Friday, July 30, 2010

New Orleans, a place I want to live someday

When I left off last time, I was still riding the bus in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I made the post from a coffee shop in New Orleans a few hours later, but without adding anything. Let's start with my arrival.

I stepped off the bus at 6:00 a.m., with no map and no access to the web. I didn't have a plan at all, actually, except that I was supposed to call Jeremy James Thompson in the late morning to meet for lunch and record our interview. So I shouldered my pack and took to the pavement.

The Greyhound station in New Orleans is mercifully close to the center of town, and the center of town is fortunately conspicuous. I walked toward the tall buildings, and pretty soon I was on Canal Street. It seemed like nothing was open but hotels and a couple fast food places, so I had McDonald's for breakfast and rested a bit. They didn't have wi-fi, though, so I took my time finishing my coffee and headed back out.

Jeremy lives in the French Quarter, and after wandering a couple blocks I was lucky enough to find a sign pointing the way. And so I walked and looked. There was no one on the street, and it was still early enough to be fairly cool in the shade — perfect timing for standing and staring without getting jostled. The architecture was really terribly beautiful, just like the say. And what's more remarkable is the sheer volume of amazing houses. One after another had elaborate cast-iron railings on their second- and third-floor porches, and one after another appeared to be pushing 200 years old. I walked the Quarter from end to end, straight down Chartres St.

New Orleans

By 8 a.m., the heat was becoming unbearable. I'd walked over two miles, and my shirt was becoming saturated with sweat. All I wanted was a coffee shop, and all I could find were shuttered drinking establishments. No wi-fi anywhere. At the very north end of the neighborhood, just as I was about to pass into the Marigny, I passed a dim little bar with its front doors open and a couple haggard types drinking PBRs inside. I thought, "These are my people," and went in.

The place turned out to have an occult/horror theme, with satan- and tombstone- and voodoo-related decorations all over. A History Channel UFO conspiracy theory show was playing on TV. I hung out for a little while and worked on my notes for the interview.

I walked around a bit more and found a coffee shop for sending email, then got in touch with Jeremy about lunch. He took us to a restaurant with a little outside courtyard, and we shared a muffaletta and each got a bowl of gumbo. They were both quite good, but in idle moments since I've found myself fantasizing about the soup in particular. So much going on in such a simple package.

After lunch we recorded our interview. Salient topics included Jeremy's interest in gunslingers, gamblers, and barkeeps of the American 19th century, and the atavistic ritual appeal of poetry in community. I was also surprised to learn that this champion of the luxe handmade book object has recently become a heavy iPad user.

Jeremy James Thompson

After we finished, I was left with a few hours to kill — and Jeremy was only too happy to give me a tour. He's made his living for many years as an elite bartender, so there was a clear theme to the afternoon. First we had a drink at a nearby hotel, where the bar rotated like a carousel at the rate of one revolution per 15 minutes. Apparently Truman Capote used to spend a lot of time there.

Next we went to a small bar in the very southernmost part of the Marigny, where I had my first Abita, a beer made in New Orleans. Quite tasty. The place was almost empty — pretty much just us and the bartender and a fella with huge black plastic-framed glasses. A couple minutes after we arrived, this guy sat down at the piano and started playing. I mean he was pushing this stand-up to the physical limit, belting old-time honky-tonk of the most idyllic kind. He must have gone on for over an hour while we milked our drinks and chatted.

New Orleans

One of my goals for the day was to get a good sazerac, so our next stop was a rather upscale bar at which Jeremy knew the maitre d'. I was the only person in the room without a collared shirt, and I felt like a huge beag — sweaty black band tee, beard grown like a pard, acute awareness of my slouch, etc. But the drinks were fantastic. Jeremy gave me a thorough history lesson on them — much more so than Wikipedia! — and I felt like I was drinking a glass of American innovation.

On the way back to Jeremy's, we walked up Bourbon St. (which he had been carefully avoiding all day). I was certainly glad to see it, but better a brief sweep than otherwise. The closest comparison would be the tourist district in Amsterdam: so much neon, so much enticement to debauchery. We passed a busking brass band, which struck me as way, way too talented to be playing on the street. There were signs all over for "Big-Ass Beers!" and "The Biggest Beers on Bourbon!" and so forth. My oh my. I must say, though, I was a little tempted by the electric bulls.

New Orleans

New Orleans

And that it was it. 14 hours after arriving in New Orleans, I had to catch my bus. I walked the mile and a half or so from Jeremy's to the station, and pushed off.


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  2. I wouldn't have been able to get back on the bus... 14 hours is way to short!!