible order to this collection of the dead, only haphazard tombs that crumble together, spilled bricks and epitaphs, grass thrusting through walkways that lead nowhere. In just one square block, it is an eternal home to thousands.

Bodies aren’t buried so much as they are entombed in these above-ground chambers. Wall vaults tower overhead as outdoor catacombs for many, stacked one on top of another. The oldest of these are made from stone and brick, some 200 years before, and give the impression that they could turn to dust at any moment. The newer ones, designated for “society,” are cast from marble and reflect the sun indecently.

I have a fondness for the step tombs, the semi-subterranean slabs that have been covered, somewhat loosely in some instances, with brick. They may or may not be among the oldest graves there, but they do seem the easiest to escape. Not that anyone or thing would, I suppose. Not much seems to break out of that particular cemetery, despite the rumors of spirits and countless ghost-catching guides that tromp through an otherwise peacefully dead zone.

Still. The elevated and illuminated ways of the Quarter are wrought with legends and smoke trails that curl through whispered history. Where one dark corner may only bristle, there is a doorway, or a hallway, that will wail. Such hauntings as they may be take up more room in the Quarter than any of its ordinary residents.

We visit Cemetery No. 1 regularly. Some see New Orleans in shades of purple and yellow, a Cajun stew of wild character. I prefer to see it in paler tones. For this, Cemetery No. 1 suits me. There, the sun-soaked, deteriorating vaults, leaning iron fences, and cracked plates seem to have greater stories to tell.

There are interesting people buried there. Not that you necessarily know immediately or at all, not when so many vaults have no identification or clear markings. Visitors seem to work on instinct when paying respect.

Marie Leveau is reportedly on the grounds. Her sarcophagus-style vault is frequented by those looking for assistance, who believe the energy of her voodoo practice exists still. They’ll knock on the front of her tomb, perform quietly elaborate rituals and leave markings and offerings in hope of cajoling her favor.

In the Quarter, where energy is always ripe, I hesitate to question their actions. At least, not now.

There are others buried in No. 1, other voodoo priests and priestesses without the notoriety of Leveau. Their graves are unmarked by history but found nonetheless by those who look. We did, my guy and I. One in particular stood out among the others, taller than some, with a marred mardi gras mask perched on a spire. Candles, cards, unsmoked cigarettes, and baubles lay in wait at the foot of the vault. It was like any other site for the voodoo believers, yet somehow, to me, different. It was quieter, I think. Less desperate. More … Fulfilled.

I wasn’t inclined to ask for anything from whomever may have been listening. But I left a tribute anyway, an expired hotel room key, smiled, and joined my guy to walk back into the Quarter.

That night, we visited the casino. It’s not unusual for us to win a little in the casino, just enough to keep playing and buy a few rounds of cocktails. That night, we won a lot. An unusual amount of a lot.

Had it happened in any other city, I would have attributed our fortune to luck. In New Orleans, a place where I leave more than just a hotel room key behind, I can’t help but think that maybe, someone, something, found a way to say thanks.

And life, or otherwise, continues.

 

Little bit crazy like New Orleans

Paxton carries a bent photograph of her in his wallet that he will produce with no provocation. Sylvia. He loves her tremendously and righteously and will, over drinks that he buys for strangers, quote the lyrics of songs that are applicable to their doomed love.

This is how Paxton spends his time, banking off a self-imposed $300 a day allowance of mysterious origins and commiserating with locals at a dive bar on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. He ordered us doubles of our choice, but what the ‘tender pours more closely resembles a quadruple.

“Y’all count funny around here,” I say. He smiles, adds a splash of soda, and hands the booze over. My guy attempts to pay for the drinks, but Paxton refuses. He is, perhaps, the loneliest man in New Orleans, and two drinks are his thanks for an hour of conversation.

This kind of perpetual give and take fuels New Orleans so much that even the legacy waiters – the ones who have decades of service engrained in their hands – offer calling cards to their favorite customers. Everyone in the French Quarter counts on the transient permanence of people wandering in and out but always coming back.

My guy and I do just that, returning year after year to see the same sights in an entirely different way. It hits me the moment I enter the Quarter: A beautifully blurry meeting of cultures, where elaborate ironwork balconies rest atop dirty drinking establishments and centuries-old restaurants.

Bike bells compete with jazz notes for attention as you walk down Royal. This is my favorite street in the Quarter. The Monteleone rises at the far end with faded black letters dropping down the side of the hotel. Our first cocktail of the day comes from its Carousel Bar. We start early, of course. We laugh as we order drinks, light daytime drinks that have more fizz than punch, because the hour is still before noon. Half of the Quarter has already felt our footprints since dawn, so the drinks feel earned.

I like to wake with the Quarter. Even after three hours of sleep I will prowl the streets with the rising sun. There are few people out. Just the cooks in their striped pants and aprons or the men hosing down the sidewalks. They all smile as we walk past, greet us warmly as if they know us, and then return to their whistling, hosing, and work. Occasionally we find a line at Café Du Monde. We may head to the back then, where the waiters will take orders and bring your beignets in a small steaming bag.

There is no donut that can rival a beignet. Its fried, crispy exterior gives way to a chewy inside that tastes lightly of vanilla. The powdered sugar is heaped with a heavy hand so that it is impossible to not make a mess. I suspect that water is provided at the table for washing as opposed to drinking.

And still, even after rinsing and daubing, my fingers leave powdery prints on my drink glass at the Carousel Bar, which revolves like a dying merry-go-round. Fifteen minutes gives us one spin around the room. If I drink enough, the room will spin on its own. But somewhere before enough, there’s a pocket of just right, where the spice of my Pimm’s Cup and the bar revolutions meet in a blissful haze that makes me wonder.

I carry it with me down Royal. There is garlic and brine in the air as we walk past the Royal Oyster House. During the day, we may stop for fried alligator. A left turn takes us to Rue Bourbon, the foulest street in all of the Quarter. Deceptively sweet booze shots are hawked in doorways starting around noon on most days and giant signs proclaiming “Huge Ass Beers” and “The world’s strongest drink” lure passersby.

For every bar there is a different band. And for every band, there is a man who is not in the band but still stands in the club with a steel washboard strapped to his chest and spoons over his thumbs. He adds a zipping, rattling raucous, somehow making every song, even those without an accordion, sound vaguely like zydeco.

I would never suggest looking too closely on Bourbon. Decades of grime and smoke cake the bar walls. Palmetto bugs congregate in corners. In between it all, however, there are small, stunning respites, a holdover from the Spanish influence of the past. They always surprise me. Even the dankest bar can hide a lush courtyard behind it, complete with a wishing well fountain, wrought iron fencing, and, like at the Court of Two Sisters, a ceiling of twisted vines and leaves so old and so thick it keeps the courtyard in a state of uninterrupted dimness.

We’ll spend a few hours on Bourbon, starting in the light and returning again after dark. When the crowds become too thick, we will follow Orleans Street back to Royal. We’re looking for something more quiet now, more moody and dark and suited to the evening.

The back of the St. Louis Cathedral marks our turn toward Pirate’s Alley. We stumbled on it once by chance, which is how most people find it, and now follow its cobblestones to Absinthe House.

The sazerac is the “official” cocktail of Louisiana, a drink built off rye whiskey and the lightest coating of absinthe. This is my dinner drink. But for late nights I prefer a full absinthe. I admit, it is partly the ritual of absinthe that I love. I ask the bartender to see the bottles she keeps in the back and order for us. My guy leaves this to me; he knows how much I like to participate in this drink preparation.

She pours two ounces of absinthe into a glass then starts the water drip. A slow swirl begins as the oils separate, circling the glass, clouding it, then changing the liquid from murky green to milky. Three ounces of water, slowly dripped, no sugar, and our drinks are ready. We take them to the courtyard where we can watch the wind.

Tennessee Williams wrote that an hour in New Orleans isn’t just an hour but a drop of eternity. As we continue our trek down Royal Street, it feels like we do, in fact, have an eternal night before us. There are lights on the balconies over us. The faint glow illuminates sprawling greenery of palms, elephant ears, and wild hibiscus. Galleries are open late for wanderers like us. They welcome us with walking glasses of wine and theories on art. Sometimes we buy, other times we walk away with a new friend to call on. But always, we keep walking.

Eventually Royal Street runs into Frenchmen Street at the very outskirts of the Quarter and the start of the Marigny neighborhood. This street is decidedly more funky, home to many of the people we meet in the Quarter. It’s all artists and music without the touristy callouts of Bourbon Street and we eventually make our way into a red-tinged bar that doubles as a laundromat. Paxton is there, seemingly waiting for us. So we sit. We talk. And slowly, we are absorbed into New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

And you’re stuck here in this town

My guy and I will dance the two-step in our driveway. He’s better at it than I am, which isn’t so surprising seeing as how I still haven’t figured out how to count rhythm in country music. My “slow, slow, quick, quick” varies depending on the amount of bourbon I’ve consumed: Occasionally it is moderately accurate, but mostly it’s a hot mess.

We liken ourselves to hillbillies on these driveway nights, all shorts and flip flops, folding chairs and empty bourbon bottles, watching the sun set across a heat-soaked sky. This is my favorite part of summer, these nights, when the only way we mark time is by the beginning and end of a playlist. The dancing begins about twenty songs in. I’ll grab my guy, beg him to partner me, and we’ll step our way around the driveway in a hysterical tangle.

Once the dancing dies down our volume increases as we sing along to our favorite songs and rhapsodize about life, art, and serial killers. Our neighbors despise us, I’m sure.

Which is fine, I’m not much of a fan of them, either. Our neighborhood stands just close enough to the fringe of upper middle that our “white people problems” range from Christmas wreaths left on front doors all year long to marveling at the varying shades of neon the 40-something single woman down the street can turn each time she returns from the spa. Right now, both her hair and skin are the color of Betadine.

She waves when she’s not screaming into her cell phone, and every so often can be caught peering from between the blinds in her living room. We never actually see her looking, just the tips of her manicured fingers bending the blinds at eye level. There’s not much of a view from that vantage, just us, more of the same townhomes, and her own driveway, which hosts a parade of sports cars every weekend or so. Sometimes an oily man will emerge and knock on her front door, but more often they simply remain in the car and honk.

The couple to the right of us is new. They replace a nondescript business man and his large dog with a game system that is connected to the stereo. I’m told cinderblock lines the separation between townhomes, but for as good as it is at containing fire, it does little to combat the sounds of warfare, video game and otherwise.

My guy called the cops on them one Saturday morning, at 7 a.m. no less. I can’t imagine having words at that time, let alone the vigor to hurl a refrigerator across the room as it sounded they had done. Then came the screaming, loud shrieks followed by bellows accompanied by glass smashing against the wall.

I met her not long after. She approached me as I reclined in my lawn chair, Makers and 7 in hand, and asked if I knew of a way to get rid of the bugs.

“Bugs?” I asked.

Yes. Apparently the silverfish in their home were so terrifying she would throw things at them. Frying pans, plates, whatever was handy.

My suggestion to have the complex management call an exterminator didn’t interest her, but then again, I didn’t really think it would.

A nerd lives on our other side. He dashes from garage to car and back again, clad in a polo shirt and khaki pants. His unfortunately red hair is short but spongy, curled on the top of his head and shaved in the back. Barbeque tempts him toward conversation at night. Our grilling seems to have that effect on several people on the block, but he only stands on the walk between our homes, inhaling, and commenting vaguely about being a lapsed vegetarian.

At night we hate him, when the insipid tones of his guitar strumming drift past the cinderblock and wallow in our bedroom. There is no melody to his playing, just lost strums of lovelorn notes that will never form a song no matter how hard he tries.

We scared away the one couple who tried to make friends. It wasn’t deliberate, really, and we appreciated the attempt – showing up with a pitcher of booze is one of the few neighborly gestures I welcome. And it all made me wistful in a way, sitting together and sharing drinks and stories on a brilliant summer eve like couples are wont to do in movies and Crate & Barrel catalogs. Their margarita mix was just no match for our scotch.

Maybe it was all their references to college classes and entry-level jobs; maybe it was our talk of career changes and retirement. Our glasses drained quicker as the conversation gapped. We’re left now exchanging meaningless pleasantries across the way, them calling out our names in greeting and us waving in return. Neither my guy nor I remember their names.

That leaves me and him to our driveway. We’re contained on our concrete oasis in the sunshine and the moonlight, free to forget everyone else.  We talk offhand about moving. It won’t happen quickly, only eventually. There is an entire world open to us in the future. In my romantic fantasies, we divide the year by seasons and live accordingly: Four months in New Orleans, four in Chicago or New York, and maybe four in Paris. Wherever we wind up, I have only one requirement: There needs to be space outside to two-step in the dark.

drivewaydrinking
We’re likely breaking several laws with this #drivewaydrinking
jnd.jpg
Me and my guy in the heart of summer

 

Fishing in the dark

Green. The landscape from Kentucky through Nashville is decidedly greener than anything I’ll ever find in Illinois. It’s always my first indication of being far away from home on this road trip – the way the land changes from city white to railroad grey, and the further south we stretch through Indiana to corn yellow, finally transitioning to rolling hills of vivid, perpetual spring green.

The air smells sweet at first, then earthy as we pass open pastures and vast expanses of land. Hills rise and fall, cars change to trucks, and pace slows down. This is just the start of the south, but it feels worlds different than my home and I find myself inclined to smile and catch the eye of everyone in a cowboy hat and boots.

Clearly, travel makes me a far nicer person than I usually am.

It’s odd, I suppose, being more inclined to connect with a person I have little to no possibility of seeing again over say, a neighbor, who has audacity to wave to me every evening as if I actually care that she exists. In my best Blanche DuBois I could casually breathe that, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” and it would be partly true in that I’m finding strangers often do provide better company than everyday people.

My husband, of course, is the main exception to that rule, and it’s to his credit that I actually began talking to strangers at all. Early in our relationship his social skills were in sharp contrast to mine: He could begin conversations with anyone without hesitation whereas my strength was in ending conversations with everyone before they could begin.

Many women develop this trait early on as a defense mechanism: We learn fast that there is no swaying the twitchy-eyed, vaguely rapey guy who manages to locate us out of the din in a grocery store, or a parking lot, or wherever we happen to be minding our own business, and who insists we’re the angel of his dreams. Short of jamming car keys in his nose, a general “fuck off” attitude is the first line of protection. I just found it convenient to adopt this attitude all the time.

As endearing as my guy miraculously found it, my manner did not make me an ideal companion, let alone wife. Really, who wants to talk to a man with a bird of prey perched on his arm? Introductions would be made at social functions and I exhausted my good nature at, “Pleasure to meet you.” My husband carried the conversation solo while I preened first, then circled in for a quick kill: “It’s been nice meeting you.” Off I’d stalk, content to have avoided lengthy discussion, but also, as my husband would later tell me, missing out on potentially good stories.

That was how he sold conversation to me. I hate prattle, but love a good story, particularly one I can store away in my mental archive for future inspiration. Writers do that. We listen, we record, and later, write it into something. The fact that my husband knows this about me is exactly why I love him. There would be no cajoling me into conversing for the pleasure of it, or the etiquette of it, or for the benefit of others. I needed a takeaway.

My first conversation happened in the dark, in New Orleans no less, between sips off a Pimm’s Cup while circling the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. This isn’t an exaggeration – the bar quite literally revolves in a steady slow circle, never stopping and always depositing you in a different place than where you began. Pretty as it may be with the elegant moldings of cherubs and other carnival faces, the bar seems more dark joke than watering hole. I suspect watching patrons regain their land legs after several boozy revolutions is one of the greatest amusements of the bartenders.

People like Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, and even Liberace frequented the Carousel Bar in their days, but that steamy night my guy and I found ourselves seated next to a cadaver bag saleswoman. She was in town for business, a fascinating and somewhat disquieting thought, and not the person I’d expect to be peddling something quite so macabre.

I’d have pegged her as an Amway pusher, someone who just wants to share a bargain and an opportunity, and would have hopped off my bar stool mid-cycle to avoid a pitch had my guy not asked the introductory questions. Instead we found a foul-mouthed proprietor of human remain containers who, with the encouragement of a cocktail, told a rollicking story that concluded with her slapping the counter and swearing, “I TOLD that asshole to get the medium grade bag!”

Lesson learned: Strangers are surprising (and, apparently, low grade cadaver bags can leak). My guy swears it’s all about asking questions. I once watched him walk up to the biggest, burliest, overalled backwoods hillbilly I’d ever seen this side of Deliverance and ask, “So, what’s up with the barbeque here?” Admittedly, we were at a street festival booth and not a dilapidated off road gas station. But by comparison, when the next row over stood a booth decked out with chrome appliances and an extensive model train diorama, why would he choose to stop at the booth created out of wood crates and duct tape?

“James Brown,” he said. The cassette deck in the booth had been pulsating with Brown’s “Hot Pants” and that, my guy said, was how he knew this was someone he could talk to. And damn it, he was right. Our soul-loving new friend turned out to be a competitive barbeque master with the best Alabama-style pork I’d ever tasted. I hung my head in silly, shallow shame.

As we travel I’m finding it easier it drop my preconceived notions, especially in places like New Orleans and Nashville, where so much of your fun comes from interacting with locals. There was one in particular I was itching to know more about, in fact.

We found him at the Wagon Wheel Saloon on Nashville’s main drag, a bar like most in the area, faded, smoke-stained and held together by the sheer will power of the musicians. They play for tips that are deposited in oversize pickle jars and make the rounds between sets shaking hands and hawking requests. An hour set equals a few bills from each of us and the routine will repeat for every hour the bar is open, which is just about all of them in a day.

Sitting by us on what could only have been his specific stool was a polliwog of a man, round on top with oddly whispy legs. He was clearly not there for the band.

His main concern seemed to be the carton of Mentos candy placed in front of him, the meticulous stacks of chewing gum next to it, and the row of eye drop bottles he shuffled. Every so often he would pocket an eye drop dispenser, or replace it with a lighter in an intricate dance of consumer goods.

I’d seem similar displays, only those are located inside a swanky women’s restroom, where the attendant dispenses soap for you, hands you towels, and guilts you into a tip for the use of her community hairspray, deodorant, and perfume. It’s a ruse I get sucked into every time, not because I want to use her products, but because I’d rather turn over a dollar than blatantly dodge the offered soap. That just seems rude.

But there was no need to dodge this man; his self-containment was obvious. Even the bartenders ignored him, whether that was because his presence was nothing new or a matter of keeping peace was uncertain. I just knew I wanted his story.

My finger twitched in anticipation. I debated opening with a quirky, “Got any gum?” or maybe a less presuming, “Come here often?” But then things got weird.

He rolled his shirt sleeves up to his elbows, exposing pudgy arms covered in blonde hair. Out came a bottle of eye drops from his pocket, and without the slightest regard to my eyes, which were boring holes into his bizarre ritual, he squeezed several drops of eye liquid on his left arm, rubbed them in thoroughly, and repeated the same with his right arm. He capped the bottle and added it to the lineup of others on the bar.

My guy need not have subtly shaken his head; I knew enough to not engage at that point. We quickly paid our tab and bootscooted to another bar. We may have missed out on one heck of a conversation, but that was just fine by me. Some stories you just know won’t end well.

 

Sure be cool if you did

I do not have an essay today.

It is not often that I post when I do not have an essay, which explains the lack of updates on this site. Words are much better read when they tell a story, or, barring that, lead to a point. My stories and points of late are something of a jumbled mess; I just can’t seem to shape what I want to say into something I want people to read. This is, to some extent, the fault of Roger Ebert.

His death was one of the few that affected me on a personal level. For many, he was a film critic with relatable opinions, a man who loved cinema and shared his passion with the world. And to be sure, he was all that. But to me, Roger Ebert was, above all else, a writer.

Ernest Hemingway – another literary hero to me – was quite clear on his thoughts about other writers. This would not make him popular, or, for that matter, happy today, when a keyboard and internet connection is all someone needs to adopt the “writer” moniker. My own opinion of other writers – and by other, I mean most anyone but me – was formed in the sixth grade. Writing then was done on sheets of loose leaf paper and in spiral bound notebooks, usually in pencil, and for most of my classmates only when required for school.

I wrote often and incessantly then: Diary entries, short stories, sparkly poems about the seasons, long-winded responses to exam questions. And when I had stories to share, I created a newspaper for my class. Book reviews, horoscopes, and a few blurbs about school events did not make this a masterpiece, but it was my own creation, mimeographed after school for me by the nice lady in the administration office.

The paper was not a regular publication, but every so often my classmates would discover it tucked in their desks like a love note. They would occasionally read the paper. Most would just leave it crumpled on their desk to later launch into the trash bin. It was my first lesson in being a writer: Most people don’t read.

My next lesson? There’s always someone who thinks they can do better.

She was a skinny blonde girl. Our friendship never  extended beyond casual interaction at places we both just happened to be – no hatred, but no real interest either. Until the day she decided to release her own newspaper.

Where mine was mostly handwritten, hers was typed. Where mine had illustrations drawn by a friend, hers had real pictures. Of course, every single page of her newspaper had also been plagiarized from the recent issue of Seventeen magazine.

And suddenly, my classmates got interested in reading. They adored her photocopied regurgitation. It wasn’t the competition that bothered me, it was the fact that every word my classmates were eating up had been stolen from someone else. So I did what any budding writer would do: I took a copy of Seventeen, cut out the pages that had been borrowed, and posted them to the class bulletin board with the headline “If you don’t steal gum, why would you steal words?”

Teachers had to get involved then, mostly because my blonde competitor went berserk when she saw students snickering at the board and ripped it all down in a blazing rage. Class newspapers, not surprisingly, were banned from that point on.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Like Hemingway, I do it alone and avoid other writers. But every so often, one writer will break through my tough exterior. One who will challenge my craft while also reminding me of my passion for it. Roger Ebert wrote often, he wrote well, and he wrote with humanity.

Of those traits, I occasionally have one. I would like to have two. I do not know if my voice will ever be as strong or informed or even as likeable as Roger Ebert’s, but I know I will miss having him here to remind me of what a good writer can accomplish.

Turn, turn, turn

“Siri, you useless WHORE!”

Forty minutes ago we’d been BFFs, at least, as much as a human and an infinite technological consciousness can be. She’d been chirping directions and providing useful warnings about impending exit ramps and I, for the first time, wasn’t driving with a crumpled set of directions clenched between my teeth.

Apple’s ability to create a product that can so intuitively change my life is both disconcerting and amazing – this is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like one of the Jetsons. It saddens me just a bit that my niece will never totally appreciate that wistful sci-fi fantasy future perpetuated by cartoons and Disney’s Tommorowland. Robot maids somehow seem clunky now when with a few voice commands Siri can plan my day, respond to e-mail, search my arsenal of music, and post nonsense to Facebook.

How is it that we automatically trust this digital horizon? Even I relinquished my music to it, turning over a lifetime of songs to a piece of technology no bigger than a deck of cards. The weight of what that music represented alone could have warranted something more substantial – a garage, at least – but a reduction of clutter is half the point of going digital, isn’t it?

I suppose it depends on how you define clutter. My guy recently hung up his bass gear after a lifetime of performing. His concern was that I’d be disappointed; I feared he’d regret it. But when our eyes met at the decision there was only one prevailing emotion. Relief.

Music has the uncanny ability to consume. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But between me and my guy there are a solid 70 years of music combined. For two people engaged in the music scene on a semi-to-professional basis in one form or another, music isn’t so much about the act of creation or sharing, but in preparation.

Movies like Almost Famous give it such a magical sheen. The reality, of course, is that music, like anything else, is work. It’s dedicating hours to rehearsing. Loading and unloading unruly gear in the rain, heat, and wind. Trading life events for gigs. Battling less talented and untrained musicians for play time. Making your own place in a constantly changing and unforgiving scene.

It was never a question of whether that work is worth the effort. We just found we had less space in our lives to dedicate to it when family, travel, and shared adventure have so much greater priority. So while my guy snapped his bass case shut, I entrusted technology to manage the soundtrack to our lives.

And suddenly, we were happier. That lack of clutter enabled us to do the one thing left with music that we wanted – listen.

Now I see technology dangling a tantalizing new option in front of me like a bawdy carnival barker: Store all your books in one place! Read whatever you want wherever you are! Thousands of words at your fingertips!

It’s a good pitch. So much of my own writing is in digital format that the conversion of my physical library shouldn’t be traumatic. Yet I hesitate.

Where music became an unruly interloper, books remain an unobtrusive companion. There is no need to corral them into a Tron-like infinity when I take so much pleasure in their tactile experience. My sister, in all her information and library science graduate-degreed glory, would be appalled to learn that it wasn’t until the end of my senior year in college that I finally gave in to a digital research system. Something about those index cards satisfied more than the tips of my fingers.

My morbid romanticism in being a writer doesn’t help matters. It keeps me clinging to my reading and writing rituals tighter than I do my whiskey. They may be able to simulate the clicking of a typewriter on a digital keyboard, but they’ll never be able to replicate the experience of running your hands over a bound book, of cracking the spine and leaving fingerprints on the pages that mean the most.

The same can, and has, been said of a record store, of course. I guess I’m just more willing to sacrifice music to the medium than I am a legacy of words.

Still, I can’t help but distrust the entire system after discovering how swiftly and without warning iPhone’s Siri can transform from being my personal Rosie the Robot to HAL 9000.

“In 500 feet, make a u-turn.”

Her voice is confident, unflappable, like the aural manifestation of a Buckingham Palace guard. Siri’s digital navigation had gotten me within a few miles of my destination without fail, an unprecedented success. But a u-turn? From one three-lane roadway to another? She had to be kidding.

As Siri will tell you, however, she’s not very good at telling jokes. So I followed her instructions, darting wildly from one lane to the next, bouncing over a median and some decorative flora, and landing somewhere in between an oncoming bus and a snow plow.

Rosemont’s “entertainment district” is not especially easy to navigate for a good driver, let alone a white knuckled terror like me. Storefronts, bars, a casino, and other tourism destinations are buried off random stretches of one-way roads and byways that blow past you at Indy 500 speeds.

Siri’s satellite map recognized my desired destination and pegged it with a little red flag. My own car, marked with a blinking, moving circle, hovered directly on top of it. Yet Siri couldn’t reconcile the realization of my placement on the physical road versus her internal map and she began to lose her reserve.

“In 500 feet, make a u-turn.”

Terrific. Once again I plowed through traffic, wishing in vain that I had the foresight to consult an actual map instead of Siri’s misguided satellite imagery.

“Make a sharp right turn.”

All my turns are sharp, I don’t know how Siri expected this one to be any different. Perhaps I didn’t turn soon enough, or sharp enough, or maybe Siri is just a bumbling fuckwit, because instead of winding up on the restaurant’s drive, I was heading the wrong way down a one way taxi station. Not that I noticed this until I was nose to nose with a string of 20 cabs en route to the airport.

As I drove backwards down that stretch of road and navigated a backwards merge into oncoming speeding traffic, Siri, that useless whore, continued to twitter.

Technology did me no favors that night. And though I still consult with Siri on lesser matters like scheduling appointments and returning emails, I refuse to allow her any access to my books. Those you will have to pry out of my cold, dead hands.