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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.

 

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.

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.