Category Archives: General Word Vomit

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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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

 

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.

 

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.

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We’re likely breaking several laws with this #drivewaydrinking
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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.