Au Revoir and Bon Voyage: Weeks 11 & 12

Greetings and Happy Holidays to our loyal readers. Last week, we bid au revoir to New Orleans. And it is au revoir – not adieu. We will be back, even if New Orleans isn’t in our long-term plans. In fact, we’ll be sure to be back just a few months from now, for the wedding of some very good friends. We’ve won the war against The Party, even if it had some victories in battles along the way.

Continuing my ongoing documentary series “Nick Does Things In Bars,” I walked a few doors down to R Bar on Monday night to take part in what I’m told is a decades-old tradition here – haircuts at the bar. I put my name on a list and enjoyed an Abita Amber and did some reading as I waited, occasionally catching a scene of the movie that was playing (the stirring “Wolfcop“.) I was clearly not the only one here for this reason, as there ended up being four people in front of me. The woman giving the haircuts told me she’d only recently resumed doing them, but had been cutting hair at the bar for almost a decade.

I don’t want to sound conceited here, but usually, when the topic turns to, “how did you end up here/why are you here?,” Morgan and I tend to have the better story. This was 100% not the case here. She floated here on a homemade raft as part of an art project all the way from Kansas City, down the Missouri and Mississippi, including more than a month detained by the Coast Guard. She was one of only three who made the entire trip, as original group members dropped out along the way. Needless to say, it was better than average haircut conversation.

All in all, if you find yourself in New Orleans on a Monday night in need of a haircut, you could do a lot worse than this. The haircut was $15 plus tip. Oh, and it came with a shot of rail liquor. New Orleans!

It was whiskey, in case you were wondering.

The next day, I took a trip to the Hurricane Katrina memorial. It’s a series of paved paths designed in the shape of a hurricane, along with the resting place for the remains of dozens of people who died in the storm whose bodies were never claimed. It’s set in a surprisingly odd location, tucked away long some major roads near Mid-City in the middle of other grander cemeteries, certainly not as grand as you’d expect for such a momentous event. Maybe it’s easier to do it this way, since people who live here likely remember it every day in other, more personal ways.

From here, it was only a short trip to the Lakeshore neighborhood, which is, as you might expect, located to the north of downtown on the southern shores of Lake Ponchartrain. The lake looks as big as any Great Lake to me, and even on a crystal clear day, there is absolutely no sign of the north shore.

After a little strolling, I came across the famous Mardi Gras Fountain, a peaceful spot with signs recognizing all of the city’s various Mardi Gras krewes. They range from the toilet-themed Krewe of Tucks (with the somewhat redundant motto of “Booze, Beer, Bourbon, Broads”), to the 99-year-old Les Marionnettes, to the apparently Walter White-themed Half-Fast Walking Club (sorry, Pete Fountain.)

Tired of the typical New Orleans fauna consisting of enormous rats, street cats, and somewhat sad-looking donkeys and mules pulling tourists around the French Quarter, I headed across town one day to the Audubon Zoo.

It’s a pleasant enough experience to wander the Asian and African exhibits, but the Louisiana swamp section is the real star of the show here. It showcases the creatures of the swamps and bayous in something designed to resemble their natural setting. There are gators gathering outside the houseboat, and naturally, raccoons having a grand old time in the outhouse. It’s also a pretty darn spooky experience too. Visiting in the middle of the week, all the extra restaurants and information centers were closed, leaving me to creep alone through darkened exhibits like the leucistic white alligator, sitting completely still until turning his head towards me as I walk out. Also, the swamp monster, which I was convinced was going to jump out at me haunted house-style.

I also finally got a chance to ride the streetcar back, checking off another must-do for weird people who like trains. I roll up the windows, enjoy the fresh air, and take in some of the nicest areas of the Garden District. Generally, I’ll take this over the DC Streetcar.

With our time dwindling, we finally made a trip to New Orleans institution Pat O’Brien’s on Thursday night. Our initial plan was to grab some food and enjoy a Hurricane or two and some piano bar music. But, with the kitchen closed, we headed around the corner to the Vampire Cafe. After watching some True Blood while we’ve been here, I hesitated to have the cocktails with “V” listed as an ingredient, and opted for the blood bag of “Fangria.” Yes, literally a bag.

It was actually fairly decent sangria, and a weird novelty element to a place that actually made really surprisingly good food, considering the gimmickyness. Unfortunately, some of the other diners couldn’t seem to mind their own business and kept peering over Morgan’s shoulder.

The guy in the hat couldn’t take a hint.

We eventually did make it back to Pat O’Brien’s, which is busy and loud, with people celebrating graduations, the end of semesters, and well, Thursday. We get two of the famous hurricanes. Morgan was not a fan, as I learned when she quickly drained it (“it tastes like bubblegum”) and moved on to the Rainstorm, a different but also extremely strong tropical cocktail. The music was great, and Morgan even got to meet the guy who plays the serving tray with his fingers.

For one final day trip, we hopped back in the car to the North Shore on Saturday. Our destination was the town of Abita Springs, but the trip was also about the way up there – a nearly 25-mile long bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, one of the longest bridges in the world and the longest in America. It’s a completely surreal experience, especially since you’re traveling so low to the water for most of the trip. Once you’ve made it a few miles out, around you is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see, other than maybe a pelican or two floating on the water, unbothered by the traffic.

You will drive 10 minutes and start to wonder exactly how long this bridge is, anyway. You’ll drive 15 minutes, and start to entertain serious doubts about whether this bridge goes anywhere. By 20 minutes, the bridge is your home. It’s all you’ve ever known, and it’s positively shocking a few minutes later when land emerges from out of the fog, and you’re among society again.

This was the kind of mindset we were in as we arrived at the appropriately named Abita Mystery House.

The museum is something between the home of a very well-organized hoarder and conspiracy theorist, a vintage arcade, art installation, and event space. We can’t recommend a visit enough, because you’ll never see anything like it again. There are some of the strangest paint-by-numbers paintings you’ll ever see, free pinball, a UFO-looking thing in the courtyard, and an extremely friendly owner. About that…

As we were leaving, the man behind the admission desk asked me if I was a celebrity. As much as I’d like to think this blog is going places, I assured him I was not. Still, he persisted; who did I look like, then? I’ve variously heard 1960s newsman Garrick Utley, some dude from Friday Night Lights, or Damian Lewis in the past (no, no, and still no.) This time, it was someone else entirely.

Personally, I do not see it and don’t find this a flattering comparison, unless and until I have as much money as he does. In any case, the comments section seemed to agree – including the lady who seemed to think I was the one who told him I was Zuck and the other one who thought I looked like Roland from Schitt’s Creek. At least one of them seemed to like my beard.

If the name Abita sounds familiar to you, it’s likely because of the brewery that takes its name from the town. Unfortunately, they weren’t running tours, but all brewery tours are kind of the same after a while, I suppose. But we got to do what we went there for – try some of the more unusual beers beyond the famous Amber, which must be available at roughly 98% of New Orleans bars. As far as I’m concerned, there was nothing better than the Chocolate Doberge Cake Stout, and the Legit Hard Lemonade was actually very refreshing and not a sugar bomb. Morgan preferred the Pecan Harvest Ale.

By this last week, we’d comfortably settled into what our life would be like living in New Orleans. On some weekend nights, we go out on Bourbon Street and party; on others, we watch four episodes of HBO programming and order takeout as the party rages down the street. Some days we both spend almost entirely working, and others we’ve adventured hundreds of miles from home to the furthest reaches of Louisiana.

Our final few days were, against all odds, a little slower-paced than the rest. They included a visit to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum & Museum of the American Cocktail, home to entire sections on Popeye’s and absinthe, and a dubious exhibit that asserted DC was part of the south (rating: 3.5 Pinocchios, though they do call it “a city of northern charm and southern efficiency”.)

We also stopped by JAMNOLA, an interactive art exhibit put together by New Orleans artists and practically tailor-made for that perfect Instagram shot. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. But it’s safe to say it’s worth seeing for yourself if you find yourself in the Bywater.

New Orleans is a lot of great things, but it’s not right for us long-term for a variety of reasons. Aside from being far from family, it’s a city where excess is just too easy. Between the alcohol, the food, the lights, the noise, the hurricanes (both in the Gulf and in your glass), the French Quarter puddles, and the alligators (both in the swamp and fried on your plate), I’m fairly confident living anywhere in southeast Louisiana would take 10-15 years off our lives. Still, I will forever miss the to-go drinks, chargrilled oysters and muffulettas, ubiquitous Abita and Barq’s, the music, and of course, the general chaos of it all.

But we have had a LOT of fun over the past four weeks. Perhaps too much, but we leave the city with our wallets, livers, and waistlines mostly intact, so who’s counting? We’re here in southwest Florida with my parents and then heading to Morgan’s near Jacksonville, followed by a return to the Gulf at Port St. Joe, Florida. But for now, it’s time for a long winter’s nap.

See you in 2022,

Nick and Morgan

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