Sneak peek at my new podcast. I talk about bloggers, Bill Burr, bourbon, and more.
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.
Nashville smells like pecans and bourbon. The bourbon is obvious; poured, spilled and consumed as ceaselessly as the music plays in a near 24-hour rotation. The pecans less so. Their sweet scent is like embers in the air, discernible but ghostly.
It’s a fitting match for Music City where the sounds emanating from the honky tonks are familiar and warm, sweet too, but mostly full of kick. Unsurprisingly, the shot of choice on lower Broadway, Nashville’s main drag, is cinnamon whiskey.
Our first “holler an’ a swaller’” comes just before noon, an early bird salute of sorts from the hard core who belly up in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge as soon as the doors open. The band has already been playing for an hour, which means we’ve been drinking for an hour, and that means I’m itching to dance.
My two-step is perpetually a half-beat off. This isn’t as obvious in Tootsie’s, where there’s only room enough to stand. I’ll tap and stomp and break my boots in on floor that has felt the steps of everyone from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and feel at home.
The indecency of swilling booze in the mid morning is tempered by the thumpings and twang of the band. They’re full of swagger, wearing belt buckles that outweigh the gear, and prime with the kind of talent so strong it appears effortless. Four, sometimes five musicians arrange themselves on a tiny corner stage raised maybe a foot off the ground and play for tips that are deposited in a barrel or pickle jar that’s passed between sets.
A few steps to the left and the music at Layla’s slants toward rockabilly and bluegrass. We stop there next, pausing briefly for sunshine and smoke on the sidewalk between buildings. Crowds are forming along Broadway by now. Cowboy hats, sports jerseys, and flip-flops color the area as passersby listen at doorways and take photos with life-size Elvis figures.
One waxy Elvis is missing some fingers. The King absorbs relentless sunshine and the sticky embrace of tourists on most days of the year, while at the same time being lovingly covered in the honky tonks. At Layla’s, a three-piece with an upright bass rollicks through “Don’t Be Cruel” while another door or two down a gorgeous woman in Robert’s Western World will simultaneously croon “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
As for me, I want a grilled cheese sandwich. This is my snack of choice between drinks and the only place I’ll eat it is Robert’s, where the “honky tonk grill” is coated in decades of grease and the only bread they use is Texas toast. If I was so inclined, I could also buy a pair of boots here.
The later afternoon takes us to Legend’s. There is room to two-step here, to country music that is more recent and modern. But more often we meld into the crowd to sway and stomp and clink glasses as we call out lyrics. Country music is by design conducive to camaraderie, unless, of course, the glass clinking with strangers is too familiar, or the winks too salacious. A pert blonde eyes my man and it occurs to me that there is room here to fight, also.
I do not have the wherewithal to physically take down any woman, blonde or not. And I have no reason to, not when my guy’s lips are on my cheek and we two-step in place to our favorite song. More bourbon will pass our lips and we spend the remainder of the afternoon in back by the jukebox where it is quiet and we can share secrets and eye album covers that line the walls. I see the 45 cover for “Islands In the Stream” by Dolly and Kenny and it makes me smile.
Dusk brings more crowds. We wander to Rippy’s for dinner, where the most casual service in the world pales in comparison to the luscious BBQ pork loin melt, onion rings, and ribs. A hunk of cheddar is served alongside meals, ambiguous and warm from the heat of the food. I bite into it and it gives way softly. It is bliss.
A woman in the bathroom talks on her cellphone as I rinse sauce from my fingertips. The band up front is loud and she shouts to make sure her story is heard. It would seem that her man has packed up and moved to Hawaii, taking everything but her gold earrings and dog. She didn’t much like him to start, but rails anyway that Hawaii’s too good for him. I spot her later that night back in Tootsie’s, dancing.
We head out again on Broadway. Under the darkening sky the neon lights buzz with current. Girls wearing lace dresses walk next to men in blue jeans in a steady rhythm. We fall in step toward another bar with more music, more booze to coax our fluid souls into dancing.
And there as we walk, faintly in the air is the scent of pecans, struggling to be recognized over the din of steel guitars and fiddles and laughter.