Day 6: Welcome to Carnival
I got up early on Sunday and hit the road for New Orleans—another long, long day of driving made even longer by the torrential downpour that struck just east of Houston and continued nearly unabated for two hours. I did, however, encounter my most interesting piece of scenery between Houston and New Orleans, a roughly 20-mile stretch of the 10 that becomes two elevated bridges running through the Atchafalaya Swamp, the largest swamp in America. Even though this stretch of freeway was built mostly in the 1960s, I still imagine it being one of those old school construction projects where half of the workers die from malaria or yellow fever or some other tropical disease.
I got to New Orleans after eight hours of driving to discover that my hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street was on a parade route. Of course, at 6:30 p.m. there was a parade going, so I had no way to get to my hotel. After an hour of driving around trying to figure out how to get through and getting stuck in a couple of horrendous traffic jams, I ended up driving over to the Marigny, a music rich neighborhood next to the French Quarter, parking my car in a lot, and going to a few bars on Frenchmen Street. I had all my stuff, including the guitars, in the car, so I’d watch music for a few minutes at a time, then grab a beer to go and go back to check on my car. I repeated this several times, the highlight being the bar that had the Irish Punk band that played a song called “Fuck You, I’m Drunk.” Finally, after 11 p.m., the parades long since finished, I got in my car and headed back over to the hotel, even then only reaching it because I found an access point to Poydras Street where someone had moved the police barrier. I checked in, parked the car, and headed back out to the French Quarter. (What the fuck did you think I was gonna do? Go to bed? I’m in NEW ORLEANS!) I went into the Old Absinthe House, a 200-year old bar which, despite being on an overrun corner of Bourbon Street and serving its drinks in plastic Dixie cups, makes a hell of a sazerac. Then I meandered through the Quarter (not on Bourbon Street, which was a bit crazy for a guy who’d spent pretty much all day in the car).
I watched buskers on Royal Street (which is where the non-Jazz musicians are allowed to play, as Steve Earle explains), including a violinist who played a gorgeous version of the Jackson Five’s I’ll Be There. When I first saw her I thought she was the fiddle player from Treme.
I ended up back on Frenchmen Street, watching music at a couple of different bars for a few more hours, returning to my hotel at something close to 4 a.m. to close what I’d expected to be my mellow night in New Orleans happy, drunk, and exhausted.
Day 7: Lawdy Lawdy, Do They Know How to Eat in New Orleans
I slept in the next day, missing the morning parades (I think there were morning parades—at any rate, I didn’t see them) and then proceeded to pig out at probably the two most famous restaurants in New Orleans. First I went to Café Du Monde, where I got the classic café au lait and beignets, which are basically just the world’s greatest donut doused with powdered sugar.
From there I wandered over to the Acme Oyster House, stopping along the way to visit Faulkner House Books, located in the building where the maestro himself lived in the 1920s, and watch a trombone player in Jackson Square do a rendition of Patsy Cline’s Crazy. In case you didn’t guess already, tips for street musicians were a sizable expense for me in New Orleans. I was lucky in that the forecast called for rain, and while it looked like it had rained that morning, no drops fell while I strolled.
The Acme Oyster House always has a line in front of it, but one of the perks of traveling by yourself is that you only need a single seat at the bar, meaning wait times are drastically shorter—I got a seat in less than ten minutes. I’ve always liked sitting at the bar in a restaurant anyway—you’re closer to the middle of the action, you get a better sense for how a place works. I proceeded to spend more than two hours at the Acme Oyster House bar, drinking Old Fashioneds, talking with two different couples (an older white couple from Georgia and a younger black couple from Southern California) and eating one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I thought the oysters on the half shell were good.
Then I had the fried shrimp and oyster Po Boy, which is on the very short list of best sandwiches I’ve ever had (a side of hush puppies, of course).
And then the guy sitting next to me insisted I had to try the chargrilled oysters.
I’m trying not to be too hyperbolic here, but the chargrilled oysters at Acme Oyster House are life-changing. They absolutely have to be on the short list of dishes you eat before you die.
10,000 calories of southern food consumed, I wandered down Bourbon back to my hotel, catching a few strings of beads (only had to show my tits once) and stopping at the famous Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. The drink was really good, but honestly, I kinda liked the one from the Old Absinthe House a bit better. I’ll have to do another taste test next year.
I took a short break at the hotel, and then went down to St. Charles Avenue to watch the evening parades. I drank a flask of Jack Daniels and watched the absurdly beautifully colored floats go by, catching beads and chatting with Ernie, who’s originally from the Bronx (just like me!) but has lived for many years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
He comes to Mardi Gras every year, and he told me about the different Krewes and their traditions as we watched the parades.
After the parades we split up and I wandered through the Quarter back to the Marigny, where I ended up talking to this group of local dudes, who made fun of me for being drunk and from California, but also smoked me out. I went to a couple of bars with them, but my world was starting to spin, so I bailed for the hotel before I could get in too much more trouble.
Day 8: Mardi Gras
I woke up after ten on Fat Tuesday and blew a chunk of the morning wallowing in my hangover. The two most famous Mardi Gras Krewes are Zulu and Rex, which open and close, respectively, the festivities. Zulu rolls at 8 a.m., so I’d already missed them, and Rex probably wouldn’t come through until 1 or 2 p.m., so I could afford to take my time. I eventually got moving and got dressed, wandering down to Canal Street, where I got breakfast.
I then wandered around a while looking for a good spot, passing by a bunch of ladders people had set up for parade-viewing purposes.
I eventually set up shop next to this group from Texas, an odd mix of very attractive, very drunk girls in their early 20s and their parents (sorry fellas, no pictures). They adopted me for the duration of the parades. Here are a few float highlights.
The forecast called for heavy rain, and while there was a slight drizzle, it stayed dry for the most part. After the parade I wandered through the Quarter, where on a (clearly drunken) impulse I got my palm read. The palm reader’s verdict: long life (ha!) one marriage (ha!) five to seven years away (well, maybe) that will be happy (ha!) and will produce two children (ha!), and that I will ultimately be very successful in a creative career (ha!). Sometime, I’d like to see a palm reader predict a short life of abject misery for a person.
I ended up back in the Marigny at about three o’clock, still having eaten nothing all day, and went into the Marigny Brasserie, where I got a buffet of fried chicken, catfish, collard greens, bread pudding, and a bunch of other southern stuff (drinking Basil Hayden on the rocks). I domed two huge plates of food, dropped a bottle of hot sauce on the floor, and stumbled back into the street.
Things get a little hazy, but I know I ended up in a bar on Bourbon Street that was thankfully not too crowded, where I had a long conversation with a young Latino couple from Texas, both of them covered in tattoos, watched two different bands, danced my ass off, and spent about two hours hitting on a local girl in crazy makeup before I figured out she was married. D’oh! I also ended up running into the older couple from Georgia I’d met at the Acme Oyster House the day before. Most of the bars in NOLA shut down at midnight on Mardi Gras, ceding Carnival to Ash Wednesday and Lent, but this one stayed open.
I’m pretty sure I was there past 1 a.m., although by the time I left the bar I was too blind drunk to know who/what/when/where I was.
So, I survived Mardi Gras. I’m either going back every year for the rest of my life, or never again.
Next Time: A multi-day hangover and some book and music geekery.