Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This Week: New Orleans, LA

Bad Decisions on Bourbon Street

The morning started badly when my mom woke us up at 7 a.m. to wish me happy birthday. My head ached and my eyes were dry. It didn’t help when she threw open the hotel curtains and sunlight flooded the room. Bad as I had it, my baby brother had it worse. He groaned from somewhere underneath the covers of the other bed. Mom was having none of our pain. It was our second day in New Orleans and we were getting up whether we liked it or not.
Of course New Orleans was the reason for our pain. The previous night my brother Chad and I felt it necessary to have a Big Easy bacchanal. He had driven from his new home in Mobile, AL, to show his big sis around the Gulf Coast and the sin city of Nawlins was our starting point. The plan for our first night:  Walk the French Quarter drinking booze. Not the highest of cultural activities.
Since it was the day before my birthday, I got to choose where we ate dinner. From our well located hotel, the Sheraton New Orleans, the three of us walked down Decatur Street to my elected destination – Margaritaville. We were able to get a table on the small upstairs balcony that overlooked the corner of Decatur and St. Phillip Street. Naturally, I ordered a margarita, but I wanted one with lime juice instead of sour mix. The waitress suggested JB’s Perfect Margarita. She said it contained Gold and Silver Margaritaville tequila, orange curacao and lime juice. An obvious upsell, we ordered two. Bad decision #1. Mom passed. The drink was strong yet refreshing. I was unsure of the orange curacao, but it smoothed out the tequila nicely. We watched the shadows on Decatur Street grow long as we ate our Cubano sandwiches.
With my pre-birthday dinner accomplished, mom left us for the evening. Her plan was to shop in all the Decatur Street stores we had previously passed before turning in early at the hotel. She also wanted no part of our Bourbon Street debauchery. With promises all around to be safe, Chad and I began walking up St. Phillip Street toward Bourbon. We contemplated our next drink; hurricane or hand grenade? But as we turned the corner our drink plans quickly changed. We had accidently arrived at a drinking Mecca:  Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
Reputed to be the oldest structure in the United States continuously used as a bar, the Blacksmith Shop was built between 1722 and 1732. Sometime around 1772, the building was owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte with the blacksmith business merely a front for his illegal activities. This building had seen its share of characters; rum runners, smugglers, mercenaries, war heroes, the French, the Spanish, Africans and Cajuns. Chad and I felt the presence of those characters as we entered. The building did not have electricity and ran its refrigeration and exit signs with long extension cords into the building next door. Candle light sufficed for the rest. Even though it was dusk on the street, the inside was already dark. The buzz of conversation was everywhere, but we managed to find a small wobbly table in the corner and promptly ordered two local beers, Dixie Blackened VooDoo Lager. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in six months, Chad and I sat silently for several minutes absorbing the atmosphere. I wanted to count the bricks of the fireplace, the white candles holders around the bar, the extension cords running up the walls and ceiling in an effort to become part of its history. A mute piano sat in a corner. The wrought iron of the window next to our table beautifully framed the street. Every few minutes a horse-drawn carriage would stop in front of the bar. We could hear the driver explain to the tourists the significance of the building. We wondered aloud why no one got out and came inside. Why listen to a speech about history when you can actually sit inside and experience it?
At Lafitte’s Bad Decision #2 occurred. Chad and I were so thrilled to be there we wanted to drag the experience out a bit longer, so we ordered a second beer. The cool lager was the perfect drink for such a dark, dank dive. However, we knew we needed move on. All of Bourbon Street awaited!
As we walked down Bourbon Street this particular section was more residential and quiet. Admiring the French colonial architecture, we heard music in the distance. With each block more and more people filled the sidewalk and the music grew louder. Chad announced he needed to use the restroom so we ducked into a place called Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar. Unbelievably small and poorly lit the place consisted of a thick wooden bar up front across from a bench and table. A few smaller round tables and chairs sat empty in the middle and a ridiculously small stage was tucked into the back corner. A door next to the stage led to restrooms. While Chad went back, I sat at the bench watching the bartender. She was moving a tall and elaborate glass jar across the bar.
“What’s that,” I asked.
“Ice water,” she matter-a-factly replied.
“Ok, but what do you use it for,” I tried again.
“Absinthe.” That was all I needed to hear.
“I’ll take one!” Since the spirit has only been legal in the states since 2007, this would be my first absinthe ever. When Chad returned I caught a slight look of distain in his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“I found absinthe!”
“Oh, boy,” he said followed by some eye rolling.
We watched the bartender intently as she poured a small glass full of absinthe. The spirit was a silky yellowish-green. She put a silver strainer over the top of the glass with a sugar cube on top. Then she moved the ice water jar over the glass and opened up a tap. Water dripped onto the cube. Nothing much happened at first then suddenly the sugar dissolved and the liquid went from clear to cloudy. At this point we thought she was done, but not so. The bartender lit the liquid on fire and a blue flame rose above the glass. She tipped the glass a bit and blew the flame out. Then she lit a second match and repeated the motion. After blowing out the flame, she set a second glass on the bar so both of us could try it. I poured half the drink into the second glass and gave the first one to Chad.
We clinked glasses and I downed my drink. I tasted nothing but sugar with a little bit of licorice at the finish. My poor brother, however, didn’t get that far.
“Oh my god that’s awful!” he coughed.
“Drink it!” I said. Good sport that he is, he finished his drink and I asked him what it tasted like.
“Fire and licorice,” was the reply. He was not happy with me.
“Too bad,” I teased. “I must have gotten all the sugar because mine was really sweet.” I could finally cross absinthe off my bucket list. For my brother, it was Bad Decision #3.
We entered Bourbon Street again and music poured from every door and window, everything from modern dance tracks, to country swing to traditional New Orleans jazz. People now covered the sidewalks. I wanted another drink, but didn’t want to sit in another bar. Fortunately in the French Quarter walking around with an open container was acceptable behavior. I approached a street vendor and ordered two hurricanes. Bad Decision #4. Plastic cups of fruity punch in hand, we continued on Bourbon Street. A brass band was playing on the corner. The band members looked incredibly young, high school age, but very talented so we stopped to listen to some ragtime music. An old man dancing in the street held a tip bucket. The semi-circle of spectators grew larger as the music grew louder. Satiated with traditional jazz when the band finished, we put some dollar bills in the bucket.
Now at the west end of Bourbon Street, we turned around to make another pass. The street was completely packed. People shouting, laughing, swearing, stumbling and dancing around us. We laughed at all the drunken fools not even realizing we were two of them. We ducked in the doorways of several bars, but nothing seemed to grab our attention. Some were too touristy, some too loud and some were strip clubs. Chad suggested we head back to Lafitte’s.
Like Bourbon Street, Lafitte’s had even more people now than it did earlier and music spilled from the windows. We entered a side door and found the place standing room only. A man dressed like Jean Lafitte, pointy goatee and black hat included, was at the piano singing “What a Night” by Dr. John. Appropriate for a Crescent City bar. People surrounded the piano with their drinks, dollars and cigarettes lined up on top of it. I could imagine a similar scene back in the late 1700s when Lafitte was running with pirates, smugglers and other undesirables. The place was so dark we couldn’t see anyone’s faces. A waitress tapped on my shoulder.
“We’d like two Voodoo beers,” is what I thought I said. Beers were not what we received, however. She returned with too large Styrofoam cups on a tray. Inside was a dark slushy liquid.
“I ordered beer,” I said. The waitress apologized and offered to get them, but then Chad asked her what the drinks were.
“It’s the voodoo drink,” she said in a “you-should-know-that” tone. She offered to take them back when Chad asked to try one and she encouraged him by saying they tasted like grape soda. Chad took a sip and the smile on his face told me we were keeping the drinks. Bad Decision #5.
My brain froze as I sipped the Everclear slushy. Chad spotted a high-top table near the piano. It didn’t have chairs, but at least we could set our heavy drinks down. The piano player launched into “House of the Rising Sun,” another New Orleans classic. We were now alongside of him and could see he wore a dark old-fashioned suit. All his fingers were adorned with gemmed rings, some digits with two, even three. His jeweled fingers pounded the keys like he was kneading a large wad of pizza dough. The piano was slightly out of tune, but his voice wasn’t. When he finished the song, the building erupted in applause. Some idiot at the end of the piano yelled, “Bruuuuuuuce!”
“You’re kidding, right?” the piano man snickered. Then he sprang into “Tipitina” also by Dr. John. Nice. After we finished the voodoo drinks we ordered two more Dixie Blackened Voodoo lagers. Bad Decision #6. We sipped as the man played “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd) and “Hotel California” (The Eagles). Declaring ourselves drunk and broke, it was now our turn to stumble into Bourbon Street swaying and laughing back to the hotel.
This morning was payback for waking up mom when we stumbled into our hotel room. She asked what was wrong with us and I told her “It must have been the VooDoo drink,” a play on a Jimmy Buffett lyric. She was not amused. Most definitely it was the voodoo drink. Nothing a few beignets and a café ‘au lait at the Café du Monde wouldn’t cure. Viva de mauvaises décisions!