Greetings from the Big Easy as we enter our second week in this very, very unique place. There are fewer than 20 cities or districts in the United States where drinking on the street is legal. Without planning on it, we visited two in a row, and we’ll see another in January. It’s been quite a two-month stretch since we left D.C., a city I’d lived in so long I didn’t even realize how uptight it was.
But this was a busy week even by our new standards.
There is simply no way to avoid The Party in New Orleans. Once you acknowledge that, everything is easier. There just will be people partying outside your home until 4 in the morning. You will end up buying one, or probably several of those novelty drinks you see everyone carrying around. You will probably have something drip on you on Bourbon Street and feel like you should go home to shower immediately. Some afternoon, you’ll be walking home from an enriching day at a museum and see someone with a tallboy of beer and go…yeah, I should grab one of those too. Once you acknowledge this, you can implement a successful Party Mitigation strategy. This is my most valuable piece of advice so far: you have to listen to the devil on your shoulder, but in as managed a way as possible.
We’re staying just outside the French Quarter, so naturally, this was the first place I went to explore on our first day here. Getting around the quarter is something like playing a game of Frogger. You weave around closed sidewalks, sprawling ghost tour crowds, puddles of murky god-knows-what. Some people, for some reason, decide that’s it’s a good idea to drive through this area and get very aggressive about it.
On Bourbon Street, there’s no time of day where you won’t be harangued by people on the street to come into their either incredibly crowded or incredibly empty bars (there is no in-between here, for reasons presently unknown), usually blasting music at levels rivaling a military flyover. People will try to sell you all manner of drinks, drugs, food, something in a test tube that I was afraid to even ask questions about.
It’s all got what I’d call a pleasantly disgusting odor; something like a mixture of sewage, old beer, fried food, and marijuana. All in all, it reminded me of midtown Manhattan more than I expected. And the area can change so quickly. One minute, you’re shopping at one of the several antique stores on Royal Street specializing in chandeliers. A block later, you’re at a store selling t-shirts and aprons with fake breasts, and then another block takes you to the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street, outside which two homeless men are fighting.
Canal Street is surprisingly rough for such a major thoroughfare; not the kind of place you want to hang out, even during the daytime. There is, however, an incredible life-sized statue of Ignatius J. Reilly outside the former location of the D.H. Holmes Department Store.
It’s all utterly intoxicating, and not just from the alcohol you’re absorbing through osmosis.
It is also thrilling to be able to walk places again. We could walk on Tybee, but really only to two things: the beach and a dream selection of dive bars and seafood restaurants. Here, we are back in the core of the city. No more planning out my days around a 30-minute commute into Savannah, driving downtown from North Charleston, or over a mountain in Helen. We headed out on foot on Monday night for dinner, which we found at Coop’s Place. It looks like every other dive bar in New Orleans, but my god, was the food good. Morgan even dubbed it the Best Fried Chicken She’s Ever Eaten.
I had some rabbit jambalaya and red beans and rice because it was a Monday, after all. And because it was a Monday, we were nearly ready to grab some Cafe Du Monde beignets (only for Morgan, unfortunately) and head home. But just walking down Bourbon Street on the way home is enough to energize anybody. We took in a little jazz at Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, where for some reason I let the menu convince me that a shot of Jägermeister would be a good idea, and capped off the night at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, supposedly the oldest building in the United States used as a bar.
And so ended Day 1. *drops dead*
I go to a decent number of museums on a regular basis. I enjoy them, and it’s a good way to keep myself out of trouble during the day, seeing sights that Morgan is generally less interested in anyway. I don’t tend to write a lot about these museums because, what is there to say, generally? I’ll stand around reading a few things, maybe buy a souvenir. Fascinating stuff, I know. I say this to highlight that I feel compelled to mention the excellence of the Louisiana State Museum, where I spent a decent amount of time this week. It’s really quite a good collection of history, culture, art, spread out across a handful of locations in and around New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere. My stops included the Cabildo in Jackson Square, a former Spanish colonial city hall that’s also served as a jail, courthouse, Saturday Night Live rehearsal set, and now, museum. It is not, as many say, the location of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. These days, it houses exhibits on the building’s and New Orleans’ history and some incredible photos from photographer Fonville Winans capturing early 20th century Grand Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island that took a walloping during September’s Hurricane Ida.
Right next door, on the other side of St. Louis Cathedral (a worthwhile stop in its own right), is The Presbytère, another Louisiana State Museum facility with a tremendously moving multimedia exhibition on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. When you’re here and see how the water surrounds these communities, it’s easy to see how apocalyptic it got.
The State Museum also runs the New Orleans Jazz Museum, another short walk down the street from us. It’s a weird place located in former U.S. mint, so in addition to exhibits in drumming and New Orleans native Louis Prima, you can also learn about the history of money and minting there too.
I walked from there to Bywater. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard a lot of good things about, but at noon on a Wednesday, it is deserted, in an unsettling way. Perhaps it’s the several blocks covered by smashed auto window glass or the pile of syringes along the side of the road. Past this initial area, it’s actually quite lovely, with some of the most distinctive houses in the city, which is saying something.
I made a mental note to come back to explore more, but I needed to go grocery shopping to prevent Morgan and me from going broke and/or dying of heart disease from Creole and Cajun food.
Wednesday night, we decided to explore the other side of our home, along Frenchman Street. It’s got a reputation as one of the best neighborhoods for live music in New Orleans. We grab a drink and check out the music at dba and Bamboula’s before completing the night with one final nightcap at the R Bar, two doors down from us.
If you happen to watch NCIS: New Orleans, R Bar is apparently on there quite a bit. This entire neighborhood seems to be full of movies and shows filming, including the reboot of Queer as Folk. Morgan and I saw what looked like a candlelight vigil nearby and walked over to try to see what was going on when an anxious-looking production assistant whispered to us to get back and that they were filming. I stopped to take this picture, despite him repeatedly whispering to “KEEP MOVING,” so if you happen to watch that show when it comes out and see a lanky, bearded redhead looking out of place in the background of an emotional scene…hello!
Thursday, I drove out to Chalmette Battlefield. It’s the site of the climactic battle of the War of 1812, one so notable it was immortalized in a novelty country music song 140 years later.
Naturally, I hummed this for nearly the entirety of my visit (did you know there’s not only a version of the Johnny Horton song recorded by a British band but a version by Johnny Horton from the British perspective?!) I love visiting battlefields. Here, the battlefield itself is interesting enough, with a short driving tour. But just as fascinating was the Chalmette National Cemetery, which is the final resting place of more than 15,000 U.S. veterans of every war from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. There’s even one grave of a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, though he was first buried elsewhere, and his identity was lost before being reinterred here decades later. That’s one of the most striking things about this cemetery – just how many graves are totally unidentified.
But our real Thursday started a little before 7 pm local time when we arrived at the fabled Superdome for a Thursday night football game between the Saints and Cowboys.
Saints fans are just fun. There’s no way around it. In a stadium of nearly 75,000 people, there will be some assholes. But we didn’t encounter any of them – at least, any who weren’t Cowboys fans. These people were into the game and had a surprising dedication to their new quarterback Taysom Hill, who threw four interceptions in a 27-17 loss. I’ve seen a decent handful of NFL stadiums with various fanbases, and the Saints and the Superdome are top of the list so far. They don’t have the generational sadness of Lions or Jaguars fans, the “40-year-old guy still talking about his high school football record at the bar” vibes of the Cowboys and Washington, or well, the general Tampa-ness of Buccaneers fans. The Superdome was great! And where else are you going to get a giant helping of jambalaya as stadium food?
And don’t even get me started on Bourbon Street afterward. What do you think it’s like turning out tens of thousands of partiers into the same few block stretch at precisely the same time, most of whom haven’t been able to buy drinks since the middle of the third quarter?
As exciting as Thursday night was, the highlight of the week was unquestionably our extremely New Orleans Saturday. We grabbed a late breakfast at Horn’s, which had me making plans to move to New Orleans simply to have the gluten-free pancakes regularly. From there, we hopped in the car and headed south into the swamps to the town of Jean Lafitte. It was a beautiful, 75 degree and sunny day – time to get on an airboat and head into the swamps.
Because this is Louisiana, the place, of course, had a bar, and watching people carry buckets of Bud Lights onto these relatively small boats made me wonder just how many of those folks may end up in the swamp permanently. Luckily, our boat was shared with a relatively docile bachelorette party and captained by a local guide named Jake. Jake was a lifelong resident of nearby Barataria Island, spoke fluent French and Spanish (“you’d get hit otherwise”), and was incredibly, distressingly familiar with the local gators. More on this in a second.
The tour was thrilling. Once we cleared a line of downed power lines (destroyed by Ida), Jake gunned it out onto the waters of Lake Salvador. I have no idea how fast we were going. What I do know is that Morgan and I were sliding back and forth across the bench seating as the boat skipped sideways across the water, zipping over low grass along the shoreline. Every minute or so, Jake would throttle down the engine, gesture toward the shore, and yell, “SEE? SEE ‘EM?” At the start, the answer was absolutely, positively 100% no. The most I could pick out was the occasional heron or pelican. But I desperately did not want to disappoint this man, so I nodded and pretended I did. However, after a few minutes, we began to spot the gators sunning themselves on dry spots, enjoying the warm December day as much as we were. After a spin around the lake, we turned back into the bayou.
But back to these gators. Jake told us he knew them well, that he and his father and his grandfather all knew this same gator, who was about 80 years old. He told us that Louisiana’s cooler waters make gators much less aggressive than their cousins in Florida (typical Florida, right?). He said all this in a way that made me believe him. But as he leaned over the edge to kiss one on the nose while another swam up beside him, both Morgan and I had thoughts of whether we’d be able to drive this boat back if he got eaten. It was a fairly unwarranted worry. Apparently, there have only been two reported deadly gator attacks in the 300+ years of recorded Louisiana history. But one of those was in September. Could be the start of a trend – you never know.
In the end, we all survived, and the only victims of the gators were a few marshmallows and pieces of hot dogs.
Saturday was also our first weekend night out on Bourbon Street, and it did not disappoint. We got drinks in fishbowls. We got drinks that lit up (thanks, Jon Taffer.) We listened to hip hop and jazz and zydeco, all on the same block. We watched people of all ages, genders, races, and socioeconomic statuses make utter fools of themselves, without anyone else noticing because most people were doing the same.
Somehow, against all odds, I avoided any variety of hangover the following day. Perhaps it was the fried alligator I grabbed on the way home at 1:30 in the morning. Unfortunately, Morgan wasn’t so lucky, and I’ll let you know when she finally recovers.
Nick and Morgan