It took me four months, but I’ve finally reformatted my book, Coming of Age on the Hudson, Volumes I and II, for Kindle. They are available on Amazon for $2.99. The Second Edition updates typos which resulted from formatting the first print edition.
*This post is designed to be a one-stop site for information for people visiting New Orleans, Louisiana (“NOLA”). There are hyperlinks to the bars and other places visited, as well as pronunciation guides, cocktail descriptions, and general advice.*
Katie and I made a trip to New Orleans–my fifth and her second. I recommend New Orleans for anyone trying to escape the doldrums of winter in the Northeast, not only because New Orleans is warm, but because the city is alive with another culture with characteristics opposite to those which make Albany seem inanimate.
Albany and New Orleans are both river ports. New Orleans is approximately 31 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, while Albany is 150. Neither New Orleans nor New York were originally British colonies–New York was taken from the Netherlands in 1688 and Louisiana purchased from France in 1803 (it became the 18th state in the union in 1812). As a result, both states have unique aspects to their common law and language which colored the local culture. New York obtained a leading position in the nation after 1825 by virtue of the Erie Canal, the only waterway to travel on an east-west axis through the Appalachian Mountains, which forced all goods from the Great Lakes through the port of New York City. Similarly, all goods traveling down the massive Mississippi Valley had to travel through New Orleans. Both became pots of immigration, graft, and licentiousness. But while New York as a state has been one of the most powerful political units over the nation’s history, Louisiana has been on the losing side of seemingly every cultural conflict from the Civil War through Prohibition to the rejection of federal funds in the 2009 stimulus package. You might say that political machines and corporations are the only effective actors in New York State, while in New Orleans the primacy of the individual still reigns, to the point where the state will resist the receipt of federal money if it would require some curtailment to the state’s citizen’s personal liberties. So you’ve got a very different culture between New York and New Orleans, which is the result not just of differences in climate, but of the idea of what constitutes The Good Life.
We set off for New Orleans from Albany International Airport at 7:14 a.m. When we planned our trip, Katie and I didn’t realize that we would be flying out of Albany on Superbowl Sunday. Perhaps because of that the lines were short and our tickets were fairly cheap. I tried to get a beer at the Saratoga Bistro but it was Sunday morning so we couldn’t buy one because the law says that we have to remember God on Sunday mornings in New York.
If the idea of me trying to get a beer at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning strikes you as odd, you are a victim of contemporary cultural brainwashing. From the history of the world until Prohibition there was no arbitrary noon rule when a person could have a drink without suffering social disapprobation. The rule treats alcohol as a vice per se, and this is a really modern idea. Originally a “cocktail” was medicine, which is why they originated in apothecary shops and used bitters composed of roots and herbs, sugar, fruit and water. John Adams drank a half-gallon of apple jack every morning and strolled through the woods for two hours. If you think about it, it isn’t the drink itself, but the binge behavior or the-attempt-to-get-drunk that is bad–and that behavior and attempt stems in large part from the substance’s restriction, just as the increased potency and decreased quality of cocktails resulted from liquor’s restriction during Prohibition (the only Amendment to the Constitution to have been repealed.)
There is always a layover from Albany to NOLA. Ours was in Charlotte, NC this time, though I’ve stayed over in Memphis, which is better for the restaurants.
The NOLA airport is easy to navigate. I’d recommend taking an Uber from the airport to your hotel. If you’re from Albany it will require you to download the app, but it’s the easiest thing in the world, trust me, and the vehicles are so much nicer than taxis. Our plane ticket came with 20% off Uber vouchers. If you prefer to pay more in order to ride in a crappier vehicle with a more annoying driver, a taxi will cost you about $35 to go from the airport to near the French Quarter, which is where you want to stay if you are going to NOLA for a cultural vacation. (While I prefer ride-sharing to taxis, I do not recommend AirBNB over a hotel for two reasons. First, the people that live and work in the French Quarter will dislike you if you stay in a French Quarter AirBNB because after Katrina a lot of out-of-towners bought the residential properties and they lease them via AirBNB to tourists, with the result that rents have increased beyond the means of the people who actually work in the area, so they have to commute now instead of living where they work. Secondly, if you get an AirBNB outside the French Quarter, as I did in 2012 in Treme, you are going to have to take an Uber or Taxi from the Quarter after dark, or you will be taking your life in your hands. In 2012 I stayed with my girlfriend in what seemed like the only nice gated house in the middle of Treme, which is like Arbor Hill in Albany both in its distance from the nightlife and the character of its residents and residences–broken down cars, stray cats, dilapidated buildings, menacing people seemingly without employment. If you’re going to have to pay an extra $20 or $40 a day for rides into the area you want to walk around, why not just pay for a hotel within safe walking distance? Then you’ll have a base to return to throughout the day.)
We were lucky enough to have a ride waiting for us at the airport. Our friends Dan and Amy live in Slidell, which is about a half-hour north of New Orleans, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, the huge lake to the north of New Orleans. We wanted to stay with Dan and Amy in order to catch up with our friends and to see and explore a new town.
Dan and Amy’s house in Slidell is up on stilts. During Katrina the water in the main part of Slidell was ten feet high, so it is prudent to elevate the buildings. There was clapboard around the stilts so that the ground level functioned like a breezy shaded house-size garage, which was a neat innovation. We dropped off our luggage and started on a perambulatory tour of Slidell, since it was 65 degrees.
Our first stop was Bruiser’s, “Home of the Barduca Dog,” a hot dog spot on Front Street and Fremaux, which is the northeast corner of Olde Towne Slidell. I ordered the Barcuda, which came with cheese, cole slaw, bacon and meat sauce, and surprised me by being 13 inches long. It was a quaint place with friendly locals run by a colorful former firefighter done up head-to-toe in Chicago Cubs apparel. The walls had funny advertisements such as a cartoon dog holding up a yellow tube of mustard with a caption that read “Practice Safe Lunch, Always Use Condiments.” If you happen to be at the bar when a train passes across the street, you get a $1 house shot.
Dan and Amy drove us a half an hour east to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. This was a beach town with a walkway that linked several three-story bars overlooking the gulf. As soon as we parked we heard a live band playing music from the space between two of the bars, in sand, on the other side of a fire pit with Adirondack chairs and two dogs laying, where a dozen people between 40 and 60 were dancing and laughing. We walked into the first level of Buoy’s Bar and ordered a Yuengling apiece for Dan and I and two Frozen Buoys for the ladies. You could taste the booze in the Frozen Buoys–they weren’t weak just because they were cold. We ambled upstairs to look over the bay from the second deck, where there was an empty bar made from a wooden sailboat cut in half. Katie’s and my cold bones started to thaw as the reggae music echoed off the buildings and the sun began to dip toward the blue water. We watched the beginning of the Superbowl at Tripletails on the third floor deck, before ambling at sundown to The Blind Tiger for some food, which is Dan’s favorite bar in the area. We had some delicious wings and nachos and stayed to watch Lady Gaga perform the halftime show. We were happy that Atlanta was winning, or rather that the Patriots were losing, and we listened to the third quarter on the radio as Amy drove us back to Slidell after dark. It was fun to listen to the announcers on the radio–even Katie enjoyed it and she is not a sports fan. It felt like we were listening to the radio back in 1960. We got home in time to see the depressing end to the game, which seemed almost a symbol of life in the U.S. right now, wherein the party with the most money, who is most obnoxious, came back to steal victory at the last moment from the workaday team.
One of my favorite things about visiting Dan is that he selects and sets aside several records for my enjoyment while visiting. Dan played a Sinatra album as he made Sazeracs for himself, Katie, Amy and I. [A Sazerac is considered to be the first cocktail. It consists of 1/4 oz. absinthe, one sugar cube, 1.5 oz. rye whiskey or cognac, and three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters.] Unfortunately, Amy had to work early in the morning and retired as Dan placed the next record, Billie Holiday, on the phonograph. Soon Katie was flagging too, and turned in, as Dan made us two Old Fashioneds–my favorite cocktail–and he told me that the first time he remembered having an Old Fashioned was the first time he drove me to New Orleans, in 2010, and I made them in our hotel room. [An Old Fashioned: muddle an orange slice and a cherry in an old fashioned glass, add a dash of bitters, a half-teaspoon of sugar, and a shot of bourbon, add ice and top with club soda.] Next Dan dropped the needle on Julie London–perfect late night music (listen to her sing “Cry me a River” at midnight with a glass of whiskey and tell me you don’t think modern American culture is one long declension from the jazz era). Dan produced two Coors Originals–my favorite beer, and played Sinatra. Then we had another. On our third Sinatra album Dan moved to the kitchen and called,
“Would you like maybe a glass of water and another Coors Original?”
“I don’t feel like I necessarily need the glass of water,” I scoffed.
That was the last day I skipped the water while on vacation. The next morning I was hung over for the only time on the trip.
It was nice to sleep in on Monday morning until ten a.m. Katie gets up around six every day and although I work nights I get up at seven so I don’t feel slovenly. Plus the best time to get reading and writing done if you pay your bills with a regular job is before you go to work, not after. Anyway it was nice to get up and have a cup of coffee on Amy and Dan’s back porch, considering it was 60 degrees in Slidell while it was 30 in Albany. We were surprised that the foliage looked like upstate New York though we were near the Tropic of Cancer. Dan awoke and said “I can’t keep up with Dallas like I used to,” and took a nap as Katie and I made breakfast using his food and kitchen. We had Wright’s Bacon (This is the only brand Dan buys, and points out that for an extra dollar and a half the bacon is about four times as delicious and thick) eggs with paprika (Katie’s favorite spice) and buttermilk.
After breakfast we drove to Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours. We got a $3 discount because Katie and Dan both forgot their money and I only had $66, and they only accept cash, and the guy said we were close enough. In the shop where we bought our tickets was a very active turtle, a baby alligator and homemade swamp-themed coloring books. We got onto a flat-bottom boat that sat 24. Captain Charlie was struggling with a hangover from the night before, but was pleasant and knowledgeable. He grew up on the West Pearl River where the tours take place.
“In the movies they make it sound like if you fall into the water you have two seconds to live,” he laughed. “I guess they have to make it scary.” But he swam in the river and knew where the gators stayed. He explained that since it was February most of the alligators would be hibernating on the river bottom, because they require 70 degrees and direct sunlight on their skin in order for their stomachs to produce the chemical they need to digest their food. “If they don’t get sunlight they’ll get sick and even die.” Captain Charlie brought our boat up numerous tributaries so that we saw snakes in a tree, a hawk on a log, two baby gators, and a Great Blue Heron. Then we went up a tributary barely as wide as our boat, until we found ourselves in a forest of cyprus trees covered in white dangling Spanish Moss. It looked like a winter forest. Captain Charlie explained that cypress trees can live 1,500-2,500 years, “not as long as redwoods, but that’s still quite impressive if you think about it.” The trees around us were as old as Christ or Cleopatra? Yeah I’d say that is impressive. We stopped and Charlie whistled before throwing marshmallows off the boat, which raccoons came and ate. He explained that we were in a “bayou,” which is a waterway, and in a “swamp,” which is a flooded forrest, as opposed to a “marsh,” which is a wetland that isn’t a flooded forrest. The most interesting part of the tour was when Charlie said, “Let me see if I can get the hogs,” made a noise, and six boars came out of the woods and swam up to our boat to eat marshmallows. One was a runt and the others kept squealing and running at it and stealing its food, but Charlie lured the others away with thrown marshmallows and then threw some directly to the runt, so he got to eat.
Back in Slidell we stopped into Bonnie C’s at 1768 Front Street for a sampler of onion rings, crawfish pies and crabby cakes. On the way we passed the police station and saw a young male running and smiling, who shouted to us, “I’m running and smiling ’cause I just got outa prison!” That night we went to The Brass Monkey for beers and shuffleboard before dinner, then to KY’s Olde Town Bicycle Shop, where I had a 1/2 catfish po’ boy and my first seafood gumbo of the trip. Later at night we listened to Sinatra albums but limited ourselves to one cocktail and two Coors Originals and made sure to drink a glass of water.
Dan had mailed me a signed copy of the book Lift Your Spirits, by Elizabeth Williams and his favorite bartender, Chris McMillian. If you enjoy craft cocktails, you really should watch this video, in which Chris McMillian plays the quintessential professional cocktail bartender, shows you how to really make a Mint Julep, and even recites a poem. More than a recipe collection, the book illuminates the cocktail culture which underpins the sociology of the nicer sections of New Orleans. Anyhow one of the cocktails listed in the book is the Corpse Reviver. “On those mornings when you wake up paying for the indulgences of the night before, a bit of reviving of the hungover corpse is in order. 1 1/2 oz brandy, 3/4 oz applejack, 3/4 oz sweet vermouth. Stir ingredients together in a cocktail shaker full of ice. Strain into tall glass.” It always sounded nasty to me but Dan insisted he made a great Corpse Revive # 2 (1 oz each: lemon juice, Countreau, gin and Lilet Blanc, plus 3 dashes of absinth liqueur.) In fact, he read from another cocktail book that this cocktail should be made at home, or at least at a real cocktail bar, because the measurements must be exact and an amateur will try to cut corners. Dan made us a round and we were clear to set out for the day, not even buzzed, but fortified.
The plan was for Dan to drive us to New Orleans, but a tornado struck the land exactly between Slidell and that city, so we decided to have lunch in Slidell in case the tornado was still going, because the worst scenario we could imagine was being hit by a tornado while crossing the bridge over Lake Ponchartrain. We went to Que Rico, a Cuban restaurant with brass music, red diner chairs and blue walls. Katie and Dan had tamale platters and I had ropa vieja, my first Cuban food. We also tried two orders of croquettes, which were like fried ham and chicken cheesey sticks. Before we left Slidell Dan took us to the Olde Town Soda Shop, an ice cream parlor with a 1950’s theme with white-aproned workers, chrome stools and table-top jukeboxes that took quarters. Katie even put 50 cents into the motorcycle video game. By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared and Dan drove us to New Orleans. He dropped us off at The French Market Inn on Decatur Street, just about in the middle of the French Quarter. After checking in we brought our luggage through a courtyard with a pool and tables and exposed brick, up to the fourth floor. Though our room had no windows, two walls were exposed brick and it had a skylight, so it was small but nice. We changed and went out to explore.
In the lobby the maitre d’ told us to leave the hotel, go left, take a left on Toulouse Street, and go to the Creole Cookery, which, he said, had a nice courtyard with music, a fountain, and a happy hour. We skipped the courtyard in order to sit at the bar because half the fun of trips to New Orleans is talking to the service staff. Katie ordered a ginger margarita and I ordered a French 75 (Named for the effective French artillery from the First World War: 1 part cognac, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part champagne [gin can be substituted for the cognac.] Serve up in a champagne flute after shaking with ice.) They had 50 cent raw oysters and $1 charred oysters–which we’d never heard of before. This was really a cool place. The bartender, a young guy my age named Wes, wore a white shirt and red tie. Two black guys in black shirts occupied stage left of the bar, which was one large shucking station. The oysters were in a big metal bin; one of the shuckers would take them out and use a knife to open them up. The other took a brush and dipped it in drawn butter, some other sauce, and grated cheese, before placing the half-shells on an open grill range. I’ve always struggled to swallow raw oysters, and Katie tried one and couldn’t stand the texture, but we figured when in Rome…so we ordered 6 of the charred. They were absolutely delicious, with the texture of clams casino…much easier for the novice or the squeamish. We had a conversation with the couple next to us, who were from Canada, just north of North Dakota. They’d flown to Houston for the Super Bowl and then driven to NOLA for their anniversary.
By then it was evening time, which is jazz time in New Orleans. [We didn’t even go to Bourbon Street on this vacation because it’s amateur hour up there–nothing but sugary drinks and debauchery, you can get that in the college ghetto of any city]. Instead we made our way to Frenchman Street, which is just outside the French Quarter, in the Marigny District. As soon as you turn the corner from Decatur or Esplanade Avenue onto Frenchman, you hear about four or five horn bands competing with one another. There is a row of maybe twenty bars on both sides of the street, none of which charge covers for their live music. We walked into Bamboula’s to hear a band made of a standup bass, guitar, clarinet and drums. They were playing Bill Bailey Will You Please Come Home. Since the selected martinis were $5, Katie ordered a Honeysuckle Lemon and I a Cucumber Lime. The lead singer announced that the band was called the Joe Goldberg Trio. They played The Hesitation Blues “with Cassidy Norton assisting on vocals.” During the break they announced, in vintage NOLA style, “Now folks this is our last song. Now Joe Goldberg is going to walk around with a bucket, and the best way to show your affection is when Joe comes around, you take out your wallet, you take $2 out of your wallet, put those $2 in your left pocket, and drop your wallet in our bucket.”
We had planned to have an actual dinner, but it was only about 6:30 p.m. and we strolled up Frenchman to The Spotted Cat, another of my favorite jazz spots. The Little Big Horns were playing Puttin’ On The Ritz as we walked in. The Spotted Cat feels like the old Lark Tavern in Albany when Tess Collins used to own the place–there are pictures, Mardis Gras masks, lots of different people from different backgrounds having fun together–kind of run down but charming because of its lack of pretension–low lighting.
Anyhow I saw on a sign that The Smoking Time Jazz Club was playing at 10 p.m. I love the band, and I’d wanted to interview the singer for some time, so Katie and I left to go back to the hotel and get ready for the evening. After we changed we killed some time by walking to the Napoleon House on Chartres and St. Louis Streets. If you’ve never been to NOLA you have to go to this bar and order a Pimm’s Cup [Basically, Pimm’s liquor, lemonade and a cucumber garnish]. I also tried a Sazerac with Absinth. They play classical music as the air blows in from the french doors and gaslights glow on the walls. I calculated that that day was my 11,905th day of being alive. We each had a Champagne Cocktail, which was kind of dry because of the bitters and brut, but nonetheless very easy to drink [1/3 oz cognac, 1 sugar cube, 3 dashes bitters, 3 oz champagne, topped with a lemon peel and cherry]. Then we made our way back to Frenchman to the Spotted Cat.
Katie chuckled when we were at LAX on Lark Steet in Albany two nights before our trip, reading my notes from the year before, when she read a passage that said “Listening to Smoking Time Jazz Club, my favorite contemporary band.” But they are my favorite contemporary band, and here is why.
I tried to hitch hike to New Orleans in 2007 and failed. In 2010 I visited Dan in Florida and he drove me to New Orleans for the first time. That night he and Amy and I went to the Spotted Cat and The Smoking Time Jazz Club was playing. I was 26 and never before in my life had I heard a live band playing my exact favorite kind of music. The closest I’d come had been when I went to the Jazz Band concerts in high school. I was–I can’t think of any other word but moved–by the idea that musicians playing music today, in the very present, were playing the Big Band music of Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker. Two years later in 2012 I went to New Orleans and happened to see The Smoking Time Jazz Club again, and they were again the band that played exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear, in a 10 or 12 piece orchestra, and the musicians were my age. For the first time I thought that it might be possible to meet people my age who wanted to make Big Band music, and when I got back to New York I started to focus on playing piano. Then I went to Dan’s bachelor party in New Orleans, but I was in grad school and therefore both broke and busy (I had to write a paper while my friends took a fanboat tour and then a ghost tour.) I finished a paper in the hotel room then walked vaguely toward Frenchman Street alone in the late afternoon. I went into Bamboulas and ordered a drink. Then I heard ten instruments strike up some energetic old brass song, and then Sarah Petersen start to sing vocals. Here I was having a cocktail–one of my favorite things–listening to jazz–one of my favorite things–on a beautiful afternoon–one of my favorite things–knowing that I’d hang out with seven of my best friends later–one of my favorite things–and each of those things was more intense than normal, plus all grouped together in a moment–and the band with the female singer crooning really struck me as the trigger of my cascade of comforting conditions. I bought a CD and played it quite constantly when I returned to New York, and learned a lot about the throat-movements of singing by trying to mimic Sarah Peterson’s voice. Then last year Katie and I made a point of seeing The Smoking Time Jazz Club again, and I bought two more of their CDs, and that officially made them the band that I owned the most CDs of. But to me they are more than just great artists, they are symbols of the possible–of what you can discover if you travel, and therefore why you ought to travel, because you can be missing so much and not even know it if you don’t.
Anyhow, Katie and I got back to the bar and managed to get a seat at the corner next to the stage, though it was quite crowded. Young people swing-danced in front of the band as they played “Mother’s Son in Law.” A young guy in glasses came to the bar to get a drink, but a tiny old lady who looked like she just got off the boat from Estonia 20 minutes before tapped him on the shoulder, and he gave up his spot at the bar to dance with her. I told Katie I wanted to interview the singer, Sarah Peterson, and the other people in the band, but I was nervous.
“But you’re a writer,” Katie said, “you’ve got to just own it and just ask the singer if she’ll talk to you when she comes around.”
There was no cover to hear this 9-piece orchestra. Sarah Peterson announced after two songs,
“If you don’t have a drink it’s something you must do.” [Chuckles from the crowd, but she was serious.] “You must have at least a drink and tip your bartender.” This is a republican state and so there is no government-imposed cabaret fee like in Albany–no bar cover to offset the cost to such a fee–you pay the band directly through tips and the house directly through buying the commodity they sell–booze. The bar was cash-only by the way. As Sarah Peterson went around with her bucket I told Katie I was going to make a split decision and ask her if she’d answer some questions me as I put $5 in her bucket. Meanwhile the bartender came over and was very friendly, and I realized something about New Orleans: The hotel and bar and restaurant employees always make it feel like it’s a special occasion for tourists, because for me my experience is a special occasion; for Katie it is a special occasion; for almost everyone at the bar it is a special occasion. So it is not necessarily an act–it is a special occasion for the workers too, because in New Orleans every day is a special occasion, and that is just a wonderful way of living.
When Sarah got to us I told her I was a writer from New York writing a blog post about New Orleans, and asked if she would talk. She could barely hear me and suggested I talk to her when the band took its next break, outside. So we listened to a few more songs and when the band broke and most of the instrumentalists went outside for cigarettes, Sarah went out just for fresh air, and Katie and I joined her. I’d never performed a time-sensitive interview but I think I did a good job. Here’s what I learned. Sarah is from Boston. The other members of the band are co-workers rather than friends necessarily. They “share a similar lifestyle” but it’s not like they celebrate holidays together. Bars do not charge a fee for performances, but a band generally keeps a percentage of the sales at a guaranteed minimum. The members of the band have their own side projects and pursuits. Sarah had been living in NOLA for 15 years, having travelled to Brazil and loved the street culture. She went back to New York City and the street culture was dead. Basically the musicians in New Orleans love the openness and the opportunity to perform that the city provides. They rehearse while they play in public, or in the back yards of their houses and apartments. Soon the break was over and Sarah had to go back in to sing, though she encouraged me to speak to other members of the band at the next intermission.
Back inside over another drink I met two pilots for Google who were on their first trip to NOLA, who happened to be in the bar only because they heard the music playing from the street and came in. I noticed that even the bar’s bouncer had a trumpet, which he played self-consciously along with the band as they played inside.
After midnight as the bar started to thin out, Jenny the bartender talked to us. She owned a business in Texas and was opening a new Spotted Cat on St. Claude in an up-and-coming area of town. She was married. I thought it was interesting that a married woman who owns one business and is founding another also bartends. I suppose it’s not so different than me owning a cane business and writing but also serving food. The band wanted to pack it in but Jenny called out to them “You have to keep playing because we’re gonna lose everybody if you go!” She gave us some tips on where to go in Algiers Point the next day. After a few more songs the band was done and we figured it was about time to head back to the hotel, since it was around 3 a.m.
We woke up at exactly 10:45 in the morning, to what we came to call the Calliope Alarm Clock. The steamboat Natchez takes on passengers at the riverside across from our hotel in the morning and early afternoon, for tours downriver to the site of the Battle of New Orleans. (I took this tour in 2012 and it’s not really worth the money in my opinion. The tour guide sounded like it took every ounce of his energy to articulate words and the battlefield itself is essentially a big flat ground with a ditch and some old pieces of artillery.) Anyhow our hotel room had a skylight which seemed to catch the calliope music and cast it down into our brick room, where it reverberated. It would have been pleasant if it didn’t wake us up out of the darkness after having slept for 6 hours after a night of drinking.
We decided to have a good southern breakfast to repair our bodies or at least our minds. We took a left out of our hotel onto Decatur and walked two blocks down to Monty’s on the Square, which is right across the street from the Cafe Du Monde. The dining room is open on two sides to the street via three-quarter windows which let in the warm breeze and even a couple of birds. Across the street a five-piece band was playing to the people at Cafe Du Monde, and we could hear them fine–in fact Monty’s didn’t bother to play any music knowing people would rather hear the live stuff. The band consisted of four older black men and one young white kid. The biggest black man had a tuba that looked at least 80 years old, and he sat on two stacked crates. The other men had two trumpets and a trombone, and they sat on chairs. The young white kid played a banjo as he stood, and I had the impression that he might have been strolling by and started playing with the other men on a whim. Katie ordered a short stack of pancakes and bacon while I had a “Country Breakfast” consisting of fried chicken with sausage gravy and crumbled bacon on top, a buttery biscuit, two eggs and a bowl of grits. We had two mimosas of course.
Katie and I wanted to see a new section of New Orleans, which neither of us had seen before. Last year we took a trolly down St. Charles to the Garden District and had brunch at Slim Goodies, then walked around the little shops, past the Spanish mansions, and gave ourselves a tour of Lafayette Cemetery # 1 with tombs from the 1700s. This year we decided to take a ferry across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point, which is a residential area directly across from the French Quarter.
The ferry costs $2 per person and you must have exact cash change. You can sit in the open air on the bottom deck or enclosed area on the top deck. The trip across the river takes 8 minutes and the ferry departs about every half-hour. You board the ferry where Canal Street meets the riverwalk.
Algiers was much quieter than the French Quarter, which was refreshing because I was starting to get sick of the beggars asking me for money on every block by our hotel. We got off the ferry on a pleasant afternoon on top of the dike which keeps the Mississippi from flooding the town. Unsure where to go we took a left and walked along the dike to see the bend in the river. Very large ocean-going tankers and barges passed frequently, and it was interesting to watch them negotiate the turn in the river. It appeared quite dangerous as the massive leviathans basically had to fishtail around the bend. Katie and I remarked to one another that we were surprised that there was no municipal beach at the river. The tide only rises and falls about a foot and a half at that section of the Mississippi, which is kind of surprising considering the Hudson rises and falls up to six feet near Albany, and Albany is five times farther from the ocean than New Orleans is.
Anyhow we circumnavigated a neighborhood of apartment buildings and houses painted in pastels. The place was a ghost down and we wondered if we were missing something. We passed where we’d gotten off the ferry and kept walking this time generally upriver and inland. We stopped into the first bar we saw, The Crown and Anchor English Pub. This was the first English pub we’d seen since leaving Albany. Katie ordered a Ginger Pimm’s Cup and I had a Fuller’s Porter. To our left sat a young guy around my age who worked in a warehouse, who said he’d taken the day before off because he worked in the area where the tornado hit “and you don’t wanna be working in a warehouse in a tornado!” I asked him if tornados were a frequent occurrence and he said no, not at all. Further to our left was a white-haired couple who brought their small dog to the bar with them. To our right were three women, and the bartender, probably about 35 with brown hair and a beard, kept delivering terrible pickup lines to them and making them laugh. They all knew each other from the neighborhood and the bartender said that one of the women had been playing piano an hour before we came in, “and that’s great because she’s a professional piano player, so we got it for free where most bars have to pay her hundreds of dollars.” The bartender said the Crown and Anchor “is like a living room for the neighborhood. You can come in here any time of day and introduce yourself to anybody and they’ll talk to you.” To prove the point, the bartender shouted to Scot Mattox, a man sitting at a table with a laptop, who introduced himself to us as the owner of El Guapo Bitters, Tonics and Syrups. We looked around and all the bitters and syrups in the bar came from El Guapo. They don’t have a distributor in New York but the company will eat the shipping charges so bars can order from the company and it’s like getting it from a distributor, the owner said. Next we went to the Dry Dock Cafe, as recommended by Jenny the bartender from the bar the night before. The place looked like nothing much from outside–basically a one story building with clapboard siding. But inside there was a nice bar and casual dining area, and the food looked really good. We ordered two glasses of champagne and sat outside, watching the sun sink toward the horizon formed by the berm of the dike as the breeze blew gently, and birds chirped. It felt like 8 p.m. in June in Upstate New York but it was 5 p.m. in February in New Orleans. Katie went in to pay the tab and came out smiling because our two glasses of champagne came to a grand total of $6.
Back in the French Quarter it was early evening and we stopped at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street for a drink at their carousel bar, which takes 15 minutes to rotate. I had a Vieux Carre (pronounced “Voo Car-AY,” it means “the old square,” a reference to the French Quarter; I think of it as a French Quarter Manhattan: 4 dashes bitters, 2 tsp Bénédictine .75 oz sweet vermouth, .75 oz cognac, .75 oz rye whiskey) and Katie had a French 75, this time with gin instead of cognac. While the cocktails and ambiance were delightful, the bartenders seemed stuffy, even unfriendly, so we took off after one drink and made our way back to the Creole Cookery from the night before. We ordered charred oysters again, shrimp remoulade, “Crab Cake Maison,” and crab-stuffed mushrooms. It was “Wine Wednesday,” which meant bottles were half-off, so Katie and I shared a bottle of riesling. Tiffany the bartender and Artemis the oyster shucker gave us pronunciation tips for the streets. Here is a list:
Chartres Street = “Charter”
Conti Street = “Cont-eye”
Tonti Street = “Tont-ee”
Decatur Street = “De-cater”
Toulouse Street = “Te-loose”
Praline = “Praw-lean”
Pecan = “Peck-on”
After dinner we hurried over to Jackson Square in the middle of the Quarter to meet our guide for a vampire tour. It cost $22 per person and they only accept cash. Last year Katie and I took a ghost tour; in 2012 I took a different ghost tour; both times I was part of a group of at least 20 people. This time, being a slow season, Katie and I were the only people on the tour, so we got a pretty awesome personal experience. Our guide was a woman in her late 30s who had studied anthropology at UCLA. The other tours were campy, and this one had its share of folklore, but our guide sprinkled in some interesting nuggets culled from her primary source research in the NOLA archives, which made it more interesting for skeptics like Katie and I. In New Orleans, anyway, you take such stories and enjoy them for what they are, relishing the mythos, which might as well be true, since you’re paying to pretend that they’re true, anyway. I won’t go into details out of respect for the business’s proprietary information, but one interesting thing we learned was that vampires are supposedly compulsive. If you’re afraid you might get attacked by one, carry a pocketful of rice with you, and then if you’re about to be attacked, throw the rice, and the vampire will be compelled to count the grains while you run away.
In the middle of the tours, which last about two hours, there is usually a break at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon and St. Philip Streets so the customers can get a Hurricane in a to-go cup and use the bathroom. (This high-octane fruity drink originated at Pat O’Brien’s, also on Bourbon, and packs a punch–but it’s sugar content is cloyingly sweet.) Since it was only Katie and I, our guide gave us a choice of going to Lafitte’s, continuing the tour without a break, or getting a drink with her at a goth bar she was fond of. Of course we chose the third option and went to a bar where we were the only patrons besides two old men and a dog who was peeing on a hydrant as we walked in, and then came in and jumped up and stood on the pool table, which no one seemed to mind. When the tour ended we tipped the woman $10, because she probably makes around minimum wage while the company nets the remainder, and as a former thespian, I know how hard it is to give a performance with vigor and animation to so small of an audience as Katie and I constituted.
After our tour, Katie and I decided we wanted to find a bar we had stumbled into the year before, after seeing jazz on Frenchman Street one evening. I thought it was on Bourbon Steet, so we walked up Dumaine Street away from the river. When we got to the corner of Chartres Street there was a bar, Harry’s Corner, which looked like a dive. Since we both had to pee and we didn’t have any drinks in our hands, we decided to go in and use the bathroom and get a to-go beer. As usual, as soon as we stood at the bar, two women to our left started talking to us, and the bartender made conversation as he placed our two Abita Ambers down. Katie and I then proceeded to ask the patrons and Paul, the bartender, if he could tell us the name of the bar we were looking for, based on the details we tried to recall from the year before. But I said I thought the bar was on Bourbon while Katie said she thought she remembered it being on Decatur; I said it was a tiny bar with a low ceiling and Katie said she thought it was in an open courtyard. We both recalled that smoking was allowed, and told the story of how, the year before, we had sat at the bar after seeing jazz on Frenchman, and talked to the bartender, around 2:00 in the morning. While we talked the room filled up with people, all carrying different instruments. Suddenly they all began to play Tommy Dorsey songs–at least 12 people–we were so packed in that Katie and I had to lean back so the trombonist’s slide didn’t hit us in the face–all of these musicians playing the music for nobody but the two of us. When they took a break I asked one of the guys what band they were, and he laughed, “None of us knew each other before we came in here. I just got in from Austin yesterday!” The experience became the most memorable of our trip from the year before, and we wanted to find the place. Paul and the two women asked for more details, which we provided, and suggested two bars on Decatur. Katie and I thanked them and told them that if either of the bars turned out to be the right one, we would come back and let them know.
We went to Decatur Street and when we entered the second bar that they suggested, Molly’s At The Market, we knew immediately we’d found the right place. It was kind of like walking into a dream, because we only remembered bits and pieces of the surroundings: the bar, a mirror, tacked up photo-booth pictures, a wooden bench. We went to the back bar and told the bartender, Keisha, about our experience the year before, and how we were super excited to be at the bar again. She kind of nodded and went back to her phone. We were happy to have found the place, but nothing seemed to be going on, so we left to go back to Harry’s Corner to tell the bartender that he’d given us the right directions.
Three blocks off of Decatur the streets were pretty empty after midnight on that Wednesday night. When we walked through the open threshold into Harry’s Corner the only patrons were an old man with a dog at one end of the bar, and all the way at the other, sitting on a stool with a fedora, was the female bartender from the goth bar our ghost tour guide had taken us to. We told Paul we found “our unicorn bar” we’d been looking for, and he poured us two celebratory beers. The goth bartender started talking to Katie, and she was so drunk her eyes were crossed, but she was really friendly. By this point we were pretty hungry and complaining that although NOLA has such a night life, we could never seem to find a place to get food after 2 a.m. Paul directed us up to the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street, three blocks away. This retro-style diner was a great find. It had red barstools, chrome, and a big open grille. Katie’s burger was delicious–flavored like a meatball with a toasted bun–and my chicken-fried steak sandwich was mouth-watering. The man behind the counter told us that the diner is open all day, every day. “We only close when the National Guard tells us,” he bragged. Meanwhile Katie masticated and remarked to me again, “This is this best burger I’ve had in years. Years!!!”
So we decided to stop into Harry’s Corner on the way back to the hotel, to tell Paul he’d made another great recommendation. The female bartender from the goth bar was still there, and now another old man was at the other end of the bar, drinking a glass of wine. When we sat down Paul poured us shots and said they were on the house. Really they weren’t shots, but half-glasses of whiskey. Paul was certainly animated and friendly, but there was something about him that suggested unhappiness, too. Now and then he would make a cutting remark about women or accuse me of being a hipster. After awhile he reached under the bar and held up a telephone book and demanded to know if Katie and I knew what it was. Of course we did (Katie and I are in our 30s). Paul said that telephone books are stupid and shouldn’t exist anymore. He grabbed a bottle of 151 and announced, “Come on, we’re burning this shit!” So we went outside, Paul poured the 151 on the book, lit a napkin and dropped it. Katie and I, Paul and the goth bartender, and the old man with the glass of wine stood and watched the book burn in silence. A black sedan pulled up to the sidewalk and a husky black man around 30 years old got out. He stood in the street, looked at us, looked at the burning phone book, and stepped over it to get to a newspaper dispensing machine against the exterior wall of the building. He put three newspapers in, then looked at the phonebook again, with hardly any expression on his face. After a moment he asked, quietly, “Why you burnin’ the phonebook, ’cause it’s out of touch?” “Yeah,” Paul said. “Okay,” said the guy. “Wanted to make sure you’re not burning the newspapers.” He stepped over the now-flecking and flying ashes of paper and got back into his car. Back inside the bar I asked Paul if I could try a Rum Milk Punch, which was on the menu. It took him about fifteen minutes to make the drink because he kept forgetting what he was doing, and then he put the drink down in front of me, saying, “Here you go you old mother fucker.” Which was ironic, because Paul was twice my age. I asked him how much I owed him for the drink and he said, of course, that it was on the house. Katie was getting a little weary of the place, so we left some cash as a tip (seeing as how we’d gotten 6 free drinks that night) and headed back to our hotel. It was 3:45 a.m. and the streets were quite empty, even Decatur, which is usually crowded.
We groaned when we heard the off-key calliope begin its 15-minute medley at 10:45 a.m. We didn’t make it out of the hotel until afternoon, for breakfast. It was warm and sunny, so we wanted to find a place to eat with a gallery. (As we learned during our ghost tour the previous year, the difference between a “balcony” and a “gallery” is that a gallery is supported by poles or pillars, while a balcony hangs off the building supported by corbels.) Anyway we went to The French Market Restaurant on Decatur, so named because it is located across the street from the blocks-long, open-air French Market, a farmer’s/crafts/food/cocktail market along the Mississippi River. On other trips I’d gone to the French Market Restaurant, sat on the gallery, and had seafood boils at night, and I loved the ambiance and friendly service. On this early afternoon I think they were having an off-day. When Katie and I walked upstairs, three different employees walked past us and said “somebody will be right with you;” the bartender was criticizing a waitress for how the bar had been set up or taken down the night before; and consistently throughout the meal it took a long time to get service at every juncture. Katie’s crab cakes were bland, while my seafood gumbo was so salty that it was hard to eat. I actually scooped my gumbo onto her crab cakes to make the two meals palatable together. Again, every other time I’ve been to the restaurant the food was good and the service excellent, and you can’t beat the gallery overlooking the market and the masts of ships on the river, and the sound of jazz music reverberating up from across the street, but this time we were ready to leave and even had to go in and ask around for our check (something which as a waiter I was loathe to do and only did because our drinks were empty and our waitress hadn’t been around for 15 minutes [I even told Katie “Let’s give her five more minutes and then I’ll go in and ask around” and the time ran out]).
After “breakfast” we strolled through the French Market. This is the place to go for your chotchkies, souvenirs and gifts. There are at least 30 tables where people sell jewelry, voodoo dolls, masks, sunglasses, inlaid wood boxes, cigarette cases, tile coasters with New Orleans themed imprints, shot glasses, etc. I bought five magnets and two shot glasses for under fifteen dollars.
On the way back we were crossing between two pavilions when we saw a disturbing sight. A man in his fifties was dressed head-to-toe as Uncle Sam. He stood in front of some kind of a homemade booth. Behind him were two life-size cut outs, one of Donald Trump and another of Hillary Clinton, egregiously transmogrified, in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, with the words “grab here” imprinted across her crotch. The guy was in a yelling match with a young woman around 25 years old. Another young guy was standing silently holding a sign that read “Donald Trump supports disenfranchisement of women.” A larger man and his girlfriend stood close by, looking like they were ready to intervene. Katie and I couldn’t decide if the young woman was the Trump supporter, or the man, because we couldn’t believe that the man could possibly be the Trump supporter since the scene was bleeding with parody and was so offensive that any Republican would be ashamed to be associated with it.
We went back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. At five we set out for the Creole Cookery for the third night in a row. We said hello to Kater the white man in his fifties who was the maitre d’. Tiffany was behind the bar again and Artemis was shucking the oysters. They were quite busy but we got a bar seat, and by now the employees came over and shook our hands and knew what we wanted to drink and order. Artemis had his hands full with a stack of order slips for oysters. The place is really the cat’s meow when it comes to atmosphere, good food and the friendliness of the staff.
For dinner though we wanted to try Cane and Table, on Decatur, which we’d passed the year before, and which had good reviews. So we walked back to Decatur, the busy section of town outside of Bourbon, and made our way east. As we passed a restaurant with an exterior bar, where three people could sit on the sidewalk on stools and have bar service from within, Katie said “That was the girl from earlier, the Trump supporter!” We decided to turn around and talk to her to find out what the story was. It turns out, as you might have guessed, that she was not the Trump supporter. The guy dressed as Uncle Sam was. This really blew our mind, that this guy spent his time building a booth and getting cut-outs and dressing as Uncle Sam for…what? For the purpose of annoying people and seeing if he could start an argument? Apparently the guy is there often, and he has cameras built into his booth, and a website where he tries to get “liberals” to sound stupid. If his goal is to annoy people I suppose he is very good at his job, because I am not a Democrat, I don’t like Hillary Clinton, I vote independent, and I consider myself a patriot and somewhat conservative, but this moron was making a mockery of my values by dressing up as the symbol of my country and acting like an asshole. We told the girl we respected her for confronting the man, and she told us she had to go to court because the guy called the police on her. Apparently he thinks that any woman who states her opinion should be “locked up.”
Cane and Table has no sign and it’s easy to walk past. We had to circle back and use our GPS to find the right door. Inside is pretty dark but they have a very nice bar and dining area. We took a seat at the corner of the bar and took turns going to the lavatory. There is only one and it’s unisex. It is in a courtyard with hanging lights and candles and Spanish arches. There was the usual masonry covered in chipping plaster. The back of the bar was one big piece of furniture, like a giant armoire. We ordered two original Cane and Table cocktails. Katie had a Flor de Jamaica: hibiscus-infused Russian vodka, pomegranate, and a touch of sour, which was floral and spicy, or as the menu said, “perfect for a NOLA winter;” I had a Scotch and Coconut: scotch and I believe mescal and coconut water in an Old Fashioned glass. We tried two appetizers since we’d already had oysters and didn’t want to carry take-out containers with us. For $6 we had Bacalao Fritters: crusted red and poblano peppers with a habanero vinegar, and Mofongo: mashed plantains, pork rib, avocado and a coconut cucumber pico. They were both delicious–the former a kind of pancake in an iron skillet like a hash, salty, the plantains functioning like a potato producing primarily volume, the cucumber and avocado refreshing. I’d have liked to have had the latter on top of the former, or on a cracker, because it had the consistency of a pâté.
Cane and Table was on the same block as Molly’s, our unicorn bar from the year before, where we’d been enveloped in a jazz band, so we decided to stop in and survey the scene. We walked to the back bar and the six stools were full. I used the bathroom and left the business card for my book on the urinal, as I had been doing all around New Orleans as an advertising ploy. Since we couldn’t get a seat in back we went up front and ordered a beer and took our pictures in the photo booth. As we were drinking, Kiesha from the back bar came up and surprised us. She said that we shouldn’t leave, because the people in the back were planning to play music soon. That was really cool because we didn’t think she cared at all about our story from the night before, but she did. We moseyed to the back and stood waiting for a bar seat. A hipster guy emerged from the bathroom with my business card and placed it in front of another guy with a beard. “Look at this,” he said. “What?? Like, Dallas Trombone…Coming…Coming on the Hudson?” He flipped the card over. “There’s nothing on the back.” Katie looked at me, concerned that this would be very deflating to my ego. But I told her that was exactly what I was hoping: that people would be interested in the card because it was so odd to find it as they were peeing, and that they would then talk about it with their friends. The hipster guy and his girl left, so me and Katie got a seat at the bar.
The musicians included a guy playing spoons, who was tattooed with dyed hair, stocky; a white girl with curly hair who played banjo and sang, her flower-studded black boots resting on an overturned skateboard as she sat on a wooden bench; a trumpeter a trombonist and two guitar players. For the second song the guitar player played a song called “In The Danger Zone.” He wore a green wool hat. No one in the band, it seemed, owned a razor. The trumpet player had a green cap, a sizable belly, a brown tee shirt, jeans and sandals, glasses and a goatee. The trombone player was a tall, skinny white kid with a clean face. The group played “Do The Popeye.” He wore a tee shirt and a plaid button-up. Meanwhile Kiesha pointed out that on Thursday nights the bar sold $1 Miller High Life bottles, so Katie and I ordered two of those as we listened to the band discuss the next song. Said the girl with the curly hair, whose boyfriend was eating red beans and rice, “What’s the first chord?”
“D-minor!” the trumpeter shouted.
“No, the bridge?”
“A, E-minor, D.”
No verbal response from the girl. They all began playing, perfectly.
Meanwhile Kiesha was on her phone like nothing out of the ordinary was going on, like the man who put the newspapers in the machine the night before as the telephone book burned on the sidewalk.
The next song was called “Dig-a-do” and was Katie’s favorite, kind of whimsical. I bought everyone a round a beer. Imagine buying everybody in a 6 person band a beer for $6? The different members started coming up to me and introducing themselves because Kiesha had told them I was a writer, and that Katie and I had come specifically to hear musicians like them singing. There is a lot of music in New Orleans but it seemed like a writer was a novelty. I met Jeff Kreis, from Sacramento, who played oboe. Another guy wanted to quit his day job as a disability worker and moved to NOLA to play the trumpet. I asked him how he got into the trumpet. He said “That’s a funny story. As a nine year old I thought it would be easy because there are only three buttons.” Kellen was the bass player. He was the first one to come from Sacramento and the others came later. He was dating the girl with the curls and they got engaged, but he broke it off, because one night two lesbians wanted to hook up with him and he figured he still had some exploring left to do. So now she dated the guy eating the red beans and rice, and they’re all friends. Kellen had lived in Chicago first, and “it seemed just like another city,” but he’d talked to some people from NOLA and it seemed great, so he moved. One of the guys was from Russia and another from Georgia, having dropped out of high school and worked at a shopping mall. He moved to NOLA because “my goal was to become a busker.” The gutter punk kid with the spoons had been a train hopper. I said I’d wanted to hitch-hike on trains in my twenties but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. He said “If you want to know then you’re doing it wrong.” Scotty was the trombone player. He said “The best musicians in the US are from here.” Katie and I spent a couple of hours listening and talking to those guys, until they got tired of playing and left. It was well after midnight then, so we did the same. We found a pizza place that was still open, and though we felt like it was kind of a waste to get New York style pizza while we were in New Orleans, we did, and it was absolutely delicious. We needed a little taste of home after so much exotic cuisine over the last five days.
Friday was our last full day in NOLA, and our friends Dan and Amy were coming from Slidell. We woke up with the Calliope alarm clock but fell back asleep. After noon I set out to procure us breakfast as Katie got ready. I noticed a big difference in the crowd on the street on this Friday before the first Mardi Gras parade. There were more people, and a lot more women who looked like they were wearing their club clothes having spent hours in front of a mirror, compared to most people I noticed in the French Quarter previously, who did not seem particularly to care about their appearance.
I failed at procuring breakfast, instead returning with two glasses of sangria. So we went to Franks on Decatur for a Muffuletta. A Muffuletta is a sandwich made with mortadella and other ham meat, on a toasted bun, with olive tapenade. They sell the sandwich by the quarter, the half, and the whole. A quarter is a hearty snack and half is like eating a sub. No one ever eats a whole Muffuletta unless you’re in an eating competition or you forgot your Ambien prescription and you need to sleep for several hours. So that was our breakfast, at 3:15 in the afternoon, having slept till 12:30.
We walked uptown, up Canal Street, to meet Dan and Amy, who would be getting out of work at Tulane University. It was nice to see our friends again–spending time with Dan and Amy bookended our vacation. Dan drove us up to midtown to a bar called Revel, where his favorite bartender, Chris McMillian, was working (this is the bartender with the youtube video making the Mint Julep). Our quartet got four seats at the corner of the bar. Dan commented that corner seats are the best, because people can face one another. We ordered ourselves cocktails from the leather-bound menu. Katie had a Shielavsit (Katie: “How do you pronounce it?” Chris: “She loves it.”) This was a really refreshing drink in a tall glass made of fresh crushed strawberries, lemon cane sugar, Aperol and Prosecco. It was sweet as it hit your mouth, but the Aperol washed the sweetness down and the Prosecco cleared the pallet, keeping the drink from becoming cloying and leaving you longing for another sip, this time to be swished around before swallowing. I had a Blood and Sand, a classic cocktail, one of very few to use scotch as a base. It’s made from equal parts scotch, cherry herring, sweet vermouth, and blood orange. It develops on the pallet in at least three distinct stages. Amy had a Whiskey Girl (I forgot to write down the ingredients) and Dan had a Ramos Gin Fizz. There was a limit of one Ramos Gin Fizz per round because it takes so long to prepare and shake. Chris pointed out that there is no one alive who tasted an original Ramos Gin Fizz–its recipe was a proprietary secret, and anyone who tasted an original made by Henry C. Ramos in New Orleans is long dead (the drink was invented in 1888). Chris also pointed out that the Ramos Gin Fizz is the only drink whose name is preceded by the name of the person who invented it. Katie pointed out that the bar (which was established and is run by Chris McMillian) was set up like a laboratory. He used many different instruments–different-shaped fruit peelers, a large wooden mallet, a muddler, various-sized jiggers–to build his cocktails from the empty glass up, while regaling the patrons with anecdotes. Interestingly, I noticed that Chris also had a large drawer the size of a dishwasher, which he would open in order to pull out pre-chilled liquors and liqueurs. Obviously, this sped the process of chilling the drinks, and kept them from getting watered down by deleting the need for so much ice to cool them. But most bars would be unable to resist the temptation to display all the liquors available as a grand display. The instruments, the chilled liquors and liqueurs, all gave the establishment the feel of an artisan’s shop, or a chemist’s or apothecary, the latter of which, of course, was where cocktails got their start.
Back down in the French Quarter, Katie and I took Amy and Dan to the Creole Cookery. Wes and Tiffany were behind the bar, and Artemis was shucking the oysters again. We said hello to Kater the maitre d’ as we walked in. By now the waiters were coming up to us and saying “Hey you’ve been here four times this week!” We had charred oysters and raw oysters. I still struggle to swallow the raw oysters even though I order a couple every time I have an opportunity, so that someday I can eat them like Chester A. Arthur and all the other swanky politicos. After a drink and the oysters which took off toward Jackson Square for dinner.
Katie and I were eager to take Amy and Dan to Muriel’s on the northeast corner of Jackson Square. This is a beautifully decorated bedroom in a large masonry building, which we’d eaten at last year. The host station is attended by a female host and a male guide in black. (It’s best to make your reservation a week or so ahead of time for a Friday or Saturday night.) If you follow a hall from the hostess’ station you go through a small central dining room to the bar in back. Here we had a cocktail as we waited for our table to be ready. I had a Negroni (1/3 Gin, 1/3 Sweet Vermouth, 1/3 Campari–it can be served up or on the rocks) because Campari is an aperitif and after appetizers at Revel and oysters at the Creole Cookery, my appetite needed stimulation. Off the center dining room are two larger dining rooms in wings. The one that faces Chartres Street is red with images from Victorian periodicals glazed onto the walls. Last year we’d sat in that dining room and I was impressed when the maitre d’ asked me to remove my fedora. This year we sat in the dining room facing St. Ann, which was blue-grey and decorated with pieces of old architecture (doors, windows, corbels, pillars). For an appetizer we passed around savory gorgonzola cheesecake with prosciutto, honeyed pecans and slices of tart green apple. I tried turtle soup for the first time and it was tasty, the turtle has a consistency like clams. The waiter placed down the warmed bowls and ladled the soup into them in front of us, which, I thought, was a nice touch. For dinner Dan had the seared duck breast, Katie a massive stuffed double pork chop, and I forget what Amy or I had because I thought it would be rude to keep notes during dinner. We did split the bread pudding with candied pecans and rum sauce for dessert, and everything was delicious. Afterwards we took a walk up the stairs to the second floor Seance Lounge, which is worth checking out just to see the jewel-tone decor and plush furniture–about as rich fare for the eye as the cuisine was for the pallet at dinner.
It was about 10:00 when we left Muriel’s to walk to Frenchman Street to hear jazz. Bamboulas became our destination. We managed to get a corner section of the bar (there were no stools now) near the door, and ordered a round of gin and tonics at $7 apiece. Katie pointed out that the trumpet player and I were doppelgangers–he had a clean shaven face and a fedora and we wore almost the same outfit. The lead singer was a black guy in his thirties with a Louie Armstrong voice, who played trombone. After the first song, he and the trumpet player switched instruments. Even his trumpet sounded gravelly when he played. Katie pointed out that he had a unique way of playing the instrument, holding his fingers erect when not depressing a button, instead of resting them atop the buttons. It was like his fingers were jazz-dancing as he played. After a few songs the band announced their name, The Swamp Donkeys, and played Sunny Side of the Street, one of my favorite Tommy Dorsey songs. (It reminded me: what ever happened to The Sunny Side of the Street Band in Albany? They were the only jazz band I ever saw busking on Lark Street–an activity which breathed some life into the gasping body that is Center Square these days). The band got a huge laugh from the crowd when the singer improvised a lyric. The line normally goes, “If I never had a cent/ I’d be as rich as Rockefeller/ Gold dust at my feet/ On the sunny sunny side of the street.” Instead he sang, “If I never had a cent/ I’d be as rich as Donald Trump/ Have a gold toilet seat/ Never pay my taxes on the sunny side of the street!”
Meanwhile the scene behind the bar was just as entertaining. The bartender was a skinny white kid who looked like his body had taken some abuse over the years. He had a stack of single dollar bills pinned to his shirt, and was stumbling around with glazed eyes. It was his birthday, and he explained that in New Orleans on your birthday, people pin singles to your shirt. Katie handed him a single and he said he couldn’t accept it unless she pinned it to his shirt. So he stood there with clenched teeth as Katie tried to pin the stack to his shirt without impaling his chest. Dan gave us a round of dollars so we could all get the experience. We had several more gin and tonics, which got stronger with each round. During intermission the place cleared out a lot, and I ordered another drink, and this is what I received: first, the bartender came over with the Tanqueray in his hand, looking around, trying to place it on the counter, but he kept missing the counter. Then he looked down and saw the two plastic cups with ice in them, and realized he was making a drink. So he poured about two ounces into a cup, then sprayed a tiny bit of tonic, leaving the cup only half full. He looked up and around, then down at the cup again. Forgetting he’d already poured the gin into the cup, he turned the bottle upside down and poured about another ounce in, but he kept having to shake the bottle because it was almost empty. Then, annoyed, he pulled the pourer off the bottle and threw the empty bottle to a bar-back, who handed him a fresh one. Dan and I looked at each other, smiling. The bartender took the top off the bottle, put the pourer on, looked around, looked down at the cup, looked at the bottle again, then shrugged, and poured another two ounces into the cup. Then he handed me what was essentially a cup of Tanqueray with a splash of tonic. Dan laughed hard and yelled into my ear, “Man, I was watching that guy…the LAST thing that drink needed was MORE gin!”
The band was finished so we decided to move on. When we passed Molly’s I ran in to check out the back bar. Kiesha was playing bar dice with a couple of customers. I scanned the place and asked her if she thought any band people might come and play, because Katie and I wanted to share the experience with Dan and Amy. She said she hadn’t seen anyone with instruments, but said if I wanted to give her my number she’d text me if they started to show up. I thought that was really considerate.
Instead we strolled up the Harry’s Corner, so we could share that experience with Dan and Amy. Paul was behind the bar, and when we walked in I shouted to him, “Heyo! Got any phone books lying around?” He smiled quizzically. I don’t think he even remembered burning the thing two nights before, though there was a char mark on the sidewalk. Paul remembered our names, however, and we introduced Dan and Amy. We got a spot at the corner of the bar, once again, and constituted one half of the patrons in the establishment. Amy had a glass of whiskey straight, while Katie and Dan and I had Strawberry Canebrakes from the Parish Brewing Company. Dan was excited to see a jukebox and played a lot of oldies songs on my behalf. I had about three beers and Katie two before Dan finished his bottle. After an hour or so we made our way back to Decatur and stopped into Cafe du Monde for 4 a.m. beignets. We left around 4:30 and I wanted to keep drinking, suggesting that we walk up to Bourbon Street to see if anything was open, or try to find a liquor store to drink in the hotel courtyard, but the rest of my party was flagging, so we turned in for the night.
Though we awoke before the calliope alarm clock, a steam whistle blew and startled Dan and Amy as they got ready to depart. We bid adieu to our friends and began packing to return to New York, sad because our trip was over, but eagerly looking forward to getting back to our home. New Orleans is not a relaxing vacation, though it helps to clear your mind of troubles.
We put our luggage in storage because our flight was not until 5, but checkout was at 11. We made our way up to a pizza joint for breakfast, then walked over to Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, a tiki bar on North St. Peter’s Street. Dan had recommended the place. He had a tiki app on his phone that allows you to “unlock” different cocktails based on the ingredients you have in your liquor cabinet and refrigerator. Anyhow the place was decorated in faux Polynesian style, as you might imagine, with ropes and palms and capstans and a wooden mugs shaped like the heads of Easter Island. The drinks are exotic, sweet. You can’t help but feel like you’re back in the 1950’s in the place. The bartender and some of the baby boomer patrons were excited because that night would be the Krewe du Vieux–the first parade of Mardi Gras, and the only one which passes through the French Quarter. It is the most individualistic and politically scathing parade of Mardi Gras, and there was a feeling that the parade was likely to be even more over the top than normal, given all the material ripe for satire in our current political institutions.
We left Latitude 29 and made our way to Royal Street, basically killing time, and walked through some of the really fantastic antique stores on there.
Back at the hotel we got our bags and took a taxi, based on the clerk’s advice, instead of an Uber, against our better judgement. The driver talked the entire time.
Now we were really ready to be done traveling. Unfortunately we got on the plane and were told to sit tight because they couldn’t get some fan to turn off. Then we had to get off the plane because they had to “restart the whole computer.” This took 40 minutes, and the delay meant that when we landed in Charlotte we missed our connecting flight. The airplane company put us up at at hotel, which we arrived at at 11:30 at night. Our next flight was to take off at 11 am the next morning and get into Albany at 1, but we were afraid that it would be cancelled, because a massive snowstorm was forecast to hit the northeast (the second in a week). Anyway we ordered food and watched the end of Saturday Night Live, the end of Godzilla (2014), CNN’s documentary on The Seventies about Watergate, and the first hour of Borat, which I’d never seen, but found hilarious. Then it was 4 a.m. and we figured we’d better try and get some sleep. It was actually quite nice just to lay in bed and watch T.V. for a change, because even at home we watch shows on Roku and we don’t get the commercials, which remind me of being a kid watching T.V. with my parents or grandparents.
Anyhow, we got our shuttle to the airport the next morning and, to my great surprise, took off, even though there had been two to three feet of snow around the Albany area and a snow emergency was declared. We had an uneventful flight until 20 minutes before we were to land, when the pilot came on and said that there was only 1/4 mile visibility and we would have to perform “a fully automatic landing,” which meant that everyone had to turn off all of their electronic devices, airplane mode was not good enough. All I could think of was “We cannot make a car that drives itself, but we somehow have made an airplane that can land itself in snow as the plane pitches up and down in turbulence?” And also that we were going through the exact plot of Die Hard 2 when Pilot Miles O’Brien tells air traffic control that they have to land the plane because they’re on fumes, but the terrorists adjust the computer’s attitude reader so they crash onto the runway in a huge fireball (even though they were running on fumes, somehow). I kept these thoughts to myself rather than share them with Katie. In any case we landed fine and got a ride from her sister, Megan, out to her mom’s house, where we left her car. It took us almost an hour to drive back in the snow storm, the roads were such a mess. And so we were back in New York.
[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]
It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.
“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.
As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.
The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”
A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.
The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”
“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.
I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.
When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”
What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.
Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.
The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.
Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.
In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”
“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.
“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”
“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”
I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”
[Originally posted November 9th, 2016 on Facebook]
One lesson we can draw from this election cycle is that neither party really knew what it was doing. The Republicans tried to run the usual candidates and lost in the primary. The Democrats railroaded Sanders and got the machine’s candidate to the general election, and lost. One uptick to this election may be a realization by those whose careers are aligned with either party must accept that without popular support, they will not win elections.
I suspect that neither party will realize it. They will continue to try to seem relevant by telling people that they represent them, even while this election shows that elected representatives–almost all of whom are either Democrat or Republican–are out of step with the needs of the American People.
No matter who was elected last night, it was hardly a triumph for either camp to proclaim that they “won” by getting their unpopular candidate into office. It seems trite for Republicans to gloat, as it would have been for Democrats, had Clinton been elected.
The fact is that everybody, whether black, white, straight, gay, male or female, feels unrepresented by a government which calls itself a democratic republic, but is run by representatives whose primary allegiance rests with parties which are run through contributions from gigantic corporations who do not feel, or worry, or die. Our public policy is not inhuman, but ahuman–it is based on the input of inorganic entities rather than human beings. No wonder people feel isolated and persecuted. Let us realize that we share this isolation in common. Let us realize that because we share this isolation, we are more similarly situated than we are different.
Think of how many hours the volunteers from both parties spent on this election, because they really believed that something should change in our culture. I imagine that that “something” that people think should change is a loss of a sense of community which would make us feel connected, respected, and successful. Now imagine that instead of spending all of those hours volunteering for their candidates, people spent their time baking their new neighbor a cake, proposing a community-betterment project to their village government, helping their elderly neighbor rake her yard, or even just attending a school play or football game or joining a book club or social group.
It is very easy to wake up, tune out, go to work, return home, and tune out some more. I feel emphatically that social disconnection is the prime epidemic of our generation, which contributes to many of our public and personal crises. If I were to ask you to choose, “Either you can have $1 trillion, and any commodity you wish, pools, helicopters–but you must live in 20-square miles, and no one else can come–you can never talk to or see another person again; or you can continue your life as it is now,” which would you choose? I’ve never met anyone that says they would take the trillion dollars with the caveat. It means that people value interpersonal connections more than a fortune. It means a fortune is not enough–we must have the company and respect of other people. So why do we spend such precious little time meeting new people? Why don’t we join groups? Why do we avoid talking to people we’ve never met? Why do we write-off the 1/2 of the country that voted for the other candidate as insane, as though they cannot possibly be feeling the same sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that we feel?
It is easy to get discouraged, but I have to say, I don’t feel like life is so bad. It’s not like I’m rich. I drive a 12 year old car; I spend about 35 hours a week serving people and scraping refried beans off their plate although I have a Masters Degree. But I leave the house and see Bill walking his dog talking to Tom; I go to the bar and see folks I’ve known for years who ask me how I’m doing; I’ve met a dozen new people in the last month from attending City Council and Neighborhood Association meetings. I get up and listen to classical music, write for a while, practice piano, dust, clean my dishes, nap, walk to work, see people–I feel connected, and that makes me feel like I’m thriving. It’s not about money. It’s about the connections. That’s why we call the strangest types of people anti-social.
I propose that we forget about expecting any help from the national or state government, and focus on improving our personal lives and local neighborhoods. I say it is a new permutation of an old-fashioned kind of spiteful American protest: say to yourself “I’m going to do it myself” and then do it. Meet your neighbors and consider that you are forming a new political unit. Demand of your local legislature that they sponsor parades, block parties, and festivals to bring families and small businesses together. Do something about that building that is an eyesore that makes the block feel depressed. Put a new coat of paint on your house. Sweep your sidewalk. Listen to beautiful music with the lights off. Call an old friend. Visit a small town. Make it a point to buy from a local business even if it is a little more expensive than a box store. Go to your neighborhood bar. Go to a meeting of the historical society, or conservancy, or a local government meeting. All of these are political acts, and they will make you feel connected in a way that no party’s grand policy can make you feel connected.
Own your life, cultivate it, beautify it, enrich it with texture and meaning. If we all do this, our public dialogue would be much more productive. But even if other people don’t seem to take this advice, and the public dialogue continues to degrade, forget about it! Quarantine it away like a viral disease and forget about it. Form your own group of people that make you feel positive and do something good, together.
[Originally posted October 18th, 2016 on Facebook]
I like to compare cities to Albany when I travel, to see what stimulates economic activity in those places, that might work here. In the last year, Katie Carnahan and I have been to New Orleans, LA, New Hope, PA, Cooperstown, Ithaca, Geneva, and Syracuse, NY. Many of these places face similar problems to Albany. Albany and Syracuse might be distinguished by what they lack: a coherent plan that takes advantage of their physical or cultural assets to draw people to their several business districts.
I know that tourism and nightlife are not the only revenue-generators for a city. But they are an important part of bringing capital from outside into the city in order for that capital to be circulated and concentrated. Tourism and nightlife are perhaps the main factor in providing a place with an identity which is then celebrated by residents and used in local advertising. A vibrant identity leads to more civic activism, cleaner streets, a growing population, therefore innovation, better government, community spirit, lower crime, lower taxes and greater employment through new and thriving small businesses, which are all good things.
We visited New Orleans back in April, after spending a night with my friends Dan and Amy in Picayune, Mississippi. Picayune is a dry town in a backward state. The tumbleweeds blow through the boulevards of a “downtown” that becomes a ghost town after 7:30 pm. Dan pointed out that “you have to try very hard to be optimistic in this place.” In the modern world where a community requires some sort of a tax base, it seems like Picayune cuts off its nose to spite its face by outlawing anything that might draw visitors to it, in the name of morality or old times that never existed or something. New Orleans is the opposite. The place bursts with energy and life–and people spending lots of money to have a good time. If there is one thing that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities in America it is its personal freedom. It is a feeling that the city cultivates: Come Down and Enjoy Yourself. Live music pours from hundreds of bars in the French Quarter alone. People spend $500 to fly to New Orleans, $30 for a taxi from the airport to the city, and $150 a night or more for a hotel, just to be able to carry their cocktail from one bar to another down the street. Thousands of people clog the sidewalks 15 or 16 hours a day, simply because it is enjoyable to feel temporarily unrestricted. Why is it that the French Quarter has bounced back from the physical devastation of Katrina, while cities like Detroit were decimated by the Great Recession? Because there is organic energy in New Orleans which is allowed to grow. In Albany very few people busk on the streets, because pedestrians do not linger on the streets enjoying themselves. Patrons power-walk from bar to bar as quickly as possible, to avoid the mendicants in Albany. In Albany there are very few live bands, because they are disincentivized through a cabaret license fee. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is very little to do in Albany besides go to bars, once you’ve been to the museum and admired the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol. (Don’t try to eat on a sandwich on the steps of the Capitol that face the parks to the east and west, they’re off limits thanks to barricades.) You cannot easily stroll to the riverside like you can in New Orleans, there are no pedestrian streets where artists hang and sell their paintings as in Jackson Square in New Orleans–so the reality is that people go to bars where they talk to people they already know because there is no music and you can’t drink outside. Ultimately, what distinguishes New Orleans from Albany is a difference in “feel” or “atmosphere.” People travel to New Orleans because the place feels inviting–the local businesses thrive as cash flows into the city from all over the nation. Few people travel to Albany to spend their money unless they live within a fifteen minute drive, and even then, the feeling is more like “thank goodness some people I know also showed up at this bar so I can have someone to talk to about how cold the winter is, or is going to be.” A lot of the money circulating in Albany is transferred from one resident to another, rather than flowing from out of the city. Workers in the service industry often joke that the same $20 passes from a customer at one bar to the bartender, who then becomes the customer at the next bar, the same $20 being passed through three hands and back. The downside of New Orleans vis a vis Albany is the high crime rate, for you cannot stray outside of the populated areas at night without risking your life and limb in NOLA–and they have a lot of beggars. Albany seems to have about 1 to 2 beggars or just anti-social weirdos per block in the Lark Street area which bleed down into Center Square. New Orleans has many more, in proportion to the multitudes of out-of-towners with cash.
New Hope, PA, is worth the drive from Albany (though the opposite is not true, unless you’re doing research at the NYS Archives). It’s rated the highest-valued real estate in Pennsylvania. Unlike New Orleans–but like the rest of the cities in this comparison–New Hope is not massive. It is a small village just across the Delaware River from NJ on what was once a lock on the Delaware Canal. They have a little museum in an old lock-tender’s house. Amazingly to a New Yorker, there are no employees inside the museum. The door is unlocked, and you just let yourself in to look at the exhibits. Behind the museum and the main street of the town is a walking/biking bath through the forest that follows the path of the old canal. So you can either drive to the town and park on the only street, or bike or walk to the town and have lunch. Albany, of course, has nothing like this, because the day- and night-life areas are separated from the river that was the original reason for establishing Albany in the first place. The main street buildings of New Hope emerge from the woods and suddenly there are six or seven restaurants and book stores and antique shops. The restaurants and bars face the main street and sport heat lamps. You feel like you are in an 1800s community because of the trees and pedestrians, yet the businesses are thriving because the place is clean and the establishments are concentrated. At night the businesses have live music. It is PA so you can smoke in the bars, at least outside, for most of the places have bars which begin inside and continue out onto a deck beneath a colorful awning. The “feel” of this town to someone from Upstate New York is like “Wow, it seems like someone decided to orchestrate a cultural identity here, with some sort of an economic plan.” The downside of New Hope is that there is little free parking. Just as Albany might attract more consumers, provide more variety to its residents, and cultivate an identity by liberalizing its laws with regard to drinking and live music at least in certain areas, it could designate another area(s) as pedestrian and bike friendly and cultivate the image of an old community in the style of New Hope–perhaps along the bike trail by the river, if the bridges and railroad didn’t monopolize that area.
Also, New Hope is in PA, which, like the rest of the world, has Uber and other car-sharing services, which Albany doesn’t (thanks to state-level rather than city-level legislative inaction.) We have a nano-science school to manufacture machines to repair our mitochondria, but we don’t have car-sharing, which the rest of the world has come to expect as a basic service, like indoor plumbing. Instead Albany, like Syracuse, has a reputation for having really really crappy taxis.
So last fall, Katie and I had five days to make a vacation out of. We didn’t want to spend two of those days driving or flying, so we decided to travel somewhere in the northeast within three or four hours of Albany. Our first instinct was to go to Boston, but hotels there were $300 a night. We wanted to see the foliage changing. We decided to go west to the Finger Lakes, to Cooperstown, Ithaca and Geneva.
As we were planning the trip I realized that we chose those cities because they are located in an area with a distinguishable cultural identity–the Finger Lakes region. The name calls to mind rolling hills, waterfalls, hiking trails and wineries. Those images immediately suggest things to do, which are attractive, which are why people go there, which our region lacks. When multiple cities within the same region work together to cultivate a shared identity, it promotes each of the cities, allows for advertising on economies of scale and multiplies the reputation through word-of-mouth and social media. A person might take a picture of a waterfall and apply the hashtag #Fingerlakes. There is a lost opportunity in the reputation of the Capitol Region. It brings to mind the four Agency Buildings and Empire Plaza, which is about as quaint and welcoming as a security camera mounted above some bars on a ground-level apartment window, and the Capitol itself, which would be harmlessly boring if not for its reputation as the corruption capital of the state. Albany as a city cannot get rid of these state-owned structures and problems, but it could work to vary and to improve that image.
Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, which we skipped. It also has the Otesaga, an old hotel at the southern terminus of Otsego Lake. We stayed at a Best Western and took a taxi to the Otesaga, where we had classic cocktails and danced to a live jazz band on a Wednesday night. I wouldn’t drive out to Cooperstown just do dance to a live jazz band, but I would dance to a live jazz band in Albany, except that nobody dances to jazz here. It’s so rare that if you happen to hear actual live jazz at The Speakeasy or Taste (if that place is even still open, I couldn’t find the website), you sit there and listen like you would to a museum exhibit. Which of course is the opposite of what jazz is supposed to be. It was impossible to get food in Cooperstown after 9 p.m., so Katie and I ended up eating bar mix for dinner. So Cooperstown itself is kind of boring if you don’t want to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the next day we went to Ommegang Brewery, which is worth the trip from Albany. We did the tour and got our flights and fell into a conversation with a woman who knew we were from Albany when she heard us mention Lionheart, which is the last remaining neighborhood bar in the Lark Street area.
From Cooperstown we drove to Ithaca, on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Ithaca is another city with a pedestrian street which forms their downtown business district and contributes to their identity, even as it makes driving there horrendous. The pedestrian street is made of brick with pretty street lamps and benches. There are clothing and book stores, bagel shops, restaurants, etc. I know that Crossgates Mall has all of that and more out in Guilderland, and Stuyvesant Plaza has it a mile closer, but why doesn’t Center Square have a clothing store, a real bakery, a bookstore? Instead of people flocking to Lark Street as the Greenwhich Village of upstate, people drive for culture from Center Square to visit the City of Hudson, a city which 15 years ago had as many vacant storefronts as Coeymans. We stayed outside the town at spa/hotel that had an event called Ithaca by Starlight–bonfires and outside bars under canvass tents with live music and hot totties. We had a great time except that, like Cooperstown, everything closed early and we went without dinner for the second night in a row.
From there we travelled to Geneva, which is on the northern tip of Seneca Lake. This was our favorite part of the trip. During the day we went to several wineries and breweries, many of which were startups founded within the last year, thanks to a state law that has incentivized the winery and beer brewing business. Downtown Geneva is basically just a few square blocks, but it has the look of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life. As we were walking around, what surprised Katie and I most was that there were no vacant buildings and every facade was painted and in good repair. I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “How is it that this town in the middle of nowhere in the center of the state can have a thriving downtown with great restaurants and fifteen different kinds of bars, and Albany can’t?” It was clean. We went to about five different bars after having a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose name escapes me. We played shuffleboard with two college professors in their fifties who were partners, and when it started to snow everybody ran outside to see the flecks falling for the first time. The next day we walked around the antique stores downtown–something else missing from Albany (unless you count that place on the corner of Madison and Dove, which I’d love to check out, but after living in Albany for 10 years I’ve never seen it open).
Our trip to the Finger Lakes last year was so cathartic and relaxing that as we drove through farm fields and the sun shined down on silos, I told Katie that I wanted to quit my office job so I could see what else was out there besides the doldrums of legislative work in the Capitol Region. Looking out the window at the green fields, red and yellow leaves, and robin’s egg sky, Katie said “I think you should quit and be a writer.” I’m glad getting out of the city inspired me to do that, but I wish there was more to inspire people here in this city.
This year it was more difficult to travel, because we’ve been moving and setting up our new apartment, I’ve been editing my book about rafting down the Hudson River, and I no longer work at a job that provides a paid vacation. But we wanted to see another city in the middle of upstate. We chose Syracuse because it was close, and it has the Erie Canal Museum, and I’ve been researching for a book about the canal (the enacting legislation for the canal was passed 200 years ago next year, in 1817).
Whereas the other cities in this post were interesting because of ways in which they differ from Albany, and are thereby thriving, Syracuse was striking because of the similarities to Albany. So much so that we took to calling Syracuse the Negative Photographic Image of Albany as we explored. First, like Albany, you travel into the part of Syracuse where there is stuff to do by driving over a series of tangled overpasses which twist past old industrial buildings in various states of disrepair. Nothing suggests urban decay like overpasses, which are designed to let suburbanites drive overtop of the poor people who live on the periphery of a city’s core, without having to look at them. It was five o’clock on a Saturday when we parked in a lot next to Armory Square, which is similar to but more vibrant than Center Square in Albany. We walked overtop of a feeder canal with running water, which would have been cute except for the amount of garbage floating along, which suggested an open sewer. As soon as we approached the bar at the corner of the square, a middle aged man implored us to give him money–so we felt right at home. He reminded me of John, who solicits outside of Mobil and Dana Park in Albany, except this man seemed less schizophrenic. In quick succession we passed a pub without a name, which was empty, then York restaurant which had a raw bar in the window that made my mouth water, then Kitty Hoynes (which is in the running for best Irish Bar outside of Ireland). At the next intersection we laughed, because we were already noticing the similarities between Syracuse and Albany, when ahead of us a big sign on a corner bar read “CSP”. We passed this bar because it was overflowing with football fans. A Syracuse game was on that day and it obviously attracted people to all of the bars. We explored by walking around and just looking. We came across the eponymous armory, which looked similar to The Armory in Albany which, oddly, is also on the perimeter of Center Square. When we took a left we passed an entire block of businesses which were not open.
“I’m surprised that these places aren’t open,” Katie remarked. “It’s 6:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.”
We decided that the blocks in this section of town looked exactly like the blocks across from the SUNY Administration Building on Broadway in Downtown Albany. Cut off from any sort of housing, this area is also practically abandoned on a Saturday afternoon, though it is right in the middle of the business district and the historical epicenter of the city. We turned left and saw a big box store across from a closed-up theatre, and immediately felt that we were on North Pearl Street looking across the intersection at the Rite Aid in Albany. We made our way back to Kitty Hoynes and had corned beef fritters and french onion soup.
We wanted to sample other parts of Syracuse, so we looked up the nightlife on TripAdvisor. It said what we expected, that Armory Square was the place to go for any night life. There was another section which is known as the student area. We figured that meant sticky floors and bros, and didn’t feel the need to check it out. But there was an area called the Tipperary district which was supposed to have neighborhood bars, so we decided to drive up there and have a beer before coming back to Armory Square, at which point I’d have had two beers over two hours, which is my limit for driving. To get to the Tipperary area, we had to drive down a street with railroad tracks to one side and warehouses on another, as the night descended. Like Broadway in Albany, this was a disincentive to walking between the two areas of nightlife, because it looked dangerous. We stopped and took our picture with the “green on top” red light, which is the main tourist attraction in the area. TripAdvisor said that Blarney Stone was the bar to go to in Tipperary square. Amazingly, the place had the same vinyl siding as the old Stone Crowe in Albany, and the same atmosphere inside. So we drove back to Armory Square after one beer.
We found a really nice bar called Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge, with leather couches and so many varieties of whiskey that they have ladders to reach the dusty bottles on the top shelves. I had an Old Fashioned; Katie had wine. The decor was beautiful but I can’t say the bartender was particularly friendly. After we left, Katie gave a donation to a homeless man and his six year old daughter who said they had just come up from Greensboro, NC and sang us a verse of Amazing Grace in two-part harmony. We caught a really cool band with a horn section at Funk and Waffles next door and met a nice couple named Chelsea and Paul, who’d met one another playing PokemonGo. We checked out two more bars and we were ready to go back to our hotel. First we got in line to get pizza but there was a line out the door and it looked like it would take a half hour. Katie called a taxi company and they said they were booked for the next three hours. So we jumped into an idling taxi and watched the meter tick up twenty cents about each time that the cab’s wheels made a rotation. It cost us almost $35 to get back to our hotel 12 minutes away before we even tipped the guy. I wished they had a carshare service! We paid $28 to get back to Armory Square the next morning.
The next day we went to the Erie Canal Museum. Katie and I were impressed. We pictured a dinky sort of place with maybe some pictures of mules tied to boats or something. I’d read three books on the canal since August so I was afraid I’d be bored, but the interactive exhibits were fun and educational. You could press a switch on a map to show the various routes of the canal over time, turn a cylinder filled with gel and water to learn about hydrostatic force, and operate a miniature lock. The museum is in the old Syracuse weigh station and the office of the station manager is preserved. They have a canal boat (on land) that you can get inside of and interact with. Upstairs they have exhibits which explain the economic impact of the canal on the development of cities like Syracuse. For example, toll-collection at the weigh station contributed to the construction and development of banks to hold the toll money, which then lent the money to capitalize other businesses, as well as the construction of warehouses, hardware and grocery stores, and grog-houses, all of which provided employment for local people. The young woman who worked at the museum was very pleasant and helpful, and the three of us fell into a conversation about the economic impact of the canal and the construction the overpass bridges in Syracuse. The woman remarked, “You can’t put in a highway without making two neighborhoods, one of which is going to get redlined.” As we left we mused about why historians, of all people, seem most interested in economic programs to create equitable wealth. Katie suggested that it is because historians study what has worked in the past, and contrast it with today, and want to implement what worked and avoid what hasn’t. I realized that that is basically what we do when we travel to other cities, except instead of comparing past cultures to those of today, we look at the physical, legal and cultural conditions of cities, and wonder why the best of those cities aren’t synthesized here, in our home city.
Last night I had my first book signing at The City Beer Hall in Albany. That was productive and fun. My friend Rich created a drink menu of Albany and Hudson River themed cocktails, I had a slideshow, and I sold 14 books to friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. But there was an ice storm, and at the end of the event, I had to pack up my boxes and computer and try to find a parking space in Center Square, which was, of course, impossible. So I parked a fifteen minute walk away, on Dana Ave, and left my book boxes, computer, trackpad and keyboard in my car. I didn’t want to walk home carrying my MacBook, slip, and break the thing.
So this morning I had to walk fifteen minutes back to the parking spot, in order to move my car because there is no parking on the north side of Dana on Wednesday mornings. The first, very significant fortuitous event of the day was that I had no ticket on my car, and no broken window, and no stolen computer with all of my book files. That was a relief.
But then, driving down Willet Street, I ran over a piece of ice and heard a grinding sound. I pulled over, and saw that the bracket which held the exhaust manifold had snapped, so the manifold was scrapping on the ground. I tried tying it up with ropes with no success. Had it been dragging at the back, I’d have just dragged it two blocks to Mobil to get it fixed. But since the front was dragging, I was afraid I’d hit a pothole or manhole and the manifold would pitch-pole into my gas tank and explode my car.
So I walked to Mobil and they will tow my car for $100 plus tax, and then fix the manifold, for something like $400.
I think about life as an ebb and flow, like the tides on the Hudson. Last night I made about $120 in profit and got to see a lot of old friends and have a nice social night. Then the tide started ebbing as I had to park in the sleet and walk home. It continued to recede as I walked to the car, worrying I’d had my computer stolen. It then flooded when my window and computer were all in tact, only to ebb again when my car busted.
Monetarily I suppose I had more ebb then flow, since I’m net negative $380. But if I add in the avoidance of having-to-replace-my-computer-if-it-was-stolen, as well as my window and the process of filing what would have been a futile police report, I’m much better off than I might have been. I might have avoided the car repair but a new computer would have cost $1700 plus a lot more inconvenience.
I got my computer out of my car and brought it over to El Loco, where I had a cup of coffee and a Dos Equis Amber at 10:53 a.m., (I know people who work there). so things are improving again.