Category Archives: New Orleans

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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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

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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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

New Orleans Love Story

Four days in New Orleans with my husband has left me inspired, giddy and slightly disheveled. The Quarter will do that to a person, especially one like me, who favors a good sazerac and never met a crawfish she didn’t like. I’ll even suck their precious little brains out, a trait my guy both admires and rejects. Brains just aren’t for everyone.

But between the brains, tarot readings, po boy sandwiches, absinthe, and aimless wandering, I also managed to knock out some quality work on my next book. The non-memoir, fiction, first-stab-at-really-writing book that equally scares me witless and fills me with obscene excitement. That one. Its title – New Orleans Love Story – is more a nod to my muse than it is to content, although there certainly are several intertwining love stories in the book.

It is not an easy write, but it is my best write to date. And it’s still coming. I don’t know when it will be done, but I’m shooting for the spring. Fitzgerald took years to write Tender Is the Night and it very nearly killed him. I’m hopeful that this will not kill me, or my husband, who, though unwavering in his support and so accepting of my oddities as a writer, will hopefully not grow weary of it all and lock me in the padded cell I know is out there with my name.

Until I have more to share (essay or otherwise) enjoy this bit of a teaser. A few of my favorite photos from the recent trip, and some excepts from New Orleans Love Story.