Category Archives: Travel

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.

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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.

 

Bourbon Street

I had a moment while stopped in traffic this morning. Motion caught my eye, I think, a breezy stirring that rustled against the exterior of my car and drew my gaze to the left. The entrance to a forest preserve had all the makings of a Tennessee Williams story: autumn leaves in a colorful eruption, hordes of pumpkins lining a dirt path, bales of hay topping a wagon. I wondered how I’d managed to live in my town for so many years, never noticing such a vibrant display when I remembered it was new. New to me at least, since this particular morning I’d been forced to reroute my usual path to work.

A hundred different scents and sounds accompanied the landscape, and with the radio off and windows open I could pick each out as assuredly as I can the flavors in a stew. But above it all was the ringing of a bell. Maybe from a church, perhaps from a town square, but definitely a bell – the Quasimodo kind of bell that clangs with authority in an uneven rhythm. It’s a sound from another time really, but so perfectly suited to the morning.

My guy and I debate over when a city or town is at its most perfect. He prefers the night and all its glowing lights and commotion. And to his credit, there is nothing quite as engaging as the bustle of a cityscape that’s alive with frenetic activity.

But me, I prefer the moments in between.

Dawn is my time, when a place is just waking up and you have the silence of energy spent. There’s a certain wonderment to it, of who is waking up plus a new life, or, perhaps, minus a soul.

When I’m feeling morbidly romantic I like to fantasize about packing up and taking a sabbatical with my guy to the French Quarter of New Orleans. Mornings in the Quarter are amazingly still, the only movement coming from the thick suds they use to wash the streets. It made me laugh the first time I saw the sanitation trucks flushing the pavement – I could just envision the foul remains of Bourbon Street filtering down the sewer.

But with that comes a satisfaction, too. So goes the night, and before the day begins there is only the prospect of what’s to come. And in New Orleans, that could be anything.

We once stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, and like everything in the Quarter, it has a past. Built in 1817, it served as everything from a ballroom to a convent, school and medical ward. Portions of the hotel are brand new, others destroyed by fire, and still others remain as a reminder of what the hotel was in 1817.

Everybody in the Quarter seems to have a story to tell about the Bourbon Orleans, including the lobby bartender, who refuses to enter the original part of the building – the same part where our room was located.

The room was what they called a “townhouse suite.” It had two levels, the main  level being accessible by a hallway off the main elevator to enter the room, the other level accessible by the stairs in our room and what we called the door to nowhere. We were perhaps a bit overly fanciful in such a description, but not inappropriate, as that quirky door opened to a  winding hallway between floors that led directly to the ballroom.

The story goes, of course, that the Bourbon Orleans ballroom is haunted, just like several other “hot spots” within the hotel. And who knows, maybe it is. My guy and I snuck into the ballroom one night in an amateur Ghostbusters sort of way only to take a few pictures and be chased out by a haunted tour guide on a power kick.

It was a bit of a relief for me – the empty, dark ballroom had all the welcome of a catacomb and even my eyelashes were bristled by the undercurrent of the room. My guy calls my ghostly antennae an absurdity, of course. And being a confirmed atheist, I accept that conceding the existence of the supernatural is a contradiction.

Yet still, it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of science to me that perhaps there is an energy to life that hangs around. Subtle eccentricities of nature don’t have to be divine, despite there being a lack of reason for their reality.

Like the bathroom of our suite. It was located directly opposite of that door to nowhere. I’m still not sure what the purpose of having a hallway between floors was. Logically, it was likely an unobtrusive way for hotel staff at one time to serve rooms. And were it any other city, I probably would accept that explanation as true.

But that wouldn’t account for the man in our bathroom.

There was no spectral cloud, no orb of light darting through the room, only a subtle shift in the air, a hint of movement and the prickling insistence that once upon a time a man stood in the openness behind me at the mirror and was likely still there.

I joke with my friends that he was a polite ghost, and never made his presence known when I was showering or otherwise vulnerable. But without fail, each night as I tended to my hair and daubed makeup on my face, the wallpaper behind me would move.

A similar sort of movement caught my eye in the car today, and as I breathed the colors and the sounds and the delicate peculiarities of the morning, I was for a moment taken back to New Orleans. It made my day.

 

 

"He interpreted them with a practiced melodic tempo, a sing-song of adages masquerading as mysticism."
“He interpreted them with a practiced melodic tempo, a sing-song of adages masquerading as mysticism.”